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Karen Education: Children on the Front Line

In 1974, while I was attending Rangoon University, my husband became involved in the students' uprising on campus. I was forced to leave my student's lire and seek shelter in the jungle with my husband.

He was determined to take up arms to fight against the Burmese military regime; I was determined to be a good homemaker. Life changed for us when we met the war victims, who were isolated from the outside world. Because of his academic credentials, my husband was not allowed to serve as a soldier, and instead was posted as a Karen educator to implement the much-needed education movement for Karen children.

I, too, was posted as a schoolteacher. The very small, thatch-roofed school consisted of 30 students and one other teacher. I became a Karen schoolteacher in the jungle not as a profession but as a peace-and freedom-loving Karen. We wanted to help the many innocent Karen children who had lost their rights as human beings.

After struggling for three years, I became principal of a Karen high school situated on the banks of the Tenasserim River, near the Thai-Burmese border in the southern part of Burma. My husband is a district-level Karen educator; our district is called Mergui-Tavoy District of Karen land. Our district has 36 schools: 3 high schools, 2 middle schools, and 31 elementary schools totaling 2,026 students (in 1987). The high schools are situated in a sparsely populated area near the Thai-Burmese border; the rest of the schools are situated in very poorly developed Karen villages.

The Education System Today

The majority of the Karen students are at an elementary learning level. Most entered school at the ages of five to eight and normally finished when they were sixteen or twenty. Most of the schools are in villages that can be reached by Burmese soldiers during the dry season; as a consequence, nearly every Karen child who comes from a village has bitter and fearful experiences. These children became war victims without knowing why their properties were looted, their villages razed, their parents killed, and their sisters and mothers raped by Burmese soldiers. The only thing they came to know through their experiences is they had to flee for their lives from the Burmese soldiers when fighting broke out in their villages. These children also experienced the struggles of helping their parents maintain primitive-level farming systems. Their parents needed helping hands for working the paddy fields, and so most of the boys left the schools when they reached the ages of 12 to 14.

The KNU school system is based on a curriculum established by the mission schools that appeared in Burma in the post-World War II era. All the schools were nationalized and "Burmanized" by the Burmese military regime in 1964; as a result, it is very hard to adapt the educational system laid down by the Burmese socialist government, which gives very little help to ethnic groups to develop their culture or learn about their history and identity. There are nearly 300 schools in the whole KNU area; most are elementary schools, and about 30 are middle schools and 20 are high schools. We could not get the exact number of schools because of the 40-year-long military engagements between the Burmese and Karen soldiers. It is also hard for teachers to communicate from one district to another. We have to try our best through our experiences and our teaching abilities.

Generally three languages are taught in Karen schools: Karen, English, and Burmese. The Karen have two major languages, Pwo and Sgaw Karen, both of which are used in teaching according to the needs of the local inhabitants. Lessons can be taught in any language that will facilitate learning. We also teach math, history (world, Karen, and Burmese), general science, and geography. We teach hygiene and civics at the elementary levels, and all students at all levels have to learn domestic science, which consists of physical training, gardening, cooking, and needlework. The academic year begins the first week in June and ends in March. Most schools, however, are forced to end the academic year in February, which is the beginning of dry season as well as the beginning of Burmese military operations.

There are about 1,200 teachers in the KNU area; because most of them are teaching in elementary schools in small villages, they have very little experience of town and city life. High school teachers come from the cities, and some finished their education in Karen high schools and were later trained by Karen educators. To upgrade the teaching skills of the Karen teachers, summer training courses are conducted at the KNU headquarters each year. Summer session courses are available for teachers at the local level, also. There are more women than men teaching because very few young men want to serve as schoolteachers. Military personnel are assigned to some Karen high schools to fulfill the shortage of schoolteachers.

Most of the textbooks used in Karen schools are books that were used in missionary schools 20 years ago. Burmese school texts published by the government try to use the school curriculum to preach the glories of socialism and Burmanization. School materials are very limited. A Karen student has only four pencils, two ballpoint pens, and six composition books for the academic year. Because there is no printing press in the area, textbooks are hard to get; we have to copy the old school texts in Thailand to use in our schools, and the expenses are very high. School blackboards are crudely made and don't last long; most of the village schools use diluted carbon powder from used dry cell batteries for blackboard paint.

Traditionally, Karens taught their children the virtues of brotherhood, sincerity, honesty, simplicity, and humility. Even if a Karen boy might have seen his relatives tortured and killed by Burmese soldiers, it would be very hard for him to seek vengeance. Instead he might move from place to place, seeking shelter for peace and tranquility, until he is cornered by his enemy and has to defend himself. There is no aggressiveness in Karen children, and they try to avoid quarreling and fighting.

Most Karen children love music and sports. They want to learn English, but they are deprived of teaching materials and experienced teachers. To instill more discipline and to understand that military training is an art, some high schools have introduced basic military training for the students during summer vacation.

Illness is the major factor inhibiting the growth of Karen children, both mentally and physically. Malaria, dysentery, anemia, and liver and kidney problems abound. Lack of nutrition and medicines make matters worse.

There are very few paths open for good students after they finish high school; no college or university is available for Karen students at present. The only thing teachers can do to help them is to send them to vocational training sponsored by KNU headquarters, which offers medical, technical, electrical and radiomechanic, and English teaching training.

The Hunger to Learn

Karen history shows that the Karen's hunger for education emerged in 1854. The Sgaw Karen felt that education was of primary importance if their community was to emerge from its largely illiterate state to take its full place in the life of the country. Conditions in the district hindered opening as many schools as they wanted, but by 1854 there were 330 pupils in village schools and 150 at the boarding school in Bassein. The eagerness of Karen Christians for schools for their children, the wisdom of the mission in helping to train pastors and teachers, and the policy of the British government of giving grants to qualified private schools all helped produce a system of hundreds of Christian village schools in Karen areas. The Bassein Sgaw Karen have about 150 such schools, and the Rangoon area has almost as many.

Although the Karen schools were begun by missionaries, the Karen schooling system has not been as influenced by Christian education as many might think. Because the educated and efficient teachers could be found only in Christian society, the schools were led by Christian teachers but were supported by the Karen villagers, of whom most were non-Christians. They appreciated the kindness of the missionaries, but their hunger for education was not intended to convert Karen society to Christianity, but to eradicate illiteracy and to secure educational advantages for their children.

After General Ne Win seized power in 1962, he nationalized all missionary and private schools in Burma and abolished their curriculums. He laid the foundation for the socialist education system-the nationalization of society and the Burmanization Since then, the role of the Karen schools has disappeared in Burma.

The Karen have never given up their search for the national education denied them by the Burmese government. Since 1978, many refugees (more than 15,000 on the Thai-Burmese border) have started teaching their children. Pastor Robert Htwe, who is in charge of Karen Refugee Welfare, is still going full steam ahead in taking care of Karen refugee schools along the Thai-Burmese border on the Maesot side.

As long as the civil war continues to suppress and even eliminate the ethnic groups, the Karen children's hopes for obtaining a secure, higher standard of education will remain out of reach. The war has gone on for 40 years. Thousands and thousands of Karen have died. Thousands and thousands of Karen children have become orphans. Very few people from the outside world recognize them as children of a lost nation. Those who are struggling for their national identity, freedom, and equality are still seeking peace in Burma by defending their children and relatives as long as they live.

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