The Question of Safeguarding Ethnic Rights: Vandalizing the Shan towns’ entrance signposts needs government intervention

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Sai Wan SaiThe last few days reports were dominated by the visit of United Nations Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Ms Yanghee Lee; the appalling report of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Rohingya problem ; the killing of a Kachin youth by the military in Myitkyina, Kachin State; the government peace negotiator  Dr Tin Myo Win’s deliberation to interact with Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs);  Aung San Suu Kyi’s Thailand visit and the religious conflict that has happened in the latest flare-up of anti-Muslim violence in a village in Bago province.

Amid such dominating topics, a little known story of what has happened in Shan State would be the theme for this week discussion, as it concerns the crucial question of ethnic equality, which the Aung San Suu Kyi initiated 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC) is determined to address and committed to see it through, seems to be hitting the snag.

It all began when on 21 June SHAN reported that Sai Sun Hseng, Minister for  Development Affairs Organization (DAO) “si-bin tha-ya-ye” in the Bamar or Burmese language, actually municipality of Shan State, issued directive to install welcome greetings signposts at the entrance of every town in Shan State, in Shan language, in addition to the compulsory, lingua franca, Bamar language. But barely after a week, another directive was issued to scrap the plan.

According to the report, the scrap, or rather the pending to continue, was due to the intervention of Shan State’s ministry for border defence and security, acting on the complaint or protest of a militia leader (not belonging to the non-Shan ethnic group).

Nang None Moe, a teacher and also member of the Shan Literature and Culture Committee, who complained the non-transparency regarding the issue said: “Where is the democratic principles of freedom to learn and make use of one’s mother language and culture gone? My opinion is as all know this is Shan State and written Shan script (on the town entrance signpost) is not hurting anybody.”

She stressed a meeting between the concerned State officials and the Civil Society Organizations should meet to work out the problem.

The dual-language signage was one of the government’s 100-days projects. Previously the signs were only in Myanmar language, which not all local residents can read, local officials denied any knowledge of the signage changes. “That wasn’t a Shan State project. It was a Municipal Development Committee minister’s project. I don’t know the situation,” said a spokesperson for Shan State Chief Minister U Linn Htut, according to Myanmar Times report of 24 June.

It was said that signs were modified – to include Shan language – across Shan State, in Laikha, Kengtawng, Loilem, Tachilek, including Taunggyi, Monghsu, Kehsi and Mongnawng, among others, according to the recent SHAN report.

Meanwhile the signpost that was wrapped with a green cloth, waiting further instruction, was being burned down in Tachilek, which was situated near the Burmese military installation and destruction of the Loilem entrance signboard which has Shan script written on it. In both cases the perpetrators were unknown.

Emotions run high as the Shan sees this as a deliberate attempt to limit their rights, accusing the concerned Bamar-dominated government of ethnocentrism or Burmanization intensively in social media.

Myanmar Times reported that a Sai Hla Aung in his Facebook said: “We have the right to access our own language. Stop Burmanization.”

“Burmanization” of the non-Bamar ethnic groups under the successive military regimes threatened the existence of ethnic traditions and languages, combined with forced assimilation,  a long-held grievance among Burma’s non-Bamar ethnic population, which has its roots in curtailing the rights of self-determination, equality and democracy, apart from treating them as their colonial possessions, that has led to the decades-long ongoing ethnic conflict.

The Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Tachileik, U Htay Win, said, “This could affect ethnic relationships. I don’t want this problem to get bigger. I understand the Shan State government will discuss it at the next hluttaw meeting.”

Safeguarding the Rights of ethnic nationalities

Theoretically, this untoward incident should not have happened. As the nine page “Law Safeguarding the Rights of National Races” promulgated on 24 February 2015, by the previous government, has made its aim clear enough that are listed in Chapter 2 as follows:

  • To obtain equal status for all national races according to the rights of the citizenship;
  • To cordially co-habit based on genuine union spirit together among national races (ethnic groups);
  • To protect, develop and improve language, literature, culture, national symbol and historical legacy of the national races; and
  • To promote improvement, development, unity, friendship, respect and helpful supportiveness among national races, among others.

