Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Shan – Introduction

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · *Introductions, Shan

by Brian McCartan

This chapter explores several terms security related as used by Shan in the Shan State of northern and northeastern Burma/Myanmar.

The Shan refer to themselves as Tai (). The use of Shan comes from a corruption of Siam by the Burmans which became Shan () and was later incorporated into English. In Thai, the Shan are called Tai Yai (ไทยใหญ่) – ‘Big or Great Tai.’

The Shan language can be divided into three main dialects; northern, southern and eastern. Other forms of Shan, including Khamti Shan, Khün and Thai Lü are also spoken and some have their own written forms. Northern Shan is spoken in northwestern Shan State around Lashio and parts of Kachin State and is influenced by Yunnan Chinese. Southern Shan is spoken in the region of the state capital, Taunggyi, and Kalaw and has been influenced by Burmese. Eastern Shan is spoken in the areas along the border with Thailand and in the eastern portion of the country around Kengtung bordered by Laos and has been influenced by Thai and Lao. The three dialects are mutually intelligible with some pronunciation differences and a few differing words, especially where borrowed from Chinese, Burmese or Thai.

Which Shan dialect should be considered standard Shan, and even which script, has been a topic of much debate among Shan. The teaching of Shan took third place to Burmese and English under the colonial administration, but in 1948, after Burma’s independence, a Shan Literary Committee was formed to standardize the script and push for the teaching of Shan language.

During the 1950’s Shan leaders pushed Shan as an official language for Shan State for administration, politics and economics. Committees were set up by the Shan State government to discuss the issue, several scripts were put forward, textbooks proposed and curriculums devised. After much debate, an agreement was reached and Shan was scheduled to become the medium of instruction in schools in Shan State beginning in 1962.

The coup of 1962 put these efforts on temporary hold. The new military government made it clear that while it would not ban the teaching of the language, it would not be compulsory in Shan State schools and the Shan would have to promote their language themselves. The debate over the standardization of Shan began again. Continued disputes over issues such as the script combined with a lack of textbooks and qualified teachers has meant that Shan remains highly diversified on a regional basis, with different dialects, writing systems and even vocabulary.

The standardization of the language has only been made more complicated by the fragmented nature of education in Shan State wherein the government, Shan literary societies and the various insurgent groups all have their own schools and their own preferences as to which dialect, vocabulary and script should be used.

Security-related terms also remain un-standardized. On the eve of Burma’s independence in 1946 there was much discussion of political terms among Shan politicians and activist. Many were well educated and understood the political concepts but used Burmese or English terms. A nationalist push to devise Shan words for the same concepts took place and long debates were held over which were the appropriate terms. Many of the words presented here are a result of those debates. Unfortunately, the words were never standardized which together with the fractious political situation in Shan State and the regionalism in dialects and education has sometimes resulted in a variety of words for the same concept, complicating the security discourse in the region.

The dismal lack of education together with the warfare that has swept Shan State since the invasion of the Kuomintang in 1949 has meant that these terms remain known mostly to educated political and military leaders and to activists. Shan peasants and rank and file soldiers often do not know the words, nor can they relate to many of the concepts.

It should be noted that while the Shan are the majority in Shan State, there are a considerable number of other ethnic groups with their own languages in the state that are very much involved in the political discourse. For most discussions between Shan and non-Shans, both on a personal and political level, Burmese is the lingua franca. Discussions between the Burmese government and the various Shan ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups are always in Burmese. An important exception is in discussions between the Shan and the United Wa State Army wherein Shan is used as the medium. Unlike some other ethnic insurgencies such as the Karen which use Burmese in most internal political and military discussions, Shan political and military groups make an effort to use Shan exclusively.

For the purposes of this study, we have used the Shan found in the Shan-English Dictionary by Sao Tern Moeng, which also uses the new Shan script. Some pronunciation differences that were brought to our attention have been noted in the English transliteration. Terms in this chapter that have Burmese or Thai components or have been wholly borrowed from those languages have been noted. There is still much work to be done on Shan political vocabulary, both in standardizing it and clarifying its meaning.

There are several systems for transliterating Shan into English, and no one system is ‘official’. Shan dictionaries do not provide transliterations and there are regional differences in pronunciation that would affect English transliteration. We have chosen to use a system by the Shan Herald Agency for News and suggested by the editor Sai Khuensai Jaiyen, also a noted Shan scholar.

We have made heavy use of the Shan-English Dictionary by Sao Tern Moeng (Dunwoody Press, 1995) and An English and Shan Dictionary edited by Mrs. H.W. Mix (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press F.D. Phinney, Supt. 1920, Revised Edition 2001 by S.H.A.N.). Sai Aung Tun’s History of the Shan State from its Origins to 1962 (Silkworm Books 2009) was also very useful. Sai Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News, was a great source of help in clarifying the meaning of terms and the history behind them. Other members of the Shan exile community from former resistance leaders to migrant workers were interviewed.




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