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It’s nearly dinner time at the dormitory in Maijayang and teachers are busy in the kitchen, while several teenagers are lounging on benches outside the building in this Kachin rebel-controlled town on the Burma-China border.
While some sleep or read, La Phai, 16, is strumming his guitar. He said he will soon be having his matriculation exam to complete his high school education. But when he succeeds and receives his diploma, it will be worth nothing to the government of Burma.
That’s because La Phai — and hundreds of other teenagers like him — completed their education at a school administered by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
“I wanted to attend Myitkyina University, but I have lost this chance due to the situation. So I am considering to join the KIA, without continuing my education,” La Phai said. “I will try to become a top officer in the KIA.”
La Phai’s family fled Nar Sai Yam Village in Kachin State’s Waimaw Township when he was 11 and has since lived In Khaung Pa IDP camp in a rebel area.
The government considers the KIO an unlawful association and fails to support or recognise civil services, such as aid, health care and education, provided by the rebels to the roughly 40,000 displaced civilians who have lived under their control since the Kachin conflict broke out in June 2011.
Despite the challenging circumstances, years of war, and a lack of government recognition, the KIO has managed to build a large education programme for the displaced civilians. It even offers Kachin youths opportunities to attend pre-college programmes, higher-education institutions, or attend universities abroad.
“We have 300 students who passed at our high schools this year in KIO areas, 130 of them are now in our pre-college programs,” Chyinyu Hkunnawng, director of the KIO Education Department, told Myanmar Now.
Education systems divided by war
Burma’s ethnic armed organisations have long demanded autonomy from the central government and with it, the right to administer services — such as providing education and teaching local language and culture — to their peoples.
The KIO opened its first schools in 1964 and founded the KIO Education Department in 1978, according to a 2014 Asia Foundation report on social services by ethnic armed groups. During the 17-year ceasefire, which collapsed in 2011, the KIO Education Department worked with the Ministry of Education. The KIO focused on lower education and its diplomas were recognised by the state.
By October 2013, two years into the conflict, the KIO Education Department ran four high schools, 32 middle schools, and 243 primary schools in areas under its administration, the report said. In these schools the curriculums are similar to state schools, but instructions are provided in Jinghpaw, one of the main Kachin languages, and there are additional classes focused on Kachin culture.
The KIO-run high schools have a good reputation compared to underfunded state schools in remote parts of Kachin State, in particular for subjects such as English.
Yet, some families still prefer to send their children to schools in government areas instead.
Mi Ngel, who moved to Laiza from Sagaing Division long before the war started, sent her children to relatives in Shan State. “After the civil war began, children’s education became very difficult,” she said. “I sent my three children to Pyin Oo Lwin for their education. My parents are taking care them while we are doing business here.”
In recent years, the KIO has tried to address the lack of access to higher education opportunities. It set up a pre-college programs, which prepare high school students for attending KIO-run higher-education institutions, or prepare them for studying abroad, said Chyinyu Hkunnawng, of the KIO.
“In our pre-college, we mainly teach intermediate-level English language, also computer science, and other foreign language courses,” he said.
The KIO also runs several of its own higher education institutions: the Maijayang Institute of Education, the Centre for Intensive English Programme, the Federal Law Academy, and Myen Ju College.
The latter college was reportedly set up in September 2015 and offers one-year courses in five subjects: political science, English, computer studies, Kachin language and basic administration.
“All who passed the KIO high schools can join the higher institutions here in our areas, but they have to cover the expenses on their own. It’s about 700,000 kyat (US$600) for the whole academic education year. That includes boarding fees and meals,” said Chyinyu Hkunnawng.
Kachins who are university educated abroad have come to the KIO areas to help run the higher education institutions, he said, while some lecturers from foreign universities have also offered their support.
The KIO has managed to make arrangements with several universities in Thailand and China so that students who complete the pre-college programs can enter university there, said Chyinyu Hkunnawng.
“High school grads here have to attend the KIO-run pre-college and can proceed to universities in China and Thailand. We have some agreement with those universities,” he said, adding that Chiang Mai University and Khon Kaen University are some of the foreign institutions accepting students.
In a few rare cases, Kachin students come from government-controlled areas to study at KIO-run higher education programs.
Naw Phan, a 23-year-old Kachin who completed a law degree at Lashio University in Shan State, said he was eager to follow the two-year legal courses at the Federal Law Academy to complement his education with teachings by Kachin scholars.
“I have now realised our Kachin people have no legal protection, and that I should join the Federal Law Academy to fill this gap,” he said.
The future of rebel-run education
Chyinyu Hkunnawng said the future of the KIO’s education system depended on the peace process and whether Burma becomes a federal union in which ethnic minorities could run their own schools in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. “After we achieve peace, we will see the emergence of a democratic education system,” he said.
Mary Tawm, of Wunpawng Ninghtoi, a Kachin charity based in Maijayang that supports high school students, said she hoped that the government would find a way to help Kachin youths educated in rebel areas and recognise their education. “The government should take responsibility for all citizens,” she said.
Salai Reyan Vel, a National League for Democracy (NLD) MP and member of the Lower House Committee to Promote Education, said the government would prioritise strengthening education in Kachin State and make it an integral part of its efforts to bring peace and development to the state.
Thu Thua Mar, a member of the National Network for Education Reform, a group of independent education experts and CSOs, said the NLD government and KIO Education Department should find ways to cooperate on education as soon as the KIA and government sign a ceasefire.
“The key to this situation is peace, without which children in war-torn areas will still be denied access to education. This amounts to a loss of their citizenship rights,” he said.