Language, education and the peace process in Myanmar

Tuesday 6 June 2023

South, Ashley, and Marie Lall. Contemporary Southeast Asia 38, no. 1 (2016): 128-153.

This article discusses the impact of ethnic conflict in Myanmar on the country’s language and education policies through data gathered over nine months of fieldwork in 2011. The article begins by contextualising the conflict between ethnic groups and the state in Myanmar since its independence in 1948, and situating how language and education policies factor into the conflict. The right to mother tongue language education has been a key driver of the conflict between ethnic groups and the state, as the latter seeks to build a Bamar-based national identity, while ethnic groups are fighting for autonomy to integrate mother tongue education. The article reveals that the ethnic groups’ stance on state-society relations is largely reflected in the groups’ education and language policies, which range from complete separation from the state to demanding more autonomy. To illustrate different stances, the article draws on the education systems of the Mon, Kachin and Karen states, which all vary in levels of proximity to the state education system. Although the country has seen a renewal of the peace process in 2011 through a new government and reform, there remains a concern that educational reform is out of touch with the peace process. The authors conclude that ethnic groups should be further integrated into policy debate and peace negotiations to build a more sustainable peace, calling for the resolution of language policy disputes and disconnecting education from politics.

A striking aspect of peace and peacebuilding that is revealed in this article is the importance of inclusive education and language policies, as most of the conflict taking place in Myanmar is rooted in the marginalisation and erasure of ethnic identities. The article highlights education policies as how groups visualise their relationship to the state in the future, and language and education as shaping the identities of future generations. Examining education and language policy in Myanmar reveals that in certain cases, attempting to build national identity through the promotion of one ethnic identity and one language can further divide, but also shows how easily education and language policies can be politicised and mirror broader state-society relations.


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