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From Fluidity to Discretization… and Fractal Recursivity? Opportunities and Challenges Underpinning the Introduction of Minority Languages in Kachin State’s government schools (2011-2020)

Fluidité, discrétisation… et récursivité fractale ? L’introduction des langues minoritaires dans les écoles publiques de l’État Kachin, ses bénéfices potentiels, et les défis qui la sous-tendent (2011-2020)
Nicolas Salem-Gervais et Ja Seng
p. 5-40

Résumés

Au Myanmar, la période 2011-2020 – avant le coup d’État militaire de 2021 – a vu une dynamique, certes limitée mais non moins continue et significative, d’introduction des langues minoritaires (en tant que matières et langues d’instruction orale) dans les écoles publiques ; des évolutions susceptibles d’avoir des conséquences positives aussi bien en termes d’accès à l’éducation, que de construction nationale et de conservation du patrimoine culturel. Consacré à l’État Kachin, cet article se focalise sur les défis et inévitables compromis liés à a production d’une liste de langues, à introduire dans les écoles, par opposition à de simples dialectes, dont le statut resterait informel. Notre argument est que cette évolution de la politique linguistique scolaire, en dépit des nombreuses conséquences positives qu’elle est susceptible d’avoir, contribue également à un processus de discrétisation ethnolinguistique, qui renforce les velléités de mobilisation de « sous-ethnonymes » dans les ethnonymes, selon une structure fractale, à travers des couches récurrentes d’idéologie de langue commune, d’une part, et d’affirmation d’une spécificité ethnolinguistique, de l’autre. Tandis que le paysage politique et éducatif birman a été profondément bouleversé par le coup et que l’avenir du pays demeure incertain, il apparait indispensable de garder à l’esprit ces défis de politique linguistique et de décentralisation, dans la perspective d’un État fédéral et de son système éducatif.

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Notes de l’auteur

FOREWORD: This article is based on material collected before and during the Covid-19 pandemic and—more importantly—prior to the military coup of February 1st 2021. At the time of final submission, the Union of Myanmar, Kachin State and the education sector are in a dramatically different situation, which deeply alters the dynamics described in the present paper, in terms of positioning towards different ethnic identities and relationship with languages attached to these identities. Nevertheless, we believe that the material and analyses this article contains remain relevant, not only in a historical or comparative perspective, but also for the future of the country, as aspirations towards decentralization, federalism and a wider use of ethnic minority languages in education seem to be anything but fading away (see conclusion).

Texte intégral

We wish to warmly thank the three anonymous reviewers for their invaluable insights and extremely constructive suggestions for improvement. All errors remain ours.

Introduction

  • 1 For details on the constitutional and legislative framework, see Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).
  • 2 “နိုင်ငံတော်အစိုးရ၏ (၄) နှစ်တာကာလအတွင်း ပညာရေးပြုပြင်ပြောင်းလဲမှု”, Ministry of Education, March 20 (...)
  • 3 The Local Curriculum entails the production of about 15% of the program in each of the 14 States an (...)
  • 4 This is different from MTB-MLE, which entails curricula written in the mother tongues, at least in (...)

1Between 2011 and 2020 ethnic minority languages had started to be (re)introduced in government schools of the Union of Myanmar, slowly and frustratingly at first, after decades of being sidelined or repressed. Following the 2014-15 National Education law,1 these reforms had progressively gained momentum: in 2020, according to official statistics, 64 languages were taught, as subjects, three to five periods per week, by more than 26,000 teachers, to a total of almost 850,000 primary school students.2 This language-in-education policy shift, inscribed in a partial curricular decentralization process known as the Local Curriculum,3 also encouraged using ethnic minority languages orally, as “classroom languages”,4 in order to explain the curriculum to primary school students with a lesser command of Burmese, the national language (Salem-Gervais & Raynaud 2019, 2020).

2In line with an international trend supported by institutions such as the World bank, Unesco and Unicef, the idea that introducing ethnic minority languages in the government schools of Myanmar was liable to bring significant benefits in terms of (1) maintaining linguistic and cultural diversity, (2) improving access of ethnic minorities to formal education and (3) contributing to “national reconciliation”, gradually became mostly consensual. However, there has been diverging views regarding the desirable extent for this policy shift within short to mid-term.

  • 5 Including South & Lall (2016), Lo Bianco (2016), Lall (2018), Lopes Cardozo & Maber (2019), ENAC (2 (...)
  • 6 Before gradually shifting towards the national language throughout successive years of schooling.
  • 7 See for instance Dutcher (2001), Benson (2002), Malone & Paraide (2011).
  • 8 Most emblematically the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and its Mon National Education Committee (MNEC).

3Many observers of education in Myanmar, including civil society organizations, political activists and scholars,5 have been advocating for more ambitious policies, such as mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE, a scheme in which the students start formal education with their mother tongue not only as an oral, but also as a written medium of instruction, Benson 2019: 30).6 MTB-MLE has indeed a solid literature supporting its benefits in terms of educational achievements7 and has been de facto practiced in Myanmar by some non-state education providers, including some ethnic armed organization’s education departments.8

  • 9 A opposed to non-state, “ethnic” basic education providers (EBEPs).
  • 10 The corresponding Burmese term tain:jin:dha: is also sometimes translated as “national races.”

4By contrast with these views—and as far as government schools are concerned9—Salem-Gervais and Raynaud (2018 and following works) have argued that several challenges must be overcome, notably in terms of language choices, before such type of language-in-education policies can be designed and widely implemented. Myanmar officially recognizes 135 “ethnic nationalities”10 and, according to Ethnologue’s database latest estimates, is home to 114 “indigenous languages” (Eberhard, Simmons & Fennig 2020). Often geographically imbricated, these languages present extremely diverse situations in many regards, including number of speakers, dialectal heterogeneity, existence of a (or multiple) written culture(s), formal recognition, domains of use, and status in regional multilingualism.

  • 11 More details in Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).
  • 12 Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020).
  • 13 See for instance Peterson (2017: 190) on the case of Chin State.
  • 14 For more details on the LCCs and their roles, see Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

5Among the structural challenges to a wide use of ethnic minority languages in formal education stands for instance the question of schools, notably in urban centers, catering to children with diverse mother tongues.11 In this paper, similarly to a recent study on Chin State,12 we focus on another challenge, namely the classic language politics conundrum of what should be considered a separate language (to be used in formal education), by contrast with a mere dialect (with a less formal status).13 Local actors—including the literature and culture committees (LCCs) in charge of drafting textbooks and training teachers14—are indeed liable to hold very different views regarding which particular form(s) of which language(s) should be introduced in which school, with both drives towards unity and the promotion of common language(s) and mobilization for the defense of diversity trough the affirmation of distinctiveness. This article aims at better understanding, in the case of Kachin State, these multiple and often competing claims, in the perspective of language-in-education policy reform.

The Case of Kachin State

  • 15 For critical perspectives on Leach’s work, see Lehman (1967), Bradley (1978), Robinne & Sadan (2007 (...)

6As the limited but tangible decentralization process had made States and Regions the most administrative level for language-in-education decision in Myanmar after 2015, this article deals with the specific case of northernmost Kachin State, in which 11 languages, presented as 6 Kachin languages (Jinghpaw, Lhaovo, Lisu, Lacid, Zaiwa and Rawang) and 5 Shan languages (Tai Leng, Tai Long, Tai Khamti, Tai Lay, and Tai Hsar) have progressively been introduced in schools, as subjects, since 2018-2019. Studying the national drive towards linguistic discretization and standardization according to ethnic categories in the specific context of Kachin State is of particular interest: the ethnonym Kachin is indeed familiar to anthropology students around the world, notably after Edmund Leach’s (1954) seminal work,15 precisely describing shifting identities and illustrating the fluidity which tends to characterize (ethnic) identities, by contrast with more primordialist/essentialist understandings of ethnicity.

7In the wake of Leach’s work, the rich Kachin Studies scholarship shows that language and self-identification practices in Kachin State, in the context of a society largely structured by trans-ethnic clan relations (Robinne 2009), are inevitably characterized by a certain fluidity over space and time. From a language standpoint, this situation includes multilingualism, dialectal variations, and crossed influences between languages, contributing to concomitant senses of belonging to several ethnolinguistic identities.

  • 16 See for instance Taylor (2006), Mersan (2016), Candier (2019), Candier, Mersan & Vittrant (2021), R (...)

8Yet, strong ideological forces have been pushing towards understandings of society as a patchwork of discrete ethnic categories, themselves widely equated to language (Leach 1954; McCormick 2016). These forces include the weight of colonial policies and censuses, contributing, through rigid taxonomies, to a “reification of ethnicity”;16 the work of missionaries towards creating written and standardized languages corresponding to specific ethnonyms; the historical mobilization of the overarching Kachin ethnonym; the overall Myanmar “political matrix”, which associates territories and political prerogatives to ethnic identities; and indeed, the recent language-in-education policy shift, through decentralization, which entails agreements over a limited number of (standardized) languages, corresponding to a selection of recognized ethnic labels.

  • 17 See Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020) for a discussion of Shan Ni language standardization.

9Building on critical work by linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists dealing with language ideologies and ethnic minority languages standardization processes (Woolard 1998; Lane, Costa & De Korne 2018) as well as on the literature describing some of the challenges attached to the inclusion of ethnic minority languages in education (Benson & Young 2016; Weber 2016; Tupas & Martin 2016; Hornberger & De Korne 2018), this paper deals with these linguistic, educational and political issues in the case of Kachin State, with a focus on Kachin groups themselves (as opposed to other local groups, primarily Shan).17

10We argue that this State, within the Union of Myanmar and featuring Jinghpaw as a locally dominant language, constitutes a good illustration of a dynamic described as “fractal recursivity” (Irvine & Gal 2000; Andronis 2004), entailing the political mobilization of labels within labels, through the reproduction, in successive layers, of discourses aiming at defending specific ethno-linguistic identities against what is perceived as assimilationist forces. This situation underlines the tradeoffs often involved in including ethnic minority languages in formal education, which from some of the local actors’ perspective can amount to a drive towards reducing diversity in the very name of diversity (Lane, Costa & De Korne 2018: 1).

Sources and Data Collection

11Besides the literature on language standardization and language-in-education policies, this article largely relies on the particularly rich scholarship produced by anthropologists, historians, linguists and other experts of Kachin studies (including but not limited to Sadan, Robinne, Kiik, Bradley, Kurabe, and Müller).

  • 18 The authors wish to warmly thank Mael Raynaud, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for their constant (...)
  • 19 In most cases the interviews were recorded, after systematically asking for consent, and in several (...)

12In addition, within the frame of a research supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung,18 a total of 30 semi-structured interviews were conducted by both authors in (June-July) 2019 and (July-September) 2020 among the main stakeholders of ethnic minority languages teaching in Kachin State. These includes literature and culture committees (LCCs, both Kachin and Shan, although the focus of this article is on Kachin), regional ministers, representative of the ministry of Education (MoE), ministry of Ethnic Affairs (MoEA), Unicef, as well as primary school teachers, teaching assistants (TAs), civil society organizations involved in Kachin education and representatives of local ethnic political parties. The interviews have been conducted by both authors, in Burmese and Jinghpaw (as well as English in two instances) without translation, in the offices and homes of the interviewees, who were systematically and clearly informed of the purposes of the study, both prior and at the beginning of each interview.19 However, the issues discussed in this paper, already sensitive in 2020, become significantly more delicate in the post-coup political context, with the resurgence of conflict all around Myanmar, including Kachin State. We thus chose to avoid making overly explicit references to some of these interviews, hoping to manage to provide fieldwork-based analysis, while taking into account shifting security issues.

Language, Education and Ethnic Identities in Kachin State: An Historical Outline

13History of language-in-education policies in Myanmar is a complex topic, entailing multiple, imbricated and often conflicting visions of “dark eras” and “golden ages” associated to particular ethnic identities.

Pre-colonial and Colonial Periods

14Similar to what can be found in other mountainous regions of Myanmar and Southeast Asia, literacy issues in Kachin State are rooted in myths of (a) parchment book(s), lost (or eaten) by the hill-dwelling populations today designated by the overarching ethnonym Kachin, by contrast with plains and valley-dwellers, such as the Chinese, Shans and Burmans, who kept the paper book they received (Hanson 1913: 7). Historically, it is likely that these highlanders never possessed written languages prior their encounter with western missionaries (Hanson 1907), rather relying on rich oral cultures and traditions, an orientation which is sometimes described as an element of an overall willingness to keep the lowland States at bay (Scott 2009: 220; Michaud 2020). The numerous loanwords, however, notably from Shan to Kachin languages (Hanson 1907, 1913) attest of the interactions between these “hill tribesmen” and Shan Buddhist polities (Leach 1954), and of the “long term symbiotic relationship” of these populations (Kurabe 2017).

  • 20 See for instance www.kbckachin.org, accessed July 2020.
  • 21 After initial contacts with Catholics, the first conversions to Baptism took place in the early 188 (...)

15According to an often-told story, a Burmese king (seemingly Mindon) once laughed at the missionaries asking permission to teach the Kachins, telling the western visitors that they would have more success with his dogs than with these backwards wild animists.20 Regardless of the historical accuracy of this story, this king’s prediction was certainly incorrect: like elsewhere in what progressively became British Burma, western missionaries, coming increasingly in contact with the “Kachin hills” in the second half of the 19th century, did eventually encounter successes in converting upland non-literate animist populations, through the provision of schooling and the creation of writing systems for some of their languages.21

16After the creation by Josiah Cushing of an initial orthography, using a combination of Indic scripts for (the Gauri dialect of) Jinghpaw, Reverend Ola Hanson, arriving in Bhamo in 1890, created a different orthography, based on the Myitkyina-Bhamo dialect and using the roman alphabet. This project, which is the foundation of what is today known as Standard Jinghpaw, was completed in the following decades by a grammar, a dictionary, readers and a translation of the New Testament (Kurabe & Imamura 2016; Kurabe 2018b; fig. 1).

  • 22 The report of the 1921 census, for instance, counts 733 occurrences of the term “race(s)” within 33 (...)

17Through different channels, colonization profoundly contributed the “reification of ethnicity,” (Taylor 2006: 267), through an axiomatic vision of the past (Lieberman 1978), present and future of the country through the prism of discrete ethnic categories, unequivocally understood as races in the colonial context.22 Within this worldview, seeking to describe societies through discrete essentialized racial categories—and as theories of ethnicity formulated by linguists became particularly influential after 1900—language came to be considered the primary marker of, if not equated with, race (Leach 1954; McCormick 2016; McAulife 2017).

18In contrast with the fact that language has seldom been a determinant of ethnic identification for individuals in Kachin societies (Sadan 2013a: 30), in the words of Sadan:

Language was interpreted […] as a signifier of the primordial ethnic origins of peoples that was then transposed to an ethnographic present of ‘race’. This classificatory strategy reconfigured the social and historical significance of polyglotism in this region and underestimated its anthropological value. (Sadan 2007: 47.)

  • 23 See Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020) on the case of Chin State.

19As noted by Ferguson (2015: 8), some colonial administrators, decades before Leach (1954), did have a sense of the inherent limitations of these discrete ethno-linguistic categories, not only because the linguistic classifications themselves were often debatable and debated,23 but also because they were at times observing first-hand the fluidity of language practices and self-identification:

  • 24 Census of India, 1931, Burma Report, p. 284.

Some of the races or tribes in Burma change their language almost as often as they change their clothes. Languages are changed by conquest, by absorption, by isolation and by a general tendency to adopt the language of a neighbour who is considered to belong to a more powerful, more numerous, or more advanced race or tribe.24

  • 25 On the uncertain and probably multiple origin of this ethnonym, see Sadan (2007: 41).
  • 26 Bennison, the author of the 1931 census report, striving to approach the “true racial classificatio (...)

20Nevertheless, neither the axiomatic existence of races, nor the (slightly evolving) categories used for the successive censuses were fundamentally questioned. Within this ideological context, colonization, through multiple channels, both reinforced the collective exonym Kachin25 as a category, while also contributing to the crystallization of other labels, which appear in the successive censuses after 1900 (Leach 1954; Sadan 2007).26

  • 27 Maru and Atsi are the Jinghpaw exonyms for Lhaovo and Zaiwa, Nung is related to Rawang (see last se (...)
  • 28 “In Asia as well as in other parts of the world, illiterate and backward districts show peculiariti (...)

21The work of missionaries, creating orthographies for local languages in order to spread the Gospel, notably through schooling, within animist and non-literate backward races, participated to this drive towards a society defined in terms of discrete racial (and later ethnic) identities, and to the reconfiguration of categories. Reverend Ola Hanson, while genuinely knowledgeable on local languages varieties and impressed by the multilingualism of the Kachins (that he defines as encompassing the Jinghpaw, Maru, Lashi, Atsi and Nung tribes),27 also seemed to have a clear-cut vision of the impact of his work on written Jinghpaw regarding the future of language diversity in Kachin-land.28

  • 29 As opposed to Jinghpaw language spiritual education (Sadan 2013a: 397).
  • 30 Report on the administration of Burma, 1935-1936, p. 132.

