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The Policy of Marginalization and Discrimination

Laws & Policies, Rohingya
By Aman Ullah
Since 1962, the successive Burmese Military regime involved wide spread and institutionalized discrimination of ethnic nationality groups in matters of culture, education, language and religion, as well as a silencing of alternative historical narratives. This policy became bad to worse after the events of 1988. The successive Burmese Regime intentionally runs a Burman-centered policy in every aspect of the society, and the intense restrictions placed on cultural expression have resulted in the corrosion of ethnic languages and cultures. The Burmese military has also exercised Burmanisation through rape and forced pregnancy.
The teaching of ethnic nationality languages has been prohibited since 1962, although some changes are on the way. For decades, teachers have not only been banned from using ethnic languages as a medium of instruction at government-sponsored schools, but also from teaching the language during and after school hours. Some have been able to study their own language during summer holidays, while thousands have also been punished for volunteering to teach their own language during their free time.
Even though changes are being introduced, this policy largely remains in place. In 2013, Burmese generally remained the mandatory language of instruction in state schools, and teaching in local languages was not offered. According to the 2014 US State Department’s Report, there were also very few domestic publications in indigenous minority languages and the government reportedly blocked efforts of ethnic language and literature associations to meet and teach in 2013. In accordance with new legislation that was announced by Burma’s Minister for Education in June 2012, ethnic languages are set to be included in state primary schools’ curriculum, although the classes will be held outside of normal school hours. For the first time in more than 40 years, there are hopes that students in Burma will be able to learn their ethnic languages in government-run schools. It remains to be seen whether schools in ethnic areas will be able to take advantage of this opportunity in practice.
In 2014, the US State Department also reported that, while people of Burma place high value on education, the education system in Burma is under-resourced and lacking in every aspect, particularly so in outlying ethnic areas. Although by law education is compulsory and free, the Burmese government continues to allocate minimal resources to public education, and schools routinely charge fees.
In 2008 the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) reported that, “The government and the local people are often at odds about the reality of essential services in rural areas. As an example, at the same time that the Burmese government claimed to have released funds for the construction and operation of schools and improved access to educational facilities by rural children in the Karen State, local villagers cited devastating under-funding of education, in combination with the Burmese military’s impoverishment of the civilian population through regular demands for labour, money, food and supplies. Restrictions on travel, trade and livelihood as well as the continual attacks and displacement have further undermined family income levels and driven children into the workforce, or to becoming child soldiers in one of the myriad armies”.
Furthermore, scores of ethnic children do not understand the medium of instruction and are hesitant to attend schools even when it would otherwise be possible. Frequent beatings as punishment and rote learning as the only method of learning also do little to encourage the children. As a consequence, school attendance rates are low and drop-out rates high.
Those children who are able to attend schools do so in schools with poor quality of staff and unmotivated teachers. A homogenous, Burman-centered, pro-military, and out-of-date curriculum is universally applied across government-controlled Burma with no accommodation for ethnic difference or inclusion of ethnic histories. Education is also highly teacher-centered and based on rote-learning. It seems that the government perceives education as a potential threat and is thus exerting its control over people through education; analytical and critical thinking skills are discouraged and universities are kept on a particularly short leash.
Historically, many uprisings and civilian activities have begun and spread in universities and the government has thus made commendable efforts keeping its students contained. According to the 2011 report of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, the single most important issue of concern for all ethnic groups, including the majority Burman, was education. It was widely felt that the education system was under-resourced, corrupted, and failed to equip young people with skills and knowledge to face the future. People also complained of the rising cost of education, which has pushed it out of reach for a large part of the population. Both ethnic nationality members and the Burman expressed their concerns over omitting ethnic histories, perspectives, heroes, and significant events from the textbooks used in school.
As well as having a severely under-financed education system, national health care in Burma is catastrophically under-financed. The government spends only 0.8% of its GDP on education (2011 estimate – CIA World Fact-book, 2014) and 2% on health (2012 estimate – CIA World Fact-book, 2014). The combined under-funding of health care and impoverishment of the civilian population severely jeopardizes the health of the people of Burma, particularly in poor and conflict-ridden rural ethnic areas.
Members of all ethnic nationality groups in Burma perceive significant constraints on cultural expression and limitations as a result of belonging to a certain cultural or religious group. With widespread and systematic discrimination against ethnic nationality peoples throughout Burma, ethnic nationalities feel not only treated as second class citizens but also in great danger of losing their traditional cultures.
Civil society actors have adopted various strategies to preserve ethnic languages, cultures, and histories, including running summer schools and festivals, producing literature, teaching in monasteries and setting up schools under ethnic army control or in the refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. Many ethnic youths from Burma have crossed the border to Thailand to discover their own culture and learn about their own history. Thousands have learned how to read and write their own language in refugee camps in Thailand. Despite engaging in various activities, many ethnic nationalities are facing deterioration of their cultures and languages.
According to the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies (2010) interview survey, people of Burma also feel that festivals and celebrations have become another source of conflict between ethnic nationality groups and the government; permits for festivals are often not granted and even when they are, the government often exploits the opportunity to Burmanise local customs. This is particularly regrettable as festivals in Burma used to serve as a primary force of inter-ethnic interaction and relationship building. Religion has served as another channel for Burmanisation, particularly among Buddhist ethnic nationality groups who feel that they are forced to practice a Burman way of Buddhism.
Members of all main ethnic groups, including the majority Burman, feel that the government promotes division among ethnic groups (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010). Many people of Burma feel that the government has done so in an attempt to prevent a unified opposition movement. One of the main strategies of the Burmese military to weaken the opposition armies has been to offer selective ceasefire agreements which ignore the political concerns of the groups but offer many other benefits and privileges to those who agree to them, including natural resource extraction licenses or lucrative business deals. Accordingly, ceasefires in Burma have been highly controversial. While some people of Burma feel positive about ceasefires because they generally bring more peace, stability and freedom of movement, many feel that ceasefires are negative because they weaken armed groups without bringing any political gains. Many communities have been divided as a result of selective ceasefire agreements that have produced splits and divisions in the opposition. With the use of selective ceasefires, the Burmese army has managed to weaken the opposition without addressing the original goals of ethnic nationalities. The Burmese government seems to have succeeded in a policy it has most likely learned from the British: Divide and rule.
Many ethnic nationality leaders maintain that they have been pushed to the very fringes of Burmese society and been deeply marginalized by political and economic neglect and discrimination ever since independence. Due to the ongoing conflict as well as open discrimination and abuse of ethnic nationalities, many ethnic peoples have developed deep prejudice and stereotypes regarding the Burman people, including civil society members who have no connection to the government or the Burma Army. They are also concerned over the Burmese government as well as foreign companies benefiting from Burma’s abundant resources that are mainly located in the ethnic states. While the government makes huge profits from development projects, often the only impact for local ethnic people is that they are forcibly relocated or forced to work on projects that exploit their states’ natural resources.
While the government practices open discrimination towards ethnic nationalities, the prejudice that the latter have developed towards the former has taken on a life of its own. For national reconciliation, both forms must be addressed. Nevertheless, it is a precondition for ethnic prejudice to decrease that the government treats everyone equally and gives all peoples equal opportunities. Otherwise, there will be great challenges in building trust and friendly relations particularly between the Burman majority and the ethnic nationality groups.

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