Myanmar children play at a migrant school in the Thai border town of Mae Sot on May 3, 2022. (Frontier)

Migrant schools in Thailand overwhelmed by post-coup arrivals

Cash-strapped schools on the border are struggling to accommodate children fleeing war and poverty in Myanmar, while teachers in the Civil Disobedience Movement who fled to Thailand have to work in fields and factories due to lack of support.


As a new academic year begins in Thailand, schools for Myanmar migrants are being overwhelmed by surging numbers of families fleeing the post-coup conflict in Myanmar and trying to provide an education to their children. Young would-be pupils have even been found left on some schools’ doorsteps.

Meanwhile, thousands of teachers and other education staff who quit Myanmar state schools after the 2021 coup to join the Civil Disobedience Movement are among the waves of newly arrived refugees and migrants in Thailand. But the support promised by the parallel National Unity Government has barely arrived and the meagre salaries offered by most migrant schools have forced many of them to work in factories, fields and building sites to survive.

Thai students were back at their desks in May, while the thousands of Myanmar children attending schools for migrants in Tak Province in northwest Thailand, bordering Myanmar’s Kayin State, have started the new academic year in the first week of June.

One of these struggling migrant schools is the Thoo Mweh Khee Learning Center in Tak’s Phop Phra district. Founded in 2002 with a normal pre-coup enrolment of up to 1,000 pupils, this year they have accepted a record 2,000 students, from elementary to high school levels, some 500 more than last year. About 400 of them will live in school dormitories.

The school stopped the enrolment process on May 19 but students kept arriving. One group of parents left more than 40 children at the door and vanished even though the school said it could not accept any more.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” one of the teachers told Frontier. “The parents just said that they wouldn’t be able to care for these kids in their war-torn villages if we didn’t take them.”

Many students, few teachers

Thoo Mweh Khee lies close to the Myanmar border and is one of the biggest migrant schools in Tak. Most of its students are ethnic Karen refugees from decades of war. But since the 2021 coup, conflict in Myanmar has escalated, driving a fresh exodus of refugees across the border.

Other migrant schools in the border town of Mae Sot are also finding that numbers wanting to enrol exceed their capacity.

According to the Migrant Educational Coordination Center, Tak has 65 migrant schools, 17 of which offer secondary as well as primary education. Five of the schools – Thoo Mwe Khee, New Blood, Kwe Ka Baung, Hsa Htoo Lei and the Children Develop Learning Center – are large enough to accept up to 1,000 students and able to appoint over 20 teachers. The rest are smaller, with a few teachers and from 70 to about 200 students.

Most schools were already full even before this year and can barely squeeze in any more students, making life very difficult for newly arrived youngsters seeking an affordable education.

Starting in the 1990s, education for refugees was offered at home-schools supported by Karen organisations based along the Thai-Myanmar border. Although migrant schools still operate in a legal vacuum, they were informally permitted by Thai authorities in 2005 under the supervision of the MECC. Gradually, huts and shelters were replaced by concrete structures, and student numbers grew by the thousands.

The schools mostly teach Myanmar’s national curriculum, although some well-known Karen schools, such as Too Mweh Kee, teach a curriculum set by the Karen National Union, the oldest ethnic armed organisation in Myanmar.

Even the children of undocumented migrants can attend Thai state schools but they must start from kindergarten, regardless of age, and teaching is in Thai. This is enough to deter many Myanmar families, particularly if they have crossed into Thailand more recently with older children.

Due to reforms begun by President U Thein Sein in 2011, Myanmar’s Ministry of Education recognised migrant schools and allowed their pupils to take exams and receive qualifications. But while this process once offered migrant youth a pathway to university and better-paid jobs back in Myanmar, poverty and conflict has made many families reluctant to return. Moreover, since the coup, many of the migrant schools have severed this link with the Myanmar state system.

Partly as a result, the minority of migrant schools offering high school education in Tak are arranging for more of their pupils to sit General Education Development exams. GED certificates are equivalent to a United States high school diploma; passing them allows admission to universities and vocational schools in Thailand and elsewhere. However, the tests are expensive and require a level of English beyond most migrant youth.

Children pose in front of their migrant school in the Thai border town of Mae Sot on May 3, 2022. (Frontier)

Teachers in the fields and factories

With many crossing the border illegally and living undocumented, no one really knows with certainty how many Myanmar migrants and refugees are living in Tak out of the several million estimated to be in Thailand. Tens of thousands have likely sought shelter or work in the province since the coup, joining a large existing Myanmar population.

Frontier spoke to a family that fled from Magway Region’s Taungdwingyi Township to Mae Sot last year because they feared arrest for opposing the junta. Now they live in a tiny apartment and work as daily wage labourers. Daw Cho worked for 20 years as a middle school teacher before joining the CDM, while her husband U Myo Gyi was a township-level member of the National League for Democracy, the ruling party ousted by the coup.

