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  • A Textbook Case of Nation-Building: The Evolution of History Curricula in Myanmar
  • Nicolas Salem-Gervais (bio) and Rosalie Metro (bio)

A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by a common hatred for its neighbors.

— William Ralph Inge (1949: 127)

Over the past sixty years, successive regimes in Myanmar have faced the challenge of building a nation-state amidst ethnic diversity and political contention.1 In addition to the material aspects of building the institutions and infrastructure that allow a state to function, nation-building refers to the process of constructing or structuring a national identity using the power of the state. It thus entails the discursive construction of an “imagined community” toward which citizens are supposed to feel belonging, loyalty, and patriotism (Anderson 1983). In this endeavor, military regimes in Myanmar have both built on the ideological groundwork laid in the dynastic, colonial, and independence eras, and developed innovative new strategies to convince Myanmar’s inhabitants to overlook what divides them and prioritize what they have in common. In this article, we will trace the [End Page 27] evolution of state discourse on the nation in Myanmar with a focus on post-socialist shifts, and provide counter-vailing perspectives from some non-state ethnic minority organizations.

Our sources are ones that have been largely neglected in Burma Studies: schoolbooks. While scholars have productively explored the construction of national identity using state media or public spectacle (Houtman 1999), educational texts provide a relatively unexplored source of insight into state ideology.2 Theorists have long pointed out that curricula are inherently ideological and that schooling promotes state and elites interests (Apple 1979; Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). A rich literature has developed on the construction of national identity in curricula worldwide (Adam 2005; Lall and Vickers 2009). This article extends these insights to Myanmar.

In particular, states have used history education to transmit their self-legitimizing vision and encourage students to adopt the subject position of citizen (Hein and Selden 2000). Our research shows in Myanmar, history (together with the teaching of languages) has had the most dramatic implications for national identity, and is the most contentious.3

Like other media, history curricula transmit ideological messages on a discursive as well as explicit level (Fairclough 2003). Cultural theorist Sara Ahmed examines how texts generate the nation “as a shared object of feeling” by “sticking signs to bodies,” inviting readers to become a “you” addressed by the text while placing other bodies outside the nation’s limits (2004: 12). In this way, “we” (citizens) are divided from “they” (foreigners), notably by the selection of collective [End Page 28] traumas and triumphs that come to symbolize national identity (Volkan 2001). This identity can shift over time, both through deliberate deployment or suppression of information and unintentional slippages that often reveal more or less conscious priorities (Trouillot 1995).4

We therefore take a diachronic approach, attempting to illustrate the continuities, shift s, and ruptures in textbook discourse during the period of military rule. First, we sketch the evolution of history curricula from the colonial era to the present to provide some context for the production and use of history textbooks today. Next, we trace the evolution of three themes that elucidate shifts in the discourse on national identity between the end of socialist period and the SLORC/SPDC era: the substitution of the great kings for Aung San as national hero, the increased marginalization of minorities in the narrative of the nation’s history, and the identification of Thais (along with British and other [neo]colonialists) as national enemies. Finally, we compare the SPDC’s curriculum with some of those produced by non-state groups, including the Karen National Union and Shan State Army, in order to provide alternative readings of the nation(s), and to illustrate the discursive similarities that cross political lines.

While we offer some historical and historiographical context, our primary aim is neither to evaluate the historical truth of these textbooks nor to provide an exhaustive historiography of a particular era. Rather, we provide an argument for how and why their contents have changed or remained the same over time. Our respective backgrounds (education and...