For half a century, a single precious copy of a textbook kept the language of Myanmar’s Shan people alive for students, forced to learn in the shadows under a repressive military junta.
Now with a reformist government reaching out to armed rebel groups after decades of civil war, calls are growing to reinstate ethnic language teaching in minority area state schools as part of reconciliation efforts.
“Shan is the lifeblood of the Shan people. If the language disappears, the whole race could disappear too,” Shan Literature and Cultural Association (SLCA) chairman Sai Kham Sint said the state capital, Taunggyi.
Photocopies of the cherished Shan book have been used in private lessons for years in the eastern Myanmar state, after the original was banished from the curriculum.
Shan activists this year finally felt able to print a new edition as the country formerly known as Myanmar emerges from military rule.
The SLCA runs its own summer schools, giving students basic training in written and spoken Shan and familiarizing them with such classics of local literature as Khun San Law and Nan Oo Pyin — a tale of lovers who turn into stars after their deaths.
However, Sai Kham Sint said allowing teachers to hold Shan classes in state schools “without fear” would help sustain the language.
Shan, akin to Thai spoken across the border, is one of about 100 languages and dialects in Myanmar.
Several of the country’s more than 130 ethnic groups, including the Mon, Chin and Karen, are also seeking to persuade the Burmese government to add their mother tongues to the official curriculum.
Minority rebels have fought for varying degrees of autonomy since independence from colonial rule in 1948. In Kachin, as in other states such as Chin and Karen, the Christian faith of local people has also put them at odds with a regime that has long demanded conformity.
“State resources are currently spent on the aggressive propagation of Buddhism, including to coerce ethnic Chin to convert to Buddhism at vocational training schools in the name of ‘union spirit,’” Salai Ling of the Chin Human Rights Organization said. “Instead, the funds should be spent on improving the mainstream education system, including the teaching of ethnic minority languages in the national curriculum.”
Yet there remains an indifference to more nuanced questions of cultural identity among officials, many of whom spent years as soldiers quelling minority uprisings.
“We use Burmese as the common language. So ethnic groups should learn Burmese if they like,” a top official involved in the peace process told reporters. “If they also want to learn their ethnic language, they can if they have free time.”
Last month, Burmese Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, himself a Shan, said provisions had been made for teaching ethnic languages during holidays, but that it would be too difficult to have them during school terms.
Observers say teaching all languages could prove impossible in the polyglot nation, where many areas have several overlapping dialects and the education system is in tatters after chronic underfunding by the junta. The ability to speak foreign languages — particularly Chinese and English — is also seen as crucial as the country opens up.
In Taunggyi, the author of the original Shan text book Tang Kel is still respected for his efforts.