RANGOON – A new TV channel with shows in ethnic minority languages will air on Burma’s state broadcaster later this year, in a move that is being welcomed by minority representatives.
Details of the proposed channel are still being finalized, says a spokesperson from Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), but broadcasts will likely feature news and cultural content in several of Burma’s more widely used minority mother tongues, such as Shan, Karen and Kachin.
“We hope to start before the SEA Games,” the MRTV spokesperson says, referring to the Southeast Asian Games, a regional athletics tournament that Burma will host in December.
The new medium comes on the back of 13 ceasefires signed by the Burma government and various ethnic minority militias, and is a signal, according to some minority activists, that Burma’s government is not only trying to achieve peace in resource-rich borderlands, but is also making belated cultural overtures to ethnic minorities in the country.
Ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of Burma’s estimated 50-60 million population, with the rest being the majority Burman from which the country’s name and official language derives.
But with Burma’s nascent peace processes being accompanied by a somewhat convoluted and unfinished transition to a free press, the new channel’s content will be watched closely to see whether it merely touts old-style government lines, long marked by an air of Burman supremacism.
“It is very well timed but it should be independent, and it should not be government propaganda,” says Susanna Hla Hla Soe, executive director of the Karen Women’s Empowerment Group, an NGO focused on rights for women in Karen State.
Burma’s army has waged on-off wars for six decades in Karen State and other hilly, often lawless border regions close to China, India and Thailand. More than 100,000 people are stuck in ramshackle camps in Kachin and Shan states after fleeing fighting since June 2011. Overall, there are more than 600,000 internally displaced people inside Burma, mostly Karen, according to the United Nations.
But while peace is yet to come to swathes of Burma, a draft national ceasefire paper has been prepared—based on the 13 deals so far signed between the Burma government and some of the country’s myriad ethnic militias—which mentions both community radio stations and the teaching of ethnic languages at primary school level.
Susanna Hla Hla Soe says moves to liberalize the education sector—to allow minorities to hold classes in their own languages—would be a logical follow-up to the proposed TV channel.
Similarly hopeful that the new channel signals a future willingness to teach ethnic languages in government schools, A Moon, a Kachin singer with the Me N Ma Girls, who are currently in studio in Los Angeles, says the channel “shows that our government cares about ethnic groups more now.”
In areas controlled by ethnic militias such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), schools teach in the local language. But elsewhere, in government-held areas of Kachin and Karen states, teaching is in Burmese, save for a few scattered exceptions, which is something ethnic minority groups have long wanted changed.
Even if the Burmese government soon amends its education policy to better cater to local language education in border areas, implementation would take time, cautions Susanna Hla Hla Soe. “There are not enough teachers, there are no textbooks,” she says.
But if making Burma’s schools a more welcoming place for ethnic minority pupils seems a long way off, quicker cultural outreach efforts—such as the new TV channel—could in the meantime help build trust in Burma’s myriad peace processes, the next step in which could be a proposed nationwide ceasefire discussion.
In a joint letter published on Wednesday, welcoming the Burma government’s statement that it would hold such a parlay, Karen National Union (KNU) leader Gen Mutu Sae Poe and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) chairman Lt-Gen Yawd Serk said, “A nation-wide ceasefire is a significant milestone as it consolidates the ceasefires already signed as the foundation for the next phase of the peace process.”
Among the likely participants in the mooted national dialogue will be the Chin National Front (CNF), which signed a ceasefire with the government last January. In hard-to-access Chin State— which like Kachin State is a mostly Christian region, although it mostly borders India rather than China—the new TV channel could help promote better understanding between Burma’s majority Burman Buddhists and remote minorities such as the Chin.
“Raising awareness in Burma about the diversity of this country is an important step to national reconciliation, but it’s just a first step,” says Cheery Zahau, a Chin activist previously exiled in Thailand but now working in Burma.
Knowledge of Burma’s ethnic minority regions is sketchy, even among educated urban Burmese—a legacy of long-standing mutual suspicions, restrictions on information and the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure, which leaves areas such as Chin State accessible only by air or a several days’ bone-jarring drive from Rangoon.
The reach of the new channel will be hampered in ethnic minority regions by the limited reach of Burma’s electricity supply. Only about a quarter of the population are connected to the country’s dilapidated grid, mostly in towns and cities. And while ethnic regions are rich in resources such as hydropower that can power generators, related projects have been tarnished by allegations of land grabs, environmental degradation and—despite the domestic power shortage—the export of energy resources to China and Thailand.
“When I tell people in Rangoon I am from Chin, the first thing they say is ‘Oh, Chin state is very poor,’ but then that is all they know about it,” says Cheery Zahau, who hopes the new TV channel will offset this knowledge vacuum.
However one group unlikely to have content broadcast on the new channel are the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living in west Burma’s Arakan State who are mostly denied Burmese citizenship under a 1982 citizenship law.
Savage violence broke out in Arakan State in June last year, with clashes between Rohingya and Arakanese Buddhists later taking on the characteristics of a pogrom against not only the Rohingya, but other Muslims, before anti-Muslim violence spread to towns in central and eastern Burma this year.
Burma’s President Thein Sein this week ruled out amending the citizenship law while on an official visit to the United Kingdom.
Shwe Maung, a Rohingya MP from the ruling army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the same party as Thein Sein, said he welcomed the new channel and hoped it would feature content focused on Burma’s estimated 5 million Muslims, including the Rohingya.
The portents seem unfavorable, however. “The Rohingya-language was broadcast from 1961 to 1966,” he says, adding that “Rohingya were acknowledged as existing up until then.”
That history, he says, is in stark contrast to nowadays, with the Burmese government andmany ordinary Burmese viewing all Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“Now this government says there are no Rohingya,” Shwe Maung inveighs.