Rohingya Muslim students hope for better lives
|Rohingya Muslim students at a private tuition class prepare for their next exams at the Thet Kay Pin IDP camp.|
By Wai Moe
June 24, 2014
But education discrimination persists against this minority of 1.3 million people
MYANMAR'S most repeated motto under President Thein Sein is: "Building a modern developed nation through education". For thousands of Rohingya Muslim schoolkids, education is a way of escaping from lifetime tragedy in locked internally displaced person (IDP) camps and villages in Rakhine state. Such an environment, human rights groups say, is akin to the world's" biggest openair prisons".
The struggle to get away is incredible. Rohingya Muslim students need higher marks in the Grade 11 examination. And only the highly competitive medical study is allowed. It's a winner-take-all contest as the Rohingya Muslim students are not permitted to apply for other subjects at Sittwe University. They are banned from studying liberal arts or sciences such as English or zoology, as a result of the sectarian violence in June 2012.
Last year, nevertheless, an IDP Rohingya teenager, Maung Min Naing, from the camp here with outstanding grades was permitted to enrol in the medical school in Magway in central Myanmar.
"Students at medical schools are a good role model for Rohingya kids. It's the only channel opened for them to continue their studies since they cannot study at the university level in Rakhine," Hla Kyaw, a Rohingya teacher in the Thet Kay Pin IDP camp in Sittwe, said recently. The teacher has been privately tutoring a group of 11thgraders at a bamboo house to prepare them for the next academic year. He lamented that just 16 Rohingya students from camps in Sittwe took the Grade 11 exam last March.
"Two students out of 16 passed the exam and one with two distinctions," said Hla Kyaw, who graduated from Sittwe in chemistry in 1996. "I often think about a hundred Rohingya students joining the exam next March." More than 150,000 Rohingya Muslims from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, were driven from their homes during the sectarian violence in June 2012. At least 200 were believed to have been killed and 13 Muslim quarters out of 14 were burned down.
The government of Myanmar set up temporary camps for hundreds of thousands of internally displace persons, most of them Muslims, around the north of Sittwe. Now entering the third year, there are still no signs that these residents can return to their homes in Sittwe town.
"We fled from the town and took refuge here. I thought it would be a few months. But now temporary means permanent," said Daw Sandar, who runs a pharmacy in the camp.
"Alongside a host of problems, the one we are most worried about for our kids is their education."
According to IDP camp committee members,about 200 Muslim students who werestudying at Sittwe University before the violence are barred from returning to the university. Just one high school was
allowed to operate in the 2014 academic year. In the following year of the violence, Muslim students in IDP camps were depending on a middle school to further their education.
"My daughter was in the 10thgrade when we fled from the violence. But in the camps, there was no high school education available," Daw Sandar said.
"So my daughter went repeatedly to a middle school for Grade 9." It is a tearful panorama that Sittwe
University is located just within walking distance from Muslim IDP camps north of Sittwe. It is out of reach for Muslim students.The university entrance is still heavily guarded by riot police in khaki uniform and soldiers in green. Muslim students can only watch with dismay as three-wheel motorcycle taxis carry Rakhine students to the university passing through Bumay, a Muslim village near Sittwe University.
"We are just sitting at teashops or corners of dusty roads, seeing my friends going to the university," said Mohammad Shari, or Maung San Oo, his Burmese name, who was studying psychology before June 2012.
"Of course, I am shattered."Last year Maung San Oo and his friends signed a letter to Sittwe University authorities, requesting to continue their studies. But there were only told that only correspondence courses might be provided. The Education Ministry merely says the situation there is not conducive for Muslim students.
The request letter was sent to U Shwe Kan Kyaw, a student affairs administrator at Sittwe University. When asked about the future of Muslim university students and why they are kept out, he wiped sweat from his face."Decisions for the Muslim students came from Nay Pyi Daw due to security, not from the university. So we can only allow them to reenrol if we get the green light from Nay Pyi Daw.
"As teachers, all of us staff at the university want to see all students studying at the university equally."
This education discrimination among the Rohingya Muslim minority with an estimated 1.3 million population reflects a likely apartheid policy in western Myanmar alongside the restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare.
Since March 27, all international NGO healthcare workers at Rohingya camps were suspended after Rakhine mobs attacked their offices in Sittwe. Before the violence, Rakhine and Muslims were living side-by-side for generations. In many instances, it was an employee-employer relationship as most of Rohingya Muslims worked in Rakhine's shops, restaurants and houses as labourers. While Rohingya Muslims drove trishaws in Sittwe, Rakhine were their passengers. The situation took a turn overnight in the middle of 2012 following photos of a raped and murdered Rakhine girl that appeared on social media such as Facebook and the streets of Rakhine. Three Muslim were accused. The incident ignited sectarian violence between Rakhine Buddhist and Muslims across Rakhine in the following days, and hundreds were killed and millions of dollars worth of properties were destroyed.
The government in Nay Pyi Daw now separates and bars the two communities from using barbed wire and security forces on grounds of preventing hatred and further violence.
Many people in the country including those in Rakhine feel that such tactics are fruitless in the long run since they don't address the root causes of the crisis.
"Muslim refugees without hope for education can be more dangerous," said U Khaing Kaung Zan, director of the Wan Latt development foundation in Sittwe.
"People without education can become extremists at any time."
As Rohingya are banned from higher education,an increasing alternative education resource for Muslim teenagers has become "Madrasa" religious schools set up in the IDP camps and villages.
A major Madrasa is the Dar Paing Madrasa near Sittwe. Ahmad Hussein, the headMaulana, said the student bodies at religious schools have dramatically increased in the past two years from 50 to 350 members.
"Students cannot go to high school and the university. So we are getting more students,"said Ahmad Hussein, who wears a Pakistani long white dress and sports a beard. Asked whether there are extremists among young Rohingyas since they are living in a heart-breaking environment, Hussein said his preference is escape rather than resistance.
"As long as I'm alive, I'll be patient in this situation. If I could not live here, I would be ready to run away elsewhere," he said.
For some teenage Rohingya Muslim students in the private tuition class organised by teacher U Hla Kyaw, escaping from this tragedy takes on another meaning. They believe hard study to get good marks at the university entrance exam is a ticket out.
"I'm trying to get as high marks as I can in order to go to the medical school in Magway," said Maung Soe Than Htut, a 15-year-old Rohingya student referring to one of four medical universities in Myanmar.
"I know if I cannot get good enough grades to attend medical school, I will be still be locked in here," he said.