Myanmar's Tamils seek to protect their identity

By Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC Tamil, Myanmar

image captionMotivating young Tamil students to attend classes in Myanmar is a formidable challenge

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 social hierarchy.

They are now trying to revive their language and culture by opening new schools.

Tamils from south India began migrating to Myanmar - also now known as Burma - during the early 19th Century.

Political upheavals

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 administration.

Instead they worked as agricultural labourers for members of the traditional merchant caste known as Nagarathars.

"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 of Mawlamyine.

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.

'Permanent damage'

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 captionThere 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 Tamil classes.

In her neighbourhood - which outwardly has symbols of Tamil culture - there are many others who struggle to speak the language.

image captionMany 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 Burmese costumes.

Unlike the previous generation they have very little emotional connection with the land of their ancestors. This trend is giving way to fears of total assimilation.

"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 plagued Burma.

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 captionEvidence 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 businessmen.

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.

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