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Aberystwyth Ceredigion Community Education History Mid Wales

Using storytelling to preserve local memories in Myanmar

UNDERGROUND educators in war-torn Myanmar are using community storytelling to recapture their histories and celebrate ethnic identities, thanks to a project led by an Aberystwyth University academic.

Dr Yi Li, a historian of modern Southeast Asia, is working with community educators in Myanmar’s marginalised ethnic schools and community schools for refugee children on both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border.

Education in Myanmar has been significantly interrupted since the military coup d’état in February 2021 and the continuing conflict between the military junta and the resistance forces.

It is estimated that only 22% of eligible students are enrolled in high school level studies in the country.

Dr Li, from the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University said: “The education crisis in Myanmar is particularly acute in ethnic autonomous areas such as the Karenni region, where a third of the population has been displaced with no access to formal education, and students and teachers are unable or unwilling to attend military-run schools.

“Our project is cooperating with an existing community-based network to continue providing emergency education to grassroots schools and informal classrooms in the conflict zones with limited resources.”

The year-long project aims to combat political instability and cultural fragility in Myanmar by encouraging teachers to make use of community storytelling as an educational approach. 

The project team has run an online teacher training programme for community educators based in Myanmar or exiled in Thailand, and facilitated a four-day educational workshop in Chiang Mai University in Thailand. 

The programme and workshop enabled the trainees to experience storytelling and place-based learning, and demonstrated how community storytelling could capture their own histories in the oral tradition, as well as lead to the creation of alternative teaching materials that celebrate ethnic identities.

Dr Li added: “By training teachers to explore community storytelling as an alternative learning method, and engaging cross-generational community participation, we aim to preserve endangered local memories of many ethnic communities, independent from the junta’s discourses.”

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The project team is producing a teacher’s handbook with syllabus and advice for place-based storytelling training methods, intended for release in English and Burmese later this year.

In addition, the project team is working on an illustrated storybook containing community stories narrated through the workshops that have taken place to date.

Dr Li is working in partnership with Tharaphi Than, Associate Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Northern Illinois University; Surajit Sarkar, Curator at Kerala Museum, Kochi (India) and Jyothi Thrivikraman, Assistant Professor at Leiden University College the Hague, Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs (Netherlands).

The project has been funded by a Knowledge Exchange Award from Aberystwyth University and Humanities Across Borders.