Burmese refugee and Melburnian Thein Naing teaches refugee students on the Thai-Burma border.A TOWN on the Thai-Burma border populated with thousands of refugees from nearby camps might seem an unlikely place for a university graduation ceremony.
But for Thein Naing it was among the most remarkable moments of his career in education.
Mr Naing, himself a Burmese refugee, watched as four students received their degrees in Mae Sot earlier this year. ”It was very emotional,” he says.
The students were the first Burmese refugees to complete degrees through a project by Open Universities Australia, which is offering online courses from Australian universities to residents of refugee camps.
Mr Naing is now helping dozens more refugees to earn Australian university degrees in fields such as community development, healthcare and media studies.
He now jets between his home in Melbourne and the Thai-Burma border, where he works as an academic support co-ordinator for Open Universities’ Burma project.
”When the [university] graduates received their degree certificates, many people were encouraged that there is hope and even in this refugee environment they do have supporters,” he says. ”It’s hard work. I’m quite proud they’ve completed these Australian tertiary degrees.”
Mr Naing was a student activist in Rangoon protesting for democracy during mass rallies in 1988. On September 18 that year the Burmese military reportedly killed thousands of people.
Mr Naing fled to the jungle with fellow students where they continued their political activism while living in bamboo huts and suffering bouts of malaria.
”We tried to survive on whatever food we could find. We had very limited support from the international community then.”
Soon after arriving on the border, Mr Naing began teaching at a school for fellow refugees, putting to use the training he had received from a British non-government organisation.
In 1995 he came to Australia on an AusAID scholarship. Mr Naing settled in Melbourne and studied biology before going on to complete a master’s degree in education.
He lives in Surrey Hills with his wife and son, who is studying graphic design at Swinburne University. But Mr Naing still spends much of the year on the Thailand border.
He says the online degree program offers a rare opportunity for Burmese refugees to gain a university education.
Some of the students work for community-based organisations, which provide them with access to the internet so they can study, Mr Naing says.
”I’m quite optimistic with international support we can push forward for … human rights,” he said.
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