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18 Days in Myanmar

Nisa and group

Eighteen Days in Myanmar 

by Nisa Burns, undergraduate in linguistics 

In the winter of 201819, SEAP supported a pilot course titled Gender and Global Change in Myanmar that included an eighteen-day visit to the country. I was one of two undergraduate students on the trip, encouraged to go because I had been studying Burmese at Cornell since my freshman year. The other student, Evelyn Shan, undergraduate in government and history, was writing her senior thesis. Our group leader was Thamora Fishel, associate director of SEAP, who was making her fourth visit to Myanmar. With us was Ngun Siang Kim, who was hired to assist with program logistics. Siang was put in contact with Thamora because she had previously worked with Cornell PhD candidate Hilary Faxon, who does research with women farmers in rural Myanmar. Currently, Siang works for the gap-year program Where There Be Dragons and travels all over Myanmar when she is not working. 

Before the trip, we were given a book list to read. One of the items on that list was Have Fun in Burma: A Novel, written by SEAP alumna RosalieMetro.iThe story takes place during the early days of the current Rohingya crisis within the past decade. It details the naivete of a white American student who rushes into activism in Myanmar without contemplating the widespread backlash that her actions receive from Burmese people, offering a critique of the“voluntourism” trend. The other novel we read did not take place in the current day, as it detailed the life of the first Miss Burma, a Karen-ethnicity woman who grew up during World War II.ii While Have Fun in Burma provided us with a modern cultural context, Miss Burma was a harrowing look into the tribulations and persecution faced by the Karen ethnic minority. While prereading helped set the stage for visiting Myanmar for the first time, nothing could compare to touching down in the bustling hub that is Yangon. 

When I first arrived in Myanmar, I was too embarrassed to try speaking Burmese. I had been warned that Burmese people were unaccustomed to foreigners speaking their language and, as such, did not slow down their speech when responding. As time went on, I grew more confident speaking with locals. Sure, my sentences may not have been complex or grammatically perfect all the time, but I was able to communicate.  

In preparation for the trip, my Burmese teacher at Cornell, Yu YuKhaing, had drilled counting high numbers with me, as the exchange rate was approximately 1500 Myanmar kyat to one American dollar. The food units in class were also relevant, as I could easily articulate the foods I liked or did not eat. In Bogyoke Market, a bustling hub of open-air stalls in Yangon, I made all the shopkeepers laugh when I correctly said, “Oh, bother!” when a stack of shirts fell over. Even the tidbits I learned in my three semesters of Burmese proved useful. Armed with my dictionary app and my notebook for writing down new vocabulary words, I added to my knowledge for when I returned to the classroom. 

Our itinerary was shaped by Evelyn’s and my interests, so the people we met with varied greatly. I was interested in language education, while Evelyn was interested in women’s rights and the Rohingya crisis. Despite women’s rights not being my topic of interest, I was nonetheless captivated by the work of the various groups we met with such as Women’s Open Spaces, a loose consciousness-raising effort that runs women’s self-defense classes; Strong Flowers Sexuality Education Services, a program led by Dr. Thet Su Htwe (aka Zakia),that offers classes about sexuality to groups all over the country; Triangle Women’s Support Group, an organization run by Khin Lay, whose interfaith event our group attended; and the Karenni National Women’s Organization in Loikaw, Kayah State, whichteaches local law enforcement how to properly respond to sexual assault. Though the ways in which the women affiliated with these organizations advocate for women’s rights varies greatly, each one of them is on the ground day in and day out, being the change they want to see in their country. 

As the trip unfolded, what started as my vague interest in language education shaped into a curiosity about minority language (mother-tongue) education. While I had been aware on a basic level that Myanmar is home to many ethnicities and languages, it took being in the country for that to sink in. I soon learned that state education does not embrace this diversity. Instead, students all over the country study solely in the Burmese language, regardless of what languages are spoken in the home or community, as the government has declaredthat state education is to be conducted in Burmese.  

I first encountered the issue of minority language speakers in state education when talking to Siang, who grew up in the northern Chin State speaking the Falam language. When she moved to Yangon for high school, her Burmese language ability was low. As time went on, her Falam skills grew weaker, as she was no longer surrounded by it in Burmese-speaking Yangon. A decade and a half later, she feels that she is without a native language, as she is not totally comfortable in either Burmese or Falam. She will never have a native speaker intuition (that is, the sense that “I can’t articulate why, but this just sounds right”) for Burmese, as it is not her native language. When talking with her family back home, they note glaring mistakes in her Falam, despite the fact that it is her mother tongue. As such, there has been a trade-off in skills that has put her in a linguistic limbo.  

At the end of my stay, I visited the Myanmar Institute of Theology, where I had the opportunity to speak to two more people about Myanmar’s educational policies. One was a student named Peter, who hailed from the Shan State. His family is Wa, and he only spoke their language until kindergarten. Now, at the end of his university career, he lamentshis minimal Wa skills after speaking Burmese in state education his entire life. He wishesthere was formal Wa-language education for students like him so that they are able to express deeper concepts when talking with family.  

The other person I talked to was a lecturer in theology. Ms. Seng Tawng, a speaker of Kachin who hails from the northern state of the same name, discussed how Burmese is necessary to operate beyond one’s village. According to her, the mother-tongue education that she received in her village made learning easier for the children, but the lack of experience with Burmese-language education put them at a disadvantage when middle school was outside the village and taught by non-Kachin speakers. Unlike Peter, she had some Burmese knowledge before entering school due to the frequent presence of the Burmese military in her village. 