22By contrast with Lisu groups (often considered distinct from the Kachins, and for whom missionary work toward a written language was undertaken in the 1910s) the languages/dialects attached to the other sub-categories of Kachins remained largely unwritten before the independence of Burma. Jinghpaw, which was already to a large extent a lingua franca among Kachin populations, became increasingly prominent in the early decades of the 20th century, with the apparition of a variety of reading material, including a newspaper published by the Baptist church (1914), as well as textbooks for early grades, including science subjects (Kurabe & Imamura 2016). Although the place of Burmese remained important in secular education,29 missionary and colonial policies contributed to strengthen the status of Jinghpaw, making it a “requirement for success” (Maran La Raw 2007: 43). The number of Kachin schools increased rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century: in 1935, there were 67 of these schools (63 of them being private) for a total of about 3,400 students.30

  • 31 Other aspects of what Burmese nationalist movements denounced as flagrant “divide and rule” colonia (...)

23Although the mobilization of a Kachin identity is a complex and gradual process (Sadan 2007, 2013a, 2013b; Robinne 2009), colonization in general—and the realm of education in particular—did play a critical role in the emergence of multiple national consciousnesses among inhabitants of the mountainous regions included in the newly created borders of Burma.31 Monastic education, once praised for Burma’s high literacy rates, was progressively deemed out of fashion, and associated with poverty, in a world in which English was widely perceived as the key to personal and economic success (Bagshawe 1998; Sadan 2013a:374). On the contrary, individuals originating from the mountainous peripheries, which used to be perceived unequivocally as backward and lacking in educational opportunity, were progressively able to reach important positions in the colonial system, notably thanks to their English language skills and privileged access to western education (Tinker 1967; Taylor 2006). In the Kachin context, schooling was the main draw towards the Baptist mission and local elites insisted for the inclusion of English education in the syllabus (Sadan 2013a: 373).

Fig. 1. Covers of a grammar, a handbook and (reprints of) readers for Jinghpaw, respectively by O. Hanson (1896), H.F. Hertz (1895) and F.J. Ingram (1916, 1917)

Fig. 1. Covers of a grammar, a handbook and (reprints of) readers for Jinghpaw, respectively by O. Hanson (1896), H.F. Hertz (1895) and F.J. Ingram (1916, 1917)

Independent Burma/Myanmar

  • 32 In 1960, there were for instance five government schools in the Bhamo district, against ten “privat (...)

24After World War Two—which largely saw the Burma Independence Army and uplanders battalions fighting in opposite camps—and the subsequent Panglong Agreement in 1947, the new constitution of independent Burma consecrated the existence of a Kachin State. Yet, in the wake of Burmese nationalist student movements’ demands, a shift towards Burmese not only as the national language, but also the main language of schooling was also underway. From 1955 on, the Matriculation exam could only be taken in Burmese (and not in English) while other indigenous languages could be used up to third standard only. Private mission schools nevertheless remained influential, both in the mountainous peripheries and among urban elites (Tinker 1967).32 Jinghpaw language media were also vigorous, notably through Jinghpaw Prat, a secular newspaper founded in Rangoon in 1958 (Kurabe & Imamura 2016: 36).

  • 33 A special issue of the Burma Gazetteer, on October 17 of 1955, officialises a similar nomenclature (...)

25In the early 1960s, notably because of the prospect of Buddhism becoming the State religion, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was founded by a group of Kachin nationalist students, which had previously established a Kachin Literature and Culture Committee at Rangoon university. As described by Sadan (2007: 61), this abrupt development required rearticulating the understandings of Jinghpaw and Kachin, through the promotion of the local ethnonym Wunpawng, as an umbrella term for six sub-groups known at the time as the Jinghpaw, Maru, Lashi, Lisu, Atsi and Rawang. This particular six-fold nomenclature of Kachin already existed prior the constitution of the KIO.33 However, as also described by Sadan (2007: 61, 64), the nationalist claims based on “primordial authenticity” of these precise six sub-groups as the components of Kachin/Wunpawng were certainly debatable, as other groups or sub-groups ethnonyms, including labels said to belong to Kachin races during the colonial period, could have been privileged.

  • 34 See also Salem-Gervais (2018).

26After the military coup of 1962, the shifts in language-in-education policy initiated by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), although often described too simplistically, did entail considerable setbacks in terms of using ethnic minority languages, notably in the media and formal education (Callahan 2003; Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2008).34 In 1965-1966, western missionaries were expelled from the country and private schools were nationalized, which in Kachin State profoundly contributed to the resentment towards a central State perceived as primarily Burman (Jaquet 2015: 26). Although the place of English in political and educational life was further reduced, a handful of languages, perceived as the main ethnic languages of each State—including Jinghpaw for Kachin State (fig. 2)—could be taught in schools, as subjects, up to Grade 3. In practice, actual possibilities to teach may have been very different from one region, or even one school, to another (depending on factors such as the proximity of conflict or the local MoE administration’s instructions). In any case, some of the representatives of the present days Kachin sub-groups’ Literature and Culture Committees (LCCs) remember learning Jinghpaw as a subject in government schools during that period.

  • 35 Interviews and written documents shared by the Lacid LCC. For more details, see Sawada (2006).

27Outside of formal education, languages spoken in Kachin State were often taught through various religious networks during Sunday or summer schools, some of the Kachin sub-groups either using Jinghpaw written material or relying on Hanson’s script to write their respective languages. Others formalized orthographies and translated the scriptures in the decades following independence, through contacts with missionaries associated with different denominations. The Lacid LCC, for instance, after initially working with the Lhaovo towards producing a common orthography since the early 1950s, separated from the latter in 1968, finally adopting in 1976 an orthography created by a roman catholic missionary.35

  • 36 Some inhabitants of Kachin State, notably among the Shan Ni/Tai Leng, also remember persecutions, i (...)

28In 1988, the takeover by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) entailed further sidelining of ethnic minority languages, in addition to other measures aiming at subjugating the education sector. The idea, often related in the media and academia, that the teaching of these languages was banned altogether under successive military regimes may be an overstatement, but their place in formal education did drastically decrease, and instances of interdiction of classes and arrest of teachers by the army have often been related.36

29The signature of a ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the junta in 1994 had at least two major implications in the realm of language and education. First, the KIO education system, which was founded in 1978, expanded in terms of number of schools and students. With the possibility for high school graduates to sit for the national matriculation exam, this system significantly shifted towards following the national (Burmese) curriculum, Jinghpaw largely remaining what is today referred to as “classroom language” (oral language of instruction) as well as an additional subject (fig. 2; Aye Nan 2007; South & Lall 2016).

30Second, with the ceasefire, separate literature and culture committees, corresponding to the six Kachin tribes (and increasingly using their respective autonyms rather than Jinghpaw exonyms, e.g. Zaiwa instead of Atsi, Lhaovo instead of Maru) were allowed to become more prominent and active (notably in the organization of summer schools for the teaching of their languages and the management of their respective ethnic identities). However, debates over the possible extension of this six-fold nomenclature, focusing on dress and language, remained a threat—fractal in nature—to the mobilization of the Wunpawng category:

[…] There are plenty of colonial labels which could be used to contest the six-fold classification of Kachin. Many geographical representations of dress acquired distinctive labels in the colonial period (Hkahku, Htingnai, Bhamo); speech communities were also privileged with their own labels (Gauri, Duleng). In addition, local interpretations of group identity could be transformed endlessly to produce an ever-greater sub-division of the Wunpawng category. This is exactly what the nationalist elites want to avoid. (Sadan 2007: 64.)

  • 37 Personal communication with La Raw Maran, January 2018.
  • 38 Such as Lhaovo and Lacid.

31In the mid 1990s, aiming at promoting unity among the groups perceived as the components of Kachin, the KIO started developing a writing system, known as Wunpawng Laika, allowing to write the languages associated with the different groups, using consonants and diacritics to represent glottal stops and tones.37 Although this writing system has influenced some of the latest orthographies,38 by that time, most other groups already had their own respective writing systems, language institutions and growing corpuses of written material.

Fig. 2. Covers of a 1972 textbook for the teaching of Jinghpaw in government schools in grade 2 (the grade 1—သူငယ်တန်း—was published in 1970) and of a Jinghpaw reader used in KIO schools

Fig. 2. Covers of a 1972 textbook for the teaching of Jinghpaw in government schools in grade 2 (the grade 1—သူငယ်တန်း—was published in 1970) and of a Jinghpaw reader used in KIO schools

Language-in-Education Policy in Kachin State (2011-2020)

32The year 2011 has been a critical juncture in two opposite and disconnected ways for Kachin State, marking the end of the ceasefire between the KIO and the Myanmar military on the one hand, and the beginning of a national transition towards democracy and decentralization, opening the door for slow but significant shifts, including in language-in-education policy, on the other.

  • 39 More details in Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

33Although a detailed account of the following decade is beyond the scope of this article,39 in the frame of the education reforms outlined in introduction and according to official statistics, in 2019-2020, 42,673 students were taught one of the eleven recognized languages, as subjects, in grades 1, 2 and 3, three periods per week, in 542 schools, by more than 700 teachers (fig. 3). These eleven languages are presented as six Kachin languages, corresponding to the classic six-fold nomenclature (Jinghpaw, Lisu, Rawang, Lacid, Zaiwa and Lhaovo) and five Shan languages (Tai Leng, Tai Long, Tai Lay, Tai Khamti and Tai Hsar, fig. 4).

