Words by Sara Wong (MSc Development Studies)
Tucked into the Shatapru neighbourhood of Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar lies a pedagogical gem developing a critically engaged curriculum in a country whose educational approach is characterised primarily by memorisation and recitation. The Kachinland School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS), part of the Humanity Institute – a local non-profit organisation, has been proudly gleaming since 2014.
Forming the northern apex of a country embroiled in one of the world’s longest protracted civil wars, Kachin State is no stranger to armed conflict. Many of the students at KSAS are IDP’s (internally displaced people) themselves, having been forced from their homes on account of the ongoing conflict that continues to engulf the state since the ceasefire broke between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military in 2011.
I recently finished a couple of months in Myanmar on behalf of PositiveNegatives for the beginnings of a SOAS Development Studies research project, where I was also able to spend some time teaching Diploma students (age 17+) at KSAS. The Diploma programme prepares students to enter the workforce in the community or to go on to further study internationally should they wish to do so. The students are keenly in tune. Among other things, this can be attributed to what the Director deems “conflict-sensitive” curriculum. Students and I spoke bi-weekly about culture, social structures, and human development in conversations handled with intellect and grace.
Kachin, one of Myanmar’s official 135 ‘ethnic minority groups’ is an umbrella categorisation actually encompassing several tribes within it. The Kachin people stretch beyond the borders of contemporarily demarcated Myanmar into China and India as well as having a significant diaspora elsewhere in the Asian region and beyond. The majority of the KSAS student body identify as such but the school accepts students from all ethnic backgrounds as it categorically rests its ethos on a universally imposed non-discrimination policy in light of the continued divisive nationwide conflict. Students can learn Jinghpaw- the lingua franca of the Kachin people, as well as Shan language, Japanese and, soon, Mandarin Chinese and Naga language.
In the school office, you’ll struggle to separate student from staff as many students are employed as part of the industrial apprenticeship program where they are supported in practical career-oriented training. But perhaps the most salient aspect of this institution is the level of activity and involvement that permeates throughout. I was lucky enough to be present during a student exchange with Yomagata University where nearly a dozen Japanese students came to share experiences and stories. In addition to seeing the city itself, we also took trips outside of Myitkyina to both Myitsone Dam and Indawgyi Lake. The former is a significant place both in terms of Kachin oral history and the contemporary conflict- as the site of a half-built Chinese-funded hydropower dam looms large against local efforts fighting government land grabbing. Our visit was buoyed by two community leaders that spoke to both such topics related to this particular site.
Indawgyi Lake made for an equally educational excursion where students learned local ecology from our sage guide who had a 400-page bird reference book memorised nearly from front to back. Spectacular as these sights were, what possibly made the greatest impact was the opportunity for cross cultural socialisation among students of a similar age group. This peer-to-peer contact cannot be understated and came out in moments seemingly ordinary – on long bumpy bus rides and over meals shared.
The exchange was rounded off by a Cultural Day celebration where students proudly sported their lush traditional attire; dancing through the school’s main building, joyfully brandishing Kachin ceremonial drums and swords. In nights such as these, it’s clear that students exercise visible control in the smooth running of school events. The impacts of this participatory design are bore out in a student population that refuses to shy away from action.
In regions impacted by conflict, providing the youth with a sense of invested community and quality education is radical action- aimed at fitting young minds with the tools needed to address the issues that continue to plague those generations currently in power. Let this school be a shining example of a locally founded, run and funded institution doing just that. The ballooning student population, which is starting to outgrow the campus itself, is evidence that Myitkyina is yearning for places and intentions such as these- and KSAS is here to provide.