Close to the Burmese-Thai border, young Karenni refugees study desperately to gain acceptance into universities worldwide. But with talks of repatriation echoing through the camps, it’s unsure how long they are to stay there.
It’s 9am on a Tuesday, and the usual noisiness that accompanies school mornings rings out across the village of Do Ki Ta.
Ranging in age from late teens to early twenties, the students of the Karenni National Community College (KNCC) make their way from the Burmese refugee camp of Ban Nai Soi, located on the Thai side of the eastern Burmese border, to their classrooms.
Some have walked for an hour and a half to get to school. Others have come on motorbikes, a 45 to 50-minute journey across muddy, uneven roads which are dangerously flooded during the monsoon season.
Lucky students like 20-year-old Nyereh are housed in one of the college’s few bamboo hostels dotted about the village. But now that Burma’s ethnic rebels are in the final stages of signing a ceasefire agreement with government, talks of repatriation are echoing through the refugee camps along the border, and it is unsure how long they can remain there.
Nyereh flicks through his workbook, quickly revising before class starts. (PHOTO: Melanie Keyte).
Like many others, Nyereh’s family fled his home in the eastern state of Karenni (also known as Kayah) when he was a small child to escape the ongoing conflict between the regional ethnic group, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Burmese army, a seemingly never-ending civil war that has taken a huge toll on the local population for generations. Like many others, they are now under pressure to return to the home they were forced out of.
Since the 2012 announcement of a ceasefire agreement between the KNPP and the Burmese military, those displaced by conflict have been ordered to return to their home villages.
However, many of the students say this is impossible.
“I want to help my community back in Karenni, to give back to them once I am educated,” Nyereh said.
“But we can’t go back to Myanmar [Burma]. We have no food, no land, no home. And no peace.”
Similar to numerous other ethnic armies across the nation, the KNPP has been fighting government forces since Burma’s independence in 1948, causing mass displacement of Karenni people for nearly 70 years.
Ariana Zarleen, a co-founder of Burma Link, an agency which aims to empower Burma’s ethnic nationalities and displaced people, said that as genuine and lasting peace is currently nowhere in sight, outside agencies should not be discussing refugee return.
“Any repatriation taking place in the near future is likely to lead to involuntary return, either directly or indirectly through cutting off aid,” she said.
Most recent figures from The Border Consortium (TBC), a non-governmental organisation dedicated to providing support to refugees along the Thai-Burmese border, say that 11,546 people are sheltering at the Ban Nai Soi camp, with 95 percent being of Karenni ethnicity.
According to TBC’s data, some three to four percent of the Ban Nai Soi camp population has been repatriated to Burma since 2012, including more than 4,600 refugees who returned in 2014.
Muyein’s English class is silent, as students concentrate hard on their work. (PHOTO: Melanie Keyte).
Duncan McArthur, TBC’s Partnership Director, said that while there may be an increase in refugee return this year, movements are likely to remain tentative.
“The general consensus amongst international observers is that conditions are not yet conducive for an organised and large-scale voluntary return of refugees,” he said.
“Although there has been a significant decrease in fighting, the peace process is yet to address the underlying causes of insecurity and injustice.”
While McArthur hypothesised that the upcoming elections may mean more opportunities for the potential return of refugees to their homeland, he remains wary of the risks associated.
“There is also a risk of further reductions in humanitarian aid for refugees if donor governments focus on the democratisation process and ignore the complexities of resolving ethnic conflict and displacement,” he said.
McArthur’s predictions are aimed into the future, but the Karenni college is already feeling the effects of this push for repatriation.
Elizabeth (Mimar) dreams of her small college being recognised as a proper university. (PHOTO: Melanie Keyte).
KNCC founder Mimar, commonly known as Elizabeth, explained that as fighting dies down in their home states, Ban Nai Soi’s youngsters are encouraged to move back to Burma and continue their studies there. Their refusal to do so means students’ graduation certificates from KNCC are no longer recognised in Burma or Thailand.
“They say Myanmar is safe now, and we don’t need a school here anymore, so this education does not count. Now, to study further, our students need a Thai or Burmese high school certificate,” she said.
“Students must try harder to earn scholarships internationally, but this is very competitive. Many students are losing motivation to study, because their graduation certificate won’t count.”
Loki, one of the college teachers, helps a student with her classwork. (PHOTO: Melanie Keyte).
This is not to say that the community college’s only goal is to get their students into university. KNCC also aims to equip young people with skills to develop their communities back home, should they return to Burma.
In addition to the standard mathematics, science and English courses, students take classes on ‘active citizenship’, which discusses the need for everyday people to engage in the nation’s political sphere, as well as social and community development.
According to Elizabeth, these lessons are particularly important as it seems increasingly likely that graduates will have to return to Burma once they have completed their education at KNCC.
“We want to give the students education so they are able to contribute to their community, in working with a non-government organisation or running their own [social development] projects,” she explained.
“They gain more confidence at college, and want to help their communities, but we still have doubts about the peace and safety in Burma. We don’t see many things changing.”
Indeed, this is the consensus coming from most of the young adults and teens at KNCC. Whilst many retain a cautious optimism that the political situation in Burma is improving, realities such as continued landmine usage, arbitrary detention of ethnic villagers and vicious crackdowns on public dissent keep the students wary of any so-called ‘reforms’.
KNCC students must study English, mathematics, social studies and basic computer skills in addition to other electives. (PHOTO: Melanie Keyte).
By the end of 2011, which is the most recent estimate given by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor Myanmar, more than 3,240 people had been killed or injured by landmines since recording began in 1999, predominately in Shan, Karen and Karenni states.
In December 2014, the Karenni Civil Society Network reported an increase in Burmese military outposts, personnel and arms, and accused the army of confiscating over 3,000 acres of farmland to build a military school.
Furthermore, as Burma Link’s Zarleen points out, conflict has escalated in northern Burma in 2015, a fact entirely contrary to talk of peace and safe return.
“At the moment, the Burmese military is waging a war and committing war crimes in northern Burma,” she said.
“As long as the fighting is happening and the Burmese military uses brutal tactics targeting civilians in any part of Burma, it is only a matter of time until these same atrocities are brought back to other parts.”
Understandably, TBC’s McArthur said, the ongoing militarisation of rural villages by Burmese government units somewhat undermines refugee confidence in returning to their homes.
TBC believes if refugees are able to make informed choices about their return, and are consensually repatriated, they can make significant contributions to the recovery of their conflict-affected communities in their home states.
Regardless, Komeh, a 19-year-old student in her final year of study at KNCC, said a return to Burma does not feature in her future plans.
“I want to go to Chiang Mai [in Thailand], and study further there,” she said.
“Then, maybe I will come back here to be a teacher. In Burma, we cannot get a good education, and we have many problems with [a scarcity of] teachers here, so I want to help.”
In the college hostels, teens and young adults cook their own dinners using fresh produce from neighbouring farms. (PHOTO: Melanie Keyte).
Aspirations like these help Elizabeth’s dream of a fully-functional university inch closer to realisation. With more teachers and international recognition she hopes to open up the world to students graduating KNCC.
“We need this education, to keep our language, our culture and our communities. And of course to give our students a better and a different future to what they might have had,” she said.
But for the time being, said Elizabeth, all the college needs is for other countries to recognise her students’ graduation certificates so these young adults can move on from the Ban Nai Soi refugee camp, and continue with their lives.