SITTWE, MYANMAR - As Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy steps into power in Myanmar this month, one of the big questions is whether the Nobel Laureate’s party will improve human rights in the country – particularly for the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims. Confined to prison-like internment camps, a generation of Rohingya children are growing up deprived of education, leaving little hope for their future.
The future for the Rohingya children of Myanmar looks bleak. They will receive, at most, a high school education. Under the current system, a child would be lucky to complete the fourth grade.
The vast majority - 60 percent - have never even been to school because their families are too poor. An estimated 80 percent of Rohingya are illiterate.
“There are not enough schools and some children’s parents cannot afford the cost of the school supplies for their children,” says Save the Children chief teacher U Kyaw Hla.
There are only five government schools for all 12 Rohingya camps in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, and little education assistance. NGOs like Save the Children and UNICEF have set up temporary learning spaces, but even these classrooms are understaffed and underfunded.
“We’ve gotten some stationery from the government education department last year. But this year we haven’t gotten any support or relief from the government," says U Tun Kyaw, a Rohingya government school teacher. "I teach standing because the government has never provided me with a chair to sit on.”
There is one upper school for the Rohingya camps, but only two students graduated in 2015 due to the poor level of teaching.
But Hla Aye Yin, the Educational Assistant Director for the Rakhine State parliament, defends the government's educational programs for Rohingya, who she refers to as Bengali, a term preferred by the Myanmar government but rejected by Rohingya residents.
“Yes, we have arranged a basic education service for them, although they are living in separated community," she said. "Even our General Director [of Rakhine State Education] is taking responsibility for it. Now, I heard that new school buildings will be provided in both Bengali and Rakhine refugees’ camps soon.”
Even if help soon arrives for those in the camps, any university level education is impossible here. The Rohingya are barred from attending college in Rakhine, despite the fact that the refugee camp looks out over the gates of the region’s only university.
Myanmar’s government justified the exclusion of Rohingya from Sittwe University as a way to maintain peace after a wave of anti-Muslim violence in 2012. Now they can only glimpse the promise of higher education through a guarded wall covered in barbed wire.