  • 40 Idem.
  • 41 Interviews with the 11 LCCs of Kachin State, July 2019 and July-September 2020.

34Although momentum did increase significantly over the 2017-2020 period, frustrations remained many. Both the 11 languages curricula and the Kachin State Local Knowledge curriculum were drafted for Grade 1, 2 and 3, with the support of Unicef, but the LCCs interviewed in 2020 often complained that they were still waiting for printed copies of the textbooks from the MoE to distribute to the children. Similarly, the status of ethnic languages teachers significantly improved between 2017 and 2020, with the creation of the Teaching Assistants (TA) positions,40 but the LCCs representatives generally felt that the number of TAs appointed, and their salaries were still insufficient. They hoped to be able to upgrade the positions of their teachers, and to open more classes in more schools, through the obtention of additional teacher positions.41

Fig. 3. Languages taught in Kachin State’s Governement Schools

Fig. 3. Languages taught in Kachin State’s Governement Schools

Map produced by the MIMU, from data collected by the authors in Kachin State’s MoE office. The authors wish to thank the MIMU for its constant availability and support.

  • 42 Emily Fishbein, “Students in Kachin-controlled territory face education barriers”, Frontier Myanmar(...)

35Outside government schools, as of 2020, ethnic minority languages were taught through different channels in Kachin State. Religious institutions linked to the different Kachin and Shan groups continue to organize Sunday or Summer schools, in churches and monasteries, which have arguably so far been the main channel for minority language education in Kachin State. The KIO education followed more or less closely the national curriculum, in Burmese, but with a greater emphasis on Jinghpaw language and Kachin culture since the resumption of conflict in 2011. This system was largely disconnected from State tertiary education, which means graduates’ options were limited to a few English and Jinghpaw medium education options, including KIO’s higher education institutes in Mai Ja Yang, a handful of universities abroad that recognize KIO’s education credentials, and private institutions in Myitkyina.42 Amidst the vibrant Kachin civil society network, a Kachin Education Consortium has also been working toward developing a (Jinghpaw) mother tongue-based common curriculum (with a transition towards English, rather than Burmese), for all the non-state Kachin schools.

Fig. 4. Covers of textbooks for the teaching of the 11 languages introduced in the government schools of Kachin State, produced in 2019, with the support of Unicef: Lhaovo, Lisu, Jinghpaw, Lacid, Zaiwa, Rawang, Tai Khamti, Tai Lay, Tai Leng, Tai Long and Tai Hsar

Fig. 4. Covers of textbooks for the teaching of the 11 languages introduced in the government schools of Kachin State, produced in 2019, with the support of Unicef: Lhaovo, Lisu, Jinghpaw, Lacid, Zaiwa, Rawang, Tai Khamti, Tai Lay, Tai Leng, Tai Long and Tai Hsar

Fluidity, Discretization… and Fractal Recursivity?

36Common questions linked to the politicization of ethnic identities in post-colonial societies include the predominance of social and cultural elites’ interests (Paudel 2016: 1) as well as the mobilization of categories often conceived according to colonial, essentialist understandings of ethnolinguistic identities (Sylvain 2014: 252; Phyak 2016: 125), which rarely fail to be themselves contentious at the more local scales of politics.

Language Standardization and its Diversity Tradeoffs

37Regarding the mobilization of ethnic minority languages, Woolard (1998) describes the frequent similarities between the conceptions of language underpinning revitalization projects and the state language ideology they are mobilized against:

movements to save minority languages are often structured, willy-nilly, around the same received notions of language that have led to their oppression [...] language activists find themselves imposing standards, elevating literate forms and uses, and negatively sanctioning variability in order to demonstrate the reality, validity and integrity of their languages. (Woolard 1998: 17.)

38Consequently, as “revitalization of one language and devitalization of others are frequently paired”, the creation of “new oppressions” has been described as the potential dark side of these well-meaning endeavors (Hinton, Huss & Roche 2018: 498). As revitalization movements tend to go hand in hand with schooling and language standardization (Sallabank 2011: 504), the production of written educational material is liable to be contentious, by being perceived as indeed contributing to “revitalizing” some communities, while “alienating” others, whose language varieties are described as mere dialects (Weber 2016: 7). In the words of Ameka (2015: 27): “The overall effect of these features of language standardisation processes is that they kill the very diversity that language documentation seeks to record and preserve.”

39Failing to challenge conceptions of languages as bounded, discrete entities and effectively working towards reducing diversity in the name of diversity, is indeed a classic conundrum of language revitalization projects:

Considering that diversity is often the very raison d’être for minority language movements based on the claims that all ways of communicating are equally legitimate and that language diversity needs to be protected, this trade-off is at best contentious and at worst a Faustian bargain. (Lane, Costa & De Korne 2018: 1.)

40These types of situations are thus, in turn, liable to create the conditions for dichotomizing dynamics, entailing recursive oppositions between “us” and “them” (or “here” and “there”), through the politization of ethno-linguistic identities within identities. This phenomenon has been labelled “fractal recursivity” by language anthropologists, sociolinguists and language ideology scholars (Irvine & Gal 2000: 38; Andronis 2004: 264; Gal 2018: 223)—a concept which certainly reminds the “fractal” metaphor suggested by Sadan (2013a) to describe Kachin societies (and mountainous borderlands more generally):

Most importantly, the idea that the complexity does not simplify when we change the scale of vision seems pertinent in a social environment where the simplicity of ethnic categories has been developed largely to efface the hyper-complexity of the social environment that lies beneath. (Sadan 2013a: 24.)

41This section describes the various components of this dynamic in the Kachin context: the fluidity of language and self-identification practices, the multiple drives towards ethnolinguistic discretization and standardization, the dominant position of Jinghpaw language, and the mobilization, often in fractal patterns, of other ethnolinguistic identities.

Fluidity of Language Practices and Self-Identification

42Ethno-linguistic labels mobilized in national debates do not necessarily correspond to single and homogenous groups and languages, that could conveniently be represented by a single color on a map. More often than not, these labels correspond to multiple spoken varieties, with varying degree of mutual intelligibility, sometimes multiple scripts and written cultures, as well as multiple, overlapping and shifting senses of identity, which may be more or less entrenched and politicized. This is unsurprisingly true in the case of populations living in the mountainous borderlands of Myanmar, bordering India and China.

  • 43 See Houtman (1999) and Salem-Gervais & Metro (2012: 47).

43As described in the previous section, the construction of the Kachin category is the result of an historical process, involving different actors, with multiple and evolving definitions of who is Kachin and who is not (Sadan 2013a). Discourses aiming at mobilizing the Kachin nation often argue, not unlike certain discourses on the “Myanmar national races”,43 that the Kachin tribes have common ancestors (Kiik 2016: 213), a vision that is actually shared by some of our interviewees from Kachin sub-groups. From a strict language genealogy standpoint, however, this category is not obvious. On purely linguistic grounds, Tai Hsar is a Tibeto-Burman language, closely related to other Burmish languages such as Zaiwa and Lhaovo. But as the language’s name suggests, it’s Buddhist speakers (as opposed to the Christians who often identify as Ngochang), tend to perceive themselves as Shan/Tai. Similarly, languages linguistically close to Jinghpaw (such as Kadu and Kanan) are never included in Kachin, while others, described as more directly related to Burmese (such as Zaiwa, Lacid and Lhaovo) are usually considered components of Kachin. Yet, as described by Müller (2017) and Kurabe (2018a, 2021), long-term close contacts and intense interactions have undeniably induced cultural and linguistic convergence among these populations, which include vocabulary, phonology and grammar.

44As reminded by Weber (2016: 6) in a reflection on language-in-education choices for populations speaking multiple dialects, the differences between a language and a dialect are almost exclusively political. Similar to the observation of Peterson (2017: 190) in the Chin context, Kurabe (2018a: 101) states that producing a list of the languages of Kachin State is complex “due to the difficulties in distinguishing between languages and dialects as well as a lack of relevant information on underdescribed languages.”

  • 44 Lustig himself, similarly to most experts, does not share this view.

45The six “official” components of Kachin are not themselves linguistically homogenous entities. The Rawang category, as described later in this paper, is particularly diverse. Lisu (in addition to being often perceived as distinct from the Kachin category) is usually described through three main varieties (Bradley 2017, 2019). The dialects of Zaiwa in China and Myanmar have also been described through different typologies (some of them including Lhaovo and Lacid as Zaiwa dialects [Lustig 2010]).44 The same thing is true for the other ethnonyms, including Jinghpaw, which Glottolog presents as composed of three main branches and nine dialects (e.g., Duleng, Gauri or Dingga), not all of which are readily mutually intelligible (Bradley 2016; Kurabe 2018b: 2).

