“When the Monsoon Comes, I Miss Home…”

Jul 10, 2011
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Twenty-eight-year-old Zaw Htat runs a school for 100 pupils in Mae Sot, Thailand. Meet the illegal Burmese migrant teacher.


Zaw Htat is teaching at the New Wave Learning Centre at Mae Sot, Thailand, which he founded in 2010. The school can never provide stable salaries to retain teachers, so for now Zaw Htat and two other colleagues have to care for 100 pupils, from kindergarten to grade 6. Ideally, seven teachers are needed.

Zaw Htat has to seek and do odd jobs, such as cleaning buses, after class finishes at 3pm. Only this way can he make ends meet. Many of his students cannot afford to pay full tuition. Thirty of them even rely on the school for free food and accommodation. Zaw Htat receives donations from individuals and NGOs once in a while, but those are far from enough. If money runs out, he will have to close the school until he finds funding again.

Zaw Htat, the other teachers, the pupils and their parents are all “illegal” Burmese migrants. Hundreds of thousands of them have fled Burma to this border town of Thailand, either to avoid political oppression or to seek a better living. The children were all born stateless and thus have difficulty attending local public schools. Migrant schools like Zaw Htat’s are where they can receive basic education.

As an “illegal” teacher, he is subject to the Thai police’s regular harassment.

Zaw Htat ran away from his home in Yangon eight years ago when he was spotted distributing political leaflets. He arrived at Mae Sot and has never been allowed to leave here since. As an “illegal” teacher, he is subject to the Thai police’s regular harassment.

I had a chance to volunteer in his school earlier this year (2011). During the short breaks between classes, I listened to his story as an exile and a migrant teacher. “Have you missed home, ever?” I once asked. “Only when the monsoon comes,” he said. “It smells like home when it rains.” He is only 28 years of age.

Zaw Htat’s school is one of around 70 migrant schools at Mae Sot, which share similar conditions. “Not Only a Teacher, but Also a Migrant Worker” is a short video that I made during my voluntary work in an attempt to let people hear what Zaw Htat has to say. In this way, I hope people will acknowledge the plight of Burmese illegal migrants in Thailand and take action.

I am certainly not the first to try to reveal these migrants’ struggles. Mae Sot, a nine-hour bus ride away from Bangkok, is where a bunch of international aid organisations are stationed. A prosperity of small businesses catering solely for foreigners’ needs – hostels, pubs, cafes and laundry shops – demonstrates the extent to which NGOs have been involved in this community.

He-Jing, a Taiwanese teacher who also volunteers for migrant schools, told me that the NGOs have a set of standards in deciding which schools can be sponsored. Newer, smaller and less organised schools like Zaw Htat’s are less likely to gain their grants. “It seems that some schools are wealthier and developing better than the others,” He-Jing commented. She moved from Taiwan a year ago and has worked in the Burmese migrant community after being assigned to a Catholic school at Mae Sot.

It is believed that there are over 200,000 Burmese migrants living around Mae Sot and the number is still expanding. The future of Zaw Htat’s school remains unclear, but one thing is for sure: his students will increase.

On my final day of volunteering, several parents came and gathered. They worked to drain the small, shallow pond upon which the school building was built. Until then did I realise that they were keeping fish in the water under the classroom’s floor. And that day every student enjoyed a piece of fish, scarce food, as lunch.


Watch Zaw Htat's story here.


Tseng Han-Sheng, after receiving a master's degree in sociology from the University of Essex, UK, has worked for migrants welfare organisations in Taiwan. He left his job recently and is seeking a career of independent documentary-making, especially on migrant issues. He is now based in Taiwan.