Education takes a hit in Myanmar’s Kachin State

Traditional Kachin music fills the community hall as a troupe of singers bellows out a song for family and friends at the Teacher Training College in the town of Mai Ja Yang. It is a night of celebration for 65 graduates who have upgraded their teaching skills in Myanmar's northern Kachin State, not far from the Chinese border.

Elsewhere in this remote, mountainous region, which has more than 83,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), there is little to celebrate. A 17-year-old ceasefire between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), who have been fighting for greater autonomy for the past six decades, collapsed in June 2011.

“In December we had to postpone studies at the school I was working at for a few months because of the fighting around Laiza,” 22-year-old Aung Gam Haundang, who will resume teaching next month at the middle school in the de-facto capital of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO - political arm of the KIA), told IRIN.

“The biggest problem is we need more teachers. However, many who are qualified are afraid to work in the area because of the ongoing conflict and the recent attacks,” Haundang said.

Some 47,000 people are in IDP camps in KIA-controlled areas, with thousands more staying with host families, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 18 April.

Thousands of school-age children have been affected by the conflict, with varying access to education facilities.

In KIA-controlled areas, volunteer teachers have been used to maintain education services for the displaced. However, financial support for this effort is lacking. A comprehensive assessment of the education sector is urgently needed to better determine the number of children in need of education support, gaps in school supplies, and the absorption capacity of existing schools, OCHA said.

School closures

Before the ceasefire collapsed, there were 262 state schools in KIA-controlled areas. Today there are 229, many of them overcrowded and under-resourced, local authorities say; many have been forced to close due to nearby fighting.

In Mai Ja Yang's only high school, classes operate in two shifts, starting at 6.30am, and mid-afternoon.

Prior to the conflict, just 600 children were enrolled at the school. However, an additional 700 teenagers from the camps have since joined - 200 of them from Northern Shan State, currently staying at a boarding house on the edge of town.

“We heard fighting and gunfire near our village last year so we fled the area, running in all directions,” 14-year-old Saing Toya from Northern Shan State told IRIN. “My parents wanted me to continue my studies in a safe area and promised that I could return home once the village is more secure.”

The newly graduated teachers are being assigned to several recently constructed primary and secondary schools near Mai Ja Yang and Laiza.

Headmaster La Raw at the Teacher Training College says 15-20 of the graduates will be posted to IDP camps where assistance is needed most.

Recently, the college sent two teachers to Yangon to attend a peace-building training course, joining representatives from other ethnic groups in Myanmar.

As the singers finish their song, La Raw points out that music is a big part of Kachin culture, but also represents the harmony that is now needed to maintain peace.

“We hope to have peace-building training implemented in future school curriculums,” La Raw said, adding, “and we hope that some of the Burmese generals will attend.”

Meanwhile, Yaw Sau of the Central Education Department in Laiza expressed concern over recent policy changes in Myanmar's education system which no longer recognizes official matriculation exams taken at schools in KIA-controlled areas - a move which could have serious repercussions for children once a peace deal is finally reached.

“One hundred and thirty-six students just completed their exams earlier this month, but the Myanmar government no longer recognizes the tests as official national level exams,” Yaw Sau said, noting that prior to June 2011, such exams were recognized.