Tertiary education for refugees: a case study from the Thai-Burma border.

Author:MacLaren, Duncan


The Australian Catholic University (ACU) has, since 2003, been involved in providing tertiary education for young refugees who have fled persecution in Burma to end up in refugee camps in Thailand. This paper examines the origins of the program, the changes made as lessons are learned, and the current Diploma program which is also supported by three LIS universities and York University in Toronto. It also examines how past graduates have used their qualifications for the common good, a term derived from Catholic social thought which informs ACU's specific Catholic identity as a university. The paper further looks at what challenges fie ahead within the Thai-Burmese context and how this model can be replicated in other protracted refugee situations.


Depuis 2003, la Australian Catholic University (ACU) fournit un enseignement superieur a des jeunes qui ont fui la persecution en Birmanie, pour aboutir dans des camps de refugies en Thailande. Cet article examine les origines du programme, les changements apportes au fil de l'experience et le programme donnant droit a un diplome, qui est aussi soutenu par trois universites aux E.-U. et par l'Universite York, a Toronto. Il examine egalement de quelles facons les diplomes ont utilise leurs qualifications pour le bien commun, terme derive de la pensee sociale catholique sur laquelle repose l'identite catholique de l'ACU. En outre, cet article examine les defis futurs dans la situation thai- birmane et en quoi ce modele de cooperation peut etre repris dans d'autres situations de deplacement prolonge.

Introduction: The Burmese Background

Causes of Displacement

The latter half of 2010 produced a flurry of publicity on Burma. (1) So-called democratic elections were held; "The Lady," Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest; and fighting broke out between a faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Tatmadaw, the junta's military arm, in Myawaddy and surrounding areas at the other end of the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Burma. The fighting--which still continues--received less publicity than the other events, given the ignorance in international circles of the longest-running civil war in the world between the junta and the various ethnic armies, notably that of the Karen. (2) Yet this civil war, and the injustices that cause it and flow from it, is the reason that over 150,000 people, mostly from the ethnic minorities of Burma, have fled persecution and poverty in their home villages and towns to go to camps in Thailand.

Loescher et al. claim that the two main causes of forced displacement are the suppression of the pro-democracy movement and the conflict between the junta's military and ethnic military groups. (3) While that is true, there are other reasons for the displacement. South posits three types of inter-linked displacement crises: type 1, armed-conflict displacement; type 2, state/society-induced displacement; and type 3, livelihood/vulnerability-induced displacement. (4) Examples of the last two types would include corruption, with Burma holding second-last place in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index and its associated costs, both material and human; (5) endemic poverty, leading to an infant mortality rate of 221 per 1,000 live births in eastern Burma compared to 21 in neighbouring Thailand; (6) a dearth of honest job opportunities; and a lack of educational opportunities. Overall, Burma/Myanmar ranks 132 out of 169 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index. (7) Burma's woes stem entirely from its government. Burmese historian Thant Myint-U writes,

The Burmese military dictatorship is the longest-lasting military dictatorship in the world, and it is also its purest. It is not an army regime sitting on top of an otherwise civilian state. In Burma by the late 1990s the military was the state. Army officers did everything. Normal government had withered away. (8) This has been reinforced in the twenty-first century by army officers transmogrifying themselves into "democratically-elected" politicians in the 2010 elections and the beginning of the privatization of state-owned assets, mostly to cronies of the regime.

Higher Education in Burma

The Burmese government spends 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on education although one international source put the figure for 2010 at 0.9 per cent--an extraordinarily low figure compared even with 2.8 per cent spent on education in East Asia and the Pacific (9) in general. Less than 60 per cent complete even primary education. (10) There is a demand for higher education but access to it is controlled by the military. Campuses in Yangon and Mandalay have been moved to the cities' peripheries to avoid demonstrations and the universities are closed on whim. Most students study through "distance learning" so that they do not meet one another, thus ensuring there is no repeat of the student demonstrations of the past. (11) Strict government control of the Internet largely prevents people from using it as a group-gathering tool, allied with the proven brutality of the regime towards all dissent. The system, such as it is, is shot through with corruption, and jobs for graduates are scarce if they have no link to a member of the military. ACU's students from minority ethnic groups reported discrimination against them in universities, with lecturers even refusing to teach them without a bribe. (12) Burmese degrees, gained through a rote system of learning in addition to all the other malaises affecting higher education, are seldom recognized internationally. One male law student, quoted in The Irrawaddy, said, "No-one has any respect for Burmese education. Even if you have five degrees in Burma, no-one will care unless you have studied abroad. It's become that bad." (13)

What follows is the roadmap of an attempt to provide internationally recognized, high-quality tertiary education, at least among young, talented refugees who have fled to camps in Thailand from Burma or who are illegal migrants, recognizing that education is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

Burmese Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border

Education in the Refugee Camps and the Struggle for Tertiary Education

Given the scenario above, described by one commentator as the "Myanmar miasma," it is little wonder that the refugee camps along the Thai side of the border now receive not just the persecuted displaced but also the victims of "educational displacement," children and teenagers sent by their parents because they know the school system is better (as well as gratis) in a refugee camp than in Burma. (14)

In the camps, primary and secondary education is provided by UNHCR and myriad non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specializing in curriculum development, teacher training and provision of materials. In addition, the various ethnic groups have formed their own community-based organizations (CBOs) which organize the schools, hire teachers, and liaise with international funding and specialist NGOs. Among the Karen, who form around 60 per cent of the refugees overall, it used to be the Karen Education Department (KED), a branch of the government-in-exile, which had this role. After a clampdown on the more political Karen organizations by the Thai authorities in 2009, a new entity with NGO status--the Karen Refugee Committee-Education Entity (KRC-EE)--was formed to deal with education in the camps, whereas KED now caters for the many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in terms of educational provision within Burma itself.

Camp schools are divided into general primary and secondary schools set up by the camp community and religious schools such as Bible schools and Buddhist monastic schools. Students learn Burmese, English, Maths, Geography, and Health as well as Karen, for that ethnic group, while other ethnic groups establish their own classes to teach their language and culture. There is nowadays a great emphasis on the quality of educational provision as it is generally recognized as being low though better than across the border. (15)

KRC-EE hopes to set up an "Institute of Higher Education," offering a range of specializations geared to "preparing students to serve their communities and fulfilling the needs of the communities both in the camps as well as inside Burma by providing human resources required in different areas," but it requires funding and accreditation which, so far, no university has...

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