ACU’s Thai-Burma Program: providing education in crisis situations
Minority groups in Myanmar (formerly Burma) have been described as some of the world’s most persecuted. Many are deprived the right to higher education, health care and free movement. The human right’s abuses of minorities in Myanmar has a sickeningly long history that now stretches back at least four decades, while civil war has been ongoing since 1949.
The current situation in Myanmar
Today there is a drastic escalation of religious intolerance and violence, fueling new and ongoing military crackdowns by authorities in western Myanmar. Human rights violations are wide-spread, including arson, beatings, murder, sexual violence and infanticide perpetrated against minorities, especially the Muslim Rohingya. UN officials now fear that authorities in Myanmar may effectively be undertaking ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state. This has caused chaos on the state’s border with Bangladesh as thousands flee to join an estimated half million Rohingya Muslims already illegally living there. In June 2017 Myanmar refused entry to UN investigators tasked with investigating claims of recent abuse of minority groups.
Currently, there at least two million internally displaced ethnic minorities in Myanmar and an estimated two million more ethnic minorities have been forced to flee into neighboring countries including Thailand.
On the Thai border, 10 refugee camps now house just over 100,000 Burmese refugees. The largest of these (population 36,000) is Mae La, a refugee camp that was home to ACU Diploma in Liberal Studies graduate Muriel Valles.
Muriel Valles was raised in a Christian family and remembers facing discrimination because of her religion and her ethnicity since childhood. Children she saw around her growing up worked harvesting bottles and plastics from rubbish tips to support their families. She recalls that it was very common for children to forgo formal education due to the incredible poverty of families inside Myanmar. It was common that all children had to contribute to bringing in either food or money for their family. In Muriel’s case her family could afford to send her to local schools, but even then, providing basic education for their children was a substantial sacrifice. Local schools provided only limited educational opportunities and corporal punishment was heavily employed.
Muriel’s education was interrupted when her region was devastated by severe cyclones in 2007 and 2008. Large sections of communities were destroyed; infrastructure including electricity and water supplies were damaged, and poverty and health issues worsened due to food shortages. The May 2008 Cyclone Nargis is now considered to be one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in recorded history with over 140,000 Burmese killed, 1.5 million Burmese severely impacted, and damage costs of approximately US $10 billion.
In 2009 local police suspected Muriel’s family of assisting ethnic refugees over the border in Thailand and began investigating them. Muriel’s family, knowing too well what severe punishments could be leveled, decided to escape Myanmar that same night, bringing with them only three sets of clothes and whatever documents or certification they could obtain at short notice. After a week of clandestine travel and an illegal border crossing, Muriel arrived in a Thai refugee camp on 1 May 2009.
Education opportunities in the camps, especially secondary education, are very limited. Muriel considers herself fortunate to have been accepted into a high school education program run by volunteers in Mae La camp. While in camp Muriel learned of the ACU Diploma of Liberal Studies. She completed the Marist Training Bridge Program (an Australian-delivered program especially designed to help refugee students prepare to apply for entrance to ACU) and was accepted.
“In 2014 I was accepted by ACU to pursue a Diploma in Liberal Studies,” said Muriel. “The program offered face-to-face and online learning courses, nourishing me with international knowledge, and I could say this is my first exposure to what is happening in the real world. I graduated from ACU in 2015 and in the same year I was offered a full scholarship to pursue the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Liberal Studies Education, which is a four-year program, at the Education University of Hong Kong.
I believe that the academic level I have achieved will not only benefit me but can also make a contribution to the community where I am from.”
Now in the fourth year of her degree, Muriel undertook a semester exchange abroad at the University of Wollongong in 2017.
Dr Duncan Cook Academic Lead, Thai-Burma Program ACU Faculty of Education and Arts