English first as Myanmar protesters appeal to the world

The words "We Want Democracy" are seen painted on a road in eastern Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Carved watermelons with the words "Justice for Myanmar" and portraits of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi are displayed in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Feb 19, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (REUTERS) - "We want democracy" is spelled out in huge white letters on a street in Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon.

"Justice for Myanmar" is carved on a row of watermelons by chefs protesting against the Feb 1 coup. The message "Reject Military" is formed by letters on the t-shirts of a row of hard-hatted protesters. All are in English.

While the language is in daily use by only a minority in the country of 53 million people, it often dominates protest slogans and placards as protesters try to get their anti-coup message to the world.

"Writing in English is more effective than writing in Burmese," said student Ko Ko Lwin, 21, who is from a generation that came of age as Myanmar opened up to the world and is now at the forefront of the protests. "We want the international community to help us," he said.

Protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the streets across the country daily for nearly three weeks to oppose the coup by generals who alleged fraud at last year's election. "Free our leader," read thousands of placards in English, referring to elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a symbol of resistance to a previous half century of army rule.

The use of English by protesters drew scorn from junta-appointed Information Minister Chit Naing. "Writing in English, asking others to help and to intervene in our country? I am not such a stupid, helpless person as to do that," Myanmar language state media quoted him as saying. "Know the dignity of your race and parents. You are not alone. Don't disrespect the dignity of your nationality."

The language of the ethnic Bamar majority has been the official language since independence from Britain in 1948. The use of English fell in and out of favour at various points during nearly half a century of junta rule over a country with over 130 ethnic groups. Education in all languages was a stated priority of Suu Kyi, an Oxford graduate.

Second language

But even as a more globally connected generation emerged during the transition to democracy that started in 2011, English skills remained low overall - one 2020 survey ranked Myanmar's English proficiency 93rd out of 100 countries measured.

The recent calls for international support echo those that brought decades of foreign backing for Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest in a fight against previous juntas. But those foreign campaigns did little to sway the generals in what became one of the world's most reclusive countries, and some suspect the same will be true this time.

"International reactions of statements and sanctions will have no effect," wrote historian and author Thant Myint-U on Twitter. Protesters say they see foreign support as an important boost to morale that also undermines the junta's credibility and puts greater scrutiny on security forces who have a record of bloody crackdowns on protests.

They seek tougher sanctions than the limited steps so far by the United States and a few other Western countries. "We need US army to save our situation," said some placards held up outside the US embassy this week. In parallel with street protests, there is a social media campaign in English - designed to gain global attention - on Facebook, used by some half of Myanmar's people, and more recently on Twitter.

Memes in English quickly pick up the theme of the day and protesters are swift to respond to foreign governments' reactions to what is happening in Myanmar. "Thanks a lot Indonesia for acceptance of our wishes and our real voice," a user identified as Thandar Htun wrote on Twitter after Indonesia confirmed it was not calling on the junta to hold new elections - a proposal protesters have rejected. "Ur help can support our Myanmar citizens."

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