Teacher training in conflict situations: Karen State, Burma

The right to education is often violated in conflict situations, particularly for minority groups. This is happening in Burma (Myanmar), where many indigenous groups are struggling to end the military junta's oppression and to gain self-determination in their regions. The Karen is one such group fighting for autonomy in Karen State, south-east Burma. More than 50 years of violent military oppression has forced many Karen to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring Thailand. Life in these camps is difficult, but there is government and NGO support for basic health care and education needs. This is not yet the case back in Karen State.

The Karen see education as central to their physical and cultural survival. So the Karen Teacher Working Group (KTWG) was set up in 1997. It actively promotes Karen education in Karen State. It has helped fund more than 1,000 Karen-controlled schools (as well as the teachers and students) in the State. KTWG also established a programme to train mobile teacher trainers to give local teachers some support. In 2004, KTWG established the Karen Teacher Training College (KTTC) on the Burma side of the border. It is the first and only institution of its kind in Burma, providing a Karen-designed, culturally relevant, two-year initial teacher training programme for teachers who will teach in Karen State, and training for mobile teacher trainers.

Despite working in a challenging conflict situation, KTTC has managed to increase its intake of students each year. It has a strong network of support from within and outside the local community. KTTC and the mobile teacher training programme are innovative and community-led education initiatives. They offer potential, practical models not just for the Karen people, but for other groups worldwide who are struggling for social and educational autonomy.

On 1 June 2007, KTTC celebrated the new school year with an opening ceremony. This brought together many of the members of its support network. This article presents some of their views about KTTC and education in Karen State.

Education Leader Mutraw District,
Karen State

D'gay Jr.: I am the education leader in this area, working with the teachers and the community. I approve of the KTTC programme because we need more skilled teachers. The relationships here between different members of the community are very good. We see KTTC as a strength for our community because when the students finish they will share this work with the people, and when the people have education there will be stronger leadership.

KTTC Teacher

Law Say Wa: I am a teacher of Karen history and language. I spent 31 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. I didn't want to live there. I was determined to live and teach in Karen State. When I came back here I felt very well. I hope this place will improve and help the students improve their teaching methods and classroom management.

2nd Year KTTC Student

Lah Me Htoo: I am 19. I was living in a refugee camp in Thailand and I didn't like to learn there. I came to KTTC because it is in Karen State. I wanted to come and help my State, to learn to be a good teacher and leader. I want to teach English. There are no computers for trainee teachers in the refugee camp, but there are here. When I finish I will go teach in my family's home district.

Battalion Leader, Karen National Defence Organisation

Som Wa: We take responsibility for the security of the community here and protect them from the enemy. There are so many kinds of needs in Karen State…for food, for security and education for the Karen people. I am happy that there are such students as in KTTC here, for the future and to take responsibility for the country.

Mobile Teacher Trainers

Mu Htee: If we have a good opportunity we give 2-3 days of training, but it depends on the Burmese army activity. We call teachers from the schools close by and 2-3 come together in one place. We advise them, share ideas about how to teach students and how to learn. We also take them news about their area, school news, and about Burmese army activity in the area.

Meyze: When we go to the schools we have to face Burmese army and local militia activity. They want to catch us and stop our work. When we give training suddenly the army will come to stop us, even though we didn’t do anything but come in peace to teach our own Karen language.

Mobile Teacher Trainer Students

Esther Thein: I am in my first year of training to be a mobile teacher trainer, I also attended KTTC for two years. Many teachers in Karen State don't know how to teach. I want to be a mobile teacher trainer because I want to help the teachers in Karen State.

James Thomas: In most of Burma, teachers are only using teacher-centred methods. [But] in Karen State the teaching methods are very good so students want to attend the school…they don't leave the school. Instead of using punishment, if students are not concentrating we will all stand and start a role play and maybe go outside and play and also ask questions about the topics. We try to make different activities to interest the students.

KTWG Co-coordinators

Ler Htoo: At KTTC we teach participatory methods like group working. In other areas of Burma, teaching is rote learning. [But] we teach critical thinking for reading and writing. The education system is getting better - in Karen State now the teachers get more training and more people are in school. Even when schools have to shut for months, they are getting restated again. When we stared KTTC, we just had 22 students. This year we have 35 first-year students.

Scott O'Brien: Although a lot of villages are fleeing from the army 3-4 times a month, still, one of the first things to be opened up again is the school, even if it's under a tree. So, here's a huge commitment and connection with survival, development and education. We definitely need more financial support for our assistance programme for schools in Karen State. But besides that we're looking at how to improve the quality of education provided in our teacher training programmes. We're looking to help transform the Karen education system to make it more reflective of Karen culture by maintaining academic integrity, but also looking at how schools can really support community needs. We're also trying to build networks among Burma's other indigenous groups.

This article was compiled by KTWG, KTTC and Ian Kaplan. Contact KTWG by email at or via EENET's postal address. Visit their website at: www.ktwg.org


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