Prisons and the importance of English language in Burma

Learning English

English textbooks

People in Burma can be thrown into prison and sentenced for anything from a few years to a hundred years, yes, I said a hundred years, for crimes like organising a peaceful demonstration against the government or for campaigning for the release of political prisoners.

To give you some idea of the numbers, in 2006, there were 42 prisons and 91 labour camps in Burma, most prisoners being transferred up country so as to make it as difficult as possible for their families to visit them and to make them feel isolated.
For many of these political prisoners, prisons came to be known as „Life University“:

While in prison, many people are put into solitary confinement and are not allowed to communicate with each other. Apparently one technique they use to overcome this problem is to tap out messages to each other in code on the walls. For this they use the English language as it has fewer letters and vowels than Burmese. This of course is an additional reason why they want to learn English which they try to achieve in any way possible.

This sometimes involves bribing the prison guard to smuggle in different pages from Time magazine for instance, a few pages at a time, or different pages from an English dictionary which one of the prisoner’s family would buy at great expense and then bribe the prison guard to smuggle through.


In fact, talking of English, I noticed that during my travels the people who spoke the best English were usually people over 60 years of age, which is not usually the case in many parts of Europe for instance, where younger people tend to speak better English.
This is because many of these Burmese people had been brought up in British run missionary schools where the teaching language was in English. All this stopped in the mid 1960’s when General Ne Win, the all powerful military leader and Head of State, ordered that English no longer be used as a medium of instruction at schools. English was connected to British colonial rule and he believed that true nationalists should speak in Burmese only.

Interestingly, Gen Ne Win changed this policy in 1979 when his daughter failed her entrance test to study medicine at a university in England because of her poor English. He then re- instated English in schools in Burma. However, because of the shortage of fluent teachers, the teaching of English is at a pretty low level today.

Amusingly, on two different occasions during my travels I met some elderly Burmese who spoke very good English and they told me that they had attended these missionary run schools and added with a slightly cheeky smile that the condition for them to attend these schools was that they convert to christianity, which they did, only to reconvert to budhism once their schooling was over!


1 Comment

Filed under Burma

One response to “Prisons and the importance of English language in Burma

  1. ania Regan Olsen

    This is the first time I’ve heard of people going to such extreme means to learn a foreign language, just to be able to survive psychologically in such terrible conditions. Very moving.

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