Myanmar’s incoming civilian government this month announced plans to introduce a Ministry for Ethnic Affairs. The creation of this ministry, together with the appointment of a Christian vice-president for this Buddhist-majority country, seems calculated to reduce the number and severity of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. It coincides with a major and related Unicef-backed initiative to create a Myanmar National Language Policy (NLP).
Aung San Suu Kyi‘s National League for Democracy won power in November’s elections at the expense of a slew of not just junta but also ethnic minority regional candidates. The NLD is well aware of this and also of the history of armed conflict between the Myanmar state and ethnic minorities desiring more autonomy, such as the Karen. Hence its moves to focus on ethnic affairs.
The response to the planned new ministry has so far been generally favourable, with Upper House lawmaker Je Yaw Wu, from Kachin state and representing the National Unity Party, coming out in favour on the grounds it is crucial for national reconciliation and addresses the historical lobbying of ethnic lawmakers. Meanwhile, only the most extreme of Myanmar’s ultranationalists have opposed the appointment of the ethnic Chin Henry Van Thio to the vice-presidency, with the Buddhist monk-led Patriotic Association of Myanmar not protesting the move.
Crucial to the success of an Ethnic Affairs Ministry are likely to be activities supportive of a plural, federal structure, such as those of the task force responsible for the Unicef-backed language policy, which includes a foreign academic as facilitator together with the Myanmar Civil Society Strengthening Programme (Pyoe Pin); the Nyein (Shalom) Foundation, a civil peace-building movement; and the Thabyay Education Foundation. This advocacy coalition is engaged in dialogue with parliamentarians, Education Ministry officials, and many language and culture committees associated with diverse ethnic groups.
Since 2014, the task force has been operating to develop the Myanmar NLP in close cooperation with the Education Ministry under Unicef’s “Language, Education and Social Cohesion” initiative. Core legislation to support the initiative includes the Comprehensive Education Sector Review to transform Myanmar’s education system, announced in 2013, the 2015 version of the National Education Law, and a 2015 Ethnic Rights Law. Together these provide a nurturing framework for using education and the mother tongue in peace-building in Myanmar
The Myanmar NLP initiative is a pragmatic attempt to address years of unresolved questions. It focuses on the national and official language, international languages and ethnic minority languages, seeking a secure role for each. While a key aim is to contribute to peace and guarantee the language rights of all groups, it also fosters national communication, international economic and diplomatic links, improved standards of literacy, and equity for communication-disabled children such as the deaf and visually impaired. This broad focus has widespread appeal and shows that a language policy can be created to meet international obligations, promote the national language as a cohesive factor, overcoming decades of conflict linked to language and culture differences. This appeals to a wide range of interests including those concerned with economic and education development and subsequently enhanced life choices for all Myanmar’s citizens.
The initiative is labour intensive and oriented towards building peace through dialogue between erstwhile enemies. It has involved 20 facilitated dialogues nationwide, together with several subsidiary research projects, multiple direct consultations and site visits, interviews, observations and professional training workshops. Myanmar also held the Mandalay Conference in February, bringing together hundreds of delegates to present papers, participate, and consider the NLP initiative’s consultation, dialogue and specialist input phases.
One of the main outputs of the Mandalay conference will be the first draft of the National Language Policy, which will consist of principles, policy aims, and implementations plans targeted at the township level, which will require approval from the Ethnic Affairs Ministry as well as other government ministries and agencies. The draft is due to be published later this year, followed by further consultation and dialogue phases, with the NLP being developed along with bottom-up state policies in Kayin, Mon and Kachin states. The end result may be a flagship piece of legislation for the new Ethnic Affairs Ministry. It may also facilitate moves towards establishing Myanmar as a genuine federal union complete with revenue sharing along ethnic lines, as first demanded by the country’s ethnic minorities in 1948 when the country won its independence.
The transition to a civilian, democratic government which is determined to resolve ethnic differences under President Htin Kyaw was recently welcomed by the Shan State-based Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which is still in conflict with the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, and with other armed ethnic-based groups, such as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army.
These groups see grounds for hope in the fact that Suu Kyi and the NLD are directly targeting the core reasons behind decades of conflict within Myanmar by seeking to engage with the country’s ethnic minorities and promoting factors necessary for national socio-political cohesion – linguistic, cultural and educational human rights. While the previous government did recognise the plurality of ethnic races that exist in Myanmar – 135 according to a 1988 ruling – the Tatmadaw frequently embraced military rather than peace-building resolutions to Myanmar’s internal conflicts. Moreover, the focus on an NLP via the Mandalay Conference presents a clear breakthrough. According to Bertrand Bainvel, Unicef representative to Myanmar, “In countries like Myanmar, promoting and managing the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions, needs thoughtful consideration to society, with the question of education and language policy at its core.”
In recognising the centrality of ethnic affairs to socio-political stability, the incoming Myanmar government is wisely following a path already trodden by some of its Asean neighbours, such as the Philippines and Singapore. It is also setting an example for other Asean countries, such as Thailand, which is yet to address these underlying causes of conflict despite two years of military government-mandated “reconciliation”.