Sin Tet Maw camp, Pauktaw, Rakhine State: It’s barely eight in the morning but already the rickety wooden classroom is shaking to the sound of young, rhythmic voices within.
“I love the monkey, I love the flower!” chant the children inside. “How are you? Fine, thank YOU!”
If the grasp of English pleasantries still needs some practice, there is no disputing the enthusiasm of the 30 or so pupils who sit on rough wooden benches inside the building. Outside, a green painted sign proclaims it to be the Basic Education Primary Level Teaching School Temporary No. 2.
Leading the class is head teacher, Kyaw Swe, a tall man in a red baseball cap who exudes as much energy as the boys and girls in his charge.
“This is a temporary learning centre but we still follow the government curriculum,” Mr Swe explains. “Our aim is to raise the educational standard of the children in the camp because they cannot attend normal government schools.”
In all, 518 Muslim children living in the camp attend the school. Their families have lived in Sin Tet Maw since 2012, when their coastal community south of the state capital, Sittwe, was caught up in intercommunal violence between Muslims and Buddhists.
Myo Thein was only 6 when his family fled their former home. Now 10, he is used to life in the camp and eager to complete his education. He follows classes in Myanmar language, English, science and maths.
“Maths is my favourite subject,” says Myo Thein. “When I grow up I want to be a doctor, so I can help people.”
But there’s a problem: once he finishes primary school next year, he will not be able to transfer to the nearby middle school for ethnic Rakhine children, due to the segregation between the two communities. It’s a dilemma his teacher Mr Swe is uncomfortably aware of.
“We need a middle school so that the older (Muslim) children can continue their education. When they have access to secondary school, they will be able to realize their dreams.”
In the Buddhist community near Sittwe on theopposite bank of the Kaladan River, worries about the limited school options for older children from poor families find an echo.
Ma Ya Tu, aged 11, comes from a troubled background, raised by an aunt who couldn’t afford to send her niece to school, and instead took her to help sell fish in the market.
But last year, the opening of a non-formal primary school in the area (as part of a non-formal education programme supported by UNICEF in partnership with Myanmar Literacy and Resource Centre) allowed Ma Ya Tu to make a belated start to her education. Today, she is enjoying school and making good progress.
But, like Myo Thein, after Grade 4, Ma Ya Tu will have no government middle school in the area to attend, and she may have to abandon her education.
“I don’t miss the days when I couldn’t go to school,” says Ma Ya Tu. “Being in school is better because I learn stuff and I make friends.”
Finding solutions that will allow children like Myo Thein and Ma Ya Tu to stay in school is a challenge being addressed by UNICEF, Save the Children, Plan International, the European Union, Denmark and other agencies.
“The gaps in education affect all communities in Rakhine State, and demonstrate how lack of investment in basic services is holding all children back,” says UNICEF Chief of Sittwe field office Mandie Alexander. “We and our partners are working with the Government to provide post-primary opportunities for Muslim and Buddhist children alike.”