Burma’s Ethnic Nationalities Grievances

By Kanbawza Win | January 21, 2012

Now Bo Khin Nyunt (I just call him “Bo” meaning captain in Burmese because he was just a captain that used to come and stand at my table when he was serving as PA to Col Tint Swe attached to the Prime Minister Office when I was the Foreign Affairs Secretary to the first Prime Minister Brigadier of Socialist Burma, Brigadier General Sein Win way back in 1974-77) the former much feared spy chief and the Junta’s Prime Minister, the main architect of the illogical road to democracy has spoken that, all the ethnic armed nationalities groups are very honest and truthful.

Unlike the Myanmar administrations they are not liars like Thein Sein himself who paints the prisoners of conscience as criminals and launched an all out war to the Kachin while talking peace with them. This is understandable as “Lying the very Concept of Truth” is the norm of every Myanmar administration. Now that the quasi civilian government is making some attempts to diffuse the situation with the dissidents both ethnic and pro democracy groups I have humble analyze the ethnic nationalities problem as follows:-

The most fundamental grievance of ethnic nationalities is their lack of influence on the political process and thus on decisions that affect their lives. Like society at large, they have been disenfranchised by a strongly centralized military state that regards them with intense suspicion. They have felt the loss of political and economic power even more acutely than the majority population as both the government and the officer corps are overwhelmingly ethnic Myanmar which are widely perceived as a foreign force. Ethnic nationalities groups consider themselves discriminated against and have openly accused successive governments of a deliberate policy of Myanmarnization. The ethnic nationalities are not only marginalized economically, but also that their social, cultural, and religious rights are being suppressed.

While many ethnic groups originally fought for independence, today almost all have accepted the Union of Burma as a fact, and merely seek increased local authority and equality within a new federal state structure. The military dictators, however, still suspect them of scheming to split the country and see this as justification for its repressive, often brutal policies in ethnic dominated areas.

Since 1988, most ethnic nationality organizations have expressed support for democracy, seeing this as their best chance to gain a voice in national politics and press for a redress of their long-standing grievances. The elite in the ethnic organizations are democrats by persuasion or regard democracy not an end in itself. Their main concern is to secure local political and administrative authority, further development of their regions, and enjoy the right to maintain and practice their language, culture and religion without constraints. This is a simple obsession of the ethnic nationalities of Burma

The strength of ethnic nationality organizations traditionally has been measured in military terms. The shift in national politics since 1988 and subsequent ceasefires, however, have transferred the main struggle from the battlefield to the political and administrative arena. The primary challenge for ethnic nationality organizations today is, therefore, to build political and organizational capacity – individually, and as a group – to ensure that they are not left out of future negotiations about the future of the Federal Union of Burma and can continue to represent the interests of their communities. They also need to help rebuild their war-torn communities and economies and re-establish a sense of normalcy and confidence in the future.

To negotiate and eventually overcome these obstacles requires vision, careful balancing of objectives and strategies, and significant implementation capacity. First and foremost perhaps, it requires a genuine commitment to move beyond narrow agendas and build a better life for local communities and the country at large. Most groups, however, lack these skills. In fact, the weaknesses and approaches of ethnic nationalities often mirror those of the central government and other local authorities. Many ethnic organizations continue to be dominated by soldiers who have little knowledge of political and social affairs or experience with relevant tools for organization and negotiation. They may have significant legitimacy rooted in the struggle for self-determination – or, in some cases, the 1990 election – but strong hierarchies and top-down approaches mean that links to local communities often are weak. There is also a dearth of people in these communities at large with relevant education and experience.

Over the past few years, some key ethnic organizations have begun to face up to these problems and start on the difficult task of building networks in long-divided communities and training capable leaders and administrators. Yet, much needs to be done and they are often seen struggling against government repression and international indifference.

Dilemma of Changing Culture
Ethnic nationalities together with the Myanmar have lived in one way at a particular time, but there is no absolute ethnic nationality which persists unchanged through time. Society changes as people make decisions about how to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, including their relations with external societies.  Insofar as one can apply terms of biology to social phenomenon, such change can be seen as a natural, evolutionary process. On the surface, applying this view to Burma’s current struggle for social justice seems to yield little productive insight.  If culture, ethnicity and religion are always changing, and that perpetual flux is a normal characteristic of any social system, then what is the hope for resistance?  Change seems to be inevitable. 

History demonstrates that some cultures triumph and others fade; civilizations wax and wane over time almost as if they are living organisms. This is especially true to Burma. The Myanmar race domination over the non Myanmar races have triumph all these years and in the recorded history of Burma the major tribes like Pyu, Kanyan and Thet races has all disappeared and vanished because of the dominance of the Myanmar race. Even in the last Burmese dynasty (Konebong dynasty) the Myanmar has tried to wipe out the Mon people when by a trick king U Aung Ze Ya called the entire learned Mon monk and burnt them alive.

Contemporary history has shown that the ethnic races of such as Shan, Chin and Kachin have consented to join the Union while Karen, Karenni, Mon, Arakanese are being forced to join the Union of Burma in taking independence from Britain. But all of them were very suspicious of the Myanmar ethnic and this was compounded the action of the Tatmadaw when it launched it ethnic cleansing policy. 

This could, somewhat detached interpretation can even be taken further, confounding the good intentions of those Myanmar seeking to uphold the value of cultural diversity and ethnics rights.  If cultural adaptation is a strategy for dealing with change in the political and economic environment, then by opposing it do people invite hardship?  Are attempts to preserve the ethnic cultures simply bound to fail, or perhaps worse, to succeed in ways which limit people’s adaptation, hence compound their suffering?  Political, social and economic encroachments from all sides tell people to abandon their own ways and to accept the transitions which will align them with mainstream culture: from subsistence farming to cash-cropping, from the village to the city, from minority to majority, from the margin to the center.  To the extent that this message is oppressive, it is also pragmatic, telling people what they must do to survive.[1]
Of course, people resist this change vigorously, in myriad ways and for various reasons.  Burma’s history of ethnic conflict can be framed as a struggle to define and control the nature of social change, to distinguish Myanmar from a non Myanmar and assert the relative status of each.  Important events in Burmese history such as colonization, independence, growth of a national military culture, and the advent of a modern democracy movement reveal new aspects of this resistance.  Political and military movements espousing ethnic nationalism are one form of organized, collective resistance.  Flight, non-confrontational resistance and simple perseverance are examples of more individual or informal resistance strategies.

While none of these strategies has been particularly successful in negotiating a roadmap to social change shared by center and periphery alike, all have proved impressively resilient. Guerilla wars have dragged on for sixty years and refugees have subsisted in stateless hiