In Person

Shan in Karen State ‘Have Someone to Help Them’

By Nyein Nyein 8 July 2019

YANGON—Aik Kyan Kham, a lawmaker representing Myawaddy Constituency 1 in the Karen State parliament, is calling for the establishment of a Shan ethnic affairs minister’s constituency in the state to represent its Shan residents.

Ethnic affairs minister constituencies are established based on the number of indigenous ethnic group members living in the respective states/regions of Myanmar.

Article 161 of the 2008 Constitution states that a representative in a state or regional parliament “is elected from each national race determined by the authorities concerned [the Union Election Commission] as having a population which constitutes 0.1 percent or above of the population of the Union, of the remaining national races other than those who have already obtained the respective Region or a Self-Administered Area” in that region/state.

Under the Constitution, 29 ethnic affairs constituencies nationwide, one for each ethnic group, are to be directly elected at the state/region level during the general elections. Those ethnic affairs representatives become the ethnic affairs ministers in their respective state and regional government.

Karen State has over 1.6 million residents, according to the 2014 census, of which the Karen are the majority. The Bamar, Mon and PaO residing in the state elect their own ethnic affairs ministers directly. The 2014 census does not specify how many ethnic groups are in Myanmar currently, but the previous official figure was cited as 135.

Ethnic Shan living outside of Shan State have ethnic affairs ministers in Kachin State and Mandalay and Sagaing regions. Many Shan migrate to the Yangon and Bago regions and Karen and Kayah (Karenni) states and reside there, but they do not have the rights to elect their own ethnic affairs ministers in those states/regions.

The Irrawaddy’s Nyein Nyein recently talked to Aik Kyan Kham, who is also a member of the Karen State parliament’s ethnic affairs committee, in Paan, the capital of Karen State, on his efforts to promote the development of Shan literature and culture and the group’s representation in Karen State. Below are the excerpts.

What role do you play in the development of Shan literature in Karen state? 

I act as the chairman of Karen State’s Shan Literature and Culture Development Association, [which was established about three years ago]. We are trying to establish the position of Shan ethnic affairs minister in Karen State for the upcoming 2020 [general election]. We have collected the population figures across the townships in Karen State. We constitute more than 0.1 percent of the total population, which is more than 60,000.

I reached out to the Shan communities and collected information: There are more than 17,000 people in Myawaddy; over 16,000 in Kyar Inn Seik Gyi, over 13,000 in Papun, over 13,000 in Kawkareik, over 3,000 in Paan, over 2,000 in Thandung Gyi and over 1,000 in Hline Bwe township.

I have also raised the [establishment of the Shan ethnic affairs constituency] issue in the state parliament and asked both Upper House and Lower House lawmakers representing Myawaddy constituency to raise the issue in the Union parliament. After that we will submit the issue to the Union Election Commission (UEC), as the UEC will make the decision on whether to approve the request or not

In 2010, there was no Shan [ethnic affairs] minister. We had a Shan social welfare minister for Karen State, but he did not do much for the development of the Shan. Since I was elected as a member of Parliament in 2015, I have started to raise the issue. If the UEC approves our efforts, we will be able to have a Shan ethnic affairs constituency in 2020.

How many opportunities are there for ethnic Shan in Karen State, in terms of literature and cultural development? 

Currently, the opportunities are the same for all, with regard to literature. At school, the ethnic Shan, Karen, Mon and PaO literatures are now taught to students in Grades 1 to 4. We are also working together with UNICEF to develop curricula for all. It took more than six months to finalize it.

How many schools can now teach Shan literature? 

In 2018, the students studied it at the four schools in Thandung Gyi, Myawaddy and Kyar Inn Seik Gyi townships. This year, six more schools in Kyar Inn Seik Gyi Township will be able to teach Shan literature. We have asked for several more teachers too.

Teachers teaching ethnic literature are paid at a daily rate for teaching one class per day, and no other benefits are available yet for them. If they are graduates, it is easier for them to become staff teachers. We will reach out to the villages to learn more about the difficulties faced by the teachers.

The government currently provides them 30,000 kyats per month. They can only earn the 110,000-kyat salary that is paid to other teachers when they become a permanent staff teacher. Previously, teaching Shan literature was mostly done in the summer classes. As Shan literature and language have been disappearing for many years, we want our children to learn, as they have an interest in it.

As a member of the Karen State parliament’s ethnic affairs committee, what are your duties? 

We work to promote the development of literature and it has been a success. We help each ethnic group to be able to register their ethnicity, be it Mon, PaO, Karen [etc.].Then we will focus on the household registration too [to make sure that ethnic Shan are registered as Shan in official documents].

Before, [the previous government] recorded ethnic Shan in Karen State as Shan-PaO; they put the Shan under the PaO category and established the PaO ethnic affairs constituency. So the Shan’s representation is mixed with that of the PaO.

On our national identity cards, the ethnicity of we Shan is described as “Shan”, but in 2010, they [the Union government] considered us as “Shan-PaO”.

Before I became a member of parliament, I could not do much. I had my ambitions, but at that time it was very difficult to travel from one place to another. We could not travel from Myawaddy to Papun on a daily basis. Travel was not like now. We did not have peace yet. At that time, people were so afraid. After the ceasefire, the roads were opened 24/7 and we can travel easily with subsequent developments in road infrastructure. [Despite the clashes between the Karen National Union and the Myanmar military in Papun,] the area is relatively peaceful and we can travel.

What has the public’s response to your efforts been like? 

Shan share a strong spirit; they are happy that they have now got someone who can help them. Also I did not expect my efforts to be so recognized or successful. I will not forget their happiness.

What motivated you to work to represent the Shan? 

We Shan faced oppression for a long time. Our ethnic culture was forced to disappear more than 60 years ago. We did not have the chances we have now. Now we can ask for our ethnic rights. We have to work to maintain our culture and literature.

In some villages, they are Shan according to their IDs, but they cannot speak the Shan language anymore. The language is long gone. When I talk to them, I see they have a strong spirit. When we have this opportunity, we have to move on with solidarity.

Do you think you have equal rights, as a minority in Karen State? 

Before, our morale was low; then, when we were with Bamar or Karen, we felt belittled. Now we have opened up. We can ask for equality, like the Myanmar saying: “One kyat for each of us.” Anyhow, we will try to achieve equal rights as the government supports us.

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