Su-Ann Oh and Melanie Walker discuss the challenges of return to ceasefire areas faced by post-secondary schools in Karen refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.
Refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border – currently housing about 100,000 refugees from Myanmar – have existed in various forms for more than three decades. However, more earnest rumours of camp closure began circulating in 2011 and UN encouragement of repatriation began in 2012. Although the Thai government has not made any official statements, residents have reported being told that the camps will be closed in 2019. Combined with the accelerated flight of NGO funding, the future of the camps and its residents has become even more uncertain. 
Despite the unprecedented political changes in Myanmar, the conditions for safe and dignified repatriation are still lacking. The nationwide peace negotiations are ongoing and will continue for the foreseeable future. There continues to be intermittent armed conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military. In addition, the presence of unknown numbers of landmines hidden across vast, insecure territories, lack of land agreements proving ownership of refugees’ land and weak laws to secure them, lack of employment opportunities, lack of basic infrastructure including roads, electricity, affordable education and healthcare, all hinder the safe return of refugees.
Given the precarious and uncertain circumstances in both the refugee camps and the places of return, we examine how School X, a camp post-secondary school, is planning to relocate to Karen State, Myanmar. This is significant because the challenges it encounters – the nature of local politics, the politics of humanitarian aid and sustainability – are the same ones that other (non-educational) institutions and repatriated communities will face.
Schooling in Refugee Camps in Thailand
In refugee camps around the world, it is usually the case that the curriculum of either the host state or the country of origin is used in camp schools. The schools in the predominantly Karen refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, however, use a curriculum that has been developed by the Karen education leadership. This curriculum is also used in many schools in territories that are controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) in Myanmar. The KNU – the largest ethnic armed organization in Karen State engaged in armed resistance against the state- and nation-building efforts of the central Myanmar state since independence – administers swathes of the region bordering Thailand. It comprises departments in military and justice, and has established social service systems including health, education and social welfare. Its education wing, the Karen Education Department (KED), administers Karen schools in KNU-controlled territory, while the camp-based body, the Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity (KRCEE) administers schools in the seven predominantly Karen refugee camps on the border. We use the term Karen education leadership to refer to these two education bodies.
Camp schooling is part of the political, institutional and knowledge landscape of the KNU and the borderland it operates in, and it has resisted being incorporated into a national order through either the Thai or the Myanmar curriculum. Instead, it represents the KNU’s aspiration to codify, institutionalize and promulgate its own values and knowledge.
The reason for this is both due to the Thai government’s policy on schooling for the camps and to the Karen education leadership’s efforts. In the 1970s, the Thai government refused to permit the UNHCR to establish and manage refugee camps on its western border for fear of increasing the profile of the camps and attracting more refugees. This approach contrasted with its policy of UNHCR management of Indochinese refugee camps on its eastern border in the late 1970s (Long 1993).At the same time, the refugees established settlements complete with schools, long before the Thai government invited NGOs to assist. Moreover, in Karen State, there was already a small and underdeveloped education department established and maintained by the KNU. Its fledgling curriculum was expanded and systematized when the Thai government camps were set up in the 1990s and this continued even when the KNU headquarters fell to government troops in 1995, forcing many KNU personnel to flee and (re)establish schools in the camps across the border.
Although the Thai government initially forbade all schooling in the camps, it gradually relented. Whilst it refuses to provide access to Thai schooling in camp, it does permit the use of the refugees’ chosen curriculum, whether that is the KNU or the Myanmar curriculum. The predominantly Karen camp population, intent on establishing and developing a Karen curriculum that teaches Karen language, history and politics, uses the KNU curriculum in the camp schools.
Despite the privations of encampment, education in the camps developed because of the physical proximity of schools, the systematization of management and policy, and the financial and technical support of the NGOs. Protracted encampment, while distressing and difficult, provided the space, resources, stability and continuity to develop a curriculum, school systems, and a structure that manages schools from kindergarten level to further education. Many students from Myanmar come to study in the camps because the education is of higher quality than that in Myanmar and in addition, the cost is lower (Oh et al. 2006).
Another difference between camp education on the Thai border and many other refugee camp situations around the world is that the camp communities have set up post-secondary schools, under the administration of the Karen education leadership, which they would like to re-establish upon return. These schools are known variously as post-10 programmes and institutes of higher education, although they do not provide higher education qualifications from external universities.
Our case study of School X, a post-secondary school seeking to relocate to Karen State in Myanmar, provides insights into the challenges of moving a school to the country of origin, where there are multiple governance actors and where the region continues to experience intermittent conflict.
The challenges of re-establishing a school in Myanmar
There is very little precedent for returnees re-establishing a school in Karen State, Myanmar, much less a post-secondary school. Although some mention is made of the case of education in Mon State, no details are provided (South 2003). In addition, the literature on education, and post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation tends to focus on peace and basic education, rather than on re-establishing post-secondary schools from the refugee camps to the return areas. This is because in most repatriation cases around the world, returnees send their children to government schools in their home country rather than re-locate schools they had established while displaced (Sinclair 2002). This will most likely be the case for the majority of returnees from the predominantly Karen refugee camps. However, returnees will have a variety of schools to choose from in Karen State, including those that follow the KNU curriculum which is taught in camp, those using a mixed curriculum of Myanmar and KNU curricula, and those using the Myanmar curriculum only. For residents in the border areas, it is also possible for children to attend Thai schools.
That being said, some primary or secondary schools in the camps may decide to relocate because they had initially been established in Karen State before being moved into the camps, and have a good reputation. For example, one of these schools recently opened a second branch – a ‘sister school’ – in Karen State. Additionally, in new areas of settlement, schools providing basic education will have to be established. Finally, and most pertinent to our case study, post-secondary schools in the camps will be relocated to Karen State as the KNU has found it difficult to establish more than a few there. Therefore currently, post-secondary schools are the only schools in the camps considering relocation to Karen State.
