VOA Burmese Blog

August 5, 2010

Freedom of Expression Denied in the Homes of Burmese Families ( by the family)

– Kaye Lin

School picture from audleyblog.com

The way that one is treated in the home and in one’s family reflects how one acts within society as a whole. At a young age, Burmese youth are told not to talk back to their elders. They are told that they will not go to heaven if they speak up to their parents, and ” disrespect” their family name, so the child learns to be obedient to their seniors and hold back their thoughts and words. We know that freedom of speech is denied in Burma by the Burmese military regime, but is freedom of speech/expression denied in the homes by the families of the Burmese youth ? Could it be that our seniors and parents are the ones who are hindering the freedoms of expression of the Burmese society? By not speaking up, we might all be partaking in the sculpting of the generations to come.

In Burma, children are to be seen, not to be heard. When children go to school, parents give custody of their kids to the teachers- saying, ” If my child misbehaves, please teacher, I give you permission to hit him/her.” And children are hit frequently; hence children are scared and are unwilling to speak up. If kids are mistreated, society would never know because of the harsh restrictions on them. Children in Burma are often hit with big rulers or sticks in front of classrooms and even auditoriums. In our office, the colleagues were sharing their stories of schooling in Burma. Although, they had such a great time at school, my colleagues admitted just how strict the schooling was- in terms of not just academically, but also mannerly as well . My boss told us an anecdote of his years in college. He and a bunch of boys were accused of being smart aleks by talking back to a teacher, when in reality they were just telling the truth. They were brought in front of the University’s auditorium and hit on their backsides with big rulers- by 5 teachers. The audience was also squirming as they were being hit.

The culture of family is very much different in the West. In America, children are often heard. Although parents scold their children, they do support their child’s statements. Parents go to parent-teacher-conferences to talk about their child’s studies, abilities and disadvantages. If the child is unhappy, the parents question the teacher’s conduct. A child is free to learn in the classroom without being afraid. I think  these 2 different cultures- of American schooling compared to Burmese schooling culture, forsee the politics of one’s country. At a young age, American kids are taught to speak up and stand up for themselves. We see that in America- there is an abundance of civil liberties and freedom of expression and speech; in Burma, freedoms are restricted, and the Burmese are still fighting very hard to attain their freedoms today.

What do you think about the clash of cultures? Do you think that both cultures of family reflect on the politics within the countries?



  1. I am not surprised to see that there has been no comment on this so far (15 August 2010). This is a controversial issue. I am glad that you have kindly and bravely raised it.

    Such view and practices of beating children and wives prevail even in some Burmese families who have been living in the West. Despite freedom of speech and civil liberties, many seems unable to discuss this openly although they no longer think like the rest for fear of repercussion even from the Burmese community in the West.

    Besides, no one knows what is actually happening inside in a downtown flat in New York and London. In Burma, such practices cannot be hidden from the public even though many members of the community condone these. Nosy neighbours know almost everything about their neighbours especially in villages and in some urban area where people still live in traditional Burmese dwellings.

    Victims of child abuses (beating, abusing children verbally and emotionally _ including pushing too hard on their studies, making children do too much housework instead of homework, making children care too much for the sick elderly because they are traditionally supposed to fulfil their filial duties) and beaten wives of domestic violence rarely report of such crimes to the police. These poor victims may not also wish to bring shame on their parents and on their abusive spouses or partners in the community even though they live in the West.

    Yes, fortunately, children are now safe in western schools at least from teachers but not from some of their peers: boozing, drug-taking, bullying and cheating ones. I am sure you know that some of these western schools (under democratically elected governments) used to practise corporal punishment about thirty or forty years ago. I wonder whether you have seen films about English and European public schools and state schools where teachers used to inflict even severe physical punishments on students. I don’t know much about the American public and state schools.

    Some men freely used to beat their wives and use corporal punishment to discipline children; the police could not almost always interfere domestic affairs at that time. Many politicians and legislators just ignored these issues in the West until a few decades ago. Legislations on domestic violence effectively came into force only in the middle of the first decade of the twenty first century in the UK. This is not just the unique cultural problem of the Burmese community inside Burma under the current government. I am glad that situations have improved much in the West. However, some members of different immigrant communities still wish to practice their cultural rituals and upbringing of their offspring in accordance with the old culture not because of the political system they left behind in their country. Some still wants to circumcise their baby daughters in order to exercise freedom of their unique cultural expression. Some religious members want to practise polygamy with child brides in accordance with their religious conviction in a state where it is illegal.

    I am sorry to hear that your boss and friends were beaten in front of the University auditorium for speaking the truth. However, I am also surprised to hear that this happened in a university premise. This was not supposed to have happened. When I was a university teacher more than thirty years ago, we were not supposed to use physical punishment. Strict disciplining was only the domain for teachers in schools. (And I went to a school where I never witnessed beating or harsh punishment on anybody. And, students at my school always behaved well and studied very hard.)

    University teachers were only supposed to teach. And university students were just supposed to behave like adults without expecting moral lectures or corporal punishment from lecturers. University was considered a mature centre for learning and not for football hooligans or delinquents although no matter how much cash-starved they may have been. And most of us did not have time or desire to give non-academic lectures on discipline on moral issues. Each of us had to take three classes of nearly or over 200 students each and also had to be standby for other overworked teachers who got sick. And some of us did not have holidays when we had to teach the equal number of university distance learners; some of them were found even keener to learn than most ordinary university students despite the poor facilities the universities could provide due to lack of money. We were also not paid very well like our western counterparts either.

    Well, there were widespread cheating, some persistent attempts to bribe teachers for good marks which a few teachers succumbed to unfortunately at my time, truancy, chain-smoking, some drug-taking or suspected dealing or occasional fighting among different gang-like groups, and all sorts of misbehaviours among some university students. The university generally ignored these unless things got out of control and became public concerns. I just ignored unruly students because I had only time for students who came to the University to study genuinely. The only time I was busy with these students was in the examination time. I had to do thorough search for notes smuggled into the examinations to cheat because it was extremely unfair for honest students who had studied very hard. I never reported any cheat to the authority because if I had done, more than 50 per cent would have been barred from the university up to three years. Some cheated because they were pathological cheats; some cheated for fear of being pushed behind by the pathological cheats. Many of these cheats in colleges and universities have even managed to gain top degrees including engineering and medical degrees. Life is unfair but youthful transgression should be forgiven if the cheats have grown up and mature enough to become responsible citizens of this planet. However, one should not forget the truth about himself or herself. It is not always about speaking the truth about others; there is also another truth about oneself.

    Due to enormous class size and the lack of sound-proof system to silence noise from other classes, we could not have a seminar style academic activities in classrooms. To create an artificial atmosphere like that of a much smaller class in western universities was to ask clever students questions and let the less clever students learn from his classmates so that cleverer students did not get bored. I did that to some extent. Well, I no longer wished to be a teacher when all students were given extra points to pass all their subjects regardless of their actual achievements so that they would be too blissful to ignore extra-curricular situations.

    When this happened, I gave my first and last non-academic lecture to my students. That was at the first day at the first term at the university. Eighty percent had gained distinctions in the subject that I taught. I told them that they needed to know the truth about themselves. Many did not deserve the distinction that they had gained because 40 points had been added to them. Only those who could read and write English properly deserved such distinctions. Unsurprisingly, I became quite unpopular afterwards among the bad but not among the good. Here again, one should never forget the truth about himself or herself that how he or she has climbed the top of the world (inside Burma as well as in the West) by cheating or by being bribed or by bribing.

    One interesting story was that we had a Moslem teacher who was of Burmese Indian origin. Unfortunately, because of his racial origin, he had extra problems with these unruly and abusive students. Then out of frustration, he started saying that he should bring a gun to the university every day. Poor man, I did not think he would last long in his position on way or another. Being transferred to another university, I was spared from witnessing his possible tragic exit on this farcical stage.

    And another story was about university football matches. At one time, university teachers were forced to act as crowd control at the football stadium where matches between different universities were played. I remember how engineering students and medical students fought with bricks and chairs. I refused to go to these matches to serve my duty. So I was reprimanded as a result. Well, I preferred harsh words from my superiors to injury or death by being caught between two warring tribes. University teachers were not supposed to be policewomen and policemen where the government was too scared to use police to control fighting football fans who happened to be university students. Our job descriptions did not stipulate this duty.

    Well some western schools have become so good for some children of extraordinarily high spirits that now even some parents have decided to educate their children at home instead. I do not like corporal punishment and traumatic emotional abuses (making very young children extremely ashamed of their minor transgressions, the method used by some Chinese schools). So parents should be held responsible for misbehaving children and at the same time, parents should not expect to use the same unlawful methods in disciplining their children.

    Well, I will always remember and love all my ex-students who studied hard and behaved well at the University. Some may have been a little cheeky nevertheless honest and fair and innocent Some have had great achievements. Some have been pushed behind because of the pathological cheats. Life is not fair and I am sorry that I was unable to help you beat the cheating culture (now even this culture exists widespread in the West). However, I know the truth about you that you have been hardworking, honest and decent. And you know about the truth about yourself too. Life is not all about becoming a doctor or an engineer or an English major graduate by cheating. Struggling is itself a grace as said by some wise people. And all subjects are worth studying! Whatever degrees you have had from whichever university from the west or from Burma, you can still achieve greater things in life.

    And this is also In Defence of Burmese Teachers: my long suffering colleagues and my own teachers including my kindergarten teachers. I will never say that you are “stupid and bigoted” because you did not get Western liberal degrees. Some of my university teachers had never been abroad but they were well-read and great teachers. I am here because of all of you. Without your love and skills as a teacher, I am what I am now. Thank you to all my loving teachers at the school and at the University in BURMA or MYANMAR!

    Comment by Daw Saw — August 15, 2010 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  2. Even in the Western society with civil liberties and freedom of expression, one cannot often express their views freely and openly. For many years in the West, I worked in many commercial and non-commercial organisations where staff members could not even talk about the goodness of someone that their bosses disliked let alone criticising their bosses. Generally one can only talk about bad things done by the enemies of their big bosses. These big bosses do not choose truly outspoken candidates with attitude at interviews. Although one pretends to be nice and quiet (deceptively submissive) enough at the interview, he or she will not last long when he or she can no longer hide his or her true nature. Most bosses do not want someone who will be a potential threat to his way of life. Work places are often like some school playgrounds where sometimes bullying is rampant. Human Resources Departments and the Union are often useless in protecting outspoken staff members that bosses dislike; they have attitude problems and deserve to be disciplined or sacked. That is why some deep throats have resorted to whistle-blowing which sometimes results in their suspension. They do not almost always win. Well, the best policy is not to advertise that we are telling the truth nothing but the truth and we are always fair and unbiased because we are here in an office in the West endowed with such and such liberties! Others do understand our predicaments; we all need good secure jobs and good pension. So we sometimes have to mime or lip-sync or cover other people’s songs. Sadly, some people are freer and more equal than the others. That is a case in all cultures and not just in poor schools in Burma.

    Comment by Daw Saw — August 15, 2010 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your response and enthusiasm in the blog Daw Saw. We always love hearing from you and the rest of the commentators.

      Comment by voaburmese — August 16, 2010 @ 4:02 pm | Reply

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