Naw Wahkushee is a member of the Karen Women’s Organization. In the following open letter, she highlights what she claims is a serious problem facing many ethnic women from Myanmar who seek to gain higher education and skills.
Ethnic women have seen the Burmese military government oppress our people and violate our human rights. They attacked us, burned our homes, and destroyed our property, killed, tortured, raped and looted. They used us as slave labor, and deliberately blocked domestic and international aid to us. They forced us into refugee camps abroad where we live in poverty. They denied us the citizenship that is our birth-right. They stole everything from us but our will to resist and our hope for a better future.
The vast majority of refugees from Burma are from ethnic groups. They are among those who have suffered the most at the hands of the regimes which have ruled Burma for more than 60 years. As the recent census demonstrated, ethnic states are also where there are high levels of poverty and lack of government services such as health and education.
Education and skilled people are critical for Burma’s future development, both economically and politically. The international community has recognized this and is providing scholarships so that people from Burma can gain the education and learns the skills and knowledge our country needs.
The problem is, most donors are putting up a modern day equivalent of the ‘No Blacks’ signs in America’s deep south of the 1950s, or the ‘No Irish’ signs in Victorian-era Britain.
They do it with requirements, which are appearing more and more often. Those applying for scholarships must be Burmese citizens, resident in Burma, and/or have a Burmese passport.
This might seem like a normal requirement, but for a country like Burma, it is in practice discriminatory and unfair, excluding many ethnic people and political activists.
For those who have been forced from their homeland but always worked hard to help their country, the chance of a getting a higher education is being taken away from them for a second time. First the Burmese military took away that chance, now international donors are.
These donors are discriminating against us because we have been forced out of our country and cannot safely return. They discriminate against us because we are ethnic people and because we are women activists doing work the Burmese government opposes. These are the reasons we don’t have Burmese citizenship or residence, and so are not eligible for a scholarship.
These donors can try to defend themselves by saying many ethnic people resident in Burma and with Burmese citizenship are still eligible to apply, but they are still excluding a significant proportion of ethnic people and excluding many political activists forced to flee their homeland. They can try to claim they are not discriminating against us but in practice they are. They are making the most marginalized even more marginalized. They are taking away hope and opportunity. With these policies, they carry on discriminating against us the same way the Burmese government does.
Denial of education opportunities for ethnic people and political activists is a deliberate tactic of the Burmese regime. Political activists and even their children were either denied access to university education or faced restrictions on what courses they could take. In most ethnic areas, universities were simply not built, and even basic schooling limited and under-resourced.
Most ethnic people and political activists forced out of Burma either never had Burmese citizenship or no longer do now.
Instead of recognizing this and taking special steps to ensure this marginalized group receives scholarships, most donors are introducing policies which actively exclude them. Imposing such rules will be perpetuating the effects of the Burmese regime's systematic discrimination against ethnic & religious minorities. Donors which are committed to peace-building and human security in ethnic areas need to support those from Burma who have a solid track record in this area as well, instead of disqualifying them.
Most of us that are working in exile in neighboring countries or ethnic areas didn’t have the opportunity to go to university. The only way to advance our education, skills and knowledge is through internships, courses and programs so that we can work more effectively for our organization and communities.
Currently there is a little space opening up in Burma and we are able to communicate with our sisters and brothers and people who live inside the country. We welcome and recognize this small change that has taken place but we should not forget that our country is still ultimately under military control under the 2008 constitution, which also does not guarantee the rights of the ethnic people. There are two struggles in Burma, the struggle for democracy and the struggle for ethnic rights, self-determination and equality.
Donors have to adapt their criteria for scholarships to ensure they are not discriminatory. They have to be based on the situation in Burma as it is today, not how they might wish it will be in the future. There are other ways apart from citizenship document to verify if someone is from Burma. Donor countries around the world do it all the time when assessing asylum claims for example. Yes it takes a little more effort, but can donors really defend continuing to discriminate against some ethnic people and political activists because it means less paperwork?
I know many people who are being impacted by these discriminatory rules. Good people who have worked hard for their country in incredibly difficult circumstances. These are people who would use the opportunity of a university education to help their communities and make Burma a better place. These are the kind of people donors should be seeking out. Instead, the modern day donor-equivalent of ‘No Blacks’ and ‘No Irish’ signs deny them, and the whole of Burma, this opportunity.
Naw Wahkushee joined the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) in 2001 after completing her high school in Mae La Refugee Camp. She has been working for KWO for more than 15 years along Thai-Myanmar border.