CHIANG MAI, Thailand — For most of her career as a Burmese language educator in Thailand, Ubonrat Pantumin struggled to attract and retain learners to her subject.
“It was only about 10 students until a few years ago,” the associate professor at Chiang Mai University (CMU) remembers. Then in 2013, she noticed a shift: Thai students’ interest in the Burmese language began to sharply increase, partly, Pantumin speculates, due to preparation for the establishment of the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community, or AEC.
In addition to integrating the economies in the region, AEC emphasizes stronger relationships between neighboring countries, including learning one another’s languages—now more than 100 students are enrolled in Burmese courses at CMU.
As head of the Myanmar Language Division, Pantumin may soon find herself teaching Burmese at more advanced levels than the primary courses she has delivered for 20 years. While it remains a minor subject at the northern Thai campus, Burmese language is expected to become an academic major later this year, when CMU begins offering three years of study on-campus followed by a final year in Burma.
“The students now have a clearer aim of what they will be doing after finishing their language studies,” she said, comparing today’s learners to those she taught in earlier years when the subject was an elective. “It will help them to get jobs at private companies, government institutions or as researchers.” She also noted that some of her students have gone on to teach Burmese in Thai schools.
Last September, in collaboration with the newly opened Burmese Consulate in Chiang Mai, Pantumin led the establishment of the Myanmar Center, which allows students and researchers to borrow books related to Burma studies.
Pantumin’s own study of Burmese began in Chiang Mai at the Wat Sai Moon Burmese temple. As a Thai language lecturer at CMU, she had already established an interest in linguistics. She was struck by the resemblance of the Burmese script to northern Thai—also known as “Lanna”—which has a writing system distinct from standard central Thai.
“The Myanmar alphabet is similar to the Lanna alphabet, so it made me want to study this foreign language further,” she said. It prompted her to ask the Burmese abbot at Wat Sai Moon’s monastery to become her teacher.
In 1995, Pantumin had the opportunity to pursue more intensive Burmese language studies at Rangoon’s University of Foreign Languages for one year, before teaching the language herself once back in Thailand.
Her department’s collaboration with Rangoon University began in the late 1990s, when a total of six Burmese teachers came to help teach Burmese at CMU over the next six years. For the last decade she has run the Myanmar Language Division by herself, with the help of two assistants.
Today, her department has established MoUs (Memoranda of Understanding) with her alma mater, Rangoon University and Mandalay University of Foreign Languages. Through student exchange programs, both Burmese and Thai students can travel to one another’s countries for the purpose of cultural exchange and language practice.
It was through the development of this exchange that Pantumin was able to return to Burma in 2015, for the first time in 20 years. “There were so many changes in many aspects,” she said of last year’s visit, not least of which, she noted, was the “now unreasonable price of food and accommodation.”
She also remembered how, in the 1990s, one had to report all travel arrangements to authorities, but admitted that she visited Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Mon State without following these rules. “I went with my Thai friends, without informing [anyone] of my travels prior [to the trip],” she said.
As a teacher who considers herself a lifelong student of Burmese, there are two retired language professors who have inspired her: Dr. Saw Tun and Dr. John Okell. Because of their dedication to learning, she said she still adheres to a personal schedule of daily study through reading, listening to Burmese radio or songs, or watching Burmese films. Her favorite Burmese singer remains Hay Mar Nay Win and she is a fan of the late composer and singer Khin Maung Toe. She loves the literary work of Ma Sandar, who writes novels on ordinary people’s lives.