Shans Push for Native Language

By Lawi Weng 23 July 2012

More than 200 ethnic Shan delegates attended a seminar in Rangoon on Sunday to discuss how to develop Shan language curricula at government schools in Shan State.

The meeting was hosted by the Shan Literature and Culture Committee, and according to one of the organizers, Dr. Sai San Aik, about 248 people attended, including prominent politician Hkun Htun Oo from the Shan National League for Democracy, professors, teachers, academics from the Institute of Education, Buddhist monks, and Shan army leaders who recently signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government. Many of the delegates wore traditional Shan costume.

“We have our own language curriculum, but it is somewhat out of date,” said Sai San Aik. “We discussed how to develop a new updated curriculum—one that could be taught in government schools.”

With more than six million people, the Shan are the largest ethnic minority in Burma. Their language is from the Tai group, originating in southeastern China, and is similar in spoken form to modern Thai. However, nowadays a minority of Shans read or write their alphabet due to decades of military rule when Shan language was banned in schools in favor of the majority Burmese language.

“We called this meeting after we heard that the government was going to offer the opportunity for our ethnic language to be taught at government schools,” said Sai San Aik.

However, other sources indicate that education authorities in Shan and Mon states were in fact offered only the possibility of their native tongues being taught out of school hours.

“Bamar [majority Burman] people want their children to learn their own language. Similarly, we want our children to learn our language, and we are worried that it is in danger of disappearing,” said Khunsai Jaiyen, the editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News. He pointed to oft-quoted UNESCO research stating that it is imperative to allow children to learn their native tongue before tackling a second language.

Nai Sunthorn,a leading Mon language teacher based in Sangkhlaburi, western Thailand, said he too agreed with the UNESCO doctrine. “We have even found within our community here in Sangkhlaburi that the children who learn their mother tongue [Mon] become better performers at school,” he said.

Currently, Shan State education authorities employ a similar, if not identical, syllabus to schools in central Burma and the rest of the country.

Burma’s Railways Minister Aung Min, who is Naypyidaw’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic armed groups, last week told 10 political party representatives that his government intends to allow the teaching of ethnic languages in schools during a meeting which included President Thein Sein.

He said that his government will provide US $1 million to the Mon State assembly to initiate a program of Mon language in the region.

The Mon have a long history of literature, and their language was once dominant in the region, centuries ago, when the Mon kingdom ruled parts of Burma and northern Thailand.

The New Mon State Party (NMSP) founded schools in 1972 that taught Mon language, history and culture to local students.

According to statistics from the Mon National Education Department, which is under control of the NMSP, there are currently 156 Mon-language schools in Mon State, while 116 schools offer a mixed curriculum of Burmese and Mon language lessons. There are currently around 17,000 Mon students and 800 teachers in Mon State.