A couple of years ago, I took an IELTS test in Yangon. The test was challenging for me, as someone who grew up in an ethnic state in which there was—and still is—little access to either formal or non-formal English-language education opportunities. By the time the test had finished, it was pouring outside, and I decided to take a taxi. The driver engaged me in conversation, but after we had exchanged just a few words, he interrupted me and said, “You have an accent. Are you an ethnic minority [tineyinthar]?” Feeling indignant, I confronted him the way any non-Burman would have. This is just a minor example of what life is like on a daily basis for non-Burman ethnic people. Such discrimination extends to every aspect of life, and yet many Burmans fail to recognize it exists, let alone actively denounce it.
To examine the root causes of the above anecdote, we need to go back to education; language and religion are embedded in the education system in Myanmar, and education contributes to identity development among students.
There exist over 130 official ethnic groups across the country. Yet the language of instruction in classrooms is Burmese, spoken by the ethnic majority Burmans. The vast majority of teachers are also Burman. As children learn better in the language they speak, the education system clearly favors ethnic Burman students, starting from kindergarten. During one of my monitoring trips to one of the northernmost townships, in which children don’t hear or speak Burmese every day, I was told that a group of schoolchildren ran away from their school and homes after being disciplined and charged 200 kyats whenever they were caught speaking their own language at school. Usually, non-Burman ethnic children in rural areas do not speak Burmese well until they are in middle school. This is just one example of many showing that imposing the Burmese language on them can, even if unintentionally, result in animosity toward the Burmese language and Burmans as a whole. In the worst-case scenario, such enforcement may also be viewed as forced linguistic assimilation.
Religion is another lingering factor when it comes to education and national identity. To discuss one example, many people born in the 1980s and early ’90s will remember memorizing the lesson Two Parrot Brothers [Kyay Nyi Naung] among their other primary school lessons. In the story, two parrot brothers caught in a storm end up in the hands of different people: a thief and a hermit. The moral lesson is beautiful and sincere, but it is worth asking why moral lessons derived from stories from other ethnic groups and religious communities are not found in the school curriculum. The Two Parrot Brothers asserts the moral legitimacy of Buddhism; thus, it may also imply the illegitimacy of other religions in the country, framing students’ perspectives from a young age through a Buddhist Burman worldview.
In their study Language, Education and the Peace Process in Myanmar, South and Lall (2016) note that the curriculum is used as a “political tool to shape identities”, and that “in fact, many young Bamar think that in order to become a citizen of Myanmar (Burmese), you have to be a Buddhist.” This is sad and alarming, and it shows how fertile the ground is for religious and ethnic conflicts. The Rohingya issue serves as a glaring example of what happens when such notions are embedded in the curriculum. Islam is not the only religion that—if not today—may potentially be viewed as a threat to “Myanmar identity or citizenship” in the future. For example, Denis D. Gray wrote in a news report for The Associated Press on March 16, 2018 that Kachin State, where the Kachin community is over 90 percent Christian, has one of the most dense distributions of Buddhist pagodas in Myanmar. Similarly, Chin State, 90% of whose native population believe in Christianity, is also facing “state-sponsored” pressure to abandon the religion.
When it comes to social issues such as education and poverty, one of the most clichéd responses from ethnic Burmans is that they too are suffering and being denied their rights, just as other minority groups are. This the most obvious form one encounters of the denial of the institutionalized discrimination non-Burmans have been experiencing since independence from the British in 1948.
When generating a solution to a problem, the key is to recognize the problem as it is. While ethnic minorities fear the loss of their cultural, linguistic and religious identities, which are under serious threat from Burmese culture, language and Buddhism expansion, Burmans have never, since independence, experienced such fear. For non-Burmans, it is a matter of cultural and linguistic survival. It is undeniable that Burmans are also fighting against oppression and all kinds of political injustices in Burman-dominated areas. However, while Burmans are struggling for greater political justice, non-Burmans are struggling for survival—survival versus greater political justice. In other words, while ethnic minorities lack and demand basic rights as citizens of Myanmar, Burmans, whose culture, language, and religion are dominating others, have paid little attention to the cries of the ethnic minorities, whose rights have been constantly denied by the government and neglected by the Burmans.
It is worth noting that it is because of the non-Burman ethnic people that the Union was founded in the first place. Often, Burmans understand little about “the realities experienced by their ethnic minority brethren” (South and Lall, 2016). Thus, it may be unwise for Burmans to oversimplify non-Burmans’ struggle for survival.
In brief, the identities, languages and religious beliefs of non-Burman ethnic groups are subjected to serious challenges and threats every day. Through public education and the enforced expansion of Buddhism into ethnic areas, Burmans are being conditioned to devalue the existence, rights and legitimacy of ethnic minorities. With such Burman values imposed on ethnic minority groups, and until the Burman-dominated education system is reformed to recognize the existence of other ethnic groups’ existence, rights and legitimacy, national reconciliation will be next to impossible. If true national reconciliation is to be achieved, the necessary first step is for educated Burmans to recognize the lived experiences of ethnic minorities and to proactively start to speak out against those injustices stated above. This may serve as a first step toward discovering a “silver bullet” for resolving national reconciliation issues.
Kyaw Htut Aung is a pseudonym for a Kachin analyst doing his master’s degree in education abroad. He has worked as a volunteer in the educational field in remote areas of Shan and Kachin states.