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Burma's secret schools of dissent

Monks teach children critical thinking and human rights, to groom the next generation of activists. Part 3 of three.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 22, 2008

READING, WRITING, ARITHMETIC – AND RIGHTS: Burmese monks are adopting teaching methods used in secret refugee schools in Thailand.

AFP Photo/Khim Maung Win

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Mae Sot, Thailand; and Rangoon, Burma

Deep in the Thai jungle bordering Burma (Myanmar), a group of children gather every day for their lessons. In an elongated but modest teak shack, nearly a dozen ashen-faced children – all different ages – sit in front of a tattered blackboard.

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"What do you want to be when you grow up?" teacher Zaw Lazein Oo asks. Each student answers in measured English. "A doctor," answers one. "An aid worker," another replies.

Such open-ended questions are unthinkable in Burma's government schools, where learning is by rote and adheres strictly to the ruling junta's ideology.

But a new generation of political activists is striving to change that by setting up a network of secret schools – from the Thai-Burmese border to monasteries in Burma – that service impoverished students and teach critical thinking and human rights.

"In Burma, education means obeying teachers, not fostering students' potential," says Htat Shwe, a teacher of another secret school near Mae Sot, Thailand, and a member of the underground opposition group the 88 Generation Students. (His and other activists' names in this story have been changed for their security.) Many of the teachers were active in last September's protests, known here as the "Saffron Revolution" after the color of the robes of monks who led it, and bring their politics to the classroom.

For decades, many of these activists had to learn about human rights and Burmese history by reading smuggled books or through underground political discussion groups. More recently, young Burmese in Rangoon have turned to the American Center, an appendage of the US Embassy that provides foreign books and magazines.

But for ordinary, impoverished Burmese children who have no background in politics, these secret schools can open the door to a new world, says Mr. Shwe. He and his colleagues challenge students to question everything they are taught and emphasize political theory and human rights along with subjects like math and English.

The schools bring education to poor Burmese refugees and introduce important ideas that students would not normally encounter, says David McLaughlin, a researcher at Michigan State University and an expert on Burmese migrant education.

"Many people in Burma are so used to the dictatorship that they have no idea that they have rights under international law," Shwe says. Students in his class memorize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and study other countries' political systems.

Students in Mr. Lazein Oo's class learn words like "revolution" and "resist" during their English vocabulary lessons. Children often go back home to their parents and explain human rights to them, says Shwe.

While there are 54 officially recognized schools for Burmese refugees in Thailand bordering Burma, Mr. McLaughlin says countless more are run secretly by activists.

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