Myanmar minorities fight to save mother tongue

Myanmar minorities fight to save mother tongue
Updated 01 November 2012

Myanmar minorities fight to save mother tongue

Myanmar minorities fight to save mother tongue

For half a century a single precious copy of a textbook kept the language of Myanmar’s Shan people alive for students, forced to learn in the shadows under a repressive junta.
Now with a reformist government reaching out to armed rebel groups after decades of civil war, calls are growing to reinstate ethnic language teaching in minority area state schools as part of reconciliation efforts. “Shan is the lifeblood of the Shan people. If the language disappears, the whole race could disappear too,” said Sai Kham Sint, chairman of the Shan Literature and Cultural Association (SLCA) in the state capital Taunggyi.
Photocopies of the cherished Shan book have been used in private lessons for years in the eastern Myanmar state, after the original was banished from the curriculum by a regime intent on stamping out cultural diversity.
Shan activists this year finally felt able to print a new edition as the country formerly known as Burma emerges from decades of military rule. The SLCA runs its own summer schools, giving students basic training in written and spoken Shan and familiarizing them with such classics of local literature as “Khun San Law and Nan Oo Pyin” — a tale of lovers who turn into stars after their deaths. But Sai Kham Sint said allowing teachers to hold Shan classes in state schools “without fear” would help sustain the language.
Shan, akin to Thai spoken just across the border, is one of around 100 languages and dialects in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Several of the country’s more than 130 ethnic groups, including the Mon, Chin and Karen, are also seeking to persuade the government to add their mother tongues to the official curriculum.
“The ethnic issue is absolutely central to Burma’s future,” said Benedict Rogers, author and rights activist at Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “Even if Burma has all the democratic institutions in place, if there’s still conflict or even oppression of ethnic minorities then it’s never going to fulfil its full potential,” he said.
Minority rebels have fought for varying degrees of autonomy since independence from colonial rule in 1948. Relations between the government and ethnic groups worsened after the military seized power in 1962. Brutal military counter-insurgency tactics — including rape, torture and the murder of villagers — further embittered local populations.
While a new quasi-civilian regime has inked tentative cease-fires with most armed ethnic groups since coming to power last year, lasting political solutions remain elusive and fighting continues in northern Kachin state.
In Kachin, as in other states such as Chin and Karen, the Christian faith of local people has also put them at odds with a regime that has long demanded conformity.
“State resources are currently spent on the aggressive propagation of Buddhism, including to coerce ethnic Chin to convert to Buddhism at vocational training schools in the name of ‘union spirit’,” said Salai Ling of the Chin Human Rights Organization.
“Instead the funds should be spent on improving the mainstream education system, including the teaching of ethnic minority languages in the national curriculum.”
Yet there remains an indifference to more nuanced questions of cultural identity among officials, many of whom spent years as soldiers tasked with quelling minority uprisings. “We use Burmese as the common language. So ethnic groups should learn Burmese if they like,” a top official involved in the peace process told AFP.
“If they also want to learn their ethnic language, they can if they have free time.”
In September, Myanmar’s Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, himself a Shan, said provisions had been made for teaching ethnic languages during holidays, but added it would be too difficult to have these lessons within school time.
Observers say teaching all languages could prove impossible in this polyglot nation, where many areas have several overlapping dialects and the education system is in tatters after chronic underfunding by the junta.
The ability to speak foreign languages — particularly Chinese and English — is also seen as crucial as the country opens up to the world.
In Taunggyi, the author of the original Shan text book Tang Kel is still respected for his linguistic efforts. The frail nonagenarian, who also enjoys a modicum of national fame for a sideline in traditional medicines that come in packs emblazoned with a virile-looking tiger, cracked a smile when reminded that his book is still used.
Asked whether he was glad about efforts to revive Shan language teaching for today’s students, he said: “It is good!“ The original book’s beautiful illustrations of snakes, elephants and monks carrying alms bowls evoke the pastoral lifestyle of the lush, mountainous region when it was first printed and used in schools in 1961, a year before the start of almost half a century of military rule.
Photographs have replaced drawings in the new edition, but no one has yet taken up the challenge of updating the text.
“In this age we have computers but there are no such Shan words for them in the textbook. Even radio — we do not have the word for radio,” said SLCA member Sai Saw Hlaing.
“We need to invent words for e-mail and the Internet.”


LIVE: Donald Trump leaves White House ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania make their way to board Marine One before departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania make their way to board Marine One before departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 22 sec ago

LIVE: Donald Trump leaves White House ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania make their way to board Marine One before departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021. (AFP)
  • Joe Biden will be sworn in later on Wednesday afternoon
  • Ceremony will take place amid heightened tensions and a massive security operatio

LONDON: The US is braced for one of the highest profile handovers of the presidency in its history. Donald Trump left the White House on Wednesday with First Lady Melania, before attending a military send-off at Joint Base Andrews.

Joe Biden will be sworn in at 5 p.m. GMT (8 p.m. KSA) and take the oath of office alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The ceremony will take place amid heightened tensions and a massive security operation after a deadly riot at the US Capitol earlier this month.

Follow live updates of the inauguration below (all times GMT):

14:00 - Trump said he will be “back in some form” before boarding Air Force One for Florida.

“This has been an incredible four years,” Trump said in brief remarks to staff, supporters and members of his family gathered at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington. “We've accomplished so much together, I will always fight for you. We will be back in some form.”

Trump did not address Biden by name but said he wishs the new administration “great luck and great success.”

13:30 - Trump makes his final speech as President of the United States, saying it had been the greatest honor of his life. Watch it below: