Banned By Junta, Ethnic Dialects Return To Burma Schools

Learning the Mon language in Mon State
Learning the Mon language in Mon State
Banyol Kong Janoi and Lamin Chan

MYITKYINA For the first time in 40 years, ethnic languages are going to be taught in schools in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Starting next June, students from different ethnic communities will be able learn their mother tongue not only at home, but also in the classroom.

When the military junta led by General Ne Win came to power in 1962, Burmese became the official national language, and teaching ethnic languages in schools was banned under the "national language policy."

In the outskirts of Myitkyina, in the northern state of Kachin, there is a summer school where children are learning Burmese. Ji Pan, 8, says she struggles with the language at school. "My friends and I can't follow the school lessons because we don't understand Burmese," she says. "Then the teacher beats us. So many of us stopped going to school."

Human rights groups say that 60% of children across the country don't finish primary school because of the language barrier, and it's even worse in ethnic areas. Burma has eight major ethnic groups, with Burmans — often called Burmese — being the dominant group.

The Mon Language, Literature and Cultural Organization has been holding free language classes for more than a decade. Employee Nai Maung Toe says there are many benefits to learning local languages.

"Learning your own language can maintain your culture and literature," he says. "It's very important for ethnic people to learn about their languages and preserve their cultural identity. Otherwise, ethnic groups will disappear from the world."

Sixteen-year-old Chan Kakao is from the Mon ethnic group, and he usually studies his mother tongue at summer school. "It's better to teach our language at state schools," he says. "If we only learn our ethnic language during the summer holidays, it's only for a month. But at school, we learn for about nine months a year. It's more effective that way."

But earlier this year, the government launched a new education plan, more in line with international standards. This includes developing ethnic languages in schools and allowing a greater expression of ethnic identity in public, as the government tries to improve its image by demonstrating its respect for the different ethnic groups in Burma.

Still, ethnic language classes will only be held outside school hours, and Nai Maung Toe says this won't be very effective. "Children study from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon," he says. "If we teach the local language after 3, it's too much for them. It's like torturing them. We need to teach local languages within the regular time slot."

He thinks it's important for ethnic languages to be included in the curriculum. "When they go to school, they have to use another language, mostly Burmese. They're forced to learn the new language. Sometimes they get depressed or afraid of the language. And one of the reasons that many children drop out of primary school is language. They don't understand the lesson, and they can't catch up with other children."

If every ethnic group is able to preserve their culture, Nai Maung Toe believes this will help unite the country. "We should have equality," he says. "We should not be discriminated against because of our ethnic identity. The basic principle of equality should start by allowing the teaching of ethnic languages at school because we all are citizens of the union."

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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