The Marma's are the second-largest ethnic community in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The CHT are home to 1.5 million people – referred to collectively as the Jummas – and made up from 12 ethnic groups, that all have their own languages, culture, traditions and even religions.
Formerly nationals of the present-day Rakhine State in Myanmar, the Marma people migrated to Chittagong during the 16th and 18th century and had a rather peaceful existence for many decades. However, once Bangladesh achieved its independence from Pakistan in 1971, all of this changed.
In the 1960s and 70s, the country’s majority Bengali Muslims began strategically colonizing the Chittagong Hill Tracts, forcing thousands of the Jumma people (the collective name for all indigenous peoples in the region) of their lands, a displacement made worse by massacres, violence and social unrest. Marmas were forcibly converted from Buddhism to Islam by the government as a means of integrating them into Bangladeshi society. The words "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" have been used to describe the situation.
This all was supposed to change when the 1997 Peace Accord recognized the rights of the Jumma people over their lands. Although this accord has brought about prior inexistent opportunities for development assistance from the international donor community, the accord itself remains largely unimplemented and the Jumma people are not even acknowledged in the Bangladesh constitution.
Unfortunately, reports of systematic rights violations, religious and sexual violence, land-grabbing and killings continue to be documented by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations up to this day.
Economy and Education
Decades of conflicts, rough hilly terrain and the remoteness of the villages have hampered economic development in the region, resulting in a large number of unemployment and more than half of the population living below the poverty line.
Marmas mostly depend on agriculture, traditionally practicing slash-and-burn cultivation on the hills.
Access to healthcare is difficult, as is the access to education. This is mainly due to the lack of human resources and development assistance and a difficult topography that makes for long and unsafe journeys to school. More than half of the children enrolled in primary schools drop out in the first year because of lack of finances, distance to school, safety issues, not understanding the subject, or needing to stay at home to help their parents.
A small remote village located in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in South-East Bangladesh, on the border to Myanmar and Thailand. It's a stunning region of hills, ravines and cliffs covered with dense jungles of bamboo, creepers and shrubs, and dotted with tall, slender waterfalls.
Representing the second-largest ethnic community in the CHT, the Marmas belief is deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism, with an emphasis on ritual practices in deities. They also practice animism.
It’s been a long-held vision of ours to build a second school. Over the years we have looked around to find a project that would align with our mission and our values, and we have finally found it.
Through the help of Magical Light Foundation, we have stumbled upon a small remote village located in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in South-East Bangladesh, on the border to Myanmar and Thailand. The village is home to the Marmas.
A New School For 120 ChildrenThe village that we will be concentrating our efforts on already is home to a very small elementary school. Due to its small size, the school can't accommodate all children and many older have to drop out and stop studying to make room for younger students and because there is no possibility for them to continue their education. The nearest junior high school is 15km away, but the parents don’t have the money to pay for daily transportation, the roads are unsafe, and the children are too young yet to stay at the dorms.
That's where we come in.
With our donation the village can build a bigger school building that has room and opportunities for everyone. The older children can keep studying and finish junior high in their village and by then they will be old enough to travel and stay in a dorm near a senior high school in nearby towns. After finishing high school, they can go to university.
The villagers will help build the school, and as many recycled materials as possible will be used to do so. We are responsible for raising 80% to 90% of the funds. The remaining funds will be collected by the villagers either in form of money or building materials and such.
The reason being that involving the villagers in all ways possible ensures that they will take ownership of the school and feel proud that they are the ones who helped build a school for their children.
This school will be different from Somwang School in Thailand, in that it will be registered with the government once it is built. That means that there will be no running costs for MPG as the government will hire and pay the wages for the teachers. The reason being that our partner, Magical Light Foundation, and us agree that one of the main reasons we build schools is for kids to receive an education which will in turn ensure them a future in their country and this can often only be achieved by sitting for the national exam. Privately run schools often face issues when applying for or sitting for national exams as they are not “official” schools, and in this case, might very well interfere with a student's wish to continue their education above the level that we'll be able to offer.
We are only in the beginning phase and will start building the school early December 2018. To ensure the smooth and guaranteed construction of the school we will be continuing to raise funds. So please consider helping us by donating or by taking part in our print sale fundraiser.
With the start of the new school year, we are welcoming some new students, but we are also saying goodbye to others, such as Nang Leng and Sai Khur. Both of them have worked incredibly hard to be able to leave Somwang behind and take the next step continuing their education in a public Thai School. Their teachers and classmates organized a great send-off for the two at the end of the school year. Though we are all really sad to see them go, we are also so incredibly proud of them and wish them nothing but the very best.
Even though Thailand's domestic legislation guarantees that all children, regardless of legal status, have a right to basic education provided by the State, most refugee children are largely unable to access Thai schools due to language barriers. At Somwang, we have thus made it our goal to prepare students with the necessary Thai, English and Math skills to give them the chance to continue their education beyond Somwang by attending public Thai schools. Thus, seeing students move on means that we are fulfilling that goal and that is a great success for us, and for everyone involved, really.
Though the funds that we collect through events and donations are all invested into Somwang School, we have extended our scope and are working with private sponsors in order to give children the necessary financial support to allow them to continue their education once they leave Somwang. It is thanks to a very generous sponsor that Nang Leng and Sai Khur, along with Chai Khwan (who already attended a Thai school last year) are able to keep learning and building a better future for themselves and their families. Thank you so much!
School is back in session, and we couldn't be more excited!
After a month of summer vacation our kids weathered the rain this morning to make it back to Somwang School for the first day of the new school year 2018/19.
Our kids are currently enjoying a well-deserved vacation, which means that another school year at Somwang has come to an end, and a moment to look back on it all presents itself.
