In Myanmar, the army and ethnic minorities have been fighting since the 1960s, in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
Hundreds of thousands have been killed. Millions have fled their homes and live in camps for refugees and internally displaced people. Serious human rights violations continue.
But amidst the violence and setbacks, one initiative is preparing minority groups for a peaceful struggle.
In Kachin State, Northern Myanmar, Kannikar Petchkaew met with the founder and students of the country’s first law school for ethnic minorities.
In the remote area along Myanmar’s border with China sits the town of Mai Ja Yang. Once a bustling hotbed of gambling, the place now reminds me of a cemetery: it’s quiet and eerie. Most shops and houses are abandoned.
Mortar shelling can be heard in the distance. Many residents fled to safer places years ago. For those who choose to stay in Mai Ja Yang, life is risky.
Lawyer Aung Htoo says they are ready to be bombed at any moment.
Mai Ja Yang is the second largest town in the area controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization, or KIO – a resistance group that has been fighting for self government since 1962.
Three years ago, KIO named the town of Mai Ja Yang an education hub for ethnic minorities. Since then, schools and colleges have sprung up. Half the town’s population is now students. Hundreds have moved from surrounding areas in Northern Myanmar -from Kachin, Karenni, Northern Shan and Rakhine - to study.
After decades of struggle against the military regime, pushing for human rights, and working with ethnic minorities, prominent lawyer Aung Htoo established a law school for minorities in Mai Ja Yang in 2014.
With fighting close, and the risk of attack high, evacuation procedures at the school are practiced regularly. Books and computers are packed each day, ready for a quick escape.
With 100 students, Federal Law Academy is Myanmar’s first-ever law school for ethnic minorities. Throughout 60 years of civil war, minority groups have had their rights to citizenship, education, and movement restricted.
Without knowledge of the law, Aung Htoo says they have been unable to defend themselves legally, and they cannot rely on others. He says before the school, there wasn’t a single lawyer from an ethnic group in all of Myanmar.
“All of those who are very famous and all of those who are successful, they are not interested in protecting the rights of ethnic nationality,” Htoo stated.
Until now, all of Myanmar’s law schools were in Yangon.
But ethnic minority groups rarely have access to Yangon, which is a long and expensive trip from their homes. And on top of that, institutions in Yangon discriminate against minority groups, rarely accepting their applications.
25-year-old Thu Reh, an ethnic Karenni, travelled 2 days from his home on the Thai-Myanmar border, to study at the Federal Law Academy.
The Karenni National Progressive Party - an arms group fighting against the Government along the Myanmar-Thai border - sponsors his education, paying his $600 a year stipend. Thu Reh hopes that his education can be part of a peaceful solution to a conflict that’s twice as old as he is.
“If there are a lot of educated people and know about law we can do better and we can change the situation,” he hopefully told me.
The first students graduated from Federal Law Academy last year. Among them was 24-year-old Laphai Naw San, from the Kachin ethnic group, who along with other graduates, runs workshops on human rights, international law, and the rule of law. Their workshops discuss how federal systems work in other parts of the world, and how those systems could be applied in Myanmar.
Minorities hope for decentralization in Myanmar - where power would be transferred from a strong central government to local authorities, giving ethnic minorities the autonomy they have spent decades fighting for. Htoo believes minorities should be qualified to establish their own Federal Union with their own legal capacity.
The law school aims to prepare minority groups to participate in drafting and implementing laws and a constitution in a Federal Union.
“We are old now, we are going to die, not very long. Now we are responsible to nurture our ethnic young generation so that they could underpin the process for the establishment of the genuine federal union. To change the history of our country,” he said.
Htoo hopes that his students, who have long lived in war zones, will one day work as lawyers in a Unified Myanmar, protecting the rights of those who have long had them violated.