The Tham Hin Education Project

by Mavis and Jim Olesen

Tham Hin Refugee Camp is a small city of 9000 people including 3000 children, nestled deep in the hills of Western Thailand. It lies in a steep sided valley covered with lacy bamboo. A small stream winds its way through the valley and the Camp.

We stay overnight about 45 minutes away from Tham Hin in a small Thai town called Bambol. The road into Tham Hin is an adventure of steep slopes, narrow rocky roadbeds traversing steep slopes and narrow dams. The valleys are lush, beautiful and quiet. During the monsoon season the clouds are dramatic and alive. Downpours can be sudden and violent. After a rain the bamboo hills turn a deeper green and glisten in the sunlight as the sun pokes through the clouds.

The valleys are filled with small farms producing bananas, mangos, papaya, and pomello. The roadsides in the morning and afternoon are filled with Thai children in their neat school uniforms walking and riding their bikes to and from school. Many students stop and face the traffic with solemn faces and give a respectful 'wai' to the passing traffic.

Entrance to the Camp is controlled by a Thai Army check point. Passes are examined by the Army, and, if all is in order, the gate is raised and we are allowed to proceed to Tham Hin. After cresting a small hill we finally see Tham Hin. It is about a half mile of small, closely packed, sooty, black, tarpaulin roofed, bamboo houses surrounded by banana trees and gardens.

If you stop your vehicle and listen you can hear the shouts of children playing, choirs practicing, and the general hubbub of a small city. In the morning the valley is often hazy from the smoke of many charcoal fires. As we drive down the main street, the children come out to watch us pass by. They now call out "hello" to us. Sometimes they become confused and call out "good-bye." This is actually a sign of English training in the Camp. Three years ago you would never have heard English from the children.

Tham Hin appears safe and isolated from the turmoil of South-East Asia politics. One of our teacher friends in Tham Hin who has spent 25 years fighting the Burmese Army disabused us of that illusion: "Do you know that the Burmese border is only 12 kilometers over that hill", he told me. "And, do you know that the Burmese have a mortar emplacement there that would allow them to shell Tham Hin anytime." He was an artillery expert for the Karen Army. Now he is a very good English teacher who constantly questions me about the subtleties of the English language.

Like much of South-east Asia Tham Hin is a contradiction. Many of the teachers in Tham Hin have spent a lifetime fighting in the jungles of Burma. Their health shows the sacrifices they have made. They are tired of fighting and desperately want a peaceful solution to the conflict in Burma. At the same time they are adamant that the Karen people must survive with their culture and language intact. For them, their children are the future. There is no compromise in their minds on that issue.

This is the fundamental reason they are so interested in education reform. The teachers and many others in Karen society believe that the alternative to war is negotiation for peace. They also believe that the Karen people in the past have not been well prepared by their school system to be good negotiators. They believe that schools can help them prepare future leaders who have the ability to negotiate a better life for the Karen people. In 1997 they prepared a Vision Statement calling for the creation of a school system that could produce Karen graduates proud of their culture, able to lead or serve their people as committed citizens and capable of critical and creative thinking so that they could negotiate on behalf of their people effectively. Our role was to help the Tham Hin School System actualize that vision. We began our Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) assignment with Karen teachers in the fall of 1997. The first year was an exercise in frustration because we were refused access to the Camp by the Thai authorities. Finally late in 1998, we were occasionally allowed into the Camp. With the teachers we were able to design a project and begin work. Between 1999 and 2002, there have been four six-week sessions of teacher training each March, April, and May.

2002 is the final year of this project. In the middle years and high school training there were two groups of teachers led by Jim. One group was made up of twelve 'new' teachers who have not received much formal teacher training. In some cases members of this group have had up to twenty years of teaching experience. Others have never taught before. The second group are 'experienced' teachers, who have been part of the education reform project since 1998. There were about 30 teachers in this group.

In April and May, the first group of 'new' teachers spent time looking at basic teaching strategies. We discussed the purpose of education within a society. That allowed teachers to think about what they thought education should be able to do for Karen people. Their conclusions were remarkably similar to the original vision paper created in 1997. We then went on to discuss the process of creating unit plans and lesson plans as the fundamentals of effective teaching.

The important distinction between this training and the more traditional training they may have experienced was an emphasis on teaching for critical and creative thinking within the classroom. Teachers learned to use teaching and evaluation strategies that encourage and support critical and creative thinking by students

In the 'experienced' class, teachers wanted to think about ways of encouraging students to become more involved in their learning. One of those ways is to help students ask more questions within the classroom. Teachers were also concerned to know more about environmental education and how to present it effectively in the classroom. Teachers also wanted to examine ways of improving classroom discipline and motivation.

