Volunteering in Maesot: Who are the Karen and why should you care?

by Travel Paulie on June 20, 2010

Thailand is just sandy white beaches!

Thailand isn’t just beautiful white beaches.

I arrived in Mae Sot, Thailand, on 16th June 2010 after a few days of overland travel.  My intention for coming to Maesot was originally as an information technology volunteer, with a view to helping schools and perhaps some people in the organisations with their computing needs.  It didn’t take long for that mandate to magically morph into English teaching!

Tomorrow I will take my first English teaching class.  Seriously, I haven’t the first clue and to say I’m nervous is an understatment.  I figure for the first lesson I’ll do self-introductions and get them to talk about themselves and each other and hopefully gauge their level.

So who am I teaching English to…?  I’ve only been in town 4 days but I know enough to know that’s an easy question with a complicated answer. In this article I’m going to give it a shot – please note that this information may, and most likely will, be revised in the future as I learn more.

Word count: ~1200.  Approx. reading time: ~10 minutes.

Who are the Karen people from Burma?

The Karen people are a large ethnic group that represent 7% of the Burmese (Myanmar) population, living in the south and southeast.  Since 1949 they have been defending themselves from persecution perpetrated and supported by the Burmese central government – State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).  As such, many have become IDPs within the mountainous regions of their homeland, or have fled across the border into Thailand.  Maesot, on the Burma-Thai border has seen a massive influx of refugees and immigrants, and as such the majority of the population is no longer Thai, but Karen/Burmese.

There are several different types of migrants, namely refugees, registered, and unregistered.  I believe the refugees, found mostly in the refugee camps found in a few places along the border.  Entrance into and out of the camps is strictly controlled and visitors permits are required to enter.  If you’re a Karen/Burmese refugee, you live in the camps.

The registered migrants have, I believe, been granted official permission to reside within Maesot for a certain period. They may not travel however either beyond the city limits or beyond the province borders, namely Tak.

Whether registered or not, if a Karen/Burmese migrant is stopped by the authorities and found to not possess the necessary identification papers, they will be immediately detained and imprisoned. For how long is unclear, but I believe that in Maesot since the border is so near, they are released the following day into Burma at a charge of approximately ฿1500 – a tidy profit that is split between officers on both sides of the border.

So if you’re a persecuted Karen and you try to escape into Thailand and are caught, prison and a huge fine awaits, not to mention an escort back to the very place you’re trying to escape from.

Karen/Burmese Migrant Children Education

Another angle to this whole quagmire (and there are many angles!) is that elementary education is too expensive for most people in Burma.

Too expensive?!

Their options are: their children do not receive any education, or, they send them across the border to one of the migrant schools in the Maesot district.  The problem isn’t crossing the border across the Moei River, the challenge for the Karen migrants is staying on the other side.

That said, it turns out these migrant schools have been officially “sanctioned” and with the assistance of the BMWEC umbrella organisation many are negotiating official Thai accreditation – to do this they must meet a certain criteria which haven’t actually been released yet.

I use the words “sanctioned” and “accredited”, though I’m not entirely sure the scope and the implications of not having this them.

One such school, Paya Daung School, is located approximately 15km outside of Maesot town, within throwing distance (as a trained athlete perhaps) of the border.

I visited there for the first time 4 days ago and was taken aback by the state of the place – and by all accounts this school relatively well off.  There are over 200 children at the school ranging from 5-20 years old, the vast majority of which sleep in dorms at the school situated on the 1st floor, above the ground floor classrooms.

Facilities are super basic, and water for washing etc. is obtained from the village well.  The school’s running costs are supported by several organisations and this is helped/overseen in part by the Migrant School Committee – the organisation with which I’m currently associated.

Making a difference through volunteering

I’ve hashed this topic out before, but it can never hurt to flog the proverbial horse.

I’m a professional IT geek.  I’m not the best, or most technically gifted, but I know my stuff and I implement quality sustainable solutions.  But here’s the thing, when there are no computers to be worked on and very little IT support opportunities to give, what’s a buddy to do?  Well it seems, for now at least, teaching English is the name of the game.  No problem!  But even if/when I become comfortable enough at doing this, I’m fairly sure that I wont want to continue along that path because that’s not where my strength lies.

My leaning is towards how I can have English teaching being taught here sustainably through the continual supply of quality English teachers.  Sure, I can teach for a couple of weeks, but I feel I’m better apt at trying to put in a solution to ensure there is English being taught at these schools long after I’m just a fond memory.  This idea will be developed and detailed in future articles.

I also figure they are likely to gain much more if my efforts with them are focused in areas within which I have expertise – and that would be IT.  So I want computers in these schools.  I want to expose these kids to technology that most children their age are growing up with as standard.  I’m not looking to give them an edge, but simply level the playing field.

This issue of IT literacy and computer supply will be the topic of one of my next articles and will hopefully form the beginning of a fundraiser campaign that will see at least one computer in as many of these schools as possible.  More details to follow very soon!

Until then, if you liked this article and feel others should also be aware of the issues presented here, take this article and send it on to your friends and ask them to read it in full.  You can also simply click the Facebook icon below to share it directly on your Facebook feed if you’d like to share it that way.

If you are in Mae Sot, or anywhere in Thailand, or you’d like to come here to volunteer, please go to my contact form, send me an email and I’d be happy to talk with you about it.

Thank you for visiting!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave June 21, 2010 at 21:16

Sign me up.

I can help you raise money for computers or gather hardware donations.

I already might be able to obtain some computers and hardware with the help of John Crowe!

Share you plan, and we’ll help get hardware out to you! I’ve just enquired here at work, any hardware that is unused and can be dumped I can probably donate -just gotta mail it ya!


…good effort btw!


Paul Goodchild June 22, 2010 at 15:21

Hardware donations may be a little tricky since there’s a much greater cost involved in posting them, but if you can raise the money to post them and it’s cost-effective to do so, versus buying the equipment here, then go for it! There may also be import issues for the hardware crossing borders and the time taken for it to reach its intended destination.

All and any help is appreciated. I’ll hopefully have a page up this week with more details and how everyone can help.

Thanks! 🙂


Chloe June 26, 2010 at 16:03

Paul! I’m so happy you’re volunteering at Paya Daung! How is it going?? Say hi to the students from me, I miss them! I even miss showering by the well! I guess it’s the amazing sense of freedom and authenticity of it.. Let me know how it’s going for you!!! Love!!


Paul Goodchild June 26, 2010 at 16:08

Hey my lovely Chloe! 🙂

It’s going good here, but I’ve been out of action really since Tuesday when I fell off my bike – I should hopefully be back in the classrooms this Monday though. I’ll pass on what you said to them all 🙂


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