[lg policy] Myanmar's Tamils seek to protect their identity
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 8 16:59:12 UTC 2014
Myanmar's Tamils seek to protect their identity By Swaminathan Natarajan BBC
[image: Students in a Tamil class room] Motivating young Tamil students to
attend classes in Myanmar is a formidable challenge
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People of Indian origin make up of roughly 2% of Myanmar's 55-million
population, but the experiences of Tamil people - who comprise the largest
group - have veered from one extreme to the other in the past 200 years.
After independence in 1948, the introduction of land reforms, the
imposition of the Burmese language and the decision to give preferential
treatment to the majority Burmese community pushed Tamils down in the
They are now trying to revive their language and culture by opening new
Tamils from south India began migrating to Myanmar - also now known as
Burma - during the early 19th Century.
But unlike indentured labourers who went from India to counties such as Sri
Lanka and South Africa , Tamils in Burma were not taken on by the colonial
Instead they worked as agricultural labourers for members of the
traditional merchant caste known as Nagarathars.
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"Start Quote [image: Sumathi]
Even my Tamil friends prefer to speak in Burmese. I can understand a bit of
Tamil but can't speak it"
Sumathi Fifth generation Tamil in Myanmar
"We have a temple which was built in 1836. Some say the first Tamil
settlers arrived in 1824," says Dhanapal, a trader living in the port city
At the turn of the 20th Century, Tamils established themselves in
agriculture and trade in what was then Burma.
But their fortunes took a huge downturn during the World War Two and
subsequent political upheavals.
After the Japanese invasion of Burma, many thousands of Tamils who worked
in urban areas for the British colonial administration returned to India.
Once independence was secured, the Burmese government introduced land
reforms and took over vast tracts of irrigated land and businesses as part
of a nationalisation drive.
The imposition of the Burmese language as the medium of instruction -
combined with the forced closure of Tamil schools in the 1960s - triggered
another wave of reverse migration.
[image: A statue of Buddha in a Hindu temple in Rangoon] There is a
visible bond between Buddhism and Hinduism in many Hindu temples
But many Tamils have deep roots in the country. They kept a low profile and
slowly improved their fortunes by mending their relationship with the
majority community and staying away from politics.
Septuagenarian Nainar Mohamed says that the closing down of Tamil schools
by the government some 50 years ago caused permanent damage.
"While travelling in a train I saw a group of girls clothed in traditional
saris," he said.
"They had long hair and wore flowers. But when I tried to speak to them in
Tamil, they were not able to understand a word. Large numbers of Tamils
here cannot read, write or even speak Tamil."
Sumathi, 20, is a fifth generation Tamil. She lives in an area inhabited by
many Tamil families in Mawlamyine.
She likes to wear traditional Burmese dresses and applies thangka - a
yellowish paste - on her cheeks.
"I work in a local shop. I speak in Burmese at my home. Even my Tamil
friends prefer to speak in Burmese. I can understand a bit of Tamil but
can't speak it," she says in broken Tamil. She has no intention to attend
In her neighbourhood - which outwardly has symbols of Tamil culture - there
are many others who struggle to speak the language.
[image: Tamil students in Burma] Many younger Tamils do not speak the
language and adopt Burmese customs
The younger generation of Tamils eats Burmese food, speaks the Burmese
language in their homes and in many cases prefers to wear traditional
Unlike the previous generation they have very little emotional connection
with the land of their ancestors. This trend is giving way to fears of
"Our boys and girls don't know Tamil or Sanskrit. They don't know the
history and cultural traditions of our community. Some have even embraced
other religions," says Devaraj, a trustee of a Rangoon temple.
To arrest this trend he has started organising religion classes for Hindu
children. Barring a small number of Muslims and Christians, Burmese Tamils
are predominantly Hindu.
There is a visible bond between Hinduism and Buddhism. There are more than
1,000 Hindu temples in present-day Myanmar. In some of the more famous
temples ethnic Burmese visitors outnumber Tamils.
All Hindu temples have a statue or image of Buddha. Even though some Hindu
traditions accept Buddha as a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, not many
temples in India have Buddha statues.
Members of the Burmese Tamil community say that this mutual understanding
means that they have largely escaped religious violence which sometimes has
But while Myanmar's military rulers did not interfere with temple
administrations, the closure of Tamil schools meant that the Tamil language
was only taught in temples - and then only for the purposes of fostering
religious education and music and dance.
The restrictions meant that Burma's Tamil population has remained isolated
for many years.
[image: Statue of Thiruvalluvar] Evidence of Tamil culture is not hard to
find - such as this statue of renowned poet Thiruvalluvar
It maintained very little contact with Tamil Nadu or with other
well-established Tamil communities living in Singapore and Malaysia. Many
Tamil teenagers - and their parents - have not even seen India.
But with change sweeping Myanmar, many new schools - which are keen to go
beyond religious education only - have emerged.
"We have prepared a syllabus and brought out books which are given free. We
train the teachers and are doing everything to motivate the students," says
P Shanmuganathan, a teacher overseeing dozens of Tamil schools in Burma.
Tamils in Burma are thinly spread, except in a few villages. In many places
it is difficult to muster enough students to justify the salaries of
teachers - usually paid by the voluntary contributions from Tamil
Motivating young students to attend classes is a formidable challenge.
"Some ask me why we should learn the language which is not going to provide
job opportunities and has no practical utility. I tell them this is about
our own history and identity. We will not be able to call ourselves Tamil
if we lose our language," Mr Shanmuganathan says.
Tamil teachers say that if present efforts are sustained, the community
will be able to keep the Tamil culture and language alive for years to come.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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