THE WIDER CONTEXT
There are 3 major refugee camps close to the border, in the Tak province in which Thoo Mweh Khee is situated – Mae Lai, Umpiem Mae and Nu Po. The combined population of these camps as at May 2014 was just under 70,000. By way of comparison this figure was approximately 75,000 in May 2013 and 81,000 a year before that. This was the peak figure and current levels are only a fraction below 2010 levels.
The origins of the refugee camps lie in the exodus of the Burmese population across the Thai border in response to the actions of the Burmese government and army and to a lesser extent the actions of ethnic armies. These specific camps in their present form were established by consolidation of a number of smaller camps following cross border attacks by Burmese domiciled forces. For fuller details of the history of each camp see http://theborderconsortium.org/camps/mst.htm#ml .
The ethnicity of the camp populations varies slightly but averages just under 80% Karen. This reflects primarily that the Karen homeland is situated on the Burmese side of the Thai/Burma border in this area. The gender split is approximately equal and over 40% of the population is under 17 years old. Whilst the present camps were mostly set up in the late 1990s, the camps, or their predecessors prior to consolidation, were originally established around a decade earlier. So there is a generation of young adults who were born in the camps and have very limited, experience of any other environment.
Into this situation Thoo Mweh Khee Learning centre was established in 2002 to provide education on a “live in” basis for an initial group of 79 students. At the start of the 2014 academic year the role was over 700. Clearly an almost tenfold expansion in a period of 12 years cannot be achieved easily and many key aspects of the school, such as funding, administration, teacher numbers, suitable buildings and access to water have all been under stress along the way.
It would be far more comfortable to progress at a slower rate with carefully thought out planning, but the overriding driver remains the need to provide an adequate education for the 40% of children and young adults under 17 in the camps. If you do the math you can see that a role of 700 represents 1% of the camp population of 70,000. The other 39% of under 17s are potentially still in “no man’s land”.
Ironically the students themselves add to the need. As they receive a low level of education, it becomes apparent that their potential is much greater than the level offered, so there is strong pressure not only to accommodate greater numbers but also to continually raise the bar on the standard of education.
On February 1, 2021 Myanmar's military conducted a coup d'etat and overthrew the existing government. National protests began almost immediately and soon protesters were being killed in the streets. This violence did not remain within city limits, however, as the State Administration Council (Myanmar's military) quickly returned to their patterns of extreme violence against the Karen people. The State Administration Council dropped hundreds of bombs on Karen villages, killing and injuring dozens and forcing the villagers to flee into the jungles.
With nowhere else to go, these villagers became internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Burma and remain displaced to this day. The future of Myanmar and the Karen State continues to be uncertain, but the impact these events have had on Thoo Mweh Khee's students is significant.