Mother tongue–based multilingual education: A vehicle for building Myanmar into an equal and fair federal democratic union

Introduction

In 2011, a new nominally civilian government led by the military’s proxy party came to power and initiated several important reforms, including the passage of the 2014 National Education Law (NEL), amended in 2015). This new law made it possible to: teach ethnic minority languages, recruit language teaching assistants, and use minority nationalities’ language as a language of instruction along with Burmese. Some researchers (Jolliffe, Kim and Mears 2016: 31–32) have asserted that the law was intended to set up a legal framework for education reform, including the introduction of mother tongue–based learning. In 2016, a new civilian government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), came to power, although the Burmese military kept control of certain key ministries and power structures, and it continued the education reform. The reform’s stated objectives were, among others: “ensuring children who speak nationalities’ languages get the best possible start in education” and “enabling the ethnic minority learners to gain a solid grounding in their local literature, culture, arts, customs, heritage and traditions” (MoE Myanmar 2016: 32, 117, 145).

This paper reviews some of the key laws and asks whether this new legal framework allows mother tongue–based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) for all ethnic nationalities. It also analyses the challenges facing the implementation of MTB-MLE.

The paper argues that the reforms have failed to achieve their stated objective of ensuring MTB-MLE because, at best, the governments implemented MTB-MLE half-heartedly for all ethnic nationalities, and the content of the curricula continued to center on Bama culture (and Buddhism). Moreover, the language of instruction remained the same: Burmese.

This paper concludes by advocating for more inclusive MTB-MLE that would help transform Myanmar into an equal and fair federal democratic union. The paper makes four recommendations for the country’s future national and sub-national governments, as well as stakeholders, to make the MTB-MLE a success for all children in the country. First, it requires Bama leaders to change their chauvinistic Bama mindset. Second, all relevant policies and laws must guarantee the right to mother-tongue education for all. Third, official recognition of community-run MTB schools is essential. Finally, adequate resources need to be allocated to implement and maintain MTB-MLE.

The analysis here draws on 1) interviews with retired and in-service teachers, students of the 1970s, and alumni of the University for the Development of the National Races of the Union, 2) relevant laws and policies, and 3) newspapers, reports, and studies. The starting premise is that mother tongue–based education has ‘significant cognitive and academic benefits for students’ (UNESCO 2009; UNICEF 2016) and ‘strengthens cultural identity and heritage’ (Jomtien Declaration, 1990).

 

Brief literature of mother tongue–based education

The concept of mother tongue–based education started to spread in Europe in the 12th century, but the vernacular became the language of instruction in parts of Europe only in the 16th century, after centuries of schooling in Latin. However, vernacular education was not accessible to the wider public until the late 18th century, when compulsory education began to take root on the continent. Thus, during the 18th and 19th centuries, mother-tongue education played an important role in the nation-building process in Europe (Kroon 2003: 38). By the mid-20th century, a UNESCO report (1953) stated that “vernacular is the vehicle for the transmission of knowledge” (pag. 8) and argued, “It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue” (pag. 11).

In principle, MTBE needs to have a contextualized curriculum with culturally (of a particular ethnic group) appropriate illustrations and child-centered reading materials in the mother tongue (MacKenzie 2009: 377–378, 380, 382). In a pluralistic society, the mother tongue is a means of self-expression and a source of one’s own cultural identity, as well as a means of acknowledging otherness and understanding others (CSE Québec 1987: 42–43).

Academic and policy research suggests that MTB-MLE provides the best learning outcome because children can start their learning in the language they understand best. UNESCO (2012: 39) argues that “Children who receive a strong educational foundation in their mother tongue are in the best position to move forward with confidence, to learn other languages, and to make a contribution to their societies’ future.” For example, a four-year evaluation of mother-tongue instruction in northwest Cameroon by Chuo and Walter (2011) indicates that first-grade children taught in their mother tongue, Kom, perform significantly better across a range of subjects, including English and mathematics, than their peers taught solely in English. By contrast, they will often struggle to succeed academically if they do not understand what the teacher is saying (Trammell 2016: 44).

Moreover, MTB-MLE is critical to advancing equality between the genders in society. Recognizing and applying MTB-MLE empowers girls, and the use of local languages improves maternal and child health (UNESCO 2012). In that sense, the annual commemoration of International Mother Language Day (IMLD) on 21 February signifies the importance of being able to learn through one’s mother tongue or first language.

