Ethnic parties in push for mother tongue

Five parties representing Burma’s myriad ethnic nationalities will call on the government to lift a nominal ban on teaching young children in their respective native languages in schools.

At present only the dominant Burmese language is included in curriculums for schools across the country, while all teaching materials are in Burmese. This is despite Burma being home to some 135 different ethnic groups whom historically each have their own distinct vernacular.

Nai Ngwe Thein, chairman of the All Mon Region Democratic Party (AMRDP), said this affected the learning abilities of children not used to speaking Burmese.

“We want the schools to teach children in their mother language; [young] primary school children in areas that don’t speak the Burmese language shouldn’t be taught in Burmese.”

He added that as they grow older, schools should begin to introduce the Burmese language, which is the native tongue of more than 60 percent of the country. At the moment, however, “there is a high rate of students quitting school because they are being taught in a language they don’t speak”.

Also lending their voice to the calls are the Chin National Party, Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP).

Hla Swe, general secretary of the RNDP, said the parties are now preparing to raise the issue in parliament and submit a statement to the education minister. A similar attempt last month to bring about a change in education policy was rejected by parliament.

The parties’ proposal was backed by a school teacher in the Shan state town of Lashio in northeastern Burma. “We think it would be more effective to include their mother tongue in the courses so they can learn about their own language and culture, whilst teaching Burmese and English as second languages,” she said.

She added that stories could be translated into Shan, which is spoken by around five million people in the state border China, Laos and Thailand, and then “reviewed in Burmese”.

The Burmese government, which remains overwhelmingly Burman despite elections last year that introduced a number of ethnic representatives, has been accused in the past of carrying out a policy of ‘Burmanisation’ of ethnic regions that includes the forcible teaching of Burmese, as well as more sinister allegations of rape of ethnic women by troops in order to build a dominant Burmese race.

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