Social mobility is antecedent upon the provision of education. Originating from the Myanmar-Thailand border, a multiplicity of cultures exists in northern Thailand and Myanmar with minimum access to education. Specifically, those who inhabit the highland areas between these three nations are dubbed as the “hill tribe people”. This lack of access to education is exacerbated by the geographic isolation of the area, where many of the elders have had no exposure to urbanization or the mainstream Thai language.
However, efforts to relocate the hill tribe people and to distribute education has provoked deep resentment among many hill tribes. For example, the Thai government has forced many Hills Tribe people to relocate due to the environmental concerns arising from their slash-and-burn agricultural practice. This not only forcibly removed many Hill Tribe individuals from their indigenous lands, but was also culturally offensive, as the Hill Tribe people prided themselves on their harmonious relationship with nature. Therefore, the question arises: given the intergenerational education deficit on the Myanmar-China-Thailand border, how are governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) taking steps to ensure that adequate educational infrastructure is non-invasively introduced to aid school-age children in increasing chances of legitimate social mobility?
Hill Tribe People at a Glance
The Hill Tribe people inhabit the northern highlands of Thailand, mostly in Chiang Rai. They are a culturally diverse minority group that is ethnically rooted in many parts of east Asia, like China, Myanmar, and Thailand. Even within the same region, the Hill Tribe people display great differences in traditional clothing, art, and cultural habits between neighboring groups. Moreover, they often speak several different variations of their minority language, and a significant portion of the elder Hill Tribe community cannot communicate in Thai.
In the twentieth century, the Hill Tribe people mainly survived as an agricultural economy. However, governmental crackdowns on their slash-and-burn agricultural practice led for the imposition of stricter rules and guidelines. It is also important to note that most of the lands that the Hill Tribe people farm on are not legally owned by them but are rather part of the national forestry of the region, leaving them in a generally vulnerable state of ownership. Moreover, their economy was formerly based on opium production. While opium production has significantly declined, drugs continue to be an issue in the highlands.
Thai Hill Tribe Children
Another significant portion of their economy arises from tourism, and the trade that tourism generates. Nonetheless, tourism agencies often exploit these powerless ethnic groups. The profits are disproportionately divided, and oftentimes, the hill tribe people do not have the grounds to negotiate this.
Most Hill Tribe children do not get a chance to receive a state-operated, formal education. This means that it is difficult for them to receive the necessary credentials needed to enter higher educational institutes. Moreover, according to a representative of Save the Children in Thailand, many of the hill tribe people who are immigrants from Myanmar have no identification documents and that makes it difficult for them to gain access to basic healthcare. This has been an especially urgent issue in the wake of the coronavirus. Due to the high barriers to entry for education, many children never have access to any schooling.
Additionally, many Hill Tribe families originating from Myanmar have also struggled under political conflict in their homeland. For example, the crumbling Myanmar military coup heightened the struggles and costs for education. According to local charity organizations, it is common for Burmese children to miss out on schooling altogether, as education has been privatized by the handful of rich families in the country. The ongoing conflicts in Myanmar are highly pertinent to the education of the Hill Tribe people because many struggling Burmese families emigrate from Myanmar into Thailand for refuge. Because Myanmar is an ethnically diverse nation, ethnic tension and culture-related violence is commonplace. However, the outlook for these emigrants is still quite bleak, even if they manage to cross the border into Thailand. Although they flee the political turmoil of Myanmar, they remain vulnerable in Thailand, without state protection or access to governmental institutions.
Military Coup Protest in Myanmar
Commentary on Current Systems
The inadequate distribution of education arises largely from, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) put it, the fact that the education of the Hill tribe people lack “[integration] into the mainstream development policies” in the Thai government. This means that while there is a recognized need for the education and development of rural hill tribe areas, the need has not been officiated in policies. Consequently, this status quo will always remain in place if this issue is not given weight in policymakers' minds. Nonetheless, in some cases, the public attitude towards unconditional provision of education for Hill Tribe individuals carries “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments. Because many of the children in need of educational resources are refugees that strayed across many national borders, many Thai officials feel that they do not have the responsibility to rectify the social issues brought forth by a neighboring country. A representative of BFF states that many local officials believe that “Myanmar is a country; [the refugee children] have to go back and get their identification documents from there”. In other words, many efforts have not been put in place because the provision of education and refuge has simply not been viewed as an issue pertaining to the welfare of Thai citizens.
Beyond the legislative hurdles, the standardized provision of education may come at a cultural tradeoff. FAO notes that in providing education to the Hill Tribe Children, they may experience greater generational rifts between the illiterate elders living in the rural hills and the younger generation working and studying in the cities. Many of the younger generations do not practice the same cultural rituals and religion as their elders, as they often brand these practices as old-fashioned and obsolete. Moreover, many members of the elderly community often express regret at the younger generation’s lack of adherence to time-honored traditions. They often blame this cultural erosion on governmental educational incentives, which moves younger people out of the highlands and into the city for work and education. Therefore, a new area of focus for Hill Tribe education advocates should be to find ways to celebrate heritage and retain cultural pluralism while providing a 21st century education.
