Tag Archives: education

Can Language Classes Deter Violence?

First published with IRIN 26 July, 2016

For Ismail Jamaat, a science teacher at Tanjung primary school, going to work can feel like entering a war zone. Over the past decade, his government school has three times endured firebomb attacks. In 2013, Ismail, along with scores of schoolchildren, had to witness the murder of his friend and colleague Cholathee Charoenchol by masked gunmen in the school cafeteria.

Tanjung is one of more than 1,200 government schools in Thailand’s so called ‘Deep South’, where a deadly sectarian conflict between ethnic Malay Muslims and their Thai Buddhist countrymen has left more than 6,500 dead since 2004. With nearly 200 teachers assassinated and 300 government schools razed over the past decade, education in the region is a critical issue.

Amanda Mustard/IRIN
Ismail Jamaat has taught at Tanjung primary school for 29 years, many of them marred by violence

Its segregated nature also taps into the deep-rooted grievances that fuel the conflict. Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the Deep South identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93 percent Buddhist overall.

“When you have this feeling that government schools belong to the Thai, and [Islamic schools] are for Patani [the ethnic Malay Muslim population], then what do you think happens?” Ismail asked rhetorically.

He is not alone in believing that the consistent attacks on government schools and their staff are, at least in part, down to the growing divide in the Deep South’s education policy, one in which the perception of threatened Patani identity has stretched to incorporate the language of the classroom.

In an exhaustive 2012 report into the conflict in southern Thailand, the International Crisis Group highlighted the “marginalisation of [Deep South] culture, history, religion and language” as a major force fuelling the violence.

The education policy has long embittered the majority Patani-Malay speaking community of Thailand’s four southernmost provinces. As well as consistently producing some of the poorest literacy scores in the country, families in the south see the enforced Thai-language curriculum as an attempt to further marginalise a key facet of their own identity: their own language.

Amanda Mustard/IRIN
Lessons in Arabic at Banbuengnamsai primary school, a participant in the pilot programme

Mixing it up

Suwilai Premsrirat, a professor of linguistics at Thailand’s Mahidol University, hopes the pilot programme she launched 10 years ago will provide the long-term solution. The idea itself is simple: integrate the Patani-Malay languages, spoken (at least at home) by 83 percent of the Deep South population, into the classroom.

Written in an alphabet based on Arabic script, Patani-Malay languages are completely different from Standard Thai. And unlike in Malaysia, nobody in Thailand is required to learn Standard Malay, making the gulf between Thai and Patani-Malay speakers even wider.

With nearly a decade’s worth of research from 16 schools, the results from Premsrirat’s programme, which finished in March, are encouraging. “We consider it a success,” she told IRIN. “We want to make it [clear] we respect [Patani-Malay language and culture].”

By Grade 1 (age six to seven), the research showed that on average (across the schools) 58 percent of the children were scoring 70 percent or higher in areas of bilingual comprehension, compared with just 18 percent scoring similar marks in control schools.

Resistance

By intermingling the various dialects, languages and scripts of the Deep South, Suwilai found herself at the heart of the region’s identity conflict. Immediately, she encountered problems from both Muslim communities and the central government.

“Some [in the Muslim communities] think this is a way to destroy their Islamic identity,” Suwilai said, referring to the use of Thai characters for Patani-Malay words in kindergarten.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Thai government, which originally asked Suwilai to research a programme, became sceptical of her approach once Arabic script was introduced to the curriculum. She recalled an irate call from a man she believed was from the Ministry of Education. “I got a phone call… he talked a lot, complaining and saying ‘this is not a good idea’.”

But Suwilai and her team are determined to use the promising research to lobby officials so the programme is rolled out more broadly. “They cannot deny the results,” she said.

For the professor, the biggest obstacle will be whether the capricious politics of Bangkok can remain stable long enough for her team to make their case.

The ruling military junta in Thailand has promised elections in 2017 but the country is being torn apart by a bitter political schism. On one side are the royalist elite, Bangkok’s bourgeoisie, the judiciary and the military, while on the other are loyalists of two former premiers (siblings Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra) from an emerging provincial middle class, supported by the working class, rural voters, and the police.

Amanda Mustard/IRIN
Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the Deep South identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93 percent Buddhist overall

Missed opportunity?

If the politicians and the military are not careful, Suwilai worries that the usual machinations in Bangkok will mean a big opportunity is missed to address the ills of the Deep South.

Less than an hour’s drive from Tanjung School sits Banbuengnamsai primary school. Palm trees sway outside the windows while in one class a child nervously reads her text out loud to her schoolmates, who occasionally giggle at any mistake. At first glance, it looks like any other government school in rural Thailand.

But as one of the first schools to accept the pilot programme curriculum, the difference with Banbuengnamsai lies in the classroom. In one class the children practise their handwriting, but instead of Thai, the script is Arabic. Above the whiteboard, a photo of the Thai flag is flanked on one side by the obligatory portrait of the Thai King, but on the other by a photo of the Ka’ba, the holiest site in Islam.

