RANGOON — The Union government will provide a stipend for schoolteachers who teach ethnic minority languages in Burma, according to ethnic leaders, in what they say would be a major win for ethnic minorities’ cultures and rights.
Ethnic leaders told The Irrawaddy that the Ministry of Education had asked them to put forward lists of schoolteachers who teach ethnic languages at state schools, with the government in Naypyidaw to pay the instructors 30,000 kyats (US$30) monthly.
If true, it would be the first time the Union government has offered to compensate teachers for dedicating a portion of their instruction to ethnic language study.
In Mon State, a pioneering curriculum that included Mon language instruction has been taught since July, making schools in the state the first to teach an ethnic minority language in a government school in more than 50 years.
An ethnic Mon parliamentarian told The Irrawaddy that he had been told the monthly stipend would be paid retroactively from July.
“We asked for 40,000 [kyats], but they agreed to provide 30,000 for one person,” said Aung Naing Oo, a lawmaker from Moulmein.
“We got our right to let our children study their mother tongue. We need to say thanks to the government. But we want to say to our Mon people, we have not achieved our political goals yet. It is just the beginning, just a little progress,” he said.
In Mon State, literature is highly valued, and Buddhist teachings are taught from a young age from Mon-language texts.
“It is important for our Mon children to be able to read their language,” said Aung Naing Oo. “Our children will understand the value of their literature when they can read in their mother language.”
Kachin Literature and Culture (KLC) told The Irrawaddy that the organization had also been informed that government schools in Kachin State would receive money from Naypyidaw for instructors who teach the Kachin language in schools. Currently, there is not an ethnic Kachin language component to government schools’ curricula in Kachin State.
Lum Nyoi, who is the joint secretary from KLC, said her group is helping to prepare government schools to teach the Kachin language.
“They [the Union government] told us to teach [the Kachin language] at schools. We have ongoing talks about the amount of teaching time,” she said.
Sai Maung Tin, a Union-level parliamentarian, said that ethnic Shan schools would also be allowed to incorporate the minority group’s language into the curriculum.
“Our schoolteachers may be provided money in the coming year’s budget,” he said. “We provide our own money to our schoolteachers at the moment.”
The Shan language is not currently taught during the school year, and children are most often given linguistic instruction over the summer months when class is not in session.
Asked about the importance of preserving the Shan language and literature, Sai Maung Tin said the matter was existential.
“Without Shan literature, the Shan people would disappear. Shan people will exist as long as their literature survives.”
Under the democratically elected U Nu government of the 1950s, all schools in Burma’s ethnic areas were permitted to teach ethnic languages, but the military regimes that ruled the country from 1962 enforced monolingual education in all state schools.
As a result, most ethnic groups in the country, as in other parts of the country, only schools run by ethnic rebel administrations have taught local languages.
Amid political reforms initiated after President Thein Sein came to power in 2011, ethnic lawmakers have made requests for mother-tongue teaching to be reinstated. Since 2012, teaching ethnic languages has been permitted, but only outside of school hours, and without any state funding.