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Myanmar: studying under fire

March 23, 2023
topic:Child rights
tags:#Myanmar, #education, #children's rights, #Internally Displaced People
by:Cha Pann
Amid frequent airstrikes by the military junta, children in Myanmar’s conflict-torn areas have been forced to study in unsafe makeshift schools.

Editor's note: this article contains graphic descriptions of violence that may be triggering for some readers. 

Maw Boe Myar, a teacher at a makeshift classroom in Myanmar’s Karenni State, experiences extra stress during her lessons. 

"We all have to stay alert," she told FairPlanet. "If we hear the sound of heavy artillery or a jet’s engine, children immediately hide themselves under a desk [or] in a ditch close to the classroom."

According to a January 2023 report titled ‘Eyes on the skies’ by the NGO Myanmar Witness, the Myanmar military junta has been carrying out constant air raids in the areas where armed resistance groups are active.

Such airstrikes have damaged schools, medical facilities, sites of religious significance, civilians’ homes and other infrastructure. In the second half of 2022, about 135 air attacks were recorded.

Since Covid-19 had shuttered Myanmar's schools in 2020, children in the country have lost access to education, and the 2021 military coup had exacerbated the crisis. As a result, students lost an average of two years of schooling.

In a bid to revive children's access to education and assuage parents’ concerns, the National Unity Government (a democratic interim government that was formed in exile three months after the coup) and regional education boards led by teachers from Myanmar's Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) have worked to ensure safety for school students.

But attacks have continued unabated.

February alone saw raids near schools in Kayin and Karenni states. On 14 and 15 February, a total of eight school buildings and 12 houses in Mutraw (Hpapun) district's Danuno village were destroyed by two separate night airstrikes by the junta.

On 3 February, an airstrike tore down a makeshift school and a clinic in one of Karenni’s temporary shelters for displaced people - IDP camps - in the eastern Loikaw township in Karenni State, even though no previous clashes were taking place in the area. No injuries or casualties were reported in the attack.

Makeshift schools under constant attacks

In Karennai state, 35,000 students are scattered between about 220 self-sustaining schools in over 220 IDP camps. The schools are frequent targets of the junta’s attacks.

A report issued last month that documented crimes against humanity committed by junta forces in Karenni State shows the junta’s attacks have displaced at least 180,000 Karenni residents between May 2021 and September 2022, which amounts to more than 40 percent of the estimated population of the state. 

Banyar Khun Aung, director of the Karenni Human Rights Group, told FairPlanet that since January 2022 there have been seven air raids that clearly targeted civilians and resulted in casualties in Karenni.

"Not only have airstrikes by the junta destroyed schools and clinics," Khun Aung said, "but also instilled fear in students and teachers. Parents think sending their children to school is unsafe."

"Some parents forbid their children from attending school due to the political instability," Maw Boe Myar, a teacher from Karenni, told FairPlanet. "I urged their parents to send their children because they are lagging behind in their studies. I am happy they are back to school."

In response to air raids on schools, the National Unity Government’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management has so far supported bomb shelters for over 600 self-sustaining schools across the country.

The shelters are buried in the ground with wood poles or earth over them, and were built with the help of local residents. 

"Children used to watch a plane flying overhead with excitement," Banyar Khun Aung added, "but now they hide in fear when they hear the roar of an aircraft. The experience has taught them to that they respondse automatically when they hear the sound of the engines."

Last year, people across Myanmar were particularly outraged by what turned out to be one of the junta’s most brutal atrocities. On 16 September, 2022, two Mi-35 aircraft attacked a monastic school in Leyetkone village in north-central Myanmar, claiming the lives of seven children and six adults in the classrooms they were studying in. 

"[Since the incident], we are conducting air raid drills at our school," Hti Hlaing, a CDM teacher at a makeshift school in the Pauk township in central Myanmar's Magway Region, told FairPlanet.

Temporary classrooms were built in the forests, as children have fled their villages in fear of the junta’s continued assaults. The classrooms are roofed with thatch, surrounded with plastic sheets and are built from earth floor.  

"The teachers have communicated with local armed defense forces. When we hear that the military is going to launch assaults, we close the school," Hti Hlaing added. His temporary school is attended by 250 students from five villages. 

"Parents and local armed defense forces have cooperated in protecting children from the military’s assaults."

"Fear Doesn't work"

Hti Hlaing was a teacher at a state-run primary school in Pauk. He joined CDM as a display of his objection to the junta’s atrocities and the conspiracyy theories peddled by it.

In the critical 2020 general elections ahead of the coup, teachers were assigned to serve at polling stations and count the ballots. Following the coup, the junta accused the teachers of election fraud, but the allegation is widely believed to stem from an increase in teachers joining the CDM.

Since the return of military rule, teachers who have opposed the junta are facing arrests, torture and even death. On 16 October 2022, the junta’s soldiers beheaded a teacher and impaled him on a spike of a school gate in Taung Myint village, Magway Region.  

Hti Hlaing takes a risk by teaching children at the self-sustaining school in Pauk. The junta is committing ground and air assaults on the villages of Pauk, where armed resistance forces have grown stronger.

So far, junta soldiers have set fire to villages and murdered residents, forcing thousands to flee. Over 10,000 homes have been burnt in Pauk over the past two years.

"The roofing of the schools is entirely made from rain cover tarpaulin. Many classrooms are under shady trees in the forests," Banyar Khun Aung of Karenni Human Rights Group, told FairPlanet. 

"If heavy artillery falls near the classroom or a plane hovers over nearby, we close the school immediately," Maw Boe Myar said. "It often happens."

Maw Boe Myar teaches Burmese, English, mathematics, Karenni literature and history, science, morality and civics at a self-sustaining primary school at an IDP camp in Demawso. The school also provides arts and music lessonsn.

She used to be a staff member at the Education Department before the coup. In February 2021, she joined the anti-junta protests and started to volunteer at makeshift schools for misplaced children.

In an effort to root out the junta’s allegedly brainwashing educational agenda, the democratically-elected National Unity Government launched an alternative education system in mid-2021.

The self-sustaining makeshift schools have been built across the country with the support of anti-junta villagers using local produce, such as thatch and bamboo. Some classrooms are in situated in open-space ditches; this is the case in some areas of Kayin State, for instance, which has been severely hit by junta airstrikes.

All of the classrooms are run by local volunteers and teachers who joined CDM.

Young villagers who passed their matriculation exams, university students and fresh graduates volunteer at the schools as well. The NUG’s Ministry of Education conducted online teaching training for volunteers and is financially supporting teachers.

There are 122 self-sustaining schools attended by 1765 students in Pauk township, and 313 CDM teachers are running the schools.

"They missed out on an education due to Covid-19. The coup impacted on education again. Fear doesn’t work. We have to make up for lost learning," Hti Hlaing concluded. 

Image by Greg Walters.

Article written by:
Cha Pann
Embed from Getty Images
“If we hear the sound of heavy artillery or a jet’s engine, children immediately hide themselves under a desk or in a ditch close to the classroom.”
Embed from Getty Images
The airstrikes have damaged schools, medical facilities, sites of religious significance, civilians’ homes and other infrastructure.
Embed from Getty Images
Young villagers who passed their matriculation exams, university students and fresh graduates volunteer at the makeshift schools.