In addition, in conflict-ridden areas, the barriers to education are twofold. As aforementioned, they are often unable to physically access educational institutions. Moreover, even when they can access educational institutions, education is not a recognized need within these groups. Therefore, the hurdles to education for individuals in Myanmar lie both within and beyond their communities. Mr. Mo also notes that the government is too poor to fund educational facilities. According to Mr. Mo, the educational institutes are often funded by the elite rich families in the country, who often wield more wealth than the government. This foundation for education makes it an exclusionary resource, where only the elite families can produce and access it. Additionally, when taken with the ethnic discrimination and marginalization, it makes it doubly difficult for members of ethnic minorities gain access to educational resources.
Current Efforts from NGOs
To combat this, a foundation called the Borderless Friendship Foundation (BFF) has worked to provide shelter and access to basic educational resources for underprivileged school age children. BFF is a local charity organization that works to provide equal access to education and strives to promote opportunities of greater social mobility to the children in Thailand. Currently, they are actively providing shelter for over 400 schoolchildren, all of whom are children from severely disadvantaged backgrounds with broken families. Moreover, many of the children that they care for are refugees from war torn Myanmar. However, not all of the children are orphans. “Sometimes they do not know where their parents are. Sometimes, [the families that they come from] are broken”, remarks a BFF representative.
Additionally, BFF states that “about 80 percent [of these children] go to vocational schools”. For the typical child, “after three or five years at vocational schools, they can apply for work”. This means that a large portion of children end up not participating in higher education, and they instead must go and learn basic working skills. While this provides them with financial independence, this outlook is still quite bleak. None of the jobs that they train for give them an opportunity at legitimate social mobility. Thus, this may be the beginning of a new urban poverty trap, where these immigrants cyclically inhabit the lowest ranks in society, without hope of mobility.
Under the BFF, children are given the opportunity at future career development. The Foundation provides Thai identification documents to many children that have crossed the border from Myanmar. When questioned on how they managed to register all the children, BFF states that they “cannot say [the children] are from Myanmar”. With identification documents, these children can attend government schools alongside Thai children, and they can also hope to attend public universities. As a representative at BFF states, “We believe we can train them to become leaders. We do not call this a ‘poor children’s home’, or ‘orphanage’. No, we call this a leader’s home”. Thus, with proper identification documents, these children are given a chance at realizing their dreams.
This task to realize their fullest potential is challenging for both the children and their caretakers. Under Covid-19 conditions, staff worked non-stop to cook meals for the children three times a day. According to workers, “we have no time to rest. We have to feed them; we have to cook them three meals a day and we take care of them 24 hours a day”. Moreover, in order to continue to provide education to the children, they needed mobile devices, laptops, and an internet connection.
Even with all these eminent difficulties, the children under the care of NGOs such as BFF are the lucky ones. They even have the support of local military and government officials. Nonetheless, this is not the case for many Hills Tribe people. In Myanmar, for example, many individuals do not get the same treatment from NGOs. Oftentimes, they lack basic food and security needs. The area of arable land in Myanmar has also dramatically decreased due to persistent warfare, crippling the agriculture economy.
In speaking with Mr. Mo, a member of Save the Children, it is evident that many people living in Myanmar do not receive basic human rights. “We had a case where a little girl’s legs were blown off by a land mine… there were significant delays before we were able to get her the medical attention that she needed,” Mr. Mo remarked. He continued to elaborate on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar: “they see us, and they equate that to rice. They do not have the land on which to plant their own rice”. Clearly, basic survival is such a persistent struggle that education and intellectual needs are secondary.
Specifically, with Myanmar’s military coup, access to healthcare has become difficult, even in non-conflict areas of the country. In the active conflict areas, healthcare, education, and human rights has become even more rare. In an effort to spread education and literacy, Mr. Mo has worked to build community learning centers in their villages, where people of all ages could go and learn basic literacy and numeracy skills. These centers are staffed with volunteer charity workers. As Mr. Mo recounts, however, education is simply not a priority in the war-torn country. The children are often lucky if they get to attend vocational training schools, let alone higher education.
In essence, the educational setting in the highlands between Myanmar and Thailand leaves many children deprived of basic schooling. This lack of universal K-12 education can be felt in the form of an intergenerational gap, where generations continue to struggle under the deprivation of schooling as a result of inadequate governmental attention allocated towards educational infrastructure development. Furthermore, especially in Myanmar, military coups and political uncertainty has rendered education to be accessible only to the upper elite. This means that in the face of political turmoil, many children are also unable to access opportunities for greater social mobility, thus perpetuating the cycle of education deprivation.
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