Myanmar's Tamil Catholics reclaim their identity

Nuns teach Tamil language to youngsters in a summer program aimed at preserving the minority's culture and traditions
Myanmar's Tamil Catholics reclaim their identity

Sister Victoria teaches the Tamil language to children at St. Michael the Archangel's Catholic Church in Dalla town, near Yangon, Myanmar, on March 12. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)

On a bright sunny day in late February, 20 children aged 8-13 sit in the shade on plastic chairs, glued to temporary chalk boards in the courtyard of St. Michael the Archangel's Catholic Church in Dalla, a 10-minute ferry ride across the Yangon River from Myanmar's biggest city and main commercial center, Yangon.

While some children are writing, some are reciting lessons as they learn the southern Indian Tamil language from two nuns who teach them from Monday to Friday for one month during their summer school holidays.

Sister Victoria, an ethnic Tamil nun from the Servite Sisters of Mary congregation, said the Tamil language program was started five years ago to promote culture and tradition so that new generations can speak, read and write the language of their community, which has been in the region since the days of the British Raj.

Ethnic Tamils are native to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadhu, whose capital is Chennai, as well as the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka where they fought a bitter 15-year war with the Sri Lankan government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese.

While most Tamils are Hindu, a significant minority are Christian, with many of these Catholic, while some are Buddhists and Jains.

"The British brought many workers to Burma [the former name of Myanmar] when they came in the mid-1800s and annexed the area as part of British India," St. Michael's parish priest Father Alexander Kyaw Win, a Myanmar-born Tamil, told ucanews.com.

In the Burmese-majority neighborhood, most Tamils speak the Burmese language at home and have also adopted Burmese names. The priest noted that about 300 Tamil Catholics live in Dalla and nearby villages among a few Chin and Karen Catholics.

Tamils brought to Myanmar during British rule were already Catholics, having been evangelized by missionaries in India.

Children learn the Tamil language to preserve it for future generations. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)

 

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon has encouraged the preservation of ethnic languages, culture and traditions, so Karen and Tamil language programs have been launched in parishes in the archdiocese.

"Most children can't speak Tamil even though their parents can speak and read it, so we focus on teaching new generations so that they can speak, recite prayers and take part in Mass in the Tamil language," Sister Victoria told ucanews.com.

Regina Mary Khin Khin Win, a 12-year-old Grade 8 student, has been eagerly learning Tamil for five years. "It is important to know about the Tamil language and to maintain our identity," she told ucanews.com.

She has four siblings in a Tamil Catholic family that has lived in Dalla town for generations. Her father works in betel nut shops and her mother is a housewife.

Dominic Thant Zin, 11, from Pyapon, 70 kilometers away, visits his grandmother's home in Dalla town in summer and has joined other students to learn Tamil. "It's not difficult for me to learn the language," he said.

Father Joseph Mg Win, parish priest of St. John's Church in Yangon, said some Tamils have converted to Catholicism but most are from families who have been Catholic for three or four generations

Most Tamil Catholics live in Yangon city, Dalla, Kyaiklat, Kyauktan and Thonegwa townships in Yangon Archdiocese.

 

Father Alexander Kyaw Win says about 300 Tamil Catholics live in Dalla and nearby villages. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)

 

Father Mg Win said many rural Tamils had moved to Yangon since the 1980s to find jobs and enter the business sector. He estimates there are 10,000-15,000 Tamil Catholics and 29 Tamil priests in Yangon Archdiocese.

Kyaw Myint, a Tamil Catholic businessman in Yangon, said most Tamils were poor when they worked as farmers but many are now starting to do business in Yangon.

"We can contribute to the development of the Church as well as the social and cultural development of the Tamil community with the help of donations from Tamil Catholic businessmen," said Kyaw Myint, who runs a construction and pipe factory and fishing ponds.

A social development committee runs the Tamil Karuna (Caritas) Clinic in Yangon for needy people. Tamil businessmen also provide cash support for Tamil widows.

Tamils comprise about 2 percent of Myanmar's population of 51 million. Tamil Catholics are estimated to number about 50,000. Many Tamils were forced to flee the military dictatorship after General Ne Win's coup in 1962.

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