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.
As the Burmese government regime makes progress in leaving behind the last 50 troubled years, opportunities are rapidly arising for charities and NGOs to undertake initiatives within Burma. At the same time the size of the refugee population in the border area is still at around 2010 levels.
Over the last decade or more it has been more efficient for charities and NGOs to concentrate their efforts on the Thai side of the border. Helping the displaced Burmese population in Thailand, in a few concentrated geographic locations, rather than the scattered "in place" population in Burma, helps more people for the same number of dollars and avoids taking on the administrative problems of dealing with the
Burmese regime. As the needs in Burma become clearer and the administrative climate improves, many charities are, quite legitimately, re-evaluating their spending and looking to spread it between Burma and the border area. Unless the size of the funding pot available gets bigger, this inevitably means less funding in the border area at a time when the needs are almost as great as ever.
Since NGOs and charities and the whole “refugee industry” are a significant part of the local economy in the Mae Sot area it can be expected that the diversion of those activities and funds elsewhere will have a negative impact on the Mae Sot economy. This in turn will reduce the number of building projects and employment opportunities. Since the refugees are confined to the border and are not free to seek employment elsewhere, there will be a knock-on impact on them. This may be mitigated or reversed by the intention announced by the Thai military government in July 2014 to make the Mae Sot border area a Special Economic Area.
The AEC (Asean Economic Community). This Asian economic grouping, similar to the European Community, is set to start implementation in 2015 with a target completion date of 2020. Among its goals are the free movement of skilled labour across the ASEAN countries. This is not compatible with the present restricted movement of refugees to areas outside the border zone. Free movement of labour will presumably allow skilled Burmese citizens to relocate to anywhere in Thailand or the AEC without becoming refugees. It’s fruitless to try to predict how this will evolve but the outlook is for significant change and it’s certainly one to watch.
The General Educational Educational Development (GED) is a US based certification system based on proficiency in Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, reading and writing. For further detail see is the qualification which some Thoo Mweh Khee students sit as a stepping stone to entry to an international university. Currently TMK students sit an American version of GED which entails their learning for example US history which is barely relevant to their lives. There is a plan to adopt a standard form of GED tailored to SE Asia across all the AEC countries. The move to a more relevant curriculum is to be welcomed but there will inevitably be a transition period while the new curriculum is developed and implemented and the old one will lose value once the improved one is in place.