Traditional Karen don dancing at the 70th Karen Revolution Day celebrations at Klo Yaw Lay, Kayin State, in January 2019. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)
Traditional Karen don dancing at the 70th Karen Revolution Day celebrations at Klo Yaw Lay, Kayin State, in January 2019. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Call me Mi: Ethnic groups celebrate honorifics victory

Mon, Karen, and Pa-O can now add their traditional ethnic titles to official documents, which ethnic leaders consider a small step away from decades of “Burmanisation”.


Signboards in Myanmar immigration offices tell visitors: “The earth will not swallow a race to extinction but another race will.”

The words are generally taken as a warning for immigration officers to carefully scrutinise the citizenship status of anyone who does not belong to a “national race”.

But the words have an ironic echo in the fears of recognised ethnic minority groups, who say they have seen their own cultures and languages swallowed over multiple decades by the Bamar-centric policies of the government.

In early June, however, the Mon and Kayin state governments announced a new administrative measure in support of non-Bamar identities. Ethnic Mon, Karen, and Pa-O living in the states were told that when enrolling their children in school, applying for national identification cards and updating household member lists, they could use their own traditional honorific titles rather than Bamar prefixes such as “U”, “Daw”, “Maung” or “Ma”.

“This is just a basic right,” Nai Mon Ral Jal, 58, general secretary of the Mon Literature and Culture Association, told Frontier.

“There are more rights we must fight for.”

Advocates for ethnic rights welcomed the announcements as a rare move to respect the cultural rights of minorities.

The National League for Democracy government has been the subject of regular criticism from minority leaders for ­– in their eyes – continuing to favour the majority Bamar, from where the party draws most of its support.

Probably the most controversial example was the naming in 2017 of a new bridge linking the Mon State capital Mawlamyine with Chaungzon after independence hero General Aung San, a Bamar, despite strong opposition from state residents who wanted an ethnic Mon figure or cultural symbol to be honoured instead.

The erection in recent years of gilded Aung San statues in ethnic states has also sparked protests from ethnic activists who say that their own heroes are being overlooked in the veneration of a “Bamar” icon.

Ethnic rights advocates say that for the government to acknowledge ethnic honorifics is a small step away from Bamar (or Burman) hegemony, which they call Burmanisation – a decades-long informal policy that seeps through education, religion, law and public administration, supressing non-Bamar identities and languages at every turn.

The development means that, in official documents, Mon can use “Min” for a young man, “Mi” for a woman and “Nai” for an older man, Pwo Karen and Pa-O can use “Nang” for a woman, Pa-O can use “Khun” for a man, S’gaw Karen can use “Naw” for a woman, and both Karen linguistic groups can use “Saw” for a man.

Children study the Mon language at a school near the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)
Children study the Mon language at a school near the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

What’s in a name?

Ethnic minorities were usually forced to carry Bamar prefixes such as “Ma”, for a young woman, and “Maung”, for a young man, on official documents. Under the military junta, ethnic minorities “dared not complain” because it could lead to arrest and imprisonment, said Saw Aye Mya, chairman of the Karen Literature and Culture Development Organisation.

Although the military junta handed power to a nominally civilian government of former generals in 2011, and the NLD took over the government with a mandate for sweeping change in 2016, this legacy has endured, said Aye Mya.

He recalled several incidents last year when authorities refused to allow Karen honorifics on driving licence applications in Mawlamyine, and young men were only permitted to use “Maung”.

When inquiring who gave instructions to impose Bamar honorifics, Aye Mya said civil servants will typically point to another department, which will then deny it.

A Karen family working in Singapore recently registered a birth at the Myanmar embassy but were told to use a Bamar honorific, he added.

“We view this as part of the policy of Burmanisation,” Aye Mya said. “A narrow-minded policy that tries to control our ethnic people.”

“If we look at what has happened to all of our ethnic groups, we can say that there was a policy of pushing Bamar honorifics and names on us,” said Mon Ral Jal of the Mon Literature and Culture Association. “It was an oppressive policy against ethnic minority groups.”

But ethnic leaders say there is another factor that has discouraged use of ethnic minority names and honorifics: discrimination.

University graduates who apply for government jobs using non-Bamar honorifics are often overlooked in favour of Bamar applicants and find it difficult to rise through the civil service, Mon Ral Jal claimed. This has encouraged ethnic minority parents to make their children use Bamar prefixes and names.