We spend time discussing techniques of helping students feel they belonged to a 'community of learners' where everyone including the teacher was in the process of learning. This is really the idea of life long learning where everyone must continually learn in order to keep up with the cultural change we all must face. Environmental issues are a good example of that process. Environmental change requires that all, young and old, must learn and adapt to new conditions and ways of living. We looked at a number of teaching strategies to accomplish this process.

It was an exciting and lively session this year. The teachers were actively involved in debates about real issues both classroom and societal. We did not come to any final answers, but we did examine and debate many alternatives. The teachers were challenged and stimulated to go back into the classroom with new techniques that would encourage students to begin to think for themselves.

As a postscript, we were back in Tham Hin Camp while school was in session. Gone are the rigid desks nailed to the walls that forced students to face the teacher in front of a chalkboard. These have been replaced by tables in which groups of six students sit facing each other and learn cooperatively. The classrooms now look like communities of scholars.

During April and May 2002, 29 new Parent Play Group (PPG) and primary teachers were trained by Karen Teacher Trainers. The Teacher Trainers have been developing their teacher training skills over the last two summers and have gradually been offering more and more of the four levels of professional training each year. This year they accomplished this unaided by Mavis. The various levels are written up as part of an extensive binder and 12 book document entitled "Pass It On: 10 Steps to Educational Reform" These materials are the compilation of the work of the educators over the past five years so 100 trained villagers may use them to change education in their village.

This year classroom observation, feedback, demonstration lessons and short specific inservice has occurred in June and July. This is in contrast to the teacher preservice education which usually occurred in March, April and May of 1999, 2000 and 2001.

It is a delight to go from classroom to classroom. Children sit comfortably on mats on the floor often in circles or other groupings for effective teaching. Teachers are well prepared and teaching aids abound. Instruction includes games, hands on activities and student participation of all kinds. In Parent Play Group children play with many materials. Much of the material and equipment has been made possible through the Canada Fund for Burmese Refugees over the past five years. Teacher/child relationships are responsive, warm and caring. There is little visible need for 'discipline' and what happens is respectful, effective and based on community.

The conditions in these classrooms of 30 children on average will never be the same as Western schools, nor should they be. The heat and the bamboo construction requires that classrooms be open air rooms. Most classrooms have half wall partitions separating each room. The noise can be deafening when the children are playing games or singing. Some teachers resort to unison answering when the noise gets too loud thus adding to the noise. The noise and the fact that each classroom must be set up daily, requires stamina from both teachers and students. How teachers long to be safely back home in the quiet village schools. There are now 50 (soon to be 55) classrooms and 4 PPG centres in use.

Professional development for newly trained and experienced teachers has now turned from preservice classes of the past five years to ongoing self generated inservice. Such inservice is still a new concept. Wonderful Physical Education Books written and donated by Joan Landy are being used to model this inservice. Quite recently a VCR and TV/ generator and stiletto dish was donated to the Camp so a world of video has opened up. We are quite excited about what can now be sent for teacher education and study over the next few years. Anyone with access to education videos for teachers and children, please contact us. Anyone with funds for postage, please contact us.

A second thrust this year is the final transfer of the project to the people in the Camp. Burma Issues is facilitating this transfer after we leave. The tentative plan is that Saw Gyi, the former Principal of Tham Hin Schools, will become the coordinator of the next phase of this project and liaise on a regular basis with a Burma Issues staff member. A presentation to the Karen Education Department will inform and involve them. The Children's Education Project plans to expand as a 'model' school in the Mae Sot area some 15 hours of travel from Tham Hin. Teacher Trainers from Tham Hin would train the Mae Sot teachers as well as other teachers visiting from inside Burma. Eventually teacher trainers would also be trained in that area. The logistics and details of such an ambitious phase are challenging, monumental and intricate. It will be a critical and demanding year next year. We will watch and support from afar.

In closing, we express our deep and abiding respect for the educators of Tham Hin. What a marvelous group of committed caring people. We thank Burma Issues, MCC and the Canada Fund for Burmese Refugees for their substantive support and trust in the Children's Education Project. We thank you, our friends, who have supported all of us in thought, word, deed and prayer over the past five years. You have enabled us to become so enriched by this experience and share what we have.

We are convinced that all the Karen Educators of Tham Hin have ever needed was freedom and good government. Let's make that our mission from now on in response to Franklin, the Camp Committee Chair's request: "Do not forget us".

Thank you, In Christ

Mavis and Jim Olesen.


Mavis and Jim Olesen have had extensive experience as educators in Regina SK Canada. Both have taught in the public school system. Mavis has also been a school principal, an administrator and an educational consultant. Jim has also developed and written curriculum for Social Sciences courses for Saskatchewan Education. On retiring they volunteered their many years of experience as educators to the Tham Hin Education Project.



Date last changed: 2010 March 20

Burma Watch International, 533 Buchanan Road NW, Edmonton, AB CANADA T6R 2B7
telephone: (780) 439-7555       email: info@burmawatch.org