 

Brief review of MTB-MLE in Myanmar

The concept of MTB-MLE in Myanmar (then-Burma) started in the 1920s and 1930s when Burmese (Bamar) nationalists demanded the British colonial government make Burmese the language of instruction and observe Buddhist as opposed to British holidays (Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007; Salem-Gervais 2018; Lall 2020: 31). They invoked the idea that “being educated in a language other than a child’s mother tongue could hamper their linguistic and intellectual development” (Salem-Gervais 2018).

The Education Policy announced in 1948 led the newly independent government to adopt centralized control[1] and the administration of education as an “interim and experimental” measure, (MoE Myanmar 1956: 10). The government gradually introduced Burmese to the national schools (Ma Khin Mya 1961: 200; Thein Lwin 2000: 6, 9), while the teaching of ethnic minority languages at schools was halted after the coup in 1962 (Lall 2020: 36). The 1947, 1974, and 2008 constitutions all made Burmese the country’s only official language. Successive governments wanted all citizens of Myanmar, regardless of ethnicity, to use Burmese as the lingua franca (Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007: 155).

Successive governments’ lack of enthusiasm might derive from the fear that teaching and learning ethnic languages may lead to multiple national identities, as the literature indicates. Government and non-state educational organizations often use language policy to help build a national identity by constructing a national narrative, thus reinforcing the myths, rituals, and symbols that the education providers (i.e., government and non-state organizations) identify themselves with (South and Lall 2016: 133; UNESCO 2009: 5). The choice of curriculum content (i.e., culture, history, geography) is especially important concerning the identity that children are expected to adopt (South and Lall 2016: 134). In Myanmar, Thant Myint-U (2001: 254) argues that “the strength and political dominance of a Burmese/Myanmar identity based on older Ava-based memories has never allowed the development of a newer identity which would incorporate the diverse peoples inhabiting the modern state.”

 

Analysis of relevant legal framework and ministries for MTB-MLE

This section presents the current legal framework and ministries within which the national education reform has been taking place. Specifically, the National Education Law (NEL) in 2014 allows the teaching of ethnic minority languages at public primary schools and the recruitment of teaching assistants for language teaching (MoEA Myanmar undated), allows ethnic language to be jointly used as “class work language” and grants the sub-national governments the mandate to implement the teaching of nationalities’ language and literature and aspiration of the education budget allocation to reach up to 20 percent of government expenditure.

Four ministries are tasked with ensuring the linguistic and cultural rights of ethnic nationalities. First, the MoE is naturally the most important ministry to implement the national education principles and objectives as prescribed in the NEL. The MoE has three specific agencies responsible for the subject in question: the National Education Commission (NEC), the Department of Basic Education (DBE), and the Department of Myanmar Nationalities’ Languages (DMNL). The NEC is enormously influential in the implementation of the national education objectives and basic principles. It guides, evaluates, reviews, advises, coordinates, and lays down policies to ensure the curriculum standards are in line with the stated policy objective for every level of the basic education system (Article 6 of the NEL). It has the right to form an independent National Accreditation and Quality Assurance Committee (NAQAC) to carry out the scheme of quality assurance at every level of education (Article 54–55 of the NEL). The DBE is another powerful body as it oversees over 47,000 schools (primary, middle, and high) in the country (Eleven Media 2020). Among others, it is also responsible for training (and building the capacity of) teachers and curriculum and textbook development (MoE Myanmar 2022). The DMNL is the lead agency for the development of ethnic nationalities’ languages – it functions as the coordination center for the translation and teaching of ethnic languages at different levels. The department was created on 20 July 2016.

Second, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement (MoSWRR) is responsible for giving every child the right to learn, use, and preserve their own literature, language, culture, arts, and traditions under the 2019 Child Rights Law.

Third, the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs (MoEA) is also responsible for the development, promotion, and conservation of ethnic minority languages under the 2015 Ethnic Rights Protection Law. The MoEA was created in 2016. It has offices in the Department of Ethnic Literature and Culture in 16 major cities throughout the union (MoEA Myanmar 2022).

