MAI JA YANG, Kachin State—“It is just six miles to the front line from here,” says Nang Tung Maran, vice-principal of the Mai Ja Yang high school, sipping a glass of hot Shan tea outside her office overlooking a bumpy dirt-brown football field below.
The school has opened and closed several times since June 9, 2011, when fighting started between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Tatmadaw, the Burmese national army. “It has been quiet recently,” she said.
Amid ongoing rumors that the Burmese army intends to storm the Burmese town—a KIO stronghold bordering China—Nang Tung Maran says that “before there was heavy artillery and noise very day, and we fear it could start again anytime.”
The fighting marked the end of a 17-year-long ceasefire between the two sides, which allowed the KIO to maintain control of roughly 35 percent of Kachin State in Burma’s north, a resource-rich region close to China. Since June, perhaps 70,000 people have been driven from their homes, while the antagonists appear unable to find a solution to the conflict, recently unable to agree even on a location to host peace negotiations after previous talks in Ruili, China faltered.
Kachins say that the ceasefire did not lead to a lasting political solution, while Burma’s government for a time toyed with a policy of trying to strong-arm the country’s numerous ethnic militias to join the state border guard force. To Kachins and other non-Burmese ethnic minorities this could end the local autonomy they have enjoyed in recent years, which allows for Kachin-language schools such as Nang Tung Maran’s.
Elsewhere in Kachin State, where the Burmese army and government hold sway, Burmese is the lingua franca of state-run schools. This is the case elsewhere in the country, as Burma prohibits teaching in languages other than Burmese, despite the government acknowledging the existence of 135 ethnic groups in the diverse country.
Education and language are touchy subjects in Burma, with minorities accusing the country’s government of long-standing discrimination against non-Burmans, who make up around 40 percent of the country’s population.
“If the children do not learn Kachin then they will forget their identity, their history, everything,” says Nang Tun Maran. “In state schools the focus is on Burmese history, Burmese culture.”
Ja Nan, a Kachin working for the Shalom Foundation, but based in Rangoon, said in a recent interview that education and language are issues around which “national reconciliation” between the majority Burman ethnic group and minorities such as the Kachin could be built. “Hopefully some MPs can have this issue discussed in parliament,” she said.
As a compromise aimed to satisfy strongly nationalistic feelings on both the Burmese and minority sides, she added that “we are proposing a flexible curriculum, with 60 percent national content and 40 percent local.”
Echoing teacher Nang Tun Maran, Ja Nan said that the language in which children are taught is an issue that goes “beyond politics,” as “it is better for children’s educational development if they can learn in their native language.”
At Mai Ja Yang school there are other pressures on how well children can learn. Usually the enrollment is around 800, but around 200 have left for China or elsewhere in Burma. That does not mean additional space, however, as 400 new students—all children made homeless by fighting and from elsewhere in Kachin state—are attending class at Mai Ja Yang’s high school now.
They mostly live in nearby camps hosting thousands of local refugees—labeled “internally-displaced’ in humanitarian jargon—to distinguish from refugees who flee across an international border, such as the several thousand Kachin sheltering in China.
Teacher Nang Tung Maran says that because of the fear of more fighting and the town being overrun by the Tatmadaw, “we moved a lot of equipment into China, leaving the overcrowded school under-resourced. There are new-found learning difficulties, she adds, saying that “the children are scared from the fighting, some have difficulties concentrating, especially the IDPs, who have a lot of emotional impact.”
From Mai Ja Yang, Tung Ja Nbrang, 18, says that people in the town have welcomed the thousands of fellow Kachin that have fled to the town from deserted or army-occupied villages, travelling from various points across thousands of square miles of sweeping valleys and mist-shrouded hills, with only winding dirt roads linking towns and villages.
He is a final year student at the school, but hopes to join the KIA, saying that he has enrolled in a KIA training program. “It will be three years before I graduate,” he says, but adds: “If the army comes here, I am ready to fight.”Show