Illustration by Narrative Initiative
Illustration by Narrative Initiative

A Battle Against Forgetting: Archiving Oral Heritage as Resistance in Myanmar

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, Bikash K. Bhattacharya shows us how oral history is a tool of language and cultural preservation for the Kachin community of Myanmar.


Bikash K. Bhattacharya


21 May, 2024

In the beginning Ja Seng Roi wasn’t convinced that stories could be so powerful. In one of her first field research trips, she recalls, a 85-year-old storyteller told her, “Every word has its own story. And every story has a world behind it.”

And those words stuck with her.

The more she spoke to Jaiwas, the traditional storytellers of the Kachin ethnic minority community in northern Myanmar, the more she realized the meaning of her interlocutor’s words and the power that stories hold.

Ja Seng Roi, a Kachin woman in her early 30s, is a researcher and story collector with the Kachin Orature Project, a community collaborative initiative started in 2016 for documentation, archiving, and revitalization of Kachin oral heritage. Over the past few years, she has interviewed hundreds of traditional storytellers across northern Myanmar recording Kachin oral narratives for the project.

Kachin Orature Project was initiated by Keita Kurabe, an associate professor of linguistics at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in Japan. In the early 2010s, Kurabe was studying the Jingpaw Kachin language of northern Myanmar as part of his doctoral research at Kyoto University, which was when he noticed “transmission breakdown” of Kachin oral heritage. That is, there had been a rupture in the transmission of the oral traditions to the next generation. 

“Fortunately,” Kurabe says, he “discovered the voice of younger community members who were eager to retrieve and maintain their oral history and heritage.”  This not only birthed the Kachin Orature Project but also inspired the community-based research model at the heart of the initiative. “This is a project conducted for, with, and by the members of the Kachin community themselves,” Kurabe says.

With a group of young Kachin community members, like Ja Seng Roi, at its helm, the project has since collected over 2,500 Kachin oral narratives in diverse genres–folktales, fables, legends, creation myths, folk epics, historical narratives, spells, ritual chants, riddles and many more.

Kachin Orature Project is a significant initiative towards preservation and promotion of an ethnic minority culture in Myanmar, an authoritarian state that has been following a policy of coercive assimilation of ethnic minorities. It is an initiative that shows resistance and resilience of a people in the face of a state-sponsored majoritarian policy known as Burmanization. Until 2014, for nearly 40 years under military rule, Myanmar had banned teaching ethnic minority languages like Kachin in government schools. With strict censorship in place, there was little room for the development of ethnic minority languages and cultural expressions.

Since 2011, Myanmar has taken steps towards a transition to democracy, but the latest coup d'etat has shattered hope.

In 2022, the military junta brought amendments to Myanmar’s 2014 National Education Law to promote the use of Burmese at the expense of ethnic minority languages, furthering imposition of the majority Burmese language on the ethnic minorities.

In Decolonising the Mind, novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o observed that languages are imposed on a people to “control memory.”

“The larger goal of our initiative is not to let others control our memory,” says Ja Seng Roi. “We want to preserve our oral heritage and history, and pass it down to our children.”

‘These stories are our history’

The Kachin was an orality-based society. Writing was introduced only in the early 20th century by Christian missionaries. Meanwhile, Kachin jaiwas could narrate important events dating back to many generations with meticulous details. 

“Storytellers I’ve interviewed often begin a narrative by saying ‘I am telling you as my father told me’. By [accounting for the chain of transmission], they emphasize the accuracy of their narratives,” says Ja Seng Roi. 

According to Myo Thant Linn, an ethnic minority Shan poet and storyteller from Myanmar’s Kachin State and a Chevening fellow at the British Library in London, some oral narratives indeed bear characteristics of historical sources. “There are broadly two types of oral narratives. One that includes folk tales, creation stories, legends, ritual chants and the like. And the other is narratives of important events such as war, natural calamities, or the building of a monument,” he explains. “The second type of oral narratives are historical sources.”

Storytellers I’ve interviewed often begin a narrative by saying ‘I am telling you as my father told me’. By [accounting for the chain of transmission], they emphasize the accuracy of their narratives.”

In the past, storytelling was a sweet pastime. 

“Once the rice harvest was over, people would sit by the fireplace eating yams and telling stories. Now we’re spending much less time on storytelling,” explains Ja Seng Roi. “And each passing day we are losing the elders who are knowledgeable in our oral traditions and adept in the art of storytelling.”

This is why, she thinks, their documentation project is a race against time.

“It's a battle against forgetting.”

Fighting forgetting and writing history

To fight forgetting, all the materials collected by Kachin Orature Project have been made available online at databases through Tokyo University Foreign Studies, PARADISE Catalog, and Research Data Australia. Further, animated videos in Jingpaw Kachin narration, with subtitles in multiple languages, are regularly uploaded on the project’s YouTube channel and Facebook page to reach a wider audience.

While Ja Seng Roi and a dozen of her colleagues at Kachin Orature Project conduct field interviews, record, transcribe, and translate the oral stories, well-known Kachin illustrator Shawanang brings these stories to life through his skilful artworks that poignantly capture the essence of Kachin life.

In a run-down suburb of Myitkyina, the capital city of Myanmar’s Kachin State, Hkawn Maran Hpauwung, another Kachin woman in her 30s who is not part of Kachin Orature Project, runs Hparat Lung Pa Books, an independent publishing house that turns Kachin oral stories into visual storybooks and comics. Since 2019, Hkawn Maran Hpauwung and her colleagues at Hparat Lung Pa Books have published 20 trilingual books, with texts in Jingpaw Kachin, English, and Burmese, that are adaptations of Kachin oral narratives.

When I visited her in October 2023, the literary entrepreneur said that she chooses to use three languages in the books she publishes because each language has a specific role. “Jingpaw Kachin, our mother tongue, is a carrier of our culture and history while English and Burmese are global and national means of communication,” she said, sitting in her office, a house with teak floors typical of Myanmar houses of the past. “English and Burmese translations will help take Kachin stories to a bigger audience.”

She adds that circumstances do not favor oral transmission of Kachin history any more. “It's time we write down our history.”

Bikash K. Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and researcher based out of Southeast Asia. His writings have appeared in BuzzFeed, LGBTQ Nation, YES! Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Border Criminologies, and Mongabay among others.