Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Don’t Forget the Children in Burma

The government in Burma appears to be making some progress on human rights. Hillary Clinton should take the chance to press it over the country’s forgotten minority children.

By Colleen O'Neal for
Don’t Forget the Children in Burma
Credit: Shannon Holman

Things are moving fast with Burma. Today it was reported that 651 high-ranking political dissidents had been released by the Burmese government, a move that comes after the government struck a rare ceasefire with the ethnic minority group, the Karen, after 60 years of civil war.

Since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Burma, the civilian government there has clearly taken its first significant steps on human rights with certain ethnic minorities. However, just last month, thousands Burmese ethnic minorities fled to neighboring countries including Thailand because the Burmese government continues military abuses and persecution of ethnic minorities. Of these refugees, many are Burmese ethnic minority children – orphaned, separated from their parents, or hidden with their families in neighboring countries hostile to Burmese refugees. Clinton therefore needs to not only press the Burmese government, but also the neighboring Thai and Malaysian governments to help lost generations of Burmese ethnic minority children.

Minority Burmese children aren’t allowed access to free, good quality government schools in either Burma or neighboring countries, making it imperative that Secretary Clinton push the new Burmese government to open its door wider to non-governmental organizations eager to help educate ethnic Burmese children.

For years, NGOs have been blocked by the Burmese military government from offering much-needed development of the minority education system in Burma. The new Burmese civilian government has undoubtedly made some incremental progress on this, such as allowing World Vision to support the creation of a limited number of preschool programs. But the government didn’t give World Vision a much-coveted “Memo of Understanding” to help any elementary school students, much less those from ethnic minorities. In the Burmese schools I saw this past summer, it was clear that the education of ethnic minority children ranges from mediocre to nonexistent, and their education system is in desperate need of outside help.

Given that an etimated over 500,000 Burmese ethnic minorities are internally displaced due to military attacks, and all their children go uneducated, a call has been made by human rights groups for the new Burmese government to improve access to isolated ethnic minority areas to help those internally displaced. In a hopeful sign, the government has recently allowed unprecedented access for a small group of U.N. workers to help internally displaced Kachin ethnic minorities in areas controlled by the rebel Kachin Independence Army, but those displaced need more substantive help from organizations like UNICEF. However, UNICEFs wings have been clipped by the Burmese government, and it was not able to set up temporary schools and health systems for these minority groups. Not only does the Burmese government need to allow international NGOs to help rebuild minority education systems, but it also needs to allow domestic NGO’s to be created, after years suppressing internal NGO development.

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As part of my Fulbright research in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand, a Burmese ethnic minority boy told me how he held on tight to his father’s back, as his father carried him through Burmese mountainous war zones to Thailand, leaving him alone in a refugee camp across the border. Why? Because the boy’s father saw how the Burmese government military had repeatedly torched his ethnic villages, schools, and never built them new schools. The only help any minority students have gotten in Burma has been from illegal forays by the Free Burma Rangers into Burma, risking their lives to take ethnic minority educators safely through dangerous conflict zones to be trained to start schools. Burmese minority educators shouldn’t have to risk their lives trying to educate their children.


Changing the lives of minority Burmese requires Clinton to also pressure Thailand and Malaysia to change their refugee policies, given that refugees continue to flow out of Burma and that it may take many years before Burma becomes safe for minority families. Thailand and Malaysia have deliberately refused to ratify the 1951 U.N. Convention protecting refugees, perhaps because they fear giving education and work rights to such an overwhelming number of Burmese minority refugees.

Ethnic Burmese refugee children in Malaysia are most vulnerable of those who fled Burma – they are hidden because their families live in fear of both a Malaysian quasi-governmental anti-refugee group called “RELA,” and also hostile local citizens. While ethnic Burmese refugee children live in hiding and aren’t allowed to get a Malaysian government education, that hasn’t stopped refugees from creating informal half-day schools safely tucked away in basement garage storage rooms in Malaysia. Yet even with this noble, grassroots refugee education effort, only 30 percent of school-aged refugee children get this limited education, and only until age 11 or 12. Many refugee students in Malaysia told me of being threatened with detention by RELA on their way to and from school, frequently driving some refugee “schools” to move to safer, more isolated locations. Refugee girl students are often sexually targeted by local male citizens, threatening them with molestation and rape on their way to and from school, with refugee girls repeatedly having to run home and block their doors with furniture to stop the local men from breaking in. The local predators get away with this behavior because they know that Malaysian government policy towards refugees leaves these minority girls vulnerable, making them an easy target since refugees can’t call on the Malaysian government police for protection.

Yes, Thailand and Malaysia need to sign the U.N. convention protecting refugees. But, assuming that won’t happen anytime soon, they need to take some initial steps towards safely educating these vulnerable refugee students. Malaysia’s rigid refugee child policy can learn a lesson from Thailand’s more flexible policy. For instance, one refugee school in Thailand is famous for doing the impossible – it has convinced the local Thai government school to accept some of its Burmese refugee students. The refugee school trades their strong English teachers to the local Thai government school in return for the government school accepting a handful of refugee students once they reach third grade. This innovative partnership should be a model for Malaysia’s policy regarding refugee children, and it wouldn’t overwhelm the Malaysian government school system.

In the end, it’s not too late for a regional solution with Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia improving their current policies that have serious mental health and academic consequences for Burmese minority refugee children’s futures. Secretary Clinton can use this historic opportunity to apply pointed, diplomatic leverage to not just the Burmese, but the Thai and Malaysian governments, giving hope back to these long-neglected minority children.

Colleen O'Neal is an assistant professor at New York University’s Child Study Center.