On Chin Day, Bittersweet Reflections on a Fading Culture

By Salai Thant Zin 24 February 2015

MYANAUNG TOWNSHIP, Irrawaddy Division — Salai Kyaw Myint applauded performers doing the ethnic Chin traditional Wa-nyat—a group dance in which participants step between moving bamboo poles timed to music—during Chin National Day last week. Though he’s watched it three years in a row now and enjoys it no less than the first time he saw it, there’s a distressing reality for the 51-year-old: The song lyrics, in the Asho Chin language, mean nothing to him.

“I don’t understand the Chin songs played on Chin National Day. However, I am quite pleased to hear it. Words fail to express how badly I feel about not knowing the Chin language even though I am a Chin,” said Salai Kyaw Myint, whose parents are both from the Asho Chin subgroup.

Burma’s previous, ethnic Bamar-dominated military regime banned “Chin National Day” celebrations without explanation in 1988, allowing only for the commemoration of “Chin State Day.” Chin National Day celebrations were officially permitted for the first time in nearly a quarter century on Feb. 20, 2013.

While the heart of Burma’s Chin population is found in the west of the country, Asho people living in Myanaung, Kyangin and Ingapu townships in Irrawaddy Division have taken part in Chin National Day celebrations ever since. Thousands of Asho Chin people attended the 67th anniversary of Chin National Day at Yetaw village in Myanaung Township on Friday.

For Chin in the area, the day is a bitter-sweet reminder of their culture—and what has been lost.

“I’m a Chin, but I can neither speak nor read Chin. At my village, only 1 in 10 can speak Chin,” said a Yetaw villager who attended Chin National Day celebrations.

It is the same story for many residents of Myanaung, Ingapu and Kyangin—home to a Chin population of more than 30,000.

“Only three elders are left in the entire village who can speak Chin. Eighty of 120 households in my village are Chin people, so only three of about 400 Chin people can speak Chin. The children who danced at Chin National Day celebrations do not understand the songs to which they danced,” said Salai Kyaw Myint, who lives in the village of Chin Kwin in Myanaung Township.

Locals blame the former military regime, which systematically sought to repress the cultural trappings of ethnic minorities, banning mother-tongue teaching in schools, “Burmanizing” the names of towns in ethnic minority regions and prohibiting celebrations like Chin National Day.

“It has been 40 years that Chin literature and culture has been going extinct in our village,” said Salai Thein Swe from Kwin Kauk village in Ingapu Township. “Because we did not get a chance to officially learn Chin, me and my younger generation can’t speak Chin. Ninety in 100 people do not know Chin in my village.”

The resumption of Chin National Day celebrations in 2013 offers a telling example. Organizers of the event in Irrawaddy Division found that no one in the area could teach the Wa-nyat dance.

“We had to watch it [performed] by Chin in Hakha, which was aired on TV,” said Salai Tun Win from Kyaung Kwin village in Myanaung Township. “When we started to practice, we often got were injured by the bamboo [pole] wielders. Some people refused to carry on because they got hurt, but I stressed the need for preserving our tradition and talked them into continuing to try.”

Chin National Day commemorates the political mobilization of Burma’s Chin minority some 87 years ago, when the Chin Hills Union Organization was established in Chin State’s Kanpetlet Township. Twenty years later on Feb. 20, 1948, the General Assembly of Chin Land was held at Falam in Chin State, at which Chin representatives voted to overturn their traditional feudal system and adopt a democratic process for electing local and state leaders.

The first Chin National Day was celebrated on that same auspicious date in Mindat, Chin State, in 1951, with the event attended by Burma’s first Prime Minister U Nu.

Speaking Up

Proponents of reviving the Chin language could get a boost if student protestors, who have for months staged demonstrations against a controversial National Education Law, get their way. One proposed amendment to the law, which the government has agreed to in principle, would allow for native language instruction in classrooms in ethnic minority regions.

The Chin Language and Culture Committee is making its own effort, advocating for the teaching of the Chin language at primary schools in Chin villages during school hours. The committee is planning to organize a Chin language instructor course this year in an attempt to turn out two Chin language teachers per village in Chin townships.

Irrawaddy Division Chief Minister Thein Aung told The Irrawaddy that the divisional government would help with the printing of Chin language textbooks if necessary.

“The divisional government will arrange for it if [Chin] books need to be printed. The [Union] government has also agreed to finance the hiring of teachers. Even if the government has difficulty in financing, our divisional government will arrange for it anyway,” the chief minister said.

Salai Kyaw Naing from Chin Kwin village said he would send not just his children, but would also like to learn the Chin language himself, if such classes were offered.

“I am 56 now. But I would like to learn if I could be taught. It would be great if a Chin language class were arranged for primary students during school hours. If that happened, the younger generations would be able to speak Chin,” he said.

Unless and until that happens, Chin songs and literature will remain inaccessible for Salai Kyaw Naing, Salai Kyaw Myint and many more.