You Will Feel the Pain; Reflection from AC4 Fellow, Kelsey Woodrick
“You will feel pain. You will feel the pain of my people.”
These words circulated my mind as I dressed, covering my neck, to my wrists, to my ankles. “Do not try to fit in and wear Karen clothes; you are not Karen.” I wore a plaid shirt, never having buttoned to the top, a scarf, covered my bracelets with the shirt cuffs, and draped from my waist a long skirt ready for my eight-hour ride bus ride. I rode with other passengers on the same red bus, but I couldn’t understand the script to tell which bus I belonged to, which bus I didn’t. Passing by townships, I wondered if the bus could only follow specific routes. Which land was this, government or ethnic controlled?
At lunch, I didn’t eat, mainly because I wanted to minimize the eyes that tracked my steps. I stood within feet of the bus because I didn’t want it to leave without me. I kept my eyes on fellow passengers from the same, big red bus, tracking my own steps to ensure that I would get on the same that I got off. A child beggar with a stained brown school uniform put forth a silver bowl for money. He was ignored by passengers, and scolded by a man who seemed to have authority at the frequented spot. I wanted to tell the child how important his education was, but I caught myself in-between the people who ignored him. I couldn’t speak his language; I didn’t belong. My eyes fixated on the red bus, and for a moment, I was unsure if I was looking at the same bus that dropped me off. I searched for those who sat in front of me or to the side. I was the only foreigner on the grounds. I wondered if others questioned my existence in this place not meant for people who look like me. I wished, in that moment, I could change my skin color, my language, my appearance. The longyi worn by the man waiting in front of me exposed his bare feet, uncovering his dedication and seemingly endless hours of work. His extended arms from a faded “Save the Children” shirt showed his smooth and well-scrubbed skin. His eyes, wholly chestnut brown, explored the depths of his past, the confines of his present, and the future, which he seemed to anticipate with knowingness. I followed him onto the bus. In this moment, I felt pain.
I crossed the Moei River by boat between Thailand and Burma, and trekked through jungle brush to a Karen ethnic armed group military training camp for youth. I saw girls carrying guns, wondering if they were loaded. My own associations challenged the reality in front of me. We sat down with the students and talked with them about their education. Curiosities around motivation, leadership and peace centered the conversation until a young man asked hesitantly, “Why do you ask us about our motivations?” Then, more profoundly crossing his point, “I want to know, what is your motivation for coming here to talk to us?”
Though I began our conversation with the students describing my research and personal reasoning for visiting the military camp, I shared with him I wanted to explore if youth felt included in discussions about peacebuilding. He followed, “Why do you care about Karen people?” This question echoed the red bus pain my mentor told me I’d encounter. I described my past working with resettled Karen refugee families in Utica, New York, about teaching Karen newcomer refugee youth who were denied access to public education, about lifelong relationships with my peers who identify as Karen. My response, unfiltered and staggered with the continuous processing of his question, pressed through the rest of that day and throughout the remainder of my fieldwork. Upon answering my question, I reverted the initial subject back his way. “Anybody can be a leader for my people,” He began to describe, “I don’t want to be just a leader for my Karen people. I want to be a great leader for my people.” He continued, “We are all drops of water. I want to be a drop of water that creates an ocean.” We sat in silence for a moment, soaking in his response, which demonstrated the resiliency of the students at this school. It further reverberated his commitment his community, his people.
I asked the students if they were taught peacebuilding. They expressed interest, however the school focused more on military training, with the hope that the students would eventually join the Karen National Union (KNU), a Karen Ethnic Armed Group (EAG). The school director indicated the need for a course on peacebuilding, however they simply did not have the means to attain an instructor. As we left the military camp, the students asked when we would be reunited again to continue our conversations surrounding peace. Their knowledge on peacebuilding ignited a discussion that I hope they maintained following that day.
That visit highlighted the importance of including youth in Burma’s peace process. In the capital of Karen State, Hpa’An, I conducted peacebuilding workshops. I was curious to understand students’ ideas of peacebuilding in a government-controlled area compared to an EAG area. The workshops began with a simple question, “What is peace?”
Photo 1: Students performing acts based on the question: “What is peace?” (Hpa’An, Burma).
Many of the students answered, “No violence!” This opened up a discussion on positive peace versus negative peace. The students seemed to grasp this notion, but remained a little puzzled; instead of giving them the answer, I wanted to curate their learning through action. I invited the students to break off into groups and talk about peacebuilding in any language; the task was to come up with an action that described the idea of positive peace. Many of the groups from each school displayed themselves as Burma’s eight major ethnic groups – they showed actions of conflict, which then transformed into shaking hands together and bowing in unison, indicative of how they internalized peacebuilding.
Other groups demonstrated peace through religious practices, gender inequality, and disability. One group displayed negative peace and positive peace through education. I took this idea and ran with it, offering the question of how they think peace can be incorporated within education. Students suggested creating a federal education system, in which each state and division had the autonomy to implement modules and curricula that they would develop. Some offered the idea of integrating other languages and histories into the curriculum. “We only learned Burmese language and history in the government school. If we went to a KNU school, we would learn about Karen language and history, but then the government school would not recognize our education,” A male student shared. “You know, some of us cannot write in Karen language (referring to Pwo and Sgaw languages), but we are Karen people. Some Karen people even change their identity on their national ID cards to be Burmese because they do not feel like they can be Karen anymore,” a female student emphasized.
My research considers how the inclusion of multicultural and multilingual education, particularly in Karen State, can influence inter-ethnic reconciliation and Burma’s peacebuilding process to achieve sustainable peace. My conversations with education officials and NGO stakeholders, as well as my focus groups with elder Karen community members and students highlighted the request for teaching Karen language and history, along with Burmese language and history, in government schools. “Students might not be able to say triangle in Burmese, but they can in their home language. There might be vocabulary words that students will have to learn, but there isn’t a translation,” the director of World Education stated, “Teaching ethnic language and history is important in school, but it is also difficult. We need materials, we need teachers, and we need policy.” These sentiments signify some of the reasoning for creating a space where language and history can be taught in schools, however many challenges arise when considering this idea. For a different perspective, I conducted action research on peacebuilding workshops with over 100 Karen youth. Many of them completed government schooling, and some of them returned from refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. The students presented an unyielding demand for the integration of more language and culture in their schooling experiences. “What will happen when refugees come back to Burma?” One student asked, “How will they learn … In the government school or in the Karen school?” These are validated questions that barely begin to scratch the surface of an issue with a complicated history at it’s core, filled with land control, policies, and varying ideas of how an education system should work.
Albeit these challenges and controversies between government and EAG controlled schooling, my research suggests a need for youth to be incorporated into discussions, both at community and national levels, despite controlled areas, centered on peacebuilding and education. As the Ministry of Education (MoE) continues to revise the national curriculum, I suggest asking students who have experienced the curriculum themselves, what they would like to see in it, and how the curriculum, in addition to government schooling itself, can be a space for peacebuilding. While my research suggests the inclusion of multicultural and multilingual education as a way to catalyze the peace process, it is integral that youth, as the next generation of future leaders, are included in these socio-political conversations in order to help transition Burma from a formerly led military junta to a democracy. This multi-faceted fieldwork experience impacted the way that I understand education as an institution that infiltrates all realms of society. In the case of a conflict analysis, it can take the form of a driver of conflict or a connector of peace. Policy makers and curriculum developers should take this into account, as well as the potential for including other languages and cultures to produce a stronger Burma, united through a multicultural identity in order to achieve sustainable peace.
My experience in Hpa’An ended on a drizzling night filled with fried vegetables and hot tea with students who became my friends in a short five-day period. We rode on motorbikes to view the city at night, the silhouette of Mount Zwekabin, the youth parked on Couples Drive, past the students’ university where they spent their days, and around the non-formal education center where they learned more in the evenings. The insights, personal reflections, and potential recommendations by students who attended my workshops on peacebuilding emphasized similar leadership qualities to the students at the Karen military camp. These characteristics are representative to the dedication and fundamentals of Karen youth to rise for their people and with their people. The sensitive yet energizing conversations from the deep jungle to the capital of the Karen State exemplify that space is arbitrary to Karen youth’s commitment to sharing their voices and ideas on issues they care about, which ultimately underscores why it is essential for youth to be involved in discussions on peacebuilding and education.
As I boarded the big red bus, knowing that I would repeat the exact same eight-hour trip back to Yangon, I felt it. I didn’t wear Karen clothes, and I didn’t try to be Karen, but I did feel the resonance of pain. In the wake of this emotion, I also felt a sense of home.
Thank you to AC4 for the opportunity to transform my passion of working with Karen people from Utica, New York to Yangon and Hpa’An, Burma. Thank you to Thabyay Education Foundation for the opportunity to be a research fellow, and for the robust fieldwork support in Yangon and Hpa’An.
Author: Kelsey Woodrick is a M.A. candidate at Teachers College pursuing a degree in International Educational Development. She hopes to continue exploring the intersection between peace and education in Burma, especially considering multilingual and multicultural approaches, with Karen youth at the core of her practice.
Photos: Provided by author; Courtesy of Youth Learning Center (YLC) and Kant Kaw Education Center.