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.
"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.
A network of jungle schools exists in Burma, too, often hidden deep in the mountains along the Thai border or in territory held by ethnic rebels long engaged in war against Burma's junta.
"In the secret schools in Burma, students tell their friends in government schools about political rights and challenge their preconceived notions of what the rest of the world is like," Shwe says. "In this way we hope that more people within Burma will learn about the true political situation of the country and one day act to change it."
While Burma once had a strong education system, years of military rule and corruption have eroded its schools. Education through secondary school is technically free, but hidden fees make it inaccessible for many. Learning is almost entirely by rote – teachers deliver perfunctory lectures that require students to repeat phrases in unison, without any explanation of underlying concepts.
Such learning often leaves students unprepared for exams, and those who want to succeed are forced to pay for private tutoring with the teacher. "Usually the teacher will only pass those students who come for tutoring," says Thaw Htun, a former university student and opposition sympathizer.
Such corruption extends to higher education, leading to a generational of professionals with suspect skills. "I am very underconfident in my abilities," says a surgeon outside Rangoon. "I paid to earn my degree but now I am very scared that I will harm my patients because I don't have adequate training."
With government schools prohibitively expensive for many, poor families often turn to monastery education centers. Here Buddhist monks educate children free of charge in subjects such as math and English as well as Buddhism. While these centers provide relief for many poor children, they too are steeped in outdated practices such as rote memorization, says Ashin Zawta, a Rangoon-based monk.
Mr. Zawta, who is associated with the All Burma Monks Alliance, an underground network of political monks, says he is now copying the methods of the activists who run secret schools. "Education is vital if we are to overturn this regime," he says.
In a small, poorly lit monastery on the outskirts of Rangoon, a dozen children – mainly orphans – gather to hear Zawta lecture about Burmese history. They learn of things they may never hear about in a government school, from the details of Burma's experiment with democracy in the 1950s (which was overturned by a military coup) to the Saffron Revolution.
Zawta and other monks have initiated such lessons in monasteries across the city. In Mandalay, a group of prominent monks is trying to foster critical thinking by establishing a school with textbooks from the West. "After last September, many monks realized that we need to introduce politics to the next generation, and the only way we can do that is by getting them to think critically," Zawta says.
But the networks of secret schools faces many obstacles. Some rely on remittances from relatives abroad or donations from Burmese political groups. But most are volunteer efforts. In one jungle school, three teenagers teach a handful of orphans for no pay, just a bowl of rice.
"We have to persist despite the difficulties," Shwe says. "We hope to create the next generation of leaders."