Once-taboo language lives again in rural Myanmar

(Nikkei Asian Review, July 2018)

LONE TON, Myanmar — A punchy cadence echoes from a one-story school building toward verdant mountains — the familiar sound of children reciting lines to learn a language. But in this part of northern Myanmar, speaking Shan-ni, the local dialect, only a decade ago was seen as taboo, and treated as a crime.

Soldiers on both sides of a long-running conflict would punish those who spoke it, according to locals, and for decades the government banned the language in schools. Yet on the shores of Indawgyi Lake, Myanmar’s biggest lake, determination to restore the tongue is strong.

Advocates hope it will become as much a part of the landscape as the migratory birds from Siberia, and the golden reflection of a seemingly buoyant 19th century stupa in the middle of the lake.

Daw Khin Pyone, a formidable 78-year-old wearing large, gold-framed spectacles, has been a vital campaigner for the Shan-ni, a subgroup of Myanmar’s largest ethnic group the Shan. As the chairperson of a Kachin State government Shan literature and cultural committee and the former state minister for Shan affairs, she has overseen an unprecedented rise in Shan-ni teachers.

“If our culture becomes obsolete, we become too influenced by other cultures. We want our ethnicity to love our own culture; that’s why we do this,” she said.

The Shan-ni, also known as the Red Shan or Tai-Leng, are a subgroup of Tai Shan people who are spread across Myanmar’s southern Kachin State and the northern Sagaing Region. Those who settled centuries ago in the valley of Kachin State’s Indawgyi Lake have the good fortune of living next to one of Southeast Asia’s most stunning examples of biodiversity, and the misfortune of being sandwiched between two sides of a conflict more than half a century old.

Teaching of their distinct script, language and culture was banned as part of a wider Burmese hegemony over the country’s numerous minorities after General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962. Pushing back from the north against the nation’s army were the Kachin Independence Organization and its 10,000-strong military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which reportedly suppressed and harassed Shan-ni living in contested territory.

Though knowledge of the script waned over the decades, the historically Buddhist Shan-ni kept their language alive in surreptitious discussions held in monasteries and homes. A Burman narrative dominated the schools, but for many the true history was spoken in their native tongue.

Then in September 2014, Myanmar legally recognized ethnic language teaching during a period of reform under a military-backed civilian government in power from 2011. It remains a welcome though poorly funded development that has preceded a spirited drive to rejuvenate marginalized languages across the country, including Shan-ni.

Local teacher Aung Thura Hein, 22, began learning how to read and write Shan-ni two years ago and now volunteers one hour after school every weekday to teach it. “I do not want my language to fade, I want to keep it going,” he told Nikkei Asian Review. The teacher moved from the lake to the township’s capital when he was a boy because of conflict. “At that time it was not safe to speak Shan-ni,” he said.

Tensions still run high around the lake. Ethnic rebels operate gold mines in the encircling mountains, while about 55km north is Myanmar Army-controlled Hpakant, epicenter of the country’s multibillion dollar jade mining industry. Shan-ni communities dotted around the water gradually formed their own militia to oppose extortion and forced conscription, leading to the formation of the more politically ambitious ethnic armed group, the Shan-ni Nationalities Army, in 2016.

At Lone Ton, the only lakeside village where foreigners are permitted to stay, is a checkpoint manned by soldiers of the Myanmar Army’s notorious 33rd Light Infantry Division, which is accused of spearheading recent atrocities against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. A few hundred meters away, pigs potter through orchards around the stilted teak house of a Shan-ni mother, who admits her grasp of the language has loosened since she married a Burmese man who speaks the dominant Bama language. Still, over a chorus of cicadas she offered a few words. “I have a son is na ge luk sai kor ya. One son is luk sai kor. Kor means one.”

Listening intently was Dutch student Carmen Eva Marseille, 24, who is compiling the first sketch of Shan-ni grammar for her master’s degree. “Either there is a system behind it that I haven’t found yet, or it is free or it is in transition, because a lot of Shan-ni speakers are now fluent in Burmese,” she said.

Whereas Shan-ni was once spoken around the whole lake, conflict, migration and language restrictions have squeezed it out of some villages. But a grass roots initiative to train teachers and publish Shan-ni works is turning the tide. “It is really clear it lives among the people and people find it important,” said Marseille, adding that “there is an incredible will” to expand it.

When Marseille elicits the language from interviewees, they often choose to tell traditional stories. One of the most resonant tales concerns the origin of the lake. Legend has it that residents of a town at the site were so sinful and corrupt that they enraged the local dragon nats, or spirits, which then morphed into a flood of water.

Some residents believe a species of fish with humanlike teeth found in the lake shows the fate of the sinners. This does not stop people enjoying the catch with a side of spicy relish at Lone Ton’s modest eateries.

This tale would have sounded like one wavering, unbroken word if spoken in an older version of Shan-ni, said Sai Win Htin, 42, central executive committee member of the Shan-ni and Northern Shan Ethnics Solidarity Party. Relatively recent adjustments include the introduction of stops and tweaking older words to better fit the age, he explained.

The government has no exact figures for the Shan-ni population or for the number of Shan-ni speakers, although some estimate there are 300,000 in Myanmar.

“We don’t know we are Shan, we don’t know our history, and most Shan-ni are marked ‘Bamar’ on their official documentation,” he said. “We are trying to bring the Shan-ni language back with literature, culture, a national party and a national movement.”

His party promotes Shan-ni culture because “if we are doing nothing, there will not be any political opportunities. We must provide our own identity so that we can then ask for our rights and the rest.”

The message has spread to Myanmar’s second-largest city, Mandalay, where the three-year-old monthly magazine Voice of Shanni reserves five pages for Shan-ni language news, history and education. The magazine’s publisher has also produced books on the basic elements of the language.

Campaigner Daw Khin Pyone travels around the state holding five-day Shan-ni language workshops. She pulled out a half-century old Shan-ni scroll and studied it from behind her gold-framed spectacles.

“We didn’t know our language because of the war. Some scripts were burned and had to be rewritten,” she said. Today those trials might seem distant, but dangers for the fragile revival of Shan-ni lurk in the rumbling conflict, the lack of government funding, and the ethnic population moving to Myanmar’s cities.

Despite this, Daw Khin Pyone believes the future is bright for the language. Now 100 Shan-ni teachers cover 150 elementary schools in Kachin State, she said — more than double last year. “We can now teach our ethnicity’s history. We can translate medical books and laws into our own language. That is the difference.”

Photos by Lorcan Lovett https://asia.nikkei.com/Life-Arts/Life/Once-taboo-language-lives-again-in-rural-Myanmar


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