It was a big and important year for Somwang School, one filled with laughter, successes and big steps.
Over the course of the year, Somwang was home to an average of 70 children. To keep them healthy and happy, our cook, who is also one of the teachers, cooked about a total of 17000 meals. No easy task!
Helping her take care of the kids, we had 3 more teachers, one of which is Aoi Som, whose story we shared with you earlier this year and which you can reread again here, in case you missed it.
This year marked also the transition of our first student, Chai Khwan, from Somwang to a public Thai school; a proud moment for all that were involved, which you can revisit here.
The school itself also went through some changes and with the help of our valued sponsors, we were able to build a new roof, install our own solar panel, have access to electricity and can now further our student’s education through the use of computers.
Moreover, we visited the school again and held important parent-teacher-sponsor meetings, where we give the students’ families a possibility to voice their concerns, brainstorm new ideas and problem solve together.
Needless to say, we are incredibly grateful for all the continued support we are getting from so many of you, and we can’t wait to see what the new year will have in store for us.
Somwang opens again on April 17th, so stay tuned!
What many of you know is that we recently hired a new teacher.
What many of you don't know, is his story.
4 years ago, Sai Aom, a Shan refugee and the son of our head teacher, Lan Mao, was accepted to study computer engineering at the University of Chiang Mai. As a refugee, it was an incredible chance and a dream come true. However, unable to cover the costs, he was ready to turn down the offer. When we heard about Sai Aom and his ambitious goals, we decided to help and find him a private sponsor who would be able to finance his entire university studies. A kind generous soul and 4 years later,
Sai Aom graduated!
Despite all the doors that were open to him now, Sai Aom's first reaction was to approach us and apply for a teacher position at Somwang School with a simple wish: to give back what he had received.
When we hired him, his first plan was, to use his newly learned engineering skills to help improve th school. He managed to receive solar panels, as well as computers, as a donation from the Thai military and installed the whole systems by himself. With electricity and a new computer lab, we are now even better able to prepare our students with a new skill set to meet the needs of demanding curricula at public schools and quality job opportunities. Hoping that, like their new teacher, they too will one day attend a university.
We are eager to share the exciting news that, after four years, one of our students, 15 year old Chai Khwan has transitioned from Somwang School to Ban Lan School, a local public school in Thailand. This is a transition that we highly encourage at Somwang and one that we specifically prepare our students for by teaching them the necessary English, Thai and Math skills to continue their education beyond the walls of Somwang at a public Thai school. However, we are also aware that such a transition can pose a great financial burden for most families: In Thailand, public schools are only free to Thai nationals and in addition it is required that a students and his family personally pay for uniforms, school supplies and transportation.
Thus, to prevent that families simply recruit their older children to make an extra $3 a day working on the orange plantations, we have committed to assisting our students on their path far beyond Somwang School by financially supporting them with our sponsorship program. To show them and their family how strongly we support them and to give the student an additional incentive to study hard and succeed, we find individual, private sponsors who, through MPG, are willing to support the students in their continued education by covering all school-related expenses.
Needless to say that when we broke the news to Chai Khwan and his mother last Sunday at our Parents Day that we had found a personal sponsor for Chai Khwan, the two of them were overridden with joy and gratitude. There was a mother willing to do everything she could to give her son the education he deserved, to give him a chance at a future different from hers, and to see the fear of not being able to do that lift from her shoulders brought tears to our eyes as well. It definitely makes us remember why we do what we do.
Chai Khwan is now attending 4th grade at Ban Lan School and he is doing great.
We are hoping that many others will follow Chai Khwan's path and that we can help them continue their education beyond the walls of Somwang by providing them with personal sponsors.
We are happy to announce that Somwang finally has a completely new roof! It took some time and was a lot of work, but this roof is going to keep our students and teachers safe from the sun and rain for many years to come. We would like to thank the workers for their great work, as well as you people out there, especially the Rotary Club Luxembourg-Vallées, who made this new roof possible with generous donations.
Let's keep building a better future together!
While being in Thailand over the month of November, we were thinking of ways to involve our students more, how to give them a voice and find a space and medium for them to express themselves. What we have come up with is an amazing project that we are super excited to share with you over the next months. For three days each, we gave 12 students a camera and asked them to take pictures of their lives outside of the school, showing it in the way they perceive it. What resulted are some deeply touching and intimate pictures of finding hope in dire circumstances.
Starting in March, we will introduce one student and his pictures every month on our website and facebook page. So watch out!
Despite the most recent political developments in Myanmar, clashes in Northern Shan State between the Myanmar army and armed ethnic insurgents seem to continue, forcing residents to keep fleeing their villages. Indeed, despite an agreed cease-fire, the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) stated at the end of November 2015 that, since October, new fights had erupted and the military had “launched repeated air and ground missile attacks on densely populated civilian areas,” including “fighter aircraft and artillery raining bombs on 6000 civilians” in different townships that harbored shelters for 1,500 displaced villagers. These attacks, that beside shooting, also include other, well-covered up war crimes and human rights violations such as the burning down of villages, abductions and rape of ethnic people, have forced more than 10’000 people from their townships yet again.
Efforts to bring peace to Myanmar have been built on the assumption that the Burmese army is changing, yet instead of devolving powers as announced, the army continues to burn down villages that did not sign the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and forces those that have to disarm and surrender. Thus, even though there is an air of hope with the new government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has made ethnic peace her number one priority, restoring such fractured negotiations won’t be an easy task and “she will have a hard time because her main obstacle is the army” (BBC).
So let’s hope she will succeed.
Our latest news are regularly put together by our executive board to give you the latest updates on our work and progress.