  • 45 This term may be accurate to describe certain situations and not others. It is notably used for Raw (...)

46The choice of six labels, among others that gained recognition during the colonial period, as discrete categories supposedly covering the whole surface of Kachin, is thus sometimes problematic. Undeniably, the recognition and political mobilization of these labels, as well as efforts towards language standardization, have contributed to the consolidation of these identities. But these ethno-linguistic categories also inevitably constitute, to various extent, a partially arbitrary typology (Sadan 2007: 34), for what may at times be described as a continuum (or several continua)45 of dialects, qualifying both the homogeneity of the categories and the borders between them. Other factors of heterogeneity within labels include belonging to multiple denominations, with their respective networks and translations of the sacred texts (Robinne 2009).

47In addition to this “intra-label diversity”, several regions of Kachin State are particularly heterogenous in terms of language practices and ethnic labels, with large zones described as “mixed language areas” by Ethnologue database (fig. 6). Populations speaking multiple languages often live together, not only in urban centers, but also in villages and villages clusters. In a society of exogamous patrilineal clans, often entailing marriages between individuals speaking different first languages, multilingualism (which usually include Jinghpaw as a lingua franca) is extremely common (Bradley 1996: 750; Robinne 2009; Kurabe 2018a: 106). In McCormick’s words:

A “Kachin” woman may speak Lhaovo with her mother, Rawang with her father, Jinghpaw with other Kachin subgroups or in church, and Shan in the market, in addition to being educated in Burmese and English. (McCormick 2019: 246.)

48As observed elsewhere (Khubchandani 2003, Kaplan & Baldauf 1997: 19) and in contrast with colonial understandings of ethnicity, defining a single mother tongue is not always possible in such context. Individuals are particularly likely to possess complex senses of belonging to multiple, clan, ethnic and religious identities, which may shift through the course of a day like in the course of their lifespan, in relation with their environment. Frequently, the kin relationships and language practices of individuals could provide ground to claim belonging to multiple ethnic identities, both within and beyond the Kachin groups.

  • 46 Interviews with the Kachin and Shan LCCs, MoE and MoEA, (June-July) 2019 and (July-September) 2020.

49Regarding the teaching of their respective languages, several LCCs representatives stated that they have to deal with different situations from one region or one school to another. Not only children speak, with various levels of proficiency, dialectal variations that in some cases differ substantially from the standard they promote, but urban and rural schools also present different combinations of languages, which require adaptations and decisions, in a context where material and human resources are limited.46

Fig. 5. Focus on Kachin State of Ethnologue database’s language mapping (MIMU)

Fig. 5. Focus on Kachin State of Ethnologue database’s language mapping (MIMU)

Multiple Drives Toward Discretization and Standardization

50In contrast with these elements of fluidity in language practices and shifting conceptions of identity, strong ideological forces have been pushing, in Myanmar, towards a conception of society as a patchwork of discrete ethno-linguistic identities.

51As described in previous section, colonization in general, and colonial censuses in particular, have greatly contributed to a “reification of ethnicity” (Taylor 2006:267). Missionaries belonging to different denominations, in the process of bringing faith through formal education to illiterate populations, have been creating orthographies for certain varieties, thus contributing to processes of languages standardization, and reinforcing or modifying the status and prestige of different varieties. In Kachin state, similarly to other regions of the country, a faith-based written culture appears to be one of the critical markers of what is perceived as a language (which is thus a candidate for formal education) as opposed to a mere dialect. This drive towards standardization thus entails tradeoffs, likely contributing to the overall preservation and development of ethnic minority languages in the national frame, but also marginalizing some varieties in the process.

  • 47 On the 2014 census in relation to ethnicity, see Ferguson (2015).
  • 48 Manifestation of this drive towards understanding society primarily through the prism of ethno-ling (...)

52Since the inception of the Union of Burma, the whole Myanmar “political matrix” has been deeply influenced by colonial understandings and management of ethnic identities, through the association of territories with specific ethnonyms, in the process of channeling multiple nationalist aspirations. Decades of civil war and brutal military dictatorship have subsequently contributed to anchor this axiomatic centrality of ethnicity in Myanmar politics (Robinne 2009, 2019), as embodied by the 2008 constitution, which creates new territorial delimitations associated to specific ethnic identities, and attributes Ethnic Affairs ministers positions in each State and Regions to groups representing more than 0.1% of the country’s population.47 The Lisu, Rawang and Shan possess such representatives in Kachin State.48

53Finally, and most directly in line with our perspectives, the process of including ethnic minority languages and cultures in government schools tends to contribute, rather than challenge, conceptions of languages as bounded objects. This process implies a set of decisions, in the regional Governments and Parliaments (as well as lower levels of the MoE administration down to schools and classrooms) inevitably contributing to the general drive towards discretization and standardization around specific labels. This evolution of ethnic minority languages official status indeed involves the selection of ethnonyms and corresponding languages, and the validation of institutions, the LCCs, in charge of managing the languages and cultures attached to these categories in each State and Region. The production of textbooks for formal education, in contrast with faith-based teachings, in turn frequently entails different aspect of corpus planning (to various extent depending on each language situation), notably standardization and modernization, in the process of increasing the scope of these languages to this new domain of use.

  • 49 Case described in Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

54Although decentralization does facilitate the introduction of these subjects into the curriculum, this process also at times creates additional discretization challenges. States and Regions politics can indeed lead cultural elites supposedly corresponding to the same ethnic group to gather support within the political ecosystems of their respective State and Regions, ending up leading distinct standardization projects, a situation which may hinder their own aspirations towards mobilizing a particular ethnic identity in the national context. Slightly beyond the scope of the present article, the so far disconnected projects of Tai Leng and Shan Ni, in Kachin State and Sagaing Region respectively, is a good illustration of these complexities.49

Centrality of Jinghpaw in Kachin State

55As described in section two, the position of Jinghpaw as a local lingua franca was considerably reinforced by the work of missionaries establishing an orthography for what has become standard Jinghpaw, and the subsequent development of both a religious and secular written culture in this language. Through prolonged contacts and interactions, Jinghpaw has been influencing in various ways other Kachin languages and dialects (albeit less so for Rawang and Lisu, sometimes described as “peripheral Kachin”, both culturally and politically, [Müller 2016:34]).

56Much discussed during our interviews, the question of the centrality of Jinghpaw in Kachin multilingualism, as well as the parallel between its status within the Kachin world and the position of Burmese within Myanmar, is vividly described by Kurabe and Imamura (2016):

Multilingualism is common; we can easily find people who can speak, for example, Jinghpaw and Lhaovo. This multilingualism, however, is not reciprocal, because not all the Kachin languages are considered equal in status. Jinghpaw is clearly dominant and of higher status. The vast majority of people who speak only one Kachin language are Jinghpaw-speakers. Those who speak Jinghpaw do not seem to be interested in learning another minority language, similar to how few native Burmese speakers are motivated to learn a minority language. (Kurabe & Imamura 2016: 36.)

57This parallel between the dominant status of Burmese and Jinghpaw, within their respective geographic and political realm, also echoes the dual understandings of the terms Myanmar and Kachin, which have both been mobilized in a wider acceptation—described as inclusive of the diversity within—while they both also can be understood as corresponding to a narrower ethnolinguistic identity within.

  • 50 Commonly expressed by a variety of actors linked to the Kachin identity, this view was notably stat (...)

58Although the mobilization of multiple identities, within or outside of Kachin, may at times question the centrality of Jinghpaw language in Kachin state, a number of actors, including religious and civil society institutions, political parties and armed groups (which include individuals who self-identify with non-Jinghpaw groups), would favor a language policy giving priority to standard Jinghpaw in Kachin State. Regarding formal education, they argue, a wider use of this language, at least in primary schooling, would have multiple benefits in the realms of education, culture and politics, including resistance to what is perceived as an ongoing “Burmanization” process.50

Mobilization of Ethnolinguistic Identities in Fractal Patterns

  • 51 Jap (2020), through a survey conducted in 2018-2019, noticed that non-Jinghpaw speaking Kachin tend (...)

59Fractal recursivity “involves the projection of an opposition, salient at some level of relationship, onto some other level” (Irvine & Gal 2000: 38). In an ideological environment prone to denounce the cultural and linguistic oppression over ethnic identities, similar claims from within these identities are easy to articulate. In the case of Kachin State, the centralizing project of the independent Myanmar State, pitted against the divisive legacies of colonialism and widely perceived as Bamar-centric, has contributed to the mobilization of the Kachin identity, itself largely articulated in opposition to the “Burmanization” process, and often perceived as Jinghpaw-centric.51 This situation, in turn, creates the conditions for the mobilization of other ethnic identities within Kachin and Kachin State.

  • 52 See Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

60The theme of cultural loss, which can be traced back at least to the trauma of colonization (as far as Burmese nationalism is concerned) is widespread in contemporary Myanmar, and written language (along with traditional costumes) is often perceived as the ultimate sanctuary of ethnic identities. All around the country, saying along the lines of စာပျောက်ရင် လူမျိုးပျောက်မယ် (“if the written language disappears, the ethnic identity does too”) support language maintenance and revitalization projects, associated to the mobilization of corresponding ethnic identities.52 This idea was often explicitly mentioned during our interviews in Kachin State; Laika mat yang, amyu mat na, for instance, is an often-repeated Jinghpaw word-for-word equivalent of this saying.

  • 53 See Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020) on the case of Chin State.

61Like in the rest of Myanmar,53 actors associated to “smaller” identities Kachin State rarely fail to notice, more or less explicitly, the inherent contradictions of discourses promoting the unity of an overarching ethnic identity, as well as their similarity in terms of philosophy, narrative and vocabulary, with the Burman-centered State ideology, epitomized by military regimes propaganda. The resemblance is indeed quite striking: while similar iconography prevails (fig. 7), expressions along the lines of Wunpawng myu sha ni Myit hkrum mang rum (“Unity/agreement of the Wunpawng races/groups”), used by various organizations active in the mobilization of the Kachin identity, do remind the Burmese မြန်မာ့တိုင်းရင်းသား စည်းလုံးညီညွတ်ရေး (“unity of the Myanmar ethnic nationalities”), unity in diversity mantras for the components of the Kachin and Myanmar nations, respectively.

  • 54 Although corresponding perceptions are common, the term itself never came up in our interviews and (...)

62The perceptions of a Jinghpaw hegemony over Kachin (occasionally referred to as “Jinghpawization”54), mobilized by the cultural elites associated to the Kachin sub-groups identities, can thus be perceived as the direct ideological echo of the discourse on the “Burmanization” of the Union of Myanmar. At different levels of the ethnolinguistic identity fractal patterns we are describing, from a minority perspective, discourses on unity and common language can be perceived and portrayed as euphemisms for actual projects of managing, downplaying, subordinating or even erasing of the diversity within.

Fig. 6. Representations of the eight main ethnic groups of Myanmar (in a 2010 Grade 2 reader) and of the seven main Kachin ethnic groups (circulating on social media)

Fig. 6. Representations of the eight main ethnic groups of Myanmar (in a 2010 Grade 2 reader) and of the seven main Kachin ethnic groups (circulating on social media)

The inclusion of Lungmi as a seventh category is commented below.

  • 55 Emily Fishbein, “Inside the controversy over the Kachin Manau Festival”, Frontier Myanmar, 14th of (...)
  • 56 Emily Fishbein, “The blood spoke: Lisu deaths stir unrest in Kachin”, Frontier Myanmar, 11th of Jul (...)

63As described in previous section, the implementation (between 2011 and January 2021) of the 2008 Constitution, contributed to a greater politicization of ethnic identities in Kachin State, notably through the appointment of Ethnic Affairs ministers for the Shan, Lisu and Rawang. Last years’ controversies regarding the naming of Kachin’s State Day Manau Festival, as Jinghpaw or Kachin (in Jinghpaw language),55 as well as tensions between the KIO and Lisu and Tai Leng political organizations,56 constitute manifestations of the increasing saliency of ethno-linguistic fault lines within Kachin State’s politics during this period.

64From a Kachin perspective, this process is largely orchestrated by the Myanmar State, reproducing the old colonial “divide and rule” strategy, but this time against the Wunpawng nation (Robinne 2009; Mahkaw Hkun Sa 2016; Kiik 2016), which ultimately leads to increased “Burmanization.”

  • 57 “These subgroup committees usually attempt to ‘purify’ their languages by replacing commonly used J (...)

65As described by Müller (2016) the last decades have also witnessed greater activity of cultural elites associated to each Kachin subgroups, constituted into literature and culture committees, through the standardization of orthographies, publication of textbooks and religious text translations, often with an underlying desire to remove or reduce traces of Jinghpaw influences from their respective languages.57

66This dynamic certainly corresponds to the data we collected in 2019 and 2020, especially as the reintroduction of these languages in formal education (which was ongoing at the time of our interviews) gave new impetus to the affirmation of singularity (and thus coherence) of the cultures and languages attached to each of the six Kachin groups labels.

67Yet, unsurprisingly in such a diverse society, this situation also creates the conditions for the (re)mobilization of other labels, in what could be described as an additional level of fractal patterns. Not unlike Kachin discourse pitted against the centralizing action of the Myanmar State, as well as the mobilization of subgroups by contrast with the common Kachin political project, this work towards cultural and linguistic standardization around the six subgroups labels is liable to be perceived as aiming towards erasure of the diversity within these labels. The surrounding ideological context may indeed prompt actors who do not feel included in a particular project (or wishing to capitalize on this propitious context) to reproduce a discourse on their own distinctiveness, marginalization and oppression, appealing to the very same values and using similar narrative and vocabulary.

  • 58 See for instance Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).
  • 59 As described by Bradley, the composite literary standard, mainly based on the Central dialect and u (...)

68Although examples of groups in the process of dealing with diverse forms of such challenges are common in Myanmar,58 not all groups in Kachin State seem to be facing such complications. The Lisu for instance, while majoritarily reaffirming their distinctiveness from Kachin (as they were already described by Hanson in 1913) and through close communication with Lisu populations in China and Thailand, seem to be having successes in promoting a common linguistic project (as far as Christians are concerned) which is relatively deeply rooted in history (Bradley 2019: 6).59

69For some of the other groups, however, agreeing on a single language to be taught in the schools may be more challenging. Rawang, which is conceived as one of the six Kachin Tribes and corresponds to one of the six Kachin languages taught in government schools, may encompass, according to both the Rawang LCC and linguist estimates (Morse 1989), five main languages (Anong, Matwang, Daru-Jerwang, Lungmi and Tangsar) and as many as 70-100 varieties, with autonyms often corresponding to clans and rivers, little documented, diversely classified, varyingly influenced by surrounding languages and often endangered (Straub 2015; Powelson 2018). The Rawang language introduced in government schools uses the orthography developed by American missionary Robert Morse in the 1960s, which has been used to translate religious literature, largely through the Matwang dialect, which has become a standard in writing and inter-group communication in the subsequent decades (LaPolla 2008; Straub 2016).

70This common Rawang language, however, is not wholly uncontentious. The Nung label for instance, whose establishment as a category among colonial recruits provides historical legitimacy (but which is also particularly complex, multiform and contested [Sadan 2007: 69; Gros 2009: 108]) has been increasingly mobilized during the last decades. The Nung category has sometimes been acknowledged as a component of the official Wunpawng subgroups during the ceasefire years, either hyphenated as “Nung-Rawang”, or as a distinct seventh category, itself increasingly hyphenated as “Nung-Lungmi” (or Lungmi) since the early 2000s, with the creation of a corresponding LCC (Mears 2016; Kiik 2016; fig. 7).

71This Nung-Lungmi LCC was created on the claim that the Rawang LCC, despite including Lungmi in their four-fold nomenclature (Matwang, Gvnøng, Tangsarr and Lungmi) was dominated by Matwang, notably through language and costumes. The Nung-Lungmi representatives apparently suggested modifications to the script invented by Morse, in order to be able to write their varieties. But as other members of the Rawang LCC did not accept this request, a separate LCC, as well as a totally distinct script were created, followed by textbooks (fig. 8) and efforts towards translating the Bible.

  • 60 Interviews with the Rawang and Nung-Lungmi LCC, Kachin State, 2019, 2020.

72Although further research is certainly needed to understand this process in-depth, the multiple Nung-Lungmi dialects, estimated to over ten varieties by the Nung-Lungmi LCC, seem to constitute, in turn, one of the challenges to this endeavor. The Dingra (Dinglak) dialect, described as particularly distinct from Matwang (and thus emblematic of the Nung specificity) indeed appears to be central to the project, although the representatives of the Nung-Lungmi committee state that they do not want to marginalize other dialects, and thereby reproduce the very situation that led to their own split from the Rawang LCC. Although already equipped with textbooks, the Nung-Lungmi LCC reckoned, at the time of our interviews in 2020, that the prospect of introducing their language in formal education was still distant and contingent upon recognition by the Union and Kachin State governments.60

  • 61 Interviews with the Lacid, Ngochang and Lhaovo LCCs, Kachin State, 2019, 2020.

73Other linguistic projects around specific ethnonyms in Kachin State (not all of which seemed likely to be successful in terms of formalization of a written culture, political recognition and popular support) include Ngochang (often considered close to Lacid), Daru, Tangsarr, Gvnøng/Jerwang (generally presented as Rawang languages/dialects), Anung (a nungish language spoken by a group which is conceived as politically linked to either Rawang, Lisu or separate), as well as Duleng and Hkahku (usually described as Jinghpaw dialects). Widely recognized groups, such as the Lhaovo, may also have to deal with multiple written cultures, more or less influenced by those of other groups, and according to multiple denominations.61

Fig.7. Cover and sample of a 2020 textbook for the teaching of Nung-Lungmi

Fig.7. Cover and sample of a 2020 textbook for the teaching of Nung-Lungmi

Conclusion

74Based on material collected prior and during the Covid-19 pandemic and before the military coup of February 2021, this paper constitutes a snapshot of the language-in-education policy reforms in Kachin State, acknowledging the multiple and profound potential benefits of introducing ethnic minority languages in formal education, but focusing on some of the more structural challenges these reforms were facing, as of 2020.

  • 62 At the time of finalizing this paper, multiple and contradictory dynamics seem to be at play regard (...)
  • 63 Nu Nu Lusan & Emily Fishbein, “Amid education boycotts, ethnic schools help to fill the gap”, Front (...)
  • 64 The (draft) Federal Democracy Education Policy released by the NUG in September 2021 suggests a mot (...)

75Subsequent political developments are dramatically altering the overall political landscape in Myanmar and Kachin State, which is having deep and multiple repercussions on the positioning of the actors described in this paper, with arguably a strengthening sense of belonging to the Kachin ethnic identity, and a greater attractiveness of the Jinghpaw language.62 As of 2021-22 school year, military-controlled government schools were widely boycotted and some of the armed groups education systems, including the one controlled by the KIO, as well as faith-based education providers such as the Kachin Baptist Convention, reported a sharp increase in the number of students enrolled.63 Meanwhile, the National Unity Government—the government in exile composed of elected members of the parliament and representants of various political parties and organizations linked to ethnic identities—seems determined to use mother tongue-based education as an overall policy.64

76Amidst these great political uncertainties, on the one hand, and renewed impetus for federalist aspirations, on the other, understanding the structural challenges in terms of language-in-education policy described in this paper (within the more general issue of the recognition/representation of ethnic identities) will remain critical for the future of both Kachin State and the Union of Myanmar.

  • 65 See, for instance, Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020).

77The case of Kachin State, where 11 ethnic minority languages were being introduced in government schools as of 2020, doesn’t seem particularly complex, at least by Myanmar’s standards, and especially when compared to the situation of Chin State.65 Kachin State nevertheless constitutes a good illustration of the challenges and tradeoffs attached to language-in-education policy choices, underpinned by what Ferguson (2015: 20) calls the “intrinsically un-classifiable and unbounded nature of ethnic categories and identities”, by contrast with more essentialists conceptions of these identities.

78Further research and case studies will be needed to document and understand these processes in-depth, as well as their evolutions in the new and evolving political landscape. However, this article underlines the contrast between the complexity and fluidity of identity perceptions and language practices, on the one hand, and the seemingly unavoidable discretization processes, to which the introduction of minority languages in formal education inevitably contributes, on the other. The production of textbooks in (an inevitably limited number of) standardized languages, the training of teachers associated with these languages, the choices over which language(s) should be taught in which administrative unit or which school (and which varieties are only dialects, and thus do not require a formal status) all contribute to this discretization process. This drive also echoes an overall Myanmar “political matrix”, largely rooted in colonial understandings of ethnicity, in which all citizens supposedly belong to an ethnic category, attached to territories and political prerogatives, and with a corresponding language, conceived as a bounded object.

79Although the introduction of ethnic minority languages in government schools is certainly liable to have a wide range of decisive benefits in the realms of education, politics and cultural diversity preservation, articulating the political agendas of the actors involved, sometimes pitted one against another, is no simple task. Building on the “fractal” metaphor suggested by Sadan (2013a: 24) to describe Kachin societies, as well as on the “fractal recursivity” concept developed by language anthropologists (Irvine & Gal 2000: 38), this paper describes the recursive layers of oppositions between what is presented as common languages (such as Myanmar (Burmese), Kachin (Jinghpaw), Rawang (Matwang), Nung-Lungmi (Dingra), for instance), and the affirmation of distinctiveness, through the production of ethnolinguistic nomenclatures within nomenclatures, in reaction to what is liable to be described as assimilation projects. In this linguistic and ideological context, selecting a list of mother tongues, to be prioritized in education, is at times contentious, and always entails tradeoffs.

80As the political future of the Union of Myanmar remains highly unpredictable, a long-term settlement of these issues, beyond the current political deadlock and as far as education is concerned, seems more likely to stem from gradual shifts towards increasing the space for ethnic minority languages (maybe in different fashion and to different extent, inside and outside of government and other types of schools, and without underestimating the importance of online language practices) than from a sudden implementation of more ambitious schemes, entailing an extensive use of particular common languages, associated to various territories and administrative units.

81Although the use of these languages as formal language of instruction does seem relevant in certain contexts, using local languages as oral media of instruction (“classroom language”), in addition to their teaching as subjects, also offers a much-needed flexibility, allowing teachers to adapt to their specific classrooms, and contributing to an education system geared towards taking into account the actual language diversity and multilingualism, rather than prioritizing multiple, and sometimes hardly compatible, nation-building projects.

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Notes

1 For details on the constitutional and legislative framework, see Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

2 “နိုင်ငံတော်အစိုးရ၏ (၄) နှစ်တာကာလအတွင်း ပညာရေးပြုပြင်ပြောင်းလဲမှု”, Ministry of Education, March 2020.

3 The Local Curriculum entails the production of about 15% of the program in each of the 14 States and Regions, including not only the languages, but also the histories and cultures of the (officially recognized) ethnic minorities, through Local Knowledge curricula (Salem-Gervais & Raynaud 2020; Salem-Gervais forthcoming).

4 This is different from MTB-MLE, which entails curricula written in the mother tongues, at least in primary schools.

5 Including South & Lall (2016), Lo Bianco (2016), Lall (2018), Lopes Cardozo & Maber (2019), ENAC (2018), the National Network for Education Reform and the Myanmar/Burma Indigenous Network for Education. Later works, including Lall (2020), provide a different perspective on the issue.

6 Before gradually shifting towards the national language throughout successive years of schooling.

7 See for instance Dutcher (2001), Benson (2002), Malone & Paraide (2011).

8 Most emblematically the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and its Mon National Education Committee (MNEC).

9 A opposed to non-state, “ethnic” basic education providers (EBEPs).

10 The corresponding Burmese term tain:jin:dha: is also sometimes translated as “national races.”

11 More details in Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

12 Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020).

13 See for instance Peterson (2017: 190) on the case of Chin State.

14 For more details on the LCCs and their roles, see Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

15 For critical perspectives on Leach’s work, see Lehman (1967), Bradley (1978), Robinne & Sadan (2007), Sadan (2013a: 15).

16 See for instance Taylor (2006), Mersan (2016), Candier (2019), Candier, Mersan & Vittrant (2021), Robinne (2021).

17 See Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020) for a discussion of Shan Ni language standardization.

18 The authors wish to warmly thank Mael Raynaud, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for their constant support throughout this research.

19 In most cases the interviews were recorded, after systematically asking for consent, and in several instances also documented by the interviewees themselves.

20 See for instance www.kbckachin.org, accessed July 2020.

21 After initial contacts with Catholics, the first conversions to Baptism took place in the early 1880s (La Seng Dingrin 2013). The missionaries’ discourse on Christianity being articulated with local beliefs and terminology, both the new religion and associated written culture were often conceived as the restoration of lost cultural assets (Scott 2009; Sadan 2013a: 397).

22 The report of the 1921 census, for instance, counts 733 occurrences of the term “race(s)” within 330 pages; 958 occurrences for the following, 346 pages, 1931 Census report.

23 See Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020) on the case of Chin State.

24 Census of India, 1931, Burma Report, p. 284.

25 On the uncertain and probably multiple origin of this ethnonym, see Sadan (2007: 41).

26 Bennison, the author of the 1931 census report, striving to approach the “true racial classification” of the “indigenous races of Burma”, attributes for instance the reduction of the proportion of Kachins in 1921, “to many of the Atsis, Lashis and Marus having been wrongly recorded as Kachins in 1911.”

27 Maru and Atsi are the Jinghpaw exonyms for Lhaovo and Zaiwa, Nung is related to Rawang (see last section of this paper).

28 “In Asia as well as in other parts of the world, illiterate and backward districts show peculiarities of speech in nearly every village and community. It is the written page, the common school and the daily press that gradually eliminate localisms and dialectical differences.” (Hanson 1913: 27.)

“The fact that there is one leading dialect all over Kachin-land is an immense advantage to all. The Jinghpaw has for about twenty years been reduced to writing and has the beginning of a literature. It is not likely that any of the other dialects will be thus honored, and from an educational point of view it is not desirable or necessary. In time all will learn to read and write Jinghpaw, and the less important dialects will be relegated to obscurity and be eventually forgotten.” (Hanson 1913: 30.)

29 As opposed to Jinghpaw language spiritual education (Sadan 2013a: 397).

30 Report on the administration of Burma, 1935-1936, p. 132.

31 Other aspects of what Burmese nationalist movements denounced as flagrant “divide and rule” colonial policies, which contributed to the emergence of distinct and often conflictual national consciousnesses, include “indirect rule” and the maintenance of local elites (such as Shan Sawbwas and Kachin Duwas) in the “frontier areas”, as well as favoring the recruitment of soldiers among upland populations in the process of being Christianized, described as “martial races” and perceived as more “loyal” than the Burmans (Callahan 2003; Taylor 2007; Sadan 2013b).

32 In 1960, there were for instance five government schools in the Bhamo district, against ten “private Kachin schools”, run by the American Baptist Mission. Burma Gazetteer, the Bhamo District, 1960.

33 A special issue of the Burma Gazetteer, on October 17 of 1955, officialises a similar nomenclature (with a Nung-Rawang category).

34 See also Salem-Gervais (2018).

35 Interviews and written documents shared by the Lacid LCC. For more details, see Sawada (2006).

36 Some inhabitants of Kachin State, notably among the Shan Ni/Tai Leng, also remember persecutions, including on language, coming both from the Burmese military and Kachin armed groups (Lovett 2018).

37 Personal communication with La Raw Maran, January 2018.

38 Such as Lhaovo and Lacid.

39 More details in Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

40 Idem.

41 Interviews with the 11 LCCs of Kachin State, July 2019 and July-September 2020.

42 Emily Fishbein, “Students in Kachin-controlled territory face education barriers”, Frontier Myanmar, 23th of September 2019, URL: https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/students-in-kachin-controlled-territory-face-education-barriers/.

43 See Houtman (1999) and Salem-Gervais & Metro (2012: 47).

44 Lustig himself, similarly to most experts, does not share this view.

45 This term may be accurate to describe certain situations and not others. It is notably used for Rawang and Nungish languages by Straub (2016) and other linguists.

46 Interviews with the Kachin and Shan LCCs, MoE and MoEA, (June-July) 2019 and (July-September) 2020.

47 On the 2014 census in relation to ethnicity, see Ferguson (2015).

48 Manifestation of this drive towards understanding society primarily through the prism of ethno-linguistic categories also include political parties. In Kachin State, 10 out of 16 parties which ran for the 2020 general elections were constituted in reference to an ethnonym (three Kachin, two Shan, two Tai Leng, one Lisu, one Naga and one Lhaovo). BNI, “Seventeen Political Parties Vying for Electoral Seats in Kachin State”, July 23, 2020. Updated by interviews in September 2020.

49 Case described in Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

50 Commonly expressed by a variety of actors linked to the Kachin identity, this view was notably stated by the representatives of the Kachin State Democracy Party interviewed in 2019.

51 Jap (2020), through a survey conducted in 2018-2019, noticed that non-Jinghpaw speaking Kachin tend to have significantly more favorable attitudes toward Myanmar and Myanmar’s national identity compared to Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin.

52 See Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

53 See Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020) on the case of Chin State.

54 Although corresponding perceptions are common, the term itself never came up in our interviews and is not often used. Exceptions include Kachin Life Stories, anthologies vol. 1 , URL:https://kachinlifestories.com.

55 Emily Fishbein, “Inside the controversy over the Kachin Manau Festival”, Frontier Myanmar, 14th of January 2020, URL: https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/inside-the-controversy-over-the-kachin-manau-festival/.

56 Emily Fishbein, “The blood spoke: Lisu deaths stir unrest in Kachin”, Frontier Myanmar, 11th of July 2019, URL: https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/the-blood-spoke-lisu-deaths-stir-unrest-in-kachin/. See also Clarke, Seng Aung Sein Myint, Yu Siwa (2019). “Shanni Community Demands Justice for Students Killed By KIA”, BNI, July 26, 2020.

57 “These subgroup committees usually attempt to ‘purify’ their languages by replacing commonly used Jinghpaw words with newly coined words in a process similar to those in French, Icelandic, or Turkish. In places like northern Shan State where ‘pure’ Jinghpaw speakers are the minority, some subgroup Kachins prefer to speak their mother tongue (be it Lhaovo, Zaiwa, or Lashi) instead of using Jinghpaw as a lingua franca when talking to speakers of other Kachin languages.” (Müller 2016: 35.)

58 See for instance Salem-Gervais & Raynaud (2020).

59 As described by Bradley, the composite literary standard, mainly based on the Central dialect and using a romanization created by missionaries as early as 1914, is widely used by Christian Lisu (as opposed to Buddhist), beyond the borders of Kachin State and Myanmar, contributing to the vitality of Lisu and increased intelligibility between dialects. While churches of different denominations have historically been the drivers of this teaching, the MoE has praised, in 2018-2019, the implementation of Lisu language classes in government schools, which started in 2015-2016. Interviews with the Lisu LCC, Myitkyina, and the MoE in Naypyidaw, July-August 2019.

60 Interviews with the Rawang and Nung-Lungmi LCC, Kachin State, 2019, 2020.

61 Interviews with the Lacid, Ngochang and Lhaovo LCCs, Kachin State, 2019, 2020.

62 At the time of finalizing this paper, multiple and contradictory dynamics seem to be at play regarding ethnic relations in Kachin State, with both drives towards a common front against the coup (and thus a strengthened sense of belonging to Kachin for Kachin sub-groups), and ethnic organizations that still holds grudges towards one another (a situation which is, expectedly, encouraged by military divide-and-rule tactics). E. Fishbein, J. Naw, P. Maran & H. San, “Divide and rule in Kachin State”, Frontier Myanmar, 2nd of July 2021.

63 Nu Nu Lusan & Emily Fishbein, “Amid education boycotts, ethnic schools help to fill the gap”, Frontier Myanmar, 22th of September 2021, URL: https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/amid-education-boycotts-ethnic-schools-help-to-fill-the-gap/.

64 The (draft) Federal Democracy Education Policy released by the NUG in September 2021 suggests a mother tongue-based schooling policy.

65 See, for instance, Salem-Gervais & Van Cung Lian (2020).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Covers of a grammar, a handbook and (reprints of) readers for Jinghpaw, respectively by O. Hanson (1896), H.F. Hertz (1895) and F.J. Ingram (1916, 1917)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 239k
Titre Fig. 2. Covers of a 1972 textbook for the teaching of Jinghpaw in government schools in grade 2 (the grade 1—သူငယ်တန်း—was published in 1970) and of a Jinghpaw reader used in KIO schools
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 360k
Titre Fig. 3. Languages taught in Kachin State’s Governement Schools
Crédits Map produced by the MIMU, from data collected by the authors in Kachin State’s MoE office. The authors wish to thank the MIMU for its constant availability and support.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 573k
Titre Fig. 4. Covers of textbooks for the teaching of the 11 languages introduced in the government schools of Kachin State, produced in 2019, with the support of Unicef: Lhaovo, Lisu, Jinghpaw, Lacid, Zaiwa, Rawang, Tai Khamti, Tai Lay, Tai Leng, Tai Long and Tai Hsar
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Titre Fig. 5. Focus on Kachin State of Ethnologue database’s language mapping (MIMU)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 873k
Titre Fig. 6. Representations of the eight main ethnic groups of Myanmar (in a 2010 Grade 2 reader) and of the seven main Kachin ethnic groups (circulating on social media)
Légende The inclusion of Lungmi as a seventh category is commented below.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 626k
Titre Fig.7. Cover and sample of a 2020 textbook for the teaching of Nung-Lungmi
URL http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/docannexe/image/9044/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 278k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Nicolas Salem-Gervais et Ja Seng, « From Fluidity to Discretization… and Fractal Recursivity? Opportunities and Challenges Underpinning the Introduction of Minority Languages in Kachin State’s government schools (2011-2020) »Moussons, 39 | 2022, 5-40.

Référence électronique

Nicolas Salem-Gervais et Ja Seng, « From Fluidity to Discretization… and Fractal Recursivity? Opportunities and Challenges Underpinning the Introduction of Minority Languages in Kachin State’s government schools (2011-2020) »Moussons [En ligne], 39 | 2022, mis en ligne le 04 juillet 2022, consulté le 17 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/moussons/9044 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/moussons.9044

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Auteurs

Nicolas Salem-Gervais

Nicolas Salem-Gervais is a maître de conférences at the Burmese language section of the Southeast Asia Department in Institut National des Langue et Civilisations Orientales (Inalco, Paris), and member of the Centre Asie du Sud-Est (CASE, Paris). Since 2007, his research has been dealing with various aspects of education and nation-building in Myanmar, including history textbooks content and language policy.

Ja Seng

Ja Seng is a Kachin researcher, who speaks multiple languages, and specializing in conflict, displacement, education, drugs and mining in this region, with over a decade of experience working with think tanks, academics and the media.

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