Mediation efforts help resolve social tensions in multilingual Myanmar

March 16 / 176

One of the University’s leading education academics, and an internationally regarded advisor on multilingual language policy, Professor Joseph Lo Bianco is currently forging the way in research and mediation efforts to resolve major social tensions in SE Asia.

Professor Lo Bianco has just run a major international conference at the University of Mandalay in Myanmar on Language Policy in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings.  The conference drew 380 attendees from 37 countries.

In the lead up to the conference Professor Lo Bianco had conducted 16 mediation dialogues across Myanmar. They focused on finding peacebuilding compromises to fraught ethnic and indigenous relations with mainstream society in Myanmar. These conflicts have seen continuous civil conflict for more than 50 years.  

Dialogues have also been run in Thailand and Malaysia as part of a broader project under the auspices of UNICEF’s Language, Education, and Social Cohesion (LESC) initiative, funded by the Government of the Netherlands. 

“There are 135 different language groups in Myanmar, known officially as ‘national races’,” Professor Lo Bianco says.

“Language rights were repressed under military rulers who considered discussion of this topic a threat to cohesion of the political union. We’ve approached the problem from a dialogue based, bottom up process, involving officials, including military personnel, ethnic/indigenous groups, civil society, and various experts.  It has worked very well and the conference in Mandalay has been the culmination of four years of ‘on the ground’ effort."

Professor Lo Bianco says a senior Myanmar Ministry of Education official described the conference as a historic breakthrough.

“From the first day it was clear we had achieved much greater understanding of the challenges multilingualism posed to nation building,” he says.  

“This all occurs at a crucial time in the political history of Myanmar with the military government gradually ceding to democratic rule after the huge victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November 2014 elections, the first relatively free poll since 1990.”

Language and education issues frequently spark debate in the region, and the LESC initiative has been researching and intervening to help countries develop peace-promoting multilingual national policies through research and intervention.

The University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education is a partner of the conference and Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis contributed an opening address and welcome statement. 

Professor Lo Bianco says it’s clear that discussions about managing multilingualism are crucial in building national prosperity, and promoting social cohesion and development.

Story by Bridget O’Reilly

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