The Irrawaddy

Analysis: Where Some See Respect, Ethnic Groups See Burmanization and Loss of Rights

YANGON – During peace discussions with the public in Mon State on Thursday, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said using Burmese style honorific titles allowed the speaker to show respect to the person they were talking to and it was thus a good thing.

The country’s de facto leader made her comment in response to a point raised by one of the participants in the dialogue, Mi Ngwe Lay, a Mon woman and philanthropic worker, who highlighted the issue of ethnic people who were forced to use a Burmese prefix with their names. Specifically, she cited the case of a former Mon candidate who had been required to add the prefix “Daw” to her name during the 2015 election.

As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comment hinted, the controversy centers on feelings of respect and the fear of being Burmanized.

The need to show respect and value each ethnic group’s traditions is a refrain that is commonly voiced by the leaders of both the ethnic minority groups and the majority Burmans, with all sides stressing that it is key to the peace process. Through such respect, one can build trust and then work to achieve genuine peace. This line has been heard frequently since the democratic transition began in Myanmar in 2010.

In her role as state counselor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly reminds the public to respect one another, to listen to others and to share their experiences, to support the peace effort. As the de facto state leader as well as long-time moral icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s words are a source of inspiration for many.

It is widely understood among Burmans that Burmese honorable titles as such Daw and Ma for women and U, Ko, and Maung for men are a way of showing respect to other people. The country’s citizens have been taught this way for decades. But sadly most people don’t sufficiently understand the sensitivities surrounding this issue and the underlying political implications. People tend to forget that such thinking is reinforcing the perception that the country is being Burmanized, particularly among the ethnic minorities.

Myanmar has 135 so-called ethnic groups as recorded by the government, however, it is unclear how many groups there actually are and how many are in danger of extinction. The 2014 census on the Myanmar Population and Housing does not provide an ethnic breakdown, due to “disputes about the names of the ethnic persons, the structures and the race.”  On June 13, Minister of Immigration and Population U Thein Swe reiterated that the figures about the racial make-up of the country, the only data left to be disclosed, is still not ready to be published. U Thein Swe made the comment in a response to a question from the Rathaetuang lawmaker Daw Khin Saw Wai during a parliamentary session on Wednesday.

As a leader of a multiethnic nation with many diverse cultures, the state counselor “needs to address the meanings, the values and the feelings of ethnic groups behind these prefixes and honorifics, not just the words U and Daw (Bamar), Mi and Naing (Mon), Naw and Saw (Karen), especially in this special period of our country’s history when we are building understanding and trust among ethnic groups,” said Saw Bo Bo, the secretary of the Karen Literature and Culture Association in Yangon.

In addition to the prefixes, another problem is the changing of ethnic names into Burmese. The names of many minority ethnic people are either incorrectly spelt or forcibly changed to a Burmese version to make it easier for the staff recording the population and housing information data.

Saw Bo Bo noted that some ethnic Karen do not have Nan, Naw or Saw, Sa, Mahn as prefixes to their names. “They did not have a chance to use these Karen honorifics when they first made their NRICs (National Registration Identity Cards) and now it’s extremely difficult to correct them since they would need to publish the change in a newspaper and go through other bureaucratic processes.”

“We have people listed with Burmese nationality on their NRICs even though both sets of parents were Karens. The same has happened with their religion, as their faith is stated as Buddhist even though the person is Christian,” Saw Bo Bo said.

It happens not only with the Karen, but to many ethnic minority people be they Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, etc. Even this reporter had a similar experience. Regardless that my birth certificate and NRIC state that I am Karen-Bamar, on my officially renewed household registration paper, my identity was changed to Bamar only. Those careless immigration officials did not pay attention to my identity and obviously didn’t think it is important, as we all are citizens of Myanmar.

“Use of the Bamar prefix hurts the public perception of the ethnic minority people,” said Nai Soe Aung, chairman of the Mon Literature and Culture Association in Yangon.

Losing Identity: Losing Political Rights

Besides misspelling names or adding Burmese prefixes, changing a person’s ethnic category can lead to an identity crisis or worse, the loss of political rights.

In the case of the Mon, not only those in Mon state, but also in Yangon region, many are registered as Bamar on their National Registration Cards.

Nai Soe Aung added, “Many were identified as Bamar even though they are Mon. The Mon population in Yangon is estimated at 150,000, but only around 40,000 are registered as Mon and this has led to the loss of Mon ethnic representation in the political arena.”

According to the Constitution, minority ethnic populations with more than 50,000 are entitled to have their own ethnic representatives in the respective regional parliaments. Therefore, Karen and Rakhine ethnic affairs ministers are able to be elected in Yangon, while the Mon are denied this opportunity.

People, mostly Burmans, tend to think it is not important because Myanmar does not teach cultural diversity through mother-tongue language instruction in the education system. In terms of culture, they see the wearing of ethnic costumes as enough, and tend to omit the importance of the teaching of ethnic languages to schoolchildren.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should have visited the Mon National Schools (run by the New Mon State Party in its controlled areas), where ethnic language, literature and history are primarily taught,” said Nai Soe Aung.

The Mons’ mother-tongue-based multilingual education curriculum is a success that is being followed by a few other groups. However, there is no government support for this MTB-MLE, he added.

To better understand Myanmar’s diverse culture, Myanmar needs to support the teaching of ethnic children in their mother tongue, as they learn best in their own languages rather than in Burmese. As Myanmar is in a transition to democracy, it should follow the example of other democratic nations, especially neighboring India, where at least three languages — the official languages and the mother-tongue — are taught as compulsory subjects in school.

The more Myanmar leaders pay attention to mother-tongue education and value the feelings of the different ethnic groups, the closer we will be to building genuine peace in the country.