RANONG – Education has been the driving force in Samadthachai Pungpong’s life for as long as he can remember. As a sixth grader, he wept for a week when his impoverished parents told him he had to quit school to help on the family farm. They backed off, but the ultimatum came down again in his high school years: “Forget school, we mean it.”
That time he didn’t cry, he left – on foot with no food other than what he could scrounge along the way and only the train tracks to guide him 250km to Bangkok and, he hoped, a chance at an education.
Samadthachai realised his dreams and went on to dedicate his life to helping others enjoy similar opportunities, as founder of a school for migrant children living along the Thai-Myanmese border.
He calls it the “Borderless School”, the name reflecting his belief that “every human being has a right to an education”.
“Education is the best solution to all problems,” he says. “It can help us avoid doing risky things like prostitution, drugs – anything illegal and harmful. Education enables us to make better choices.”
His faith in education took root early on and remains unwavering in the face of constant teacher turnover, barbs from the “teach Thais first” camp, and the sundry challenges that come with running a school on a shoestring budget.
The Borderless School in Toong Ka village in Ranong province’s Had Sompan sub-district operates as a community learning centre. Its aim is to “reach the unreached” – those out of formal education systems, in an approach advocated by educational experts, including those at Unesco.
Four teachers and a monk teach 64 students, most of them migrants between the ages of three and 17.
Ideals brought Samadthachai to Ranong; pragmatism enables him to stay. Getting the children to school is a challenge – he has to drive 50km to 70km a day to pick them up from remote settlements, a service which costs US$1,200 a month, less than a tenth of which is collected from parents’ donations.
Despite being constantly stretched for funds, Samadthachai is leery of outside contributions. “I accept donations from NGOs, but they have to be from the heart with no strings attached,” he says.
Instead, Samadthachai and his students farm the large school property and sell what they grow at local restaurants. It’s the only way the school can sustain itself, he says, adding that the “living classroom” approach benefits students.
Bucolic beauty aside, the school’s isolation makes it an unattractive prospect for all but the hardiest teachers.
“Those who come here need to be strong,” he says. “Most teachers come here with big ambitions, but then they find it too difficult and are gone after a month.”
Because of this, depending on the demands of the day, Samadthachai has many roles – including headmaster, teacher, custodian, cook, entertainer, consoler, driver and mediator.
Samadthachai enlisted in the Thai army in his early 20s, which provided him with an income and enabled him to study part-time. While stationed in Ranong in southern Thailand he noticed and felt an immediate empathy with the street children, many of whom were Myanmese orphans, and some abandoned by mothers working as prostitutes in the area.
“They reminded me of me when I was younger and had to rifle through garbage on the street just to eat,” he says. At the age of 17 Samadthachai had already been in school much longer than any of his six siblings, and while he had often missed weeks of classes to help out on the family farm, he could not abandon education completely.
“I didn’t know where Bangkok was, but I knew where the train tracks were that led there and began to follow them,” he says.
“I had no money, no food, just the clothes on my back. I figured that once I got there, there would be opportunities to study.”
When he finally arrived at a Bangkok tour van station, Samadthachai was so weak from hunger, he passed out.
A series of odd jobs later and after enlisting in the Thai army, Samadthachai saw himself in the migrant children and wanted to help.
He returned to Ranong after completing his studies in Bangkok and with the help of a sympathetic abbot welcomed about 130 migrant children into a temple. Many were orphans and were given food and shelter there.
Border tensions were high at that time and authorities in Ranong were leery of having people from Myanmar on their soil, so the temple had to hide the students.
Over the years, tensions at the border eased and authorities acquiesced, allowing Samadthachai to teach the students and raise funds for a school, eventually amassing three million baht (HK$716,000), much of which came from Myanmese communities in Thailand.
The Borderless School was built four years ago, a colourful and well-kept building springing up on a derelict palm plantation.
A common complaint aimed at Samadthachai, particularly in the early days, was that he should be helping Thais. “They would say, ‘You’re Thai, why are you educating Burmese?’.
“I want people to see that every human being has equal rights, especially when it comes to an education,” he says. “People should understand that everyone is equal and that we should not separate ourselves from others.”
Now in his early 40s, Samadthachai looks back with pride on the nearly two decades he has spent educating mainly Myanmese migrants.
The children from his first class at the temple still check in with their old teacher, he says. Some have taken jobs in companies, others have become teachers themselves.
None, to Samadthachai’s knowledge, has committed a crime – a major source of satisfaction for him given where most began.
“I wanted to show that even though they come from terrible backgrounds, they can be good people,” he says.
When he’s not at the Borderless School, Samadthachai helps establish centres elsewhere, most recently in Kanchanaburi province. That school will target female migrants between the ages of 15 and 18, many of whom are at risk of exploitation.
“Education is endless,” he says, “so wherever there are children out of school, I cannot stop.” – By Noel Boivin