Minister for Ethnic Affairs Nai Thet Lwin

 In line with the ethnic safeguarding law, Minister for Ethnic Affairs Nai Thet Lwin was also optimistic regarding the equal status achievement of the ethnic nationalities, when asked during an interview with Nikkei Asian Review, on June 20, what federalism would give the non-Bamar ethnic minorities in a Bamar majority society replied: “Equal rights. If we have equal rights in all areas, there will be no more clashes. Those in minority areas will not need to ask permission from central government all the time. Their respective chief ministers can make decisions for themselves”.

Regarding the chief minister appointment he said. “According to the 2008 constitution, the president appoints chief ministers. If we can amend the constitution, regional parliaments will be able to appoint their own. There will not be chief ministers appointed by the president”.

On the question as to on how long the constitution amendment would take, he replied: “After the nationwide ceasefire agreement, there will be political dialogue. It must be inclusive with the tatmadaw (the military), ethnic armed groups, and nongovernmental organizations involved. Then a new constitution must be agreed by all, and the 2008 state constitution can be overhauled”.

Perspective

 Regardless of safeguarding laws to protect the ethnic nationalities and positive outlook of the Minster for Ethnic affairs, hurdles such as those happening in Shan State and elsewhere are not new and only determined “political will” will be able to overcome them.

Adding to this, the National League for Democracy (NLD) insistence of installing its own chief ministers in Arakan and Shan states have irked the political parties of both states, as the Arakan National Party (ANP) won the most seats in Arakan State and while the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) came out second ahead of NLD in Shan State, which they see it as unfair and should have given them a chance to form state governments, with their own chief ministers.

For Shan State, it has been particularly humiliating as the populace has to swallow the fact that an ethnic Bamar, U Linn Htut, was installed as Shan chief minister. Sai Nyunt Lwin pointed out this flaw in his writings and verbally, which reflects the majority thinking of the Shan people, for never in the history has a non-Shan being given such a position to rule over the Shan, even during the successive military rule for the past fifty or more more years. And this has created a big gap in trust-bulding between the NLD and the ethnic political parties.

While it is not clear why such an action to fan the ethnic conflict to a new height has taken place, in the face of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ethnic reconciliation deliberation, it should first be nipped in the bud before this discrimination against ethnic languages escalates and moves over to inflame the political sphere , coupled with confidence-building by showing largesse to let the project go ahead, for intervening it in this way virtually cost nothing to the government.

Firstly, the concerned State government should make a clear stand and tackle the problem according to the “Law Safeguarding the Rights of National Races”.

Secondly, other than Burmese, Shan and English languages, other non-Shan ethnic group that might be co-habiting in the area or town should also be included at all the town entrance of Shan State. It should be noted that it is quite common in Switzerland to have a couple of languages on many of the signboards. Other ethnic states might as well like to copy the procedure.

Thirdly, instead of stating that non-Bamar ethnic mother tongues will be allowed to teach and learn at schools, it should be stated clearly that they have the right to be taught and learned during school hours.

Fourthly, a long term scheme in the reformation of the education to become more federal, the Mother Tongue-based (MTB) parallel system should be encouraged and developed, which means Bamar language as lingua franca and as well English would be taught together with the concerned ethnic language of the state.

This small incident might well looks like not so important. But it is as crucial as the government’s  effort to end the armed conflict with the ethnic groups. For it is part of the trust-building and understanding to accept “unity in diversity” in trying to build a federal system that all could live in harmony with each other.

That said, those who still harbors forced assimilation as the only way to implement nation-building should remold their thought and accept the motto of  “common goal , diverse actions” for the benefit of all the ethnic nationalities residing within the to be fully developed federal union.

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