Attempting to Define Ethnic Group with Burmese Middle Schoolers

When teaching world history, there comes a point where defining ethnic group is important for understanding many civilizations.  However, defining ethnic group can be pretty tricky.  To start, we asked the seventh grade students to try to guess how to define ethnic group.  In Myanmar, the large ethnic groups are also states in the country.  This happened mainly when the Burmese attempted to “Burmanize” the country, which means they tried to make all ethnic groups assimilate to the Bamar ethnic group.  Basically, it was hard for students to distinguish between ethnic groups and states/regions.  Ultimately, it helped that they are familiar with other ethnic groups in Myanmar such as the Wa, Naga, and Pa’o people.

Given the ethnic and religious conflicts going on in the country, I was intrigued that the students didn’t mention the Rohingya as an ethnic group (even though they are technically not an ethnic group, but regardless).  One student did mention the Rohingya when we asked about ethnic groups that live in Myanmar but aren’t Burmese or citizens of Myanmar.  This student also mentioned afterwards that Myanmar people are poor because of the military government (note, the students often talk about tangential topics).  A student in a different class mentioned the Kachin Independence Army.  He said that they are terrorists because they kill people and recruit children soldiers.  For more context, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is an military/political group that exists to protect the Kachin people and interests.  In 2011, broke a ceasefire with the government because of dams that were built in Kachin state that increased flooding in the region.  I cannot speak to the extent of corruption, control, or militaristic power that the army possesses.

Overall, our discussions about ethnic groups in Myanmar shed some light into how kids are defining the Rohingya in the context of the people of Myanmar.  In most cases, the Rohingya do not come to mind, but when they do, they are viewed as not being people of Myanmar.  In general, ethnic tensions and conflicts have persisted in Myanmar for years, so it is not wholly surprising that children from middle-income families raised in Yangon share some of the biases or viewpoints associated with the conflicts.


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