Growing up in the conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar’s far north in the 1990s, Hkawn Maran Hpauwung always lacked access to books, let alone books in her mother tongue, Kachin (Jingpaw) - one of the major ethnic minority languages in the country. But she didn’t want her two daughters, aged 8 and 10, to grow up without having read stories and folktales in Kachin. Therefore, in 2018 she set up a publishing house called Hparat Lung Pa Books in her home in Myitkyina, Kachin State’s capital, that specialises in publishing children’s books. She’s since been publishing trilingual visual storybooks and cartoons using three languages, Kachin, Burmese, and English.

The project that started on a personal note soon took a broader meaning for Hkawn Maran Hpauwung. “I thought why not produce books that can be used in Kachin national schools, for children in IDP [internally displaced people] camps, and in church-based education centres,” said the 39-year-old sitting in her office in Myitkyina.

Growing up amid war

Myanmar has been in the throes of civil war ever since the country’s independence from the British Empire in 1948. And the Kachin conflict is one of the longest running conflicts in the country. In rural Kachin state, a large number of children grow up in IDP camps, fleeing war zones, with limited access to the formal education system.

Since the democratic opening of Myanmar in early 2010s there were high hopes for the development of a decentralised and inclusive education system. But a military coup d’état on 1 February 2021 halted the progress being made.

By May 2021, UNICEF, Save the Children and UNESCO released a joint statement warning that more than 12 million students in Myanmar have not had access to organized learning, and children in the poorest and most remote communities are likely to be the most affected.

Further, according to a 2016 study, language and education policy and practice in Myanmar are “deeply implicated” in the country’s conflicts, with the formal education system working as “a more-or-less explicit project of forced assimilation” of the ethnic minorities like the Kachin. In fact, until 2014, when a new education law was passed, teaching ethnic minority languages in government schools was banned for nearly 40 years under the military rule. With this strict censorship in place, there were hardly any ethnic minority texts around to be used as teaching materials in schools. Once the ban was lifted, ethnic literature and culture associations across the country tried to develop textbooks in ethnic minority languages.

Hkawn Maran Hpauwung thought it was important for the ethnic minority children in a diverse and multicultural country to be proficient in mother tongue, English, as well as Burmese, the widely used majority language in the country. “That’s why I came up with the idea of trilingual pictorial books. Not only will it help Kachin children master three languages, but it can also help anyone willing to learn Kachin language and folklore,” she said. “It might be a small step, but our books will certainly help Burmese speakers understand Kachin culture and language, thus promoting understanding and peace.”

She added that they’ve so far published 20 trilingual story books on various themes. “These include Kachin folktales that talk about honesty, kindness, unity, peace, and equality. One book deals with gender equality and women’s rights, told through a cartoon based on a folktale.”

Hkawn Maran Hpauwung says that currently 15 people are involved in Hparat Lung Pa Books looking after the various aspects of production and marketing. And her two daughters help her in social media promotional videos of recent titles.

Stories for peace

Initiatives like Hparat Lung Pa Books are playing an important role in helping local ethnic-based education providers with teaching materials for children growing up in shadows of war. They’re also contributing to peacebuilding.

Myo Thant Linn, an ethnic minority Shan poet from Myanmar and Chevening fellow at the British Library in London, says that stories can be a great way to promote peace. “Stories enable people to share their lived experiences and be heard. Storytelling is an important tool to represent oneself.”

This claim is supported by research, which has shown that storytelling can be a powerful tool for peacebuilding, developing agency and boosting confidence in survivors of war. The practice of storytelling gives survivors a space to express and process their traumatic memories, helps alleviate feelings of isolation, and integrate into their local communities.

Hkawn Maran Hpauwung says they are now focusing on stories that advocate peace and reconciliation. “The foundation of peaceful coexistence is mutual respect, honesty, and truth. So we are prioritising stories that will inculcate these values in children.”

Some of the comics they’ve published also deal with life skills and strategic decision-making. “For example, one of our latest comics is about how observation skills and strategic decision-making could make a difference between life and death in a crisis situation. This kind of book could be especially beneficial for children growing up in shadows of war,” explains Hkawn Maran Hpauwung.

The books published by Hparat Lung Pa Books serve two purposes when it comes to peacebuilding, she adds. “First, the texts offer messages key to peacebuilding. Second, the books are an important learning resource for ethnic children displaced by war.”