These viewpoints varied greatly, giving me a wider perspective on the issue of language in such a multiethnic country. At first, I naively assumed that education in solely the mother tongue would present itself as the best solution, but talking with everyone taught me that the situation is much more complex. Upon returning to Cornell for my spring semester, I combined what I learned from these interviews with academic articles about languages of instruction in Myanmar, gaining a deeper understanding of these issues in the process. 

Outside of our personal academic interests, our group’s adventures took us on learning experiences beyond the city. Within Yangon, we visited the famous 2,500 year-old, 110-meter (326-foot)Shwedagon Pagoda. Contrary to popular belief, Shwedagon is not the tallest pagoda in Myanmar, though we visited that one, too. TheShwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago stands fifteen meters (49 feet) taller than Shwedagon,and we drove to it with my Cornellian friend Lin and his family, who were excited that friends from his school were visiting their country. On the way to Bago, we stopped at the World War II memorial, a sobering reminder of how many lives were lost in Burma (which called back to reading Miss Burma). There were rows and rows of gravestones, mostly for soldiers from Great Britain, as Myanmar was still itscolony at the time. The names of tens of thousands of men who were missing in action were carved onto massive columns. Karen soldiers, Indian soldiers, men from all over were memorialized together. 

Our trip did not solely focus on the social changes happening with women’s rights and language education. We journeyed northward to Shan State to see rapid social and ecological changes in action. Joining us on this leg of the trip was SEAP faculty member, Jenny Goldstein,professor of development sociology. Together, we visited the famous Inle Lake, arriving there after a four-hour boat ride from a lower lake. Professor Goldstein, who usually does work on peat bog fires in Indonesia, has been expanding her research into Myanmar. She had yet to visit Inle, so it was a first experience for all of us.  

In preparation, Thamora had sent us articles on the rapid development of tourism in this area. After Bagan, an ancient city home to thousands of monuments, Inle Lake is the second-most popular tourist destination in the whole of Myanmar. We did not have to look far to witness examples of the rise of tourism during our travels; we simply had to glance outside our speedboatwell, even at our speedboat to see how tourism was taking over the local lifestyle. Inle Lake had been home to fishing villages built directly on the water. While these villages are still thriving, villagers must adapt to the speedboats full of tourists whizzing through their watery streets. From the myriad boat stops at artisan shops and the encroaching floating farmland to the local market that hasa whole knickknack section before locals can get to the food stalls, rapid changes were happening everywhere. While locals supplement their incomes through tourism ventures, they are paying the price of losing the tranquil, lake-centric lifestyles that havebeen there for generations. 

Reflecting on this program, I think it is fantastic for a new cohortof students to experience a beautiful and diverse country that they likely do not know much about. At the same time, because many students do not know much about Myanmar, it would be useful to have the opportunity to take a one-credit jumpstart course offered in the fall semester before the trip—a course modeled on the jumpstart course offered for students enrolled in SEAP’sestablished winter course in Cambodia, led by Hannah Phan, the Khmer language instructor. In this jumpstart course, students are given a cultural and linguistic crash course before they set foot in the country. A course like thiswould greatly benefit students heading off to Myanmar,as it would enable them to communicate,even slightly, without someone nearby to interpret. 

Additionally, as more students learn about Myanmar, they may be inspired to further their studies about the country. Yu YuKhaing, my Burmese teacher, often laments the lack of linguistic research into the Burmese language. Since Myanmar had not opened itself to the world until recently, research regardingmany aspectsof the country is lacking; bringing more Cornellians to the country could improve upon that. Likewise, engaging Cornell students with organizations, schools, and resources across Myanmar serves to strengthen the connection between Cornell and Myanmar, which is what Cornell’s Myanmar Initiative wants to do.iii Myanmar’s universities, especially outside Yangon, lack resources. Luckily, Cornell has an abundance of them. This partnership would benefit many students in the country’s periphery who donot otherwise have access tothe experiences that their urban counterparts do. 

This experience taught me that I am capable of being independent, especially in regard to traveling around foreign countries. While I was no stranger to international travel, visiting my mom’s family in Thailand every other year, pretty much everything I have done previously has been with family. As such, this trip was quite a change. There were a couple of times in the trip where I was without the rest of the group, such as when I explored some streets near our guesthouse and when I was a teacher’s aide for an English class at Myanmar Institute of Theology. These new situations, while at first daunting, gave me confidence that I can succeed in new environments no matter where in the world they may be. Assomeone who wants to work with minority languages around the world, this was an important step in convincing myself that, yes, I can. 

Additionally, my interviews and discussions about language and education within Myanmar cemented for me how I want to pursue work that combines both elements, especially with a focus on endangered or otherwise underserved languages. After learning Burmese and acquiring the wonderful experiences I had during this trip, I would love to return to the country and do work in this regard. One initiative I learned ofis the Third Story Project, based in Yangon, which publishes and freely distributes within Myanmar children’s books in widely spoken minority languages. This is exactly the sort of work I would love to do in the future, becausethe key to maintaining a language’s speaker base is ensuring the youngest generations speak the language. When children lack language support in school, having resources in the home is a major boon. With the sheer linguistic diversity that exists in Myanmar, I envision myself returning to volunteer with efforts such as Third Story in the near future. 

I learned so much in my eighteen short days in Myanmar. Previously, I had known very little about the state of minority languages in Myanmar and not much about the country’s history. From readings and from talking with people of all different backgrounds and experiences, I was able to learn about the social and ethnic histories that shaped the land. Eore than that, I gained confidence in my speaking abilities and my ability to travel on my own, and I realized exactly the sorts of things I want to do with my life.