In KIA territory, old casino gets new life as college for Kachin

The one-armed bandits have been replaced by desks. The bar is now a meeting room for academic administrators. And the guys sitting around the poker table are no longer betting on cards but discussing Hobbes’ Leviathan. Or maybe computer science.

This is Myen Ju, a former casino now transformed into a university, or as close to one as the local authorities can make it. The authorities in question are the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political wing of a powerful ethnic armed group whose forces have been at odds with the government for decades.

Three years ago, Bauk La Zing Htung passed his 11th-grade matriculation exam, the usual route to a university education. But his home town of Mai Ja Yang, nestled amid the mountains of Kachin State, near the Chinese border, is in a zone controlled by the KIO. In 2011, the Myanmar government banned students from the area from studying elsewhere in the country when a long-standing ceasefire broke down.

“I passed matriculation in 2013 at Mai Ja Yang high school, but I haven’t got a degree yet because of the fighting,” said Bauk La Zing Htung, 19, who was born and brought up in Mai Ja Yang.

“I can’t say exactly what I want to be, but I’m interested in politics. I want a bachelor’s degree from abroad to help our community build a better future,” he said.

According to the KIO, there are about 400 young people who have passed the national matriculation exam but cannot go to university. Some went to China to work in low-wage jobs. Some turned to drug addiction. The KIO decided to set up their own higher education institution to provide the students with an alternative.

“The KIO didn’t want our young people to be addicted to heroin, so they decided to turn the former casino into a college,” said the school’s chief administrator U Tang Gum.

A large three-storey building set amid 2 acres of land, Myen Ju once contained hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables, restaurants and other forms of entertainment. Similar establishments nearby helped turn Mai Ja Yang into a raucous and bustling frontier town.

Then something happened to quieten it down. In 2009, the hot times ended. Now all the casinos are deserted and some are dilapidated.

KIO officials are coy when asked to explain how this came about.

“I don’t know exactly, but it’s related to the death of a Chinese minister’s son who was stabbed to death while he was gambling at a casino,” said U Tang Gum.

The KIO was caught between the Chinese government, which demanded that the casinos be shuttered, and the wealthy Chinese investors who wanted them to keep running. The government won.

“Under pressure from the Chinese government, the Myanmar government also asked the KIO to close the casinos and said if they didn’t, the army would come and do it themselves. The casinos closed,” said U Tang Gum. “We turned one of them into this college. The table we’re sitting at was a gambling table. Over there was a bar. Now the college management committee meets there.”

“There were seven years to run on the contract with the casino owner. The KIO asked if they could use the premises as a college, but had to promise that they would hand it back to the owner if there was an opportunity to run a casino again,” said U Tang Gum.

The KIO formed a 17-member college management committee led by Kachin Independence Army deputy commander-in-chief General Gun Maw. The college opened on September 25, 2015, teaching five subjects: political science, English, computer studies, Kachin language and basic administration, each taught over a one-year course of two four-month semesters. Students must be high-school graduates aged under 35, and willing to pay 3500 Chinese yuan (K631,200) for tuition and accommodation. They must also belong to an ethnic minority.

“Later we hope to link up with other universities to offer a bachelor’s degree. We’re in discussion with Manipur University in India, Indiana University in the United States and some universities in Thailand. All are willing to support and cooperate with us, including by sending guest teachers,” said U Tang Gum.

This year there are 94 students, all Kachin, studying under 12 teachers. The 24 staff members are volunteers and all live in the college compound.

“We don’t need to worry about space – it’s huge,” said U Tang Gum.

Tu Latt, 39, who has a politics degree from Delhi University, teaches political science and English. “I have a responsibility to help ethnic minorities. I’m very pleased to be a teacher in this college as the students are very talented and keen to learn,” he said.

In some ways, the facilities compare well with government schools. The students share rooms in the former hotel, with en suite bathrooms, and there are only 20 of them to a class, many fewer than the 35-60 students in a typical government university course. There are whiteboards, electronic equipment and overhead projectors.

“The company took back some machines to China, but some are still here. We can use the gaming tables, but we had to paint over the pictures of playing cards,” said U Tang Gum.

Mai Mai, 22, came from Kutkai township, Shan State. Her family heard about the college in Mai Ja Yang through their church.

“At first I didn’t want to come, but now I really like living and studying here. I believe the college can fulfil my ambition to study social sciences overseas,” she said.

The KIO has spared funding from its military budget to invest in education. Over the past four years, it has also set up the Mai Ja Yang Institute of Education, the Federal Law School and the Centre for Intensive English Program.

They chose Mai Ja Yang as the location for these centres because it is far from government-controlled areas and close to the Chinese border, making it relatively safe from armed attack.

Professors from Stockholm University in Sweden, Bangor University in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong University have all taught courses at the Mai Ja Yang Federal Law School Academy, and there is an arrangement with an Israeli agricultural university to conduct training there.

“Some students have already returned from Israel and now they’re helping other students who will go soon there,” said U Tang Gum.

He added, “Our students are keen to study. They know that’s the best way to learn to stand on their own two feet. That’s why education is a KIO priority. One day, this will be Kachin National University.”


Source: Myanmar Times


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