The Asean nations are characterised by an immense diversity and richness of languages and cultural traditions. In addition to their unique official languages and scripts, and now their common use of English, many hundreds of ethnic languages are spoken across the 10 countries. In the Philippines, and most recently in Myanmar, a mature and progressive attitude of balanced multilingualism is being felt in policy, opening up new possibilities for cohesive societies.
Despite Asean’s diversity, some countries operate a monolingual, anti-diversity policy, believing that having many languages is inefficient, costly, and divisive, being a source of political insecurity. UN-backed research shows instead that including ethnic languages in education and citizenship programmes actually enhances social cohesion, fosters a sense of common destiny and also improves education for minority children. Imposing monolingual policies onto multilingual populations is costly and inefficient, and provokes conflict.
Since the 1990s, there have been many signs within Asean countries of more enlightened thinking about citizenship, economic development, cultural modernity and education, meaning it is possible to support national communication, cohesion and multilingualism concurrently.
Although many Thais insist that their country is a homogenous entity, more than 76 community languages are spoken by large numbers of their co-citizens. These are languages of identity and belonging for these communities, and languages of learning and cognitive development for their children. Thailand is afflicted by insurrection in the Malay speaking Deep South and discontent in the North and Northeast. Anticipating the need for language policies to lead the way in national reconciliation since the mid-2000s, the Royal Institute, now the Office of the Royal Society, has promoted new thinking and openness towards multilingualism and has encouraged educators to adopt a positive recognition of Thailand’s diversity.
These hesitant steps in Thailand are surpassed by its more socio-politically confident neighbours, including two Asean partners who have moved to develop strong language policies that value and support multilingualism: the Philippines and Myanmar. These policies support local ethnic and indigenous languages to bolster the identity and cultural life of the nation at the local level, alongside national languages for unity at the citizenship level, and international languages for communication and trade relations. Since 2009 the Philippines has affirmed a commitment to mother tongue-based multilingual education by expanding its 1974 bilingual education (restricted to Filipino and English) to adopt the practice of wide-scale, mother tongue education.
However, perhaps most surprising and certainly most rapid have been the measures taken recently by Thailand’s immediate neighbour, Myanmar, where a coordinated effort of state and national government, civil society, ethnic language and culture groups, academics, teachers, civil servants and parents, many hundreds of people, have worked together on drafting language policy.
Since 2014, this remarkable process of “bottom up” language discussion, designed by the University of Melbourne, has been supported by Unicef in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education. More than 20 facilitated dialogues, state language policy formulating teams, learning circles, discussion groups, problem solving teams, research projects, consultations, site visits, interviews, observations and professional training activities have been implemented.
Ensuring consistency and coordination across this wide array of activities has been a declaration of principles adopted in 2015 at a facilitated dialogue in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Known as the Nay Pyi Taw Principles, these nine broad consensus statements provide guidance for the writing of state and region language statements to respond to local conditions while maintaining a coherent national approach.
As a result, Myanmar has forged ahead to develop some of the most impressive achievements in the entire region, culminating in 2016 in four major breakthroughs. First, in February, 384 delegates from 37 countries attended an historic conference on multilingualism at the University of Mandalay. The widely acclaimed conference brought together national ethnic communities with international experts and policy makers. Producing a deeper understanding of reliable international models of multilingual education and administration, the conference established a consensus on the ways forward and opened up for discussion long-neglected issues.
In quick succession after the conference, a series of breakthroughs attest to the positive effect of the exchange of views and experiences at Mandalay. In mid-March in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon state, the text of a language policy for the state was unanimously adopted. Known as a language policy declaration, Mon state now has a framework for supporting the Mon language, alongside Myanmar/Burmese, as well as the languages of ethnic minority residents.
Following this, in May at Hpa’an, the Kavin (Karen) state capital, a consensus policy was adopted by a representative body of organisations and individuals, a policy articulated from the national legal framework and a series of philosophical ideals based on the Nay Pyitaw Principles. A breakthrough in bottom up policy writing in a state that only signed a ceasefire in 2015.
Finally, also in May, in the northern Kachin state, a facilitated dialogue attended by the state’s main ethnic and indigenous groups, with active participation from the newly elected state parliament, issued a language policy declaration. This too supports the diverse multilingual communities residing in Kachin. All three statements involve a mutually accepted list of actions, implementation timelines and priorities in education, health and other domains.
These four breakthroughs provide strong momentum for further work at the national level and in other states and regions. To this end, a national meeting is scheduled for July in Nay Pyi Taw to confirm the process so far taken in the pioneer states, and to share these achievements, with the aim of accelerating development of responsive language policy nationwide.
Myanmar’s experience has produced widespread enthusiasm for the work and a growing belief that focused, decentralised discussions can support national economic development, peace and ethnic rights, social progress and social cohesion. Pursuing colonial-era politics of assimilation provokes resentment and usually results in failure, while the paradigm of diversity offers a more meaningful and hopeful future for socio-culturally integrating Asean, especially as regards member states with large trans-boundary ethnicities, such as Thailand, which includes millions of individuals from Thai Lao, Khmer, and Malay ethnic communities.
Joseph Lo Bianco is professor of language and literacy education, University of Melbourne and Unicef consultant on language, education and social cohesion. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.