ACU partners with universities from the United States and Canada to provide tertiary education to Burmese refugees along the Thai-Burma boarder. The ACU Thai-Burma Program offers a diploma in Liberal Studies taught through a combination of online and face-to-face lessons. Maya Cranitch, is ACU's Thai Burma Program Coordinator and she has put together an update of the program from her last visit.
On a recent trip to Thailand, I surveyed the graduates of the Diploma of Liberal Studies. Over dinner in the night fish market in Mae Sot with a group of 13 alumni I heard about the extraordinary range of their activities. Some has returned to Burma, others were working on the Thai-Burma border in non- government and community based organisations involved with human rights, health and education Among their employers were the Danish Refugee Council, the Karen Education Department, Marist Misson Ranong, the Backpack Health Team, the Border Green Energy Team, World Education and UNICEF. Others are teaching in refugee camps or migrant schools while a few are continuing their education on scholarships studying Nursing in Thailand and Education in Hong Kong or Czech Republic.
As I listened to their conversation I was struck by the enormous growth in confidence, maturity, and command of English as well as their dedication to working with and for their communities. It is here, in creating opportunities for these young people that the full impact and value of the ACU diploma program can be measured as a contribution to building a more just and equitable society.
In January 2014 a new cohort of 54 students began studying for the Diploma of Liberal Studies. The ACU Diploma is now widely acclaimed as a tertiary level course which develops knowledge and skills and the only one which provides formal accreditation. The current students were selected from over 260 applicants who sat for an oral and written English test as well as an extensive interview. Having passed the selection process, they approached their studies with great excitement and enthusiasm. In Mae Sot in the north of Thailand and Ranong in the south, they are refugees and migrant workers from Burma. In Bangkok, they are asylum seekers from Pakistan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
2014 has created some significant challenges for all our students. While the Military coup in Thailand has resulted in quiet on the streets of Bangkok, it has serious consequences for refugees and migrant workers. Though there are no new regulations, the interpretation and enforcement of migration laws has become much stricter. The Thai National Council for Peace and Order (NCOP) recalled all camp residents in July for a head count and temporarily closed the refugee camps. Anyone not present at the head count loses their right to food rations, entitlement to plead ' refugee status'. Students worked together in camp to complete assignments and hurried back to the study center. Local staff, coordinators and tutors managed disruptions to study and collaborated to ensure a secure environment in study centers.
I participated in February 2014 in a UNHCR ( United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Round Table conference on tertiary education for refugees at which ACU was recognised as an innovator providing models for other institutions such as JC:HEM ( Jesuit Commons, Higher Education at the Margins) to deliver education to refugee communities throughout the world.
Though Duncan Maclaren has retired from the role of coordinator of the program, he is an Adjunct professor at ACU and returned to Thailand in April to teach a unit: Introduction to Development Studies. Duncan along with Professor Gail Crossley has shaped the Diploma Program into a highly successful and sustainable program and both remain committed and valued advisors.