Forget your typical school district. If you’re a student in Karen State, what matters most for your education is whether you live in a white, gray or black zone.

Colors on a map. During six decades of civil war, ethnic Karen rebels divided their homeland in this way. White zones were enemy territory, where you would find government soldiers in pressed green uniforms. Farther into the lush jungles, gray zones were contested areas of mixed control, while black zones were held by the rebels themselves.

Education was also split along these lines. In white zones, teachers at government schools spoke Burmese language and taught the government’s approved curriculum. In black zones, the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) ran its own expansive school system, with teachers instructing in Karen language while emphasizing Karen history. In gray zones, especially in the later years of the war, so-called “mixed schools” promoted elements of both curricula.

But now, the distinctions are blurring. Both sides signed a ceasefire deal in 2012, and since then the government and government-approved NGOs have built more schools in mixed and rebel territories. Today, leaders of the KNU’s education department—known as the Karen Education Department (KED)—complain that sometimes the government sends its own teachers to KNU-funded schools and appoints them as headmasters.

Along with political and economic reforms, leaders in Naypyidaw are attempting to overhaul the national education system. In the process, ethnic educators say they fear a “quiet infiltration” into their territory—with government schools arriving first, followed by the necessary administration, such as government-approved village heads and police officers.

“That’s the ticket in. To send the others, they start with education,” says KED secretary Saw Law Eh Moo. “In the military, there’s a demarcation line. If they cross it, they have to let us know ahead of time. But for education, that demarcation line doesn’t exist.”

‘They Call Us Rebels’

While government schools tend to ignore the country’s legacy of ethnic warfare, Karen schools emphasize it, focusing on the armed conflict in Karen State that began in 1949. And there’s no sugar-coating: On the cover of a textbook about the Karen revolution is the image of a soldier’s silhouette and a large spattering of blood.

In fact, despite the de-escalation of hostilities since peace talks began, the KED secretary says he muses sometimes about requiring students to undergo mandatory military training, though he admits the idea would not be feasible: The KED school system is focused on education, and even proposing mandatory military training would likely upset the international donors that currently provide the KED with millions of dollars every year.

Still, even if armed clashes in Karen State are rare these days, Karen educators are not forgiving and forgetting easily. “The facts that we mention in our textbooks are very different from what has been mentioned in the government system,” Law Eh Moo says. “For example, they call us rebels or terrorists, and we also call them the same.”

Like other ethnic rebel groups, the KNU has a health department and an education department, which it developed about half a century ago. In the beginning, the KED used lesson plans written by Christian missionaries, but in the mid-1990s it began developing its own curriculum with help from international organizations on the Burma-Thailand border, where many Karen refugees fled during the war. The new curriculum covered not only Karen history, language and culture, but also more universal subjects like math, science and geography.

Today the Karen school system is known to be more progressive than the government’s system. Long before the Ministry of Education began instructing teachers to incorporate a “child-centered” approach, rather than all rote learning, Karen teachers were encouraging their students to join class discussions, while using local examples to illustrate complicated topics. In tenth-grade geography class, for example, students observe rivers in their village while learning about the water cycle and dams; compose rap songs about the weather and climate; germinate seeds in plastic trays to better understand forest ecosystems; and collect traditional Karen tools, dress and craftwork to learn about their culture.

As of last year, the KED supported 1,295 schools with more than 141,000 students—not only in Karen State, but also in predominately Karen areas of Pegu Division, Tenasserim Division and Mon State, which are considered by the KNU to be part of “the true” Karen State. “There’s the government map, and then there’s the reality,” says Ko Lo Htoo, director of the Karen State Education Assistance Group, which works closely with the KED.

Before the ceasefire, teachers at these schools were often forced to cancel classes during raids by government troops, while students and their families fled to the jungle for shelter.

“They had a policy to shoot on sight—anything that moved,” says the KED secretary, adding that they did not distinguish between Karen soldiers and civilians. “Even little kids—they said, ‘You will grow up and join the revolution, so why don’t we start with you now?’”

He adds that school buildings were often destroyed. “They burned, we built. They came back to destroy, we rebuilt. … We kept them busy.”

A Quiet Infiltration?

In a valley near the Moei River, which separates Karen State from Thailand, you’ll find Htee Kaw Htaw, a farming village of about 650 people. This territory is controlled by a pro-government militia, whose members formerly served the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a rebel group that broke away from the KNU. Residents say they also see government soldiers sometimes at a local Buddhist monastery, while KNU soldiers come through nearly every day.

In 2010, the government replaced a small DKBA-funded school here with a new, much larger school. Today it is attended by 200 students, mostly Karen but also ethnic Burman, Pa-O and Mon. The school is clean and safe but bare and understaffed compared with schools in Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city. “I need a teaching aide and more space. We need a headmaster, more teachers, and more supplies,” says Saw Htoo Myat, 22, one of three teachers at the school who were hired by the government.

During most classes, he stands in front of a chalkboard and dictates lessons, but he’s trying to solicit participation more often. “I do it 35 minutes per day, asking questions to the students and writing their responses on the blackboard,” he says of the child-centered approach. “It’s difficult, but it makes the students happy.”

He follows the government-approved curriculum and teaches in Burmese language, even though most of his students speak Karen at home. This year, for the first time, he says he can offer a class on Karen language to help his students learn to read and write in their mother tongue.

Saw Myint Aung, 13, is the school’s top student for English language, but his friends tease him sometimes. “If you are Karen, why can’t you read or write Karen?” he says, recalling the taunts. He adds, “I want to learn to read and write Karen because I am Karen.”

Six teachers at the school were not hired by the government, including Cho Cho Lwin, 51, a community teacher who has taught in the village for more than a decade and is paid by the pro-governmental militia of former DKBA soldiers. “Government teachers make 116,000 kyats [US$116] per month. I make 2,500 baht [$80] per month. It’s not enough,” she says shyly. Asked whether she hopes for a higher salary or other reforms in the future, she adds, “I have no authority to suggest changes.”

The KED also pays community-hired teachers at other government schools, usually a stipend of 4,500 baht per year—which is often what government teachers make in a single month. With an annual budget of about $3 million, the KED says it chips in to support the government teachers’ transportation and housing costs, which otherwise would be covered by the students’ families.

The secretary says the pay discrepancy—coupled with the tendency for government teachers to be promoted as headmasters, even if they are less experienced—can lead to tensions in villages, with some government teachers even forced out by local residents.

Time to Negotiate

Burma’s Parliament is currently considering a National Education Bill that, if passed, will likely have far-reaching consequences for government schools around the country. But as the government moves closer to a nationwide ceasefire, it remains to be seen how these schools will ever merge with KED schools or other ethnic education systems in Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin and Arakan states.

Ethnic educators say their input has largely been ignored by the Ministry of Education.

“As far as education in ethnic areas is concerned, we can definitely say that education reform is not inclusive,” says Sai Naw Kham, director of the Rural Development Foundation of Shan State. “They don’t know what is happening on the ground, and local scholars from ethnic communities have not been involved in the reform processes.

“We have seen that the future education policy will continue the Burmanization policy, which is the root of the racial and political conflicts in [Burma] since independence.”

In 2012, the Ministry of Education launched a massive study to identify strengths and weaknesses of its school system which could inform new education policies. Researchers studied schools around the country, but according to the KED secretary, they did not consider the diversity of education in Karen State. “The work that we’ve been doing over decades does not exist in their knowledge,” he says. “What they mean by ethnic education is the work of the government in ethnic areas.”

Eh Thwa Bor, director of the Community School Program, which runs 31 schools in the state, says the Ministry of Education needs to understand that non-government educators are also doing valuable work. “They should recognize the villagers’ schools. And they should treat the teachers the same because they are all working hard,” she says.

But she also wants the KED to cooperate more with the government. As a starting point, she says Karen schools should teach Burmese language. “Burma has so many ethnic groups, so we should learn Burmese. Otherwise, how can we communicate with each other?” she says.

The KED wants to see a decentralized school system—in keeping with the federal political system proposed by ethnic rebel groups—that would allow states some level of authority to administer their schools.

It says it is open to negotiating on certain issues to help merge with the government education system, and that it will begin teaching Burmese language to its students soon. Merging with the government system could be beneficial for Karen students who are currently barred from attending Burmese universities because they went to a KED high school.

But the KED secretary says certain issues are not open for discussion, including the inclusion of ethnic history in the curriculum, as well as mother-tongue teaching.

He sees two possible options. First, all ethnic groups in Burma could design a unified curriculum together, which would incorporate lessons about each of their histories and cultures, and which would be used in all schools across the country. “But we foresee that would be chaos,” he says, adding that the second option might be more simple: The government can design 60 percent of the curriculum, which would be followed by everybody, while 40 percent would be left open for ethnic groups to determine on their own, perhaps state by state.

In either case, education policy must not be developed by only one side, he says.

“We feel like they have their hand over us,” he says of the government, “and this will limit our ability to continue running our ethnic education.

“In the past they killed, they burned and they tortured, and every time we would regain our energy. But this time we need to be very careful. They may be trying to cut us off in a soft way, and we are concerned that the identity we have preserved over more than six decades will start to die out, gradually.”