Their two sons, aged 12 and eight, need schooling but the parents are anxious about them attending a migrant school where vast numbers of pupils are under the supervision of just a handful of teachers. As a mother and experienced teacher, Daw Cho is concerned about her children being bullied or picking up anti-social behaviour in classrooms where children of different ages and backgrounds are forced to mix. They have therefore been pondering carefully which school to choose and many enrolment deadlines have passed already.

“I feel sad because today I visited some schools but they were already full. I even offered to work as a volunteer at a school if my sons got enrolled,” Daw Cho told Frontier by phone in late May. “We can’t afford to send my sons to the good schools. The fees alone for both children would eat up a whole month of our income,” she said.

Migrant schools typically charge parents only 200 to 500 baht a month in tuition fees, alongside other expenses, but some charge significantly more than this.

Daw Cho really wants a paid job in a migrant school but complains it is hard to find and “requires good connections”.

Thousands of CDMers, as participants in the Civil Disobedience Movement are called, with experience in education are working in the Mae Sot area but most work in factories, cornfields, and building sites that need heavy labour instead of being employed in schools. Because many of them lack documents, they are often harassed by Thai police and have to bribe their way out of trouble, just like other Myanmar migrants.

The new normal in Mae Sot is to see a former schoolteacher serving in a restaurant or carrying bricks on a construction site. Some young teachers cross back into Myanmar to find work in Shwe Kokko, an enclave notorious for human trafficking and online scams controlled by the pro-junta Kayin Border Guard Force.

U Phyo Wai Aung, a former senior clerk in a Kayin State school, moved to Mae Sot in 2021 after joining the CDM and now works on construction sites and sometimes in the fields. He too wants to work in a school again but cannot find any that pays a salary. “In the education sector, not only teachers but many staff workers like me joined the CDM. If even the really good teachers find it hard to get positions, then what hope is there for me?” he told Frontier.

Financial support from the NUG to the CDMers is paltry and irregular. Some say they received a total of about 13,000 baht (US$370) for all of last year. Others also get help from charities, but it amounts to little more. They therefore need to take whatever work they can get to survive.

No quick fixes’

For the moment, the NUG’s education ministry plays no role in supporting migrant or refugee education beyond Myanmar’s borders.

Ma Shwe Sin Win, a spokesperson for the Burmese Migrant Teacher Association, said only about 1 percent of about 8,000 CDMers in Tak with a background in education manage to get salaried teaching positions. Frontier could not independently confirm this figure.

“No government is supporting us, so the small migrant schools are primarily run by volunteers on meagre budgets and with donations from charities. Schools cannot pay the teachers properly,” she told Frontier.

“Although student enrolment has surged in these two years, school infrastructure, facilities and teaching numbers have not improved for more than five years,” explained Shwe Sin Win, who is also head teacher at a school for the children of migrant workers supported by the Burma Labour Solidarity Organization.

“Even donations and other support have decreased because people have to focus on the needs inside Myanmar in the middle of a war,” she said.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic had already left migrant schools in disarray. They were forced to shutter amid the lockdowns, starting in early 2020, and stringent disease prevention measures from the Thai government. To make things worse, Tak’s designation as a COVID hotspot meant many of the schools could only reopen last year.

The pandemic also put the schools in a financial hole. They had already lost funding over the previous decade from international donors moving from the border into Myanmar to support a transition to democracy that ended with the coup. This led them to seek donations or fees from the families of students, but due to massive job losses amid the COVID lockdowns, few families could afford it.

Although the BMTA sets a teacher’s basic salary at 7,000 baht ($200) a month, fewer than 10 of the more than 60 migrant schools in Tak can pay this. Frontier spoke to six teachers who said salaries averaged 2,000-3,000 baht.

Existing schools are also under pressure to expand their student numbers because, as Burmese Migrant Workers’ Education Committee director Naw Lah Shee told Frontier, the Thai authorities have not formally permitted new migrant schools to open in Tak over the last five years. However, enforcement is lax, and the restriction hasn’t stopped at least three new schools from opening since the coup, including Maw Kun Thit.

School founder Mr John Alex says the Thai community has been helpful and welcoming while police do not usually trouble educational organisations. “The difficulties are looking for a safe place, good funding and good teachers,” he said.

Maw Kun Thit is well known in Mae Sot for employing CDMers and had six teachers and 108 pupils last year. Alex says they will accept 200 students this academic year and hire six more CDM teachers. He adds it is not easy to choose out of over 50 job applications.

“Education has to improve,” said Lah Shee. “But there are no quick fixes. Instead, there has to be a long-term plan to develop migrant schools and involve CDM staff. We cannot predict when the war will end.”

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