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Faced with discrimination, Rohingya struggle for an education

Aung San Suu Kyi says there is no discrimination when it comes to schools in Rakhine, but reality indicates otherwise

Faced with discrimination, Rohingya struggle for an education

A Rohingya girl studying at a temporary learning center in Kaung Doke Khar camp for internally displaced people near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar. (ucanews.com photo)

Sixteen-year-old Rok Sham wants to be an engineer. In March 2018, she will sit Myanmar's national matriculation exams and expects to get distinctions in physics, chemistry and economics.

To prepare for the exams, she has a daily study schedule covering the six test subjects.

"I study after dinner from 7 to 11 pm and get up at four in the morning to study again before going to school," Rok Sham said.

She studies under a solar-powered light in a small room in the squalid camp for internally displaced people (IDP) where her eight family members live.

Rok Sham has to take a bus and a trishaw to get to the government-run school in Thetkaepyin village. It is the only high school open to the Rohingya in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and is located a few hundred meters across disused railway tracks from Sittwe University.


Watch this ucanews.com video showing Rohingya children studying in IDP camps.


An estimated 2,000 Rohingya students from the camps and villages are crammed into crowded classrooms at the high school.

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Rok Sham said prior to the religious violence that broke out in 2012, she was attending a regular school with Rakhine students. Her family was forced to flee its home and take refuge at Kaung Doke Khar IDP camp where more than 2,000 Rohingya now reside.

Rok Sham is not the only one. More than 120,000 Rohingya remain interned in camps in Rakhine State, with restrictions placed on their movement and limited access to basic services and education.

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said in a speech to international diplomats on Sept. 19 that all people living in Rakhine State have "access to education and healthcare services" without discrimination.

She added that the government has upgraded 300 schools in Rakhine and that the vocational and technical training programs have begun.

"Muslim students also have access to higher education without any discrimination," said Suu Kyi who hasn't been to a conflict-stricken Rakhine State since taking office in April 2016.

But the reality on the ground is very different. Rok Sham realizes that she and other Rohingya who pass the matriculation exams can't attend the nearby Sittwe University.

"I am trying hard to pass the matriculation exams and I haven't given up hope to pursue my goal. I hope for the best in the future," Rok Sham told ucanews.com.

The government-run university is the only one in Rakhine State, which was home to an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya. But Rohingya students are barred from setting foot on campus, with authorities justifying the restriction as a way of preventing violence.

Rok Sham said she was concerned over the violence in the state's north where the actions of Myanmar's military has resulted in a half a million Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. While she said the ongoing violence there may further affect her ability of getting a better education, she remained determined that it or any other challenge would not stop her reaching her goals.

Rok Sham's father, Mohammad Ami, said his family relied on hand-outs by INGOs to survive, and struggled to pay school expenses for four children.

Two of them attend a primary school inside the camp, staffed by local volunteer teachers and run by INGOs, UNICEF and the Lutheran World Federation. Rok Sham and her sister attend the high school in Thetkaepyin village.

A local volunteer mathematics teacher at a temporary learning center in Kaung Doke Khar IDP camp near Sittwe. (ucanews.com photo)


"We try our best to help our children continue their education as only education can bring them a bright future," said Ami who is also a camp committee member.

His aim is to send Rok Sham to Yangon University to undertake her engineering studies.

The Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine said in its final report released on Aug. 24 that it has concern for the Muslim population's lack of access to higher education.

It called upon the government to "find ways and means to permit Rohingya students physical presence at university in Rakhine State."

It added that many Muslims find it "extremely difficult" to attend university in Rakhine State, or elsewhere, because of discriminatory practices and limitations on freedom of movement.

Salim Khan, a Rohingya Muslim who is a volunteer teacher at a learning center in Kaung Doke Khar IDP camp, said while students might successfully complete lower-level education, there is need for ongoing support.

"Some students who pass the matriculation exams can't attend the Sittwe University," Salim said. "So some join international non-governmental organizations while others are  jobless and remain in the camps."

Camp resident Muhammad Yasi, 20, stopped attending school in Grade 11. "I will not pursue education as my family can't afford to continue providing schooling expenses," Yasi said.

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