Land without history: Myanmar rediscovers its past
YANGON, Myanmar – With the laying of a wreath at a faraway grave, the last king of Myanmar finally won public recognition after more than a century hidden from view by the country's former colonial masters and military junta.
The sombre ceremony for King Thibaw in Ratnigiri, western India was a watershed moment for Myanmar as it forges a new sense of national identity under its first elected government in a generation.
For half a century its military rulers ran an Orwellian campaign to rewrite the past, casting themselves as the saviors of the nation. Today the country's understanding of its history is starting to change under the young government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which took power nearly a year ago.
"History at school was a kind of government propaganda," Pathein University lecturer Than Htike Aung told Agence France-Presse.
"The textbooks don't give real historical accounts... You cannot read about how the junta seized power in 1962, the 1988 uprising and the 2007 Buddhist-led (Saffron) revolution."
Myanmar's former royal family was a primary target of the junta's historical whitewash.
A cloak of silence was thrown over the monarchy by successive military leaders who also seized on a campaign, started by the colonial British when they exiled King Thibaw in 1885, to cast the monarch as a drunken monster.
His brief reign was barely mentioned in text books.
But at the ceremony in India in December Myanmar's vice president and military chief stood side-by-side with his descendants – the first time they have been allowed to publicly remember their ancestor at his resting place.
It followed an inaugural event at Mandalay's Golden Palace the previous month, where the surviving scions of King Thibaw's Konbaung dynasty marked his exile.
"I don't see how people can really have a creative view of the future... unless they have this more critical understanding of the past," said historian Thant Myint U.
"It would be like trying to think about the future of Germany and not knowing anything about the First or Second World Wars."
But the generals' rewriting of history has taken deep root in Myanmar's education system and wider society.
School pupils today still learn by rote from junta-era textbooks, taught to repeat a narrative centered around the dominant Bamar ethnic group.
History has been so debased as a discipline only the worst-performing students study it – the more successful ones are funneled into medicine and engineering.
This year not a single person applied to read history at the prestigious Yangon University.
"History has been so politicized and tampered with it has got to the point that people stopped caring," said Alex Bescoby, who has made a documentary about the royal family.
Skewed history is exacerbating Myanmar's ethnic conflicts, experts say.
Groups such as the Kachin and Karen have long complained the histories of their people taught at government schools are incomplete, oversimplified or plain incorrect.
For Myanmar's most hated minority, the Rohingya, the distortions now threaten their future under the new civilian government.
In December, the Ministry of Religion and Cultural Affairs announced plans to publish a "true" account of the Muslim group to prove they are illegal immigrants and write them out of the country's history.
Their treatment highlights the complexity of owning the national narrative in a country scored by conflict and division.
"When students believe simple stories about the past... they can more easily demonize other groups," said Rosalie Metro, adjunct professor of education at the University of Missouri.
She has spent a decade creating a new textbook for school students that takes a more critical perspective using material considered too sensitive under military rule, including speeches by former ruler General Ne Win and colonial documents.
International bodies, including the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, are also working with the government to help reshape what is taught in school.
Lecturer Than Htike Aung said he now brings in his own materials to teach events outside the curriculum, something he would have been too scared to do under the junta.
Meanwhile the explosion of social media since 2011, when the military ceded power, has given Myanmar's youth new access to information and an avenue to challenge official accounts.
The government too has formed a historical committee to help re-evaluate accounts propagated under the junta – though some fear this is also laden with dangers.
"Experts will put these true stories of Myanmar down as a record for future generations," said Aung Myint, of the department of historical research.
Still, experts warn it will take a long time for people to come to terms with the past.
"What's just as important as giving people material is giving people the critical skills to deal with it, and that's something that only comes over years and years," said Bescoby. – Rappler.com