Fourth, the Ministry of Border Affairs (MoBA) has a mandate for the development, promotion, and preservation of ethnic minority languages under the University for the Development of the National Races of the Union Law (No. 9/91) and the Development of Border Areas and National Races Law (1993, amended in 2015). The MoBA is accountable to the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw because the 2008 constitution permits the military to control three ministries, including the MoBA.

Lastly, the amendment of the State/Region Legislative List in the 2008 constitution in July 2015 allows the sub-national governments to undertake the “management matters on basic education schools” in accordance with laws enacted by the union.

In short, the development, promotion, and preservation of ethnic minority languages are centralized. The failure or success of implementing and maintaining the MTB-MLE for all ethnic nationalities, therefore, reflects the government’s attitude toward the ethnic minority languages and identities.

Analysis of challenges to implementing MTB-MLE

The education reform efforts were plagued by governments’ half-hearted political will as is clear from the country’s long history of subjugating ethnic nationalities, the failure of legislation to stipulate MTB-MLE, an unwillingness to recognize schools run by ethnic minorities, structural challenges, and inadequate resource allocation.

Half-hearted political will

The political will of the Bamar leaders to implement inclusive MTB-MLE can at best be characterized as half-hearted. They have ignored public demands and arrested activists asking for more comprehensive education reform. For example, when the NEL was still being drafted in 2014, the National Network for Education Reform (NNER, a civil society education coalition)[2] submitted an 11-point proposal (NNER 2013).

The NNER specifically advocated for the promotion of ethnic minority languages: “Ethnic languages will be used as school languages in ethnic areas for the preservation and promotion of the languages and cultures of the ethnic nationalities including Bamar;” “textbooks for teaching ethnic languages will be independently written by the respective ethnic scholars;” and the school governing body will have the authority to select ethnic language(s) for teaching.” However, despite allowing the teaching and learning of ethnic nationality languages and jointly using them with Burmese as the “class work language” in primary school, the eventual NEL does not even contain the word or phrase “MTBE.”

In February 2015, when the NEL was being reviewed for amendment, the NNER and the Action Committee for Movement of Education for Democracy held talks at the building of Yangon Region Hluttaw in Yangon and issued a joint statement. One of the agreements the four parties reached was “to adopt mother tongue-based multilingual education system” (GNLM 2015) The NNER representative, Dr. Thein Lwin, said the government had agreed at the quartet meeting to include the 11 points in the NEL amendment (DVBTV English 2015). However, the government again chose to exclude the NNER’s demands in the NEL amendment, which meant there was no improvement with regard to the MTB-MLE. The NNER and All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) leaders argue that less than 10% of their demands were included in the NEL in 2014 and subsequent amendment in 2015 (Thuza 2015).

The lack of improvement in the NEL amendment led to education activists organizing public protests in major cities across the country. The government responded with crackdowns that are documented by Fortify Rights, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), and Amnesty International. On 10 March 2015 in Letpadan, Bago Region alone, the police arrested 127 protesters, journalists, and bystanders. At the time of the reports, 77 men and women arrested face charges that carry sentences from six months to nine years of imprisonment, and at the time of this writing, 50 of those arrested remain behind bars (Fortify Rights and IHRC 2015: 3). In the same period, the Amnesty report states that 68 out of 91 prisoners of conscience were student protesters – arrested and prosecuted with various charges for protesting against the newly passed NEL deemed to put too much restriction on academic freedom (Amnesty International 2015: 10–11). More than 100 other students faced a variety of criminal charges for taking part in what the government called “unlawful” assemblies inciting public unrest.

The NLD government also exhibited its half-hearted attitude toward education reform by expelling Dr. Thein Lwin from its auxiliary central committee for his leadership role in the NNER without approval from the party (BBC Burmese 2015; RFA Burmese 2015). In Myanmar’s education reform movement, Dr. Thein Lwin is perhaps the most recognizable representative and the leading figure of the NNER. While people from the education sector respect and support him for his expertise and advocacy for education reform, the NLD distanced itself from him by stating that he does not represent the party on education policy (Kyaw Hsu Mon 2015).

