December 20, 2016 6:30 pm JST

Learning centers for Myanmar migrant children face crisis

As aid flows to their home country, those still in Thailand are being forgotten

YASUMASA SHIMIZU, Nikkei staff writer

Ni Ni Aye, left, attends a Christmas party for children at the Skyblue Learning Center in Mae Sot, western Thailand, on Dec. 10. (Photo by Yasumasa Shimizu)

MAE SOT, Thailand -- Learning centers in Thailand for children of migrants from Myanmar, operated by volunteer groups and others, are facing a crisis.

An estimated 3 million migrants from Myanmar are living in Thailand, and learning centers have been established in various parts of the country for children whose parents cannot afford to send them to public schools. But the centers are facing difficulty surviving due to a plunge in international support for the migrants, accompanied by an increase in assistance to Myanmar under its newly established civilian government.

The closure of learning centers will be a huge loss to Myanmar migrants who are seeking to pull out of poverty. Concern is increasingly being voiced that their presence in Thailand will be forgotten.

On the morning of Dec. 10, children gathered at the Skyblue Learning Center in a suburb of Mae Sot, near the Thailand-Myanmar border, for a Christmas party held in cooperation with a group of volunteers called Compasio. The program included events such as foot and obstacle races, Christmas and Myanmar folk songs and soccer games. A traditional Myanmar soup of poultry, vegetables and noodles, cooked in a big pan, was served for lunch.

Children had looked forward to playing with friends and drinking juice at the party, Aung Zau Oo, the 41-year-old head of the center, said. The party is an annual event, also attended by children from nearby centers.

Before their turn to perform, children ran around or played on a slide. One of them was Ni Ni Aye, 10, who was playing tag. "I really enjoy playing with friends here," she said.

Picking through trash

Skyblue has more than 120 students, ranging from nursery school children to fifth graders. Although the Christmas party is popular, not all students can attend because some have to help their parents, who work even on Saturdays, Aung Zau Oo said.

A large refuse disposal site is located next to Skyblue. Many local Myanmar migrants pick plastic bottles and other reusable goods from piles of trash and sell them to dealers. The party was held on a Saturday because the amount of trash brought in is limited, said Daniel Nyan, 36, the Thailand director of Compasio.

Ni Ni Aye's 39-year-old mother, Htay Htay, is among the migrants who work on Saturdays. On the day of the party, beside a pile of trash, she quietly kept cutting off colored parts of plastic containers to collect the transparent parts.

"I work from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day, without any day off," she said. "My daughter helps me, but she often work at home or nearby." Ni Ni Aye was allowed to play on Dec. 10, because of the Christmas party.

Htay Htay came to Mae Sot from Bago in central Myanmar five years ago with her husband and four other family members, not only because of political problems under Myanmar's military rule, but also for economic reasons. Her husband was hit by a garbage truck and has yet to recover from a leg problem, so Htay Htay works to support her family.

"Life here is not satisfying," she said. "We are poor, but I want my kids to receive education, because I think it is the only way of getting out of poverty."

Aung Kyaw Kyaw, a 10-year-old boy studying at Skyblue, collects vegetable waste and other feed from trash piles for pigs kept by his family.

Big dreams

Many families in the area are barely surviving by relying on the disposal site. But their children study at Skyblue, hoping to gain stable jobs and break free from their current living conditions.

Ni Ni Aye, Aung Kyaw Kyaw and other students are eager to become English teachers -- the most popular future occupation among them, because they, along with parents, believe that a good command of English widens the world for children and gives them big dreams.

Children of migrants from Myanmar can attend public schools in Thailand. But they do not understand the Thai language, and parents need to pay more than $900 a year for uniforms, textbooks and stationery. The sum is beyond the reach of most migrants.

Children of most migrants, therefore, have no other choice but to depend on learning centers -- and these are now under threat as financial support is being terminated for many of them.

In February, for example, a Christian volunteer organization discontinued financial assistance for Skyblue. While two of seven teachers have already quit the center, the remainder are working without pay. Although the monthly pay for teachers is only 4,000 baht ($111), the center cannot cover it.

Mathematics teacher Nai Lin Ta, 31, is working without pay and relying on his wife's income. "The center should not be closed, because education is very important to children," he said.

Skyblue now charges students 50 baht a month for expenses, but many parents cannot afford it, and some pay only part of it.

Although the center received assistance for 30 students' school expenses in November, it remains in dire financial straits.

Losing attention

Many other learning centers have also been cut off from financial assistance. Of some 60 centers in Tak Province, which includes Mae Sot, 16 have lost financial support this year. Seven centers were closed in 2015, and the trend is expected to continue into 2017.

The international community has been directing assistance to Myanmar since the launch of democratic reforms in 2011, "further minimizing the attention on cross-border work or the work with migrant communities from Myanmar in Thailand," said Erik Van Os, fundraising and communications manager of Help without Frontiers Foundation Thailand, a nongovernmental volunteer organization supporting refugees in Thailand.

The trend, catalyzed by the formation of a new government in Myanmar under the leadership of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this year, has been accelerating, he said.

A large number of refugees fled to Thailand from Myanmar amid internal conflicts between the military government and ethnic minorities. A voluntary return of refugees from camps in Thailand to Myanmar started in October, thanks to the formation of the Suu Kyi-led government.

Moves to settle the long-lasting problem between the two countries are being welcomed, but refugees from Myanmar are greatly concerned about the political and economic situation in the country.

The huge presence of refugees who are unable to return to Myanmar and are remaining near the two countries' border is already starting to be forgotten. Ironically, as a result of progress in the peace process in their home country, Myanmar migrants in Thailand are facing increased hardship as support for them decreases.

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