School X, a two-year post-secondary programme, teaches English, Karen, mathematics, science, social sciences and education with Sgaw Karen as the language of instruction. The school accepts 40 students annually, comprising camp residents and students from Myanmar, although currently 30 per cent are not graduating; the qualifying criterion being that applicants must have completed secondary schooling, and should have a recommendation if they work with a community-based organization. This usually involves a requirement for their continued commitment to the organisation for a number of years after completion.
At present, the headmaster of the school is facing the unenviable task of making the decision to move the school against the overwhelming insecurities related to the Thai government’s announcements of camp closure alongside the still unsettled military situation in Karen State, pressures placed on the school by the existing NGO funder and a lack of funds and resources at the new site.
Where to Relocate to?
Identifying a location to re-establish a school is a challenging task as it is a complex decision involving administrative, practical and political considerations. First, the Karen education leadership chooses an administrative region where there are no other post-secondary programmes, then a relatively secure location needs to be found within the region. Although a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Myanmar government and the KNU, there continue to be intermittent armed clashes amongst the various ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army.
Therefore, beyond finding a location where armed conflict is minimal, the school needs to obtain the approval and commitment of the armed groups controlling the surrounding territory. This is especially difficult in a landscape governed by multiple authorities. For example, the only post-secondary school that has already relocated from a refugee camp to Karen State, School Y, was only able to establish itself in a village because the KNU general of that region was enthusiastic about having the school. It is generally believed that he is the only person who could have achieved this as he has forged good relations with the Myanmar army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a splinter group of the KNU, both of whom hold territories nearby.
Apart from the agreement and commitment of the different armed groups, negotiations must also be undertaken with local villagers to discuss their expectations and to gain their approval. In sum, establishing a school in Karen State requires sensitive negotiations amongst an array of armed and civilian actors.
When is the Right Time to Move?
One of the main challenges that the head of the school is facing is identifying the right time to move the school. Given the ongoing threats to security in Karen State and the Thai government’s repeated declarations of imminent camp closure, there are concerns about whether the teachers and students would be willing to move to the chosen location and if they will stay for the duration of the academic year. The head of the school is plagued with the indecision that stems from this uncertainty; he does not know if the donors will provide a budget for basic needs or if the school will have to return to the camp a few months after having been relocated.
How to Fund the Relocated School?
At present, the school is funded by an NGO based in Thailand but the funding has been reduced over the years. Consequently, it is becoming more difficult for the school to pay its teachers. In 2017, the budget was reduced by 5 per cent but the school was able to continue operating until the end of 2018. However, for the 2018-2019 school year (beginning June 2018), the education leadership has only been able to secure half of the operating costs. The school head is concerned about funding for teachers’ salaries. Also, it is uncertain if the school will receive enough funds for basic needs (such as food and supplies) and healthcare for the teachers and students if it relocates to Karen State. School Y, for example, is dealing with the lack of rations by cultivating a vegetable garden which the students can harvest to supplement their meals. Similarly, School X is considering growing fruit in order to generate income to run the school.
The pressures faced by the head of the school are exacerbated by the NGO that funds the school. The latter has adopted the policy of withholding or reducing funding until the schools it supports move into Karen State or Myanmar in general. This is based on the belief that the future of the refugees is in Myanmar. Thus, the NGO’s position is that the schools should be moving over as soon as possible and, it has not clarified if funding will be restored to its original level if the schools move into Karen State.
Conclusion: Relocation in a Context of Great Uncertainty
The difficult decisions faced by the head of School X stem from a combination of structural factors: local politics in the place of return, intermittent armed conflict, multiple governance actors, the influence of NGOs on school relocation, the poor conditions in the place of return and the perpetual closing of the camp. This complex ceasefire landscape requires the school head to undertake careful negotiations with the local armed groups and civilian stakeholders, while identifying individuals with the ability to provide some measure of security and to mediate among multiple authorities and their armies.
Moreover, there is no right time to relocate the school given the circumstances. Should the school relocate knowing that they may have to return to the camps, or never take the risk of discovering the possibilities? How can the school guarantee continuity and progression for its students amidst this upheaval? How will the school provide resources and funds for its operation? This last question is linked to the politics of humanitarian aid, as discussed in the previous section.
These diverse challenges call attention to the intersection of local politics, the patron-client relationships that pervade Karen State and Myanmar, the influence that humanitarian organizations have over the relocation process and the added uncertainty brought upon by the belief that camp closure is imminent to create a situation of extreme uncertainty for School X in particular and for the camp community in general. We hope that the lessons learnt from the eventual relocation of School X will provide some urgently needed answers.
 Field notes, Mae Si refugee camp, Thailand, June to August 2017. Please note that the name of the refugee camp has been changed for confidentiality purposes.
 Field notes, Mae Sot, Thailand, June to August 2017.
 Interview with Head of School X, Mae Si refugee camp, Thailand, 2 to 12 April 2018.
 Field notes, Mae Sot, Thailand, May 2018.
Oh, S-A. with Somchat Ochalumthan, Saw Pla Law La and Johnny Htoo (2006), Education Survey 2005, Mae Sot, Thailand: ZOA Refugee Care.
Long, L. D. (1993) Ban Vinai: The Refugee Camp. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sinclair, M. (2002) Planning education in and after emergencies. Paris: IIEP, UNESCO.
South, A. (2003) Mon Nationalism and Civil War in Burma: The Golden Sheldrake. London: Routledge, Curzon.
Su-Ann Oh is a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Melanie Walker is an independent researcher and consultant.