 

Long history of subjugating ethnic minority identities

Successive Burmese governments and political leaders have long been accused of having no interest in developing and promoting the language, literature, culture, and traditions of the country’s ethnic minorities. In the 1930s, during the struggle for independence, the Do Bama Asiayone/We Bamar Association (DBA) famously rallied people around the love of language (Allott 1985: 140; Khin Khin Aye and Sercombe 2014: 154). The leading members of the DBA failed to promote the language and culture of ethnic and religious minorities; instead, the discourses of traditional nationalist leaders continued to focus on promoting Buddhism and the Burman language (Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007: 153).

Duwa Zanhta Sin (or Duwa Zan Hta Sin), the chief minister of Kachin State, observed in 1956 that in the central (lower) plain of Burma, many organizations and political leaders emerged during British and Japanese colonial times, but almost no one had an interest in the affairs of ethnic minorities (1989: 22). He argued that the first post-independence prime minister, U Nu, did not even want to give statehood to the ethnic minorities. U Nu had told Rakhine and Mon political leaders not to demand statehood because it is not a good thing (presumably from the Bamar perspective). Duwa Zanhta Sin accused U Nu of squeezing the central government’s financial support to the states with inane excuses – thereby making it clear he had no intention to grant statehood to the ethnic minorities (Duwa Zanhta Sin: 49–50).

Successive governments have curtailed the language rights of ethnic minorities. During the first decade of democracy after independence, ethnic minority languages were taught in public schools up to Grade IV. According to a retired primary school teacher from Waingmaw township in Kachin State who taught Grade II from 1956 to 1988, Jinghpaw (the lingua franca of the Kachin people) had been taught until Grade IV before 1956.[3] Following the military coup in 1962, the military government nationalized all Christian missionary and private schools, thereby impeding the ethnic minorities’ education and language rights.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the military government produced textbooks for several ethnic languages for the teaching of the main ethnic languages, usually those associated with one of the ethnic states, (Salem-Gervais 2018). However, it seemed that some schools in certain townships did not get to teach these languages. For example, this author studied at a government school in a remote village and was in Grade II in 1988 but did not learn Jinghpaw at school – only in church.

Education that includes the overt promotion of Bamar history, culture, and language persisted even under the nominal civilian governments: Under the new system, in Grade II and III textbooks of Social Studies, Myanmar Literature, and Morality & Ethics, the entire content is about Bamar culture/festivals, Bamar kings/war heroes, and Buddhism. Moreover, Burmese architecture designs are reflected in all pictures of buildings in the textbooks. The joint use of ethnic language as “class work language” along with Burmese (Article 43 (b) of the NEL) is not MTBE but more like what Ball (2010: 19) calls “code-switching:” The teacher teaches in two or more languages. Dr. Thein Lwin asserts that the NLD is exercising the same practice as previous governments as there is no evidence of policies and implementations for democratic education reform and the right to education (2021: 182).

In short, when it comes to the efforts of successive governments to preserve and develop the languages, literature, cultures, and traditions of ethnic nationalities, all efforts have always been centrally planned and implemented. The relevant ethnic communities have little or no say in the process.

 

Failure to include MTB-MLE in legal framework

The fact that none of the education-related laws[4] contains the word or phrase “MTB-MLE” indicates that the Myanmar government is unwilling to commit to implementing it for all ethnic nationalities. Relevant provisions must include the MTB-MLE terminology for it is a well-established concept with a specific standard, and exclusion of the concept would mean the government is not required to implement MTB-MLE for wider groups.

Vague legal provisions, such as “right to use freely” or the “right to preserve their own languages, arts, literature, cultures,” make it difficult to hold the government responsible for implementing and maintaining MTB-MLE for all nationalities. The laws allow the teaching and learning of ethnic languages, which is recognized as the first step toward MTB-MLE implementation. However, this is not the same as providing the necessary resources and infrastructure that would make MTB-MLE a reality for non-Burmese-speaking children.

It is also crucial to note that legal provisions do not automatically mean the ethnic minorities enjoy their rights in practice. For example, the 2008 constitution and all relevant laws grant ethnic minorities the right to develop their cherished language, literature, culture, customs, and religion. In practice, however, the government schools only provide the ethnic minorities an “over-promotion of Bamar history, culture and language” (Pauli 2016: 34) and are viewed as “Burmanized schools” (ENAC 2018). Most ethnic minorities view themselves as being trapped in the colonial-style administration of the Bamar government (Sai Wansai 2016).