“We notice that ethnic minority people are not given promotions, especially in the [Myanmar] military,” said Mon Ral Jal.

“We are worried that not only will our ethnicity disappear, but also that of other ethnic groups.”

Karen youth attend the 70th Karen Revolution Day celebrations at Klo Yaw Lay, Kayin State, in January 2019. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)
Karen youth attend the 70th Karen Revolution Day celebrations at Klo Yaw Lay, Kayin State, in January 2019. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Fighting for representation

Political and economic reforms since 2010 have created greater space for minority leaders to push for respect and recognition, and push back against perceived Burmanisation. New ethnicity-based political parties and civil society groups are leading the fight.

In Mon State, previously forbidden expressions of ethnic identity have reappeared, like street signs in Mon language. In public places, Mon symbols, particularly the hinthar (ruddy shelduck), are replacing those perceived as Bamar. Children are increasingly taking Mon names, and young adults are being encouraged to marry within their ethnic group.

Government policies are also slowly changing in some areas, too, although not always as much as activists would like.

Mon Ral Jal was born in 1962 – the year of General Ne Win’s military coup – and was raised under a dictatorship that not only insisted Mon children take on Bamar honorifics, but also suppressed the use of Mon and other ethnic languages in schools and elsewhere in public life.

Since then, Mon-language education and wider cultural preservation has been one of the central policies of the New Mon State Party, an ethnic armed group in opposition to the government that has run a network of Mon schools since the late 1960s.

Ethnic languages are gradually being introduced to government schools under the 2014 Education Law, including through the appointment of ethnic mother-tongue teaching assistants last year and the current development of local curricula for schools in different states and regions, which will include the teaching of ethnic languages and literature.

However, ethnic activists argue that other areas of government administration and public life are out of step with the limited progress made in the education sector.

Ethnic activists are also struggling against limits to representation in formal politics.

According to Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, ethnic affairs ministers will be elected in state and regions where an ethnic community has a population equivalent to 0.1pc or more of the national population. This does not apply to ethnic communities in states that bear their names, such as the Mon in Mon State, or those that have been granted a self-administered zone in that state or region, such as Danu and Pa-O in Shan State.

This translated to roughly 51,400 people at the time of the 2014 census, which Mon leaders assumed was an easy threshold to pass for representation in Yangon Region.

The Yangon-based Mon Literature and Culture Committee predicted about 100,000 Mon when they began counting heads six years ago. However, of the 45,000 they found, committee members told Frontier that only about 15,000 were identified as Mon on their national ID card, which always states the bearer’s ethnicity as well as their religion.

The rest were identified as Bamar, said the members. They attribute the low figure not only to discriminatory administrative practices but also to some Mon embracing the Bamar label out of a lack of concern for their heritage.

A similar issue prevents Karen from having an ethnic minister in Mandalay Region, said Aye Mya. However, of the 29 ethnic ministers, five are Karen in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, and Tanintharyi regions as well as Mon State.

Asked whether the ethnic affairs ministers had made a difference in attaining ethnic rights, Aye Mya said the Karen ethnic affairs minister in Mon State had been involved in the policy change on honorifics.

“This shows how useful it is to have an ethnic affairs minister to work for ethnic rights,” he said.

Similarly, Aye Mya said the formation of a Ministry of Ethnic Affairs by the NLD in 2016 had been a step forward, even if the ministry has been criticised for its perceived inactivity.

Myanmar authorities previously “kicked the ball to each other” when faced with an ethnic issue, he said. “We now have a place where we can go now [for ethnic grievances] so that is something that’s changed.”

“Fighting for ethnic rights under a Myanmar government is not an easy job,” added Aye Mya. “It depends on political pressure, which the Karen cannot do by themselves. Strong campaigning from all ethnic groups is needed to fight for our rights together.”

In immigration offices, visitors are also presented with another slogan: “As long as the world exists, Myanmar will exist.”

While this is intended to express a defiant belief in the nation’s resilience, it is likely to reassure the Bamar more than ethnic minorities, for whom the struggle for survival takes place not within a hostile international order, but within the country’s own borders.

This is the struggle to ensure that, “As long as Myanmar exists, our own culture will exist.”

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