Mrs Hareena, a teacher at the school for 11 years, said the change was a shock, at least initially.

“At first, I felt so strange to include [Patani-Malay]! Before, we just taught Thai.”

But it didn’t take long for Hareena to realise the benefits of the new system. “You can see [the students] are understanding better now,” she told IRIN.

Now that the programme is officially over, none of the 16 schools from the pilot are obliged to continue with the curriculum, but Hareena is adamant that they should.

“I want to continue from this point on… We should all continue on.”

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Bangkok’s Deadly Inter-College Rivalries

First published in Vice News February 6, 2016

Bangkok has a serious student violence problem.

In Thai media, barely a week passes without some mention of bloody brawls between students from the city’s numerous vocational colleges. In 2015, more than 1,000 cases were reported in Bangkok by mid-year, many of them resulting in serious injury and even death.

As the violence has intensified, the issue is now considered a significant public health issue.

Late last month, just a week ahead of the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok Uthentawai (simply known as Uthentawai), Bangkok’s metropolitan police preemptively raided its campus and that of the school’s archrival, the Pathumwan Institute of Technology, located a short walk away. The bust produced two handguns and ammunition, 55 knives, six bulletproof vests, and materials for making nail bombs.

On Monday, the day of the anniversary, an incongruously heavy security presence at Uthentawai testified to this darker side of Thailand’s vocational and technical education system. Police officers and military personnel milled about, sniffer dogs patrolled the periphery, and two explosive ordnance disposal technicians stood by the front gate, which was ringed by metal detectors.

Online videos show students from a number of different colleges either ambushing or facing off with one another. They are usually armed with blunt weapons like clubs, but can also have knives and guns. A common setting is along public transportation routes, where students from opposing colleges are most likely to run into one another.

Students have been killed in drive-by assassinations, shot in cold blood on train stations, as well as routinely beaten and chased through the streets of Bangkok. While such a level of violence might seem crazy to outsiders, for those involved, rational thought plays little part in how rival students view one another.

“For me, it was never a question,” explained a former Uthentawai student who left school nine years ago, who asked to be identified as “Gan.”

“If I see someone from Pathumwan, we must fight. And they feel the same towards me.”

Just how the vocational interschool animosity originally started remains a mystery to students and researchers alike.

Nualnong Wongtongkam, a Thai lecturer and researcher in public health at Charles Sturt University, led a team that interviewed 32 students who had been involved in clashes in order to quantify their motivations. Though vengeance figured prominently, it was rarely clear what the students were trying to avenge.

“They don’t know why they have to engage in fighting with other schools,” said Nualnong. “When I ask them why they do it, considering they know there is a good chance they will be injured or maybe even killed, they say, ‘I know that, but if I don’t fight they will chase me anyway, so better to stand and fight.’ ”

Gan recalled his initiation into Uthentawai in 2005.

“This started on day one for me,” he said. “The seniors teach you how to carry a gun, how to conceal a knife from the police, how to love your brothers and how to hate your rivals — especially for us, Pathumwan.”

Once the student is within the fold, he’s among peers whose philosophy is to do almost anything for each other.

“If someone cannot afford tuition, we will all give a little money to help him pay,” Gan offered as an example. “Of course we would also help to pay [bail] if one of our class enforcers is arrested for doing a hit.”

In this culture, it doesn’t take long for the students to build a strong sense of brotherhood. Nualnong thinks this sense of belonging and self-worth is crucial to understanding why vocational and technical colleges have for so long been plagued with hyper-masculine reactive violence.

The perception of vocational colleges in Thailand has long been held as far inferior to that of established universities. The result, she says, is that some students themselves feel inferior and form a strong bond with their classmates, with whom they can readily identify. The resulting insularity is exacerbated by the fact only an estimated 10 percent of vocational and technical college students are female.

But this school spirit in the Bangkok vocational student scene can have an almost tribal effect, with an unquestioning adoption of animosity against rival institutions. This led Gan to regularly change his route when returning home from college, often taking multiple buses even though a direct option was available.

“They [Pathumwan] will watch you for your routes, to know where you live and how you travel after class in case they want to attack,” he said, adding simply, “We would do the same to them.”

An art graduate of Silpakorn University who asked to be identified as “Por” recalled experiencing this menace years ago.

He was having a late lunch after class at a spot near Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest traffic intersections and a major public transportation hub, when he was kicked to the floor from behind. A student from Indara Construction School placed a gun on the table, asking, “Do you want to eat your food, or my bullet?”

“I didn’t know him,” Por remarked with a shake of the head. “But it turned out someone from my school put some graffiti on something of theirs. He saw my uniform and so he picked on me.”

Nualnong’s research has emphasized that the wearing of distinctive uniforms in this hostile atmosphere, as vocational students are required to do, precipitates what would otherwise be easily avoidable fights, particularly on public transport. As a result, there’s a prevalence of anxiety among students traveling alone or in uniform.

Several measures have been considered in an attempt to address the bloodshed, from no longer accepting students with tattoos or piercings, to considering universalizing uniforms or abolishing them altogether, sending rival students to army-run boot camps — even introducing a free student auto repair service, launched by police last month, to occupy their time and keep them out of trouble. But no formal studies have assessed the effectiveness of such provisions.

This should soon change, as the increasing severity of attacks forces officials to respond to the issue more thoroughly and preemptively, beyond the conducting of police raids for weapons. Innocent bystanders and commuters find themselves caught in the fray and risking injury, and the belligerence can also target teachers. “It takes courage and determination to be in our shoes,” remarked a hairstylist instructor at Samut Prakan Vocational College not long ago.

“Now anyone on the streets can be injured from their fighting,” said Nualnong. “It’s not just the students anymore.”

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Access to Education an Added Challenge for Refugees in Egypt

First published in IRIN News Tuesday April 8th


Syrian, Sudanese and Somali refugees study art at a school run by NGO Tadamon

As the number of Syrians in Egypt rises, refugees say it has become increasingly difficult to find places for their children in already overstretched government schools.

In addition, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Egypt complain of unaffordable school costs in private and public schools, bureaucratic enrolment procedures, and a growing atmosphere of suspicion, xenophobia and discrimination in the classroom.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had 179,762 refugees and asylum seekersregistered as of the end of 2013, most of them Syrian and Sudanese.

But according to a report by Egypt’s largest refugee-focused NGO Tadamon, the real numbers could be anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million, based on estimates from local NGOs, some of whom include economic migrants in their definition of refugees. Tadamon blames “differing legal definitions” and “a failure or refusal of many refugees to register” for the numbers confusion.

The right to an education is enshrined in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which Egypt is a signatory. However, in 1981 Egypt put forwardreservations to several articles, resulting in diminished refugee rights.

Instead of a free education, refugee families need to apply for tuition grants from Caritas Internationalis through UNHCR partner Catholic Relief Services.

“Registered Syrian refugee families with school-going children receive an education grant to assist families [in] covering the costs of school fees, uniforms, books, stationary and transport,” said Marwa Hashem, UNHCR’s education officer in Cairo. “As of mid-February [2014], some 32,000 children have received education grants.”

” You won’t find an order from the government saying ‘Don’t let refugees into schools’ but you will see it when you go to a school and try to apply there. The doors won’t be open for them “

According to Mohamed El Miligy, an Egyptian-Sudanese activist and communications officer for Tadamon, there is a conspicuously tortuous enrolment process set up to deter refugees from entering into an already overstretched education sector. “The [amount of] paperwork means that many will not be able to start [school] for a year or two.”

“It is difficult for… refugees to enrol in public school if they lack previous educational documentation,” Hashem added.

Despite UNHCR’s advocacy for Sudanese and Syrian refugees to have access to education facilities and services, Miligy says that in reality there are a growing number of cases where the “pretence of acceptance” is removed altogether and the school doors are simply shut on refugees attempting to enrol their children.

“There are many schools that will simply not let refugees in,” said Miligy. “You won’t find an order from the government saying ‘Don’t let refugees into schools’ but you will see it when you go to a school and try to apply there. The doors won’t be open for them.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Discrimination

Hanadi Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, says her children also encounter discrimination in Egyptian public schools. Refugees say the general atmosphere towards them has deteriorated as a result of Egypt’s political upheaval and flailing economy.

“I took my youngest to kindergarten here and when I came back I found the other children calling him names and physically beating him because he was Sudanese. He was crying. I asked the teacher whether she could do something but she didn’t help at all.”

Mohamed ended up having to remove her child from the school. Several parents told IRIN they had little choice but to do the same out of fear of bullying.

Tadamon runs separate refugee schools, under its “Alternative School Initiative” specifically geared to refugees who have no viable access to an education. Tucked away behind unmarked doors of unfinished apartment buildings, the schools often welcome children who have already been subjected to harassment and discrimination from their previous schooling environment.

“Their psychology is affected; they get so down. So the families take them out of the school and take them to us where we can try and deal with them,” Miligy said. “Some of the children become violent as a result, while others are very withdrawn and hardly speak.”

No money

Six months of research into the state of refugee education in Egypt by the UK-based Refugee Youth Project, published in a report at the end of 2013, found over 80 percent of the 400 refugee interviewees cited high school costs and a lack of money as the main reason they could not afford to send their children to school.

Magdy Garas, co-director of Caritas Egypt – a charity that provides financial aid, social support and medical care to refugees in Egypt – estimates there are around 17,000 Syrian families who are in financial need yet receive no support from either UNHCR or Caritas.

“We believe there are around 250,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. We manage a humanitarian plan with 31,000 Syrians and the UNHCR supports a further 138,000, but the remaining 81,000 individuals, around 17,000 families, are still in need of financial support,” he said.

According to a government estimate from June 2013, there are 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. As of 8 March, 134,917 Syrians had registered with UNHCR as refugees.

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