 

Unwillingness to recognize schools run by ethnic minorities

Understandably, the government cannot provide all the support needed for MTB-MLE implementation in an inclusive way. Around 352,600 students are studying at 2,702 MTBE schools run by ethnic communities in 10 states and regions (MEC 2019: 2). However, the government does not even recognize the learning achievements of students in these schools, which results in limitations on their (students’) opportunities for employment or transfer to government schools for further education. The lack of recognition raises serious questions about the attitude of Bamar political leaders toward providing MTBE to all ethnic nationalities.

 

Structural challenges

The centralization of power on education matters remains with the union government. For example, the amendment of the State/Region Legislative List in the 2008 constitution allows the sub-national governments to undertake “management matters on basic education schools” in accordance with the laws enacted by the union. In practice, however, the heads of State Education and the literature and culture associations of relevant ethnic groups have not been consulted or allowed to participate in reviewing and approving the development of the new school textbooks (Grade 7), which contains many errors in the names and descriptions of cultural events/ festivals, landmarks, historical figures/facts, and the categorization of sub-groups of ethnic minorities. The errors were widespread: with regard to the Rakhine (Arakan) (Narinjara News 2020), Kayan (Kayah) (RFA Burmese 2020), and Kachin people (Irrawaddy 2020). The heads of State Education and concerned ethnic groups’ literature and culture associations have all expressed in various local media that they were not responsible for these errors and that the responsibility for these mistakes lies with the Basic Education Department (of the central/union government).

 

Inadequate resource allocation

The allocation of resources also indicates that the government is not enthusiastic about developing and promoting the languages of ethnic minorities. The budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016–2021 indicates an average of 0.009 percent of the MoE annual expenditure was for hiring ethnic language teachers (MoPF 2016: 21; 2017: 18; 2018: 18–19; 2019: 20–23; 2020: 27–29).[5] In addition to MoE, the MoEA also contributed to adding 7,010 ethnic language teachers in the 2019–2020 academic year (MoEA Myanmar undated).

The Department of Myanmar Nationalities’ Languages (DMNL) under the MoE is the lead agency for the development of ethnic nationalities’ languages. The department has two divisions: the Myanmar Language Division (tasked with one language, Burmese) and the Myanmar Nationalities’ Language Division (tasked with all other ethnic minority languages). The Myanmar Language Division has 26 people (one chief editor, five editors, eight text editors, and 12 assistant text editors). Meanwhile, the Myanmar Nationalities’ Language Division has 14 people (one chief editor, two editors, four text editors, and seven assistant text editors) (MoEA Myanmar undated). Myanmar recognizes 135 ethnic groups, so how much can these 14 people really accomplish?

Salaries might explain why the shortage of skilled ethnic language teachers has been a recurring challenge. The teaching assistants appointed as daily-wage workers initially only received 30,000 kyat (MMK) per month (about USD 20), and the salary increased to MMK 80,000 (about USD 50) in 2018 (Ei Shwe Phyu 2018). Often, it is not guaranteed for them to regularly receive even this modest salary due to corruption and discriminatory practice. For instance, in 2016 in the northern Shan State, more than 5,000 people protested because they did not receive their salaries (Mwe Khur 2017). There was also a report of ethnic Rakhine literature teachers in Rakhine State not receiving their salaries for two months in 2020 (DMG 2021).

Several teachers told this author that many of them take this language teaching job because they want to contribute to learning, developing, and preserving their language and that the salary is not the only determining factor. However, many people would not be able to continue for long without livable compensation. In short, the allocation of more resources, especially for training (ethnic minority) language teachers, is sensible given decades of marginalization (and the strict ban on minority languages).

Case study of MTB-MLE in Mon State

Students in Mon State outperform their peers in the national matriculation exam. The national average pass rate has been between 30% and 38% but Mon State has consistently been in the Top 3.

