Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Language, Education and the Peace Process in Myanmar

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Language, Education and the Peace Process in Myanmar

Article excerpt

This article explores how language and education have featured in half a century of armed ethnic conflict in Burma/Myanmar, and how these issues feature in the ongoing peace process. The argument developed here is that different stakeholders' positions in relation to language policy and use in education are proxies for positions regarding the relationship between the central government and ethnic communities, in the context of widespread state-society conflict. Given the salience of ethno-linguistic diversity in Myanmar, (1) studies of the politics of language are surprisingly rare. (2) While the complex and fast-changing peace process in Myanmar, which began in late 2011, has yet to generate much scholarly analysis, commentary and policy literatures have largely bypassed the relationship between language, education, and state-society and armed conflicts, and their resolution.

Thus far, those engaged in the broader movement of political reform in Myanmar have largely addressed education and peace building as separate issues; likewise, state, international (donor) and other actors in the peace process have mostly ignored issues of language and education. This article explores the relationships between education and language policy and practice, and armed conflict and, more recently, the peace process in Myanmar. We focus on the state education system and education regimes under the authority of three major ethnic armed groups (EAGs): first, the New Mon State Party (NMSP), which has maintained a ceasefire with the government since 1995; second, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which saw its seventeen-year ceasefire collapse in 2011; and third, the Karen National Union (KNU), which in early 2012 agreed to a preliminary ceasefire, following more than half a century of armed conflict. Analysing these three contrasted case studies, and addressing the situation of other ethnic communities as necessary and in order to provide context, allows us to draw out questions regarding the relationship between ethnic nationality communities and the state. The article concludes that a sustainable resolution to Myanmar's long-standing ethnic conflicts will be difficult to achieve without education reform which leads to the right language policies.

The article is based on data collected over a period of nine months of fieldwork in 2011. (3) The results of this research were published, (4) and as the peace process gathered pace and increased in complexity, the team decide to return to the field in 2015. (5) Data was collected in Mon, Karen and Kachin States, and the team spoke to over 150 people and conducted thirty focus groups and larger meetings with stakeholders from EAG education departments, ethnic political parties and local civil society groups, including ethnic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In addition, teachers, parents and students at ethnic schools were either interviewed or took part in focus groups. (6)

The Conflict Nexus and the Peace Process: Language Rights and the Politics of Education

Myanmar, with a total population of 51 million, is home to more than 100 ethno-linguistic groups. Non-Burman communities make up at least 30 per cent of the population. In the lead-up to independence in 1948, ethnic nationality elites mobilized communities in order to gain access to political and economic resources, demanding justice and fair treatment for the groups they sought to represent. The KNU went underground in January 1949, initiating more than six decades of (mostly "low intensity") civil war. The ensuing armed conflict was marked by serious and widespread human rights abuses on the part of both the Myanmar armed forces (the Tatmadaw) and, less systematically, the EAGs. Myanmar's ethnic insurgents have been fighting to achieve political self-determination, which in recent years has been framed as a desire for federal autonomy within a multi-ethnic union; (7) unsurprisingly, after half a century of armed conflict, there are also significant political-economic agendas at play in Myanmar's armed conflict and the on-going peace process. …

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