Our Origin Story

burmese kids a 10

1980s  On August 8th of 1988, a mass protest against the military government spilled over from university campuses to the general population as monks joined in the fight against the government. The uprising was met with brutal oppression. This included a mass military campaign against ethnic minorities around the nation. The Shan people, who live in a state bordering Northern Thailand, were among those targeted. This led to a mass exodus of people from the Shan state of Myanmar into Thailand between 1988 and 1992. The Shan people had largely been denied access to any social institutions, ranging from birth registration to schooling, during the many decades of oppression by the Myanmar military junta. Because they lacked “knowledge economy” skills, the migrating families were illiterate and innumerate, so there was little opportunity for them in Thailand beyond manual labor.

1990s An even bigger challenge for these migrating families is that they lacked a birth certificate, household registration, or any other identity documents issued by any country. Without documentation, it was not possible to receive services such as education or vaccinations. The term “stateless” refers to people who have no formal identity in any nation, and therefore have no home from any legal standpoint.

In the Mae Hong Son province in Northern Thailand, one couple Roj and Karn, set out to help in their own small way. They decided to teach the kids themselves by growing vegetables to cover their living and teaching expenses. A local guesthouse owner donated a hut as an improvised classroom, and the kids used logs as desks.

1999    Prof. Peter Muennig, traveled to Pai for vacation. He met with Roj and Karn and found that the kids were very enthusiastic about learning. At the end of the day, they quickly did their homework, asked for their homework checked, and then asked for more homework.

2000    Peter’s friend Celina Su, was allowed to repurpose $1,000 from a grant that she received in the US to fund Roj and Karn’s work. They provided a small stipend to the charismatic teachers, built toilets for the Shan families, ensured the kids got vaccinations, provided birth control and basic hygiene knowledge, checked up on the families’ health, and expanded Roj and Karn’s educational work. Kwah Dao was born.

2003    The mission of Kwah Dao (then called the Burmese Refugee Project) was to provide educational opportunities and healthcare support to stateless kids and families in Northern Thailand with the objective of building human capital.

2005    A law was passed that allowed stateless children to attend schools in Thailand. Kwah Dao’s focus switched from providing schooling to providing support, in the form of tutoring and scholarships. We felt that a pre-kindergarten program and an afterschool program were critically important for children whose parents could not read or write. But more important still was the hope of one day attending university. So, we promised scholarships for any student who could attend university.

2010    After a decade of support and preparation for the kids, the big change came when we were able to send our first student to attend one of the best private high schools, Wachirawit School. A few years later, one more student made it to study at one of the best high schools, Dara Academy. And in 2013, one of the most memorable moments came again when one of our students could attend one of the best universities, Mae Fah Luang.

2014    The Burmese Refugee Project was renamed Kwah Dao. As the first generation of students grew older, we provided scholarships for Chiang Mai University, Mae Jo University, Rajabhat University, Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna, Ramkhamhaeng University, and Mae Hong Son Community College. We also began adult education programs, with a focus on reading and writing in Thai.

As of today, we have 12 students who graduated from various majors such as Chinese Business, Accounting, Economics, Education, Tourism, Law, and Business Administration. Some of our graduates came back to run the organization.

2020    On the 20th anniversary of Kwah Dao, the US-based board of directors made a serious effort to build a Thailand-based advisory board and to shift decision-making to that board. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, our after-school and adult education programs were only run sporadically over 2 years. Our new director, a law graduate named Jarudech, nevertheless stepped up community assessments and provided more direct mentorship to the students. Stepping back, we realized that the Shan communities with which we worked had prospered to the extent that they were on equal footing with native Thai people. But our mission of building human capital for the Shan people had only just begun. After a meeting with the Thai board, we decided to focus only on high school and college scholarships for a small number of children who hold great academic progress but come from challenging household environments. The students we help today are studious and serious children who are orphans or are struggling within impoverished households.


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