Top Three Best-performing States/Regions in Matriculation Exam (2013–2020 Academic Year)
Pass Rate (%)
Academic Year National Average First Second Third
20132014 31.67%[6] Mon State (46.75%)[7] Ayeyarwady (44.86%)[8] Yangon (36.07%)[9]
20142015 37.60%[10] Ayeyarwady (51.78%) Mon State (43.40%) Magway
(40.86%)
20152016 29.92%[11] Mon State (39.37%) Mandalay (35.50%) Yangon
(33.21%)
20162017 32.82% Mandalay (38.17%) Yangon
(37.55%)
Mon State (37.42%)
20182019 32.06% Mon State (37.54%)[12] Mandalay (36.13%) Sagaing
(34%)
20192020 38.56%[13] Mandalay (37.51%) Sagaing
(35.17%)
Mon State (34.71%)[14]

Deeper research and analysis would be required to explain what exactly contributes to the high performance. One small contributing factor could be MTB-MLE because the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC) has been recognized (among the education experts and MTB-MLE advocates) as the most successful at providing MTB-MLE in its areas of influence within the state.

As of 2016, the MNEC runs 136 schools and supports a further 95 schools under mixed administration (between the New Mon State Party and the government). These schools use the Myanmar government curriculum, but all subjects (including the Mon language, history, and culture) are taught in Mon as mother tongue, with Burmese and English introduced as subjects at the primary level (MEC 2016: 2). Around 26,000 children benefit every year.

The 26,000 are only a fraction of the total students in Mon State because the number of students who take the matriculation exam in the state exceeds this figure: 27,657 students in the 2017–2018 academic year, 30,564 in 2018–2019 (Eleven Media 2019), and 32,520 (Mizzima 2022) in 2019–2020. Therefore, MTB-MLE’s contribution to matriculation exam success could be small (at the state level), but it is nonetheless important because the exam result is the primary determining factor for a student’s academic and career future. Students who pass the exam can pursue university education, while those who fail tend to see their academic dreams dashed.

Factors contributing to MNEC’s success

It raises the question of what makes the MNEC successful at delivering MTB-MLE in the areas it controls. Alternatively, why have other ethnic minorities been less successful in this regard? There are two key factors: the readiness of the Mon language for teaching and the prioritization of institutions/leaders.

First, in the context of language readiness, the MNEC has a huge advantage in terms of politically challenging language selection. William Mackey (1979: 48) observes that, “The more languages there are to choose from, the more complex the problems tend to become.” However, the MNEC does not have to waste time and resources debating language selection because, unlike many other languages, Mon has no sub-tribe. Furthermore, the Mon language has a comparatively long and rich history, its written script is advanced enough for teaching, and it has enough teaching and learning materials (Jenny 2001).

Second, the teaching, learning, and preservation of the Mon language have clearly been the top priority of Mon national institutions and leaders. For instance, the provision of MTB-MLE in the Mon language as the medium of instruction started relatively early on. Following a brief disruption amid political turmoil in the 1960s, the New Mon State Party, which is the main Mon revolutionary armed group, began to build many Mon language schools in the state (Lawi Weng 2020). It is fair to conclude that Mon leaders also exceptionally managed to get a degree of understanding with the successive governments to implement MTB-MLE in their state.

 

Factors contributing to the failure of MTB-MLE emulations in other states/regions

The two factors that contributed to the success of MNEC may also explain why other ethnic minorities have been less successful at adopting MTB-MLE. First, other major ethnic groups have numerous sub-ethnic tribes. Chin has 53 tribes, Kachin 12 tribes, Kayah nine tribes, Kayin 11 tribes, Rakhine seven tribes, and Shan 33 tribes, according to the government. Mackey (1979: 48) remarks that, “In situations of language contact, the servant adapted to the language of the master, the weak to the language of the strong, and the minority to the language of the majority.” It is undoubtedly a very sensitive matter to select one language/dialect of a particular tribe over others.

For instance, Jinghpaw (the language of the dominant tribe within Kachin and was invented by Christian missionaries in the late 19th century) is the lingua franca, but not all sub-groups are happy about it. For the Shan, Mai Sung Lik Tai was approved for standard use by the Shan State government only in 1955 (Watkins 2006). There is no known lingua franca for the Chin people.

Because of language readiness matters, other ethnic minority groups are also behind when it comes to providing MTB-MLE. Only a few of them have the materials needed to take a child beyond the first few years of primary school. For instance, the languages (especially of smaller ethnic groups) still need to systematically develop tone mark symbols, grammar features, affixation, pronouns, locatives, cases, verb tenses, auxiliary verbs, plurality, mood, word order, and standard spelling rules.

Besides, the MTB-MLE (relative to Mon) was seemingly not the top priority of the institutions and political leaders of respective ethnic groups. Additionally, some (i.e., Kachin, Kayin/Karen, Shan) groups have been at war with the government, which has diverted their already limited resources away from social investments like education.

 

Multi-ethnic identities: Foundation for future national solidarity

All future efforts of cultivating national solidarity should be based on recognizing and respecting multi-ethnic identities (unity in diversity) because the past efforts based on a single dominant ethnic identity and religion have failed to cultivate ethnic solidarity. The genuine implementation and maintenance of MTB-MLE for all ethnic nationalities is a concrete way to build national solidity for the future Myanmar.

Successive post-colonial governments have attempted nation-building efforts based on the culture, language, and history of the ethnic majority, the Bamar (Salem-Gervais and Raynaud 2020; Khin Khin Aye and Sercombe 2014; Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007) because U Nu and some political leaders reasoned it would be easier to unify the minorities if they were Buddhists and had a common language. This rationale led to the promotion of teaching and learning of the Bamar language, and the expansion of Buddhist missionary work in minority areas (Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007: 150; 156).

Burmese has always been the only official language. Thein Lwin (2011: 2, 15) views this language policy as the policy of Burmese domination over other ethnic minority languages or the policy to swallow other languages in the name of building national unity. Following the coup in 1962, the government nationalized all schools, including mission schools vital to ethnic minorities (Lall 2020: 31; MEC 2016: 1). The government centralized education to control ethnic minorities resulting in the penetration and spread of Burmese among ethnic minorities (Thein Lwin 2011: 2, 15). These efforts led to the consolidation of state power under the regime identified with the Bamar ethnic majority (South and Lall 2016: 133).

However, the current state of affairs is a clear demonstration that the centralized approach of cultivating national solidarity has failed despite over 70 years of efforts. Ethnic nationalism (Kyaw Zan Tha 2011) and schools run by ethnic minorities even without government recognition (MEC 2019) have only increased, and their armed resistance persists. In her speech delivered at the opening ceremony of the Third Session of Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong in July 2018, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi finally conceded this reality when she said, “We [successive governments] were unable to establish a united union, trusted and valued by all” (GNLM 2018).

In short, ethnic minorities have resisted the forceful assimilation efforts for over seven decades, and there is no reason why they would stop the resistance if future governments pursued the same old policies. Therefore, any new government should actively implement and maintain MTB-MLE for all ethnic nationalities to prevent history from repeating.

 

Policy recommendations for key stakeholders

A close review of the current education system in Myanmar indicates that only Bamar (and other children who speak Burmese as their first language) enjoy the known benefits of MTB-MLE. This puts the non-Bamar children at a great disadvantage in terms of their academic and career prospects. To break the circle of perpetual social injustice and inequality and transform the education system into a vehicle that helps build Myanmar into an equal and fair federal union, the following recommendations deserve serious consideration by future governments.

 

Government

First, recognize that past efforts to cultivate national solidarity based on the language, culture, and religion of the dominant ethnic group have failed. It is equally important to recognize the need for national languages, state/region languages, and international languages. This change of mindset is also needed at the sub-national level (i.e., dominant ethnic groups suppressing weaker ones). Myo Min (2020) rightly observes, “Myanmar’s political history teaches us that the imposition of specific national values as a means of integration has led the country into a perpetual state of conflict. For example, the promotion of a common language and education system ignites fears among many ethnic groups that there is no place for their own distinctive languages, threatening their cultures and ethnic identities.”

Second, amend all existing (and future) relevant legislation and policy frameworks that recognize and guarantee the MTB-MLE for all ethnic nationalities. Relevant laws must have specific provisions on MTB-MLE terminology because it is a well-established concept with specific standards, and exclusion of the concept would mean the government is not required to implement MTB-MLE for wider communities.

Ethnic nationality languages should be permitted for use in the public domain: at school, in administration, and in the realm of justice within their respective state/region and self-administered regions. The existing legal framework contains no provisions relating to language utility, even though the teaching, learning, and preservation of ethnic minority languages are permitted.

Third, design/create an institutional mechanism to ensure the meaningful participation of respective ethnic nationalities in all stages of decision-making processes for true MTB-MLE implementation, as well as for the teaching, learning, use, and preservation of respective nationality languages.

Fourth, recognize the learning achievements of students in the non-government schools (run by various ethnic organizations) because it is difficult for the government alone to implement MTB-MLE in an inclusive way. Without official recognition, students from the schools run by ethnic organizations will have limited academic and career opportunities.

The recognition of these learning achievements would also mean the decentralization of education management. The first post-independence government stated that centralization was only for experimental and interim measures because the government was aware of the value of local initiatives, which could develop only through local self-government and responsibility (MoE 1956: 10). Therefore, whoever forms the new national government (when stability returns) needs to put decentralization into practice.

Concerning government support, it is vital to create an enabling environment (i.e., equal protection and recognition under the law) where all ethnic languages can thrive. Owing to their varying degrees of language use and advancement, not all ethnic minorities may need the same level of government assistance. For example, major ethnic minority groups have managed to preserve their languages and have a substantial amount of literature written in their languages. Meanwhile, many smaller ethnic minorities either have a written language that is not yet well-developed or does not have any script at all. Therefore, in addition to legal protection and recognition, smaller minorities might need more (e.g., financial and technical) support.

 

Development partners and donors

This author has heard development partners express reluctance to support the reasoning of the ethnic community–based schools that such direct support may lead to a parallel system of education. However, such assistance should be viewed as a contribution to local capacity-building efforts in preparation for fair federal democracy and cultivating new national solidarity based on a “unity in diversity” mindset. The essence of MTB-MLE is to recognize the linguistic/cultural diversity of a society/country. It is critical to put this recognition into practice.

Conclusion

Future nation-building efforts in Myanmar need to reflect ethnic and religious diversity because previous efforts based on the dominant ethnic group have failed to cultivate national solidarity and bridge ethnic divisions. Ethnic minorities have resisted forceful assimilation efforts. They have also resisted the idea of a single national identity for over seven decades, and they have no reason to stop this resistance in the future if the government continues to pursue the same old policies.

MTB-MLE for all ethnic nationalities should be the template for a future education system that respects diversity in the form of allowing ethnic nationalities to teach, learn, develop, and preserve their language, cultural heritage, and identity.

Therefore, future governments should actively implement and maintain MTB-MLE for all ethnic nationalities so that they can enjoy the benefits of being able to study in their mother tongue from an early age, become more productive and responsible, and help in the building of a new federal democratic union.


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[1] At the time, centralization was viewed as the best way to distribute resources because the country is wide and has sparsely populated areas and poorer districts and areas with uneven distribution of wealth (MoE Myanmar 1956: 10).

[2] NNER members who represent university students, student unions, teachers’ unions, basic and higher education teachers, parents, disability education groups, ethnic minority education groups, faith-based education groups, community-based education groups, academia, scholars, CSOs, and individuals: see GCE 2018. For more details on the NNER, see Thein Lwin 2021: 181.

[3] Interview on 20 June in Yangon. The teacher was 84 years old and passed away in August of the same year after contracting COVID-19, see Yaw Bawm Mangshang (2021).

[4] The 2008 constitution, National Education Law (2014) and amended in 2015, Ethnic Rights Protection Law (2015), Child Rights Law (2019), The University for the Development of the National Races of the Union Law (No. 9/91), Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) and National Education Strategic Plan (2016–2021) are the relevant laws and official plans. None of these documents include the phrases MTBE or MTB-MLE.

[5] In November 2019, the government merged the MoPF with the Ministry of Industry. The combined ministries became the Ministry of Planning, Finance and Industry (MoPFI). For more details on the merger, see Irrawaddy (2019).

[6] May Thinza Naing (2014).

[7] Myanmar Alin, one of the government daily newspaper, 11 June 2014. Mon State with 47.38% ranked the first also in 2013.

[8] Thit Htoo Lwin (2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mirror Daily (also known as KyayMone, a government newspaper) (2016b): 11.

[11] Mirror Daily (2016a): 1.

[12] Zin Lin Htet (2019).

[13] Mirror Daily (2020): 10.

[14] But Mon State ranked the first with 42.27% on the external exam pass rate, see Thet Zin Soe (2020).


 

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