Many customers are sitting in a teashop owned by a Thai-Muslim businessman in Chiang Mai. Some customers order tea without milk, while others order coffee with milk. Some customers order tea without sugar. Customers are busy talking with each other. Phoe Htoo glimpses children who have come to the teashop with their parents wearing school uniforms.
His esteem cannot be hidden when he sees these children in their school uniforms. However, he is a waiter at a teashop. Therefore, he does not have much time to think about going to school because customers constantly call to him. Even though he would prefer to be studying at school, in reality, he is working as a waiter at a teashop to help his family.
Phoe Htoo is 14 years old. He was born in Makyi Kon Village in Meikhtila Township, Mandalay Region. He came to Thailand a few years ago to look for a job. Finally, he found his current job at a teashop in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
He delivered a green teapot to me when I ordered green tea. I chatted with him, “You are so young. Why don't you go to school?"
"I want to study at a school. However, my family’s business is not so good. So, I have to help my mother. I have younger siblings in my family. I don't want my younger brothers to work in a teashop like me. I want them to study in school. I don't know exactly what will happen," Phoe Htoo revealed.
Like Phoe Htoo, many children in cities and rural areas work in restaurants, car workshops, teashops, etc., as well as plastic and glass bottle collectors because their families are poor and cannot afford to send their children to school.
"I want to go to school like those other children. I want to wear a school uniform and have a school bag. Whenever I see students going to school in the morning, I want to cry. Sometimes I do cry," he expressed.
According to Ma Cho, who works for the Child Protection and Care Project, there are many children from and in Burma like Phoe Htoo. Even though they want to study at school, they have no choice but to work for their survival and to help their families.
"I have seen many children working in Irrawaddy Division, Pegu, Rangoon, and other regions who want to study at school. However, their parents cannot afford to pay for the school fees. I have seen many children working in teashops and car workshops to help their families. I also see some children selling vegetables in market," Ma Cho explained.
Even though the Burmese government announced that primary schools would be free of charge for children, primary level students still have to pay at least 5,000 Kyat (about US$ 6) for registration fees. There are many children who cannot go to school because their parents cannot afford to pay the registration fees.
"Some parents cannot afford to pay that amount of money. As a result, the number of children who cannot study at school regularly increases," Ma Cho added.
Burma is a country that purportedly practices a free education system. However, many parents cannot afford to pay school fees for their children, or to make ends meet without their children working.
"Many parents cannot afford to pay school registration fees for their children. One main factor is many parents have faced hardship with their family businesses. Learning at school depends on parents, teachers, and students like a tripod. In this situation, parents cannot afford to pay school fees for their children. So children cannot study at school. If the government can implement an effective free education system, education in Burma would be better," Ko Aye Bo, who is a teacher at Ah Mayh Ein School (Mother's Home School), told BNI in a recent interview.
Ah Mayh Ein School does not charge school fees for children. The school is located in Rangoon.
Like Phoe Htoo, many children do not even have time to think about studying at school because they are working to help their family.
The government's policy of free education has not been successful if we look at the education sector in Burma.
"The Burmese government has established a free education policy in Burma. According to the free education policy, all primary level schools are free for primary students. However, it hasn’t become an effective policy in reality because primary students still have to pay school fees. Moreover, these students have to pay extra money for donations. So, poor parents cannot afford to pay the extra money. That's why many children cannot study at school," Dr. Thein Lwin, who operates the Migrant Learning Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said.
According to Burmese state-owned newspapers and other media in Burma, there are over 46,000 schools with over 200,000 teachers in Burma. As well, there are over 8 million students in the country.
The Burmese proverb that mentions, "Thieves cannot steal the golden pot of education" comes to mind. It means thieves are able to steal many things, but they cannot steal knowledge. The golden education pot is a metaphor for the enriching aspect of knowledge.
According to the current situation in Burma, children can get an education only if their parents have enough money.
Children from poor families want to study at school, but they lack the necessary financial resources. As well, their families rely on the labor of their children to make their family businesses successful. Many children in Burma are working to help their families.
"I was a daily wage worker in my village even before I came to Thailand. I could earn 800 Kyat per day (about US$ 1) as a daily wage worker. My friends are also working like me in my village. Only a few friends who come from rich families could go to study at school," Phoe Htoo told BNI.
While the children of rich families and military generals are studying in famous private schools and good public schools, the children of poor families cannot even afford to study in ordinary public schools. These poor children are forced to work from an early age. While the children of privileged families are sitting in front of computers, poor children are facing the scolding of their employers.
The Burmese military regime ratified the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1993. Article 28 (a) of the CRC calls on governments to "make primary education compulsory and available free to all". However, the Burmese government has failed to implement this statute.
Even though the Burmese government implements some articles article of the CRC, it is not effective in reality, according to Dr. Thein Lwin.
Signboards, which hang in front of public schools throughout Burma, relate the proverbs, "Thieves cannot steal the gold of education" and "People will develop if they have good education". In practice, these signboards are just for show because the government has failed to implement what they prescribe for children’s education.
It is unsure whether Phoe Htoo will ever be able to go to school in the future, but the mottos, which are written by the Burmese government, remain a mocking reminder of his reality.
The government's education signboards seem to smirk at Phoe Htoo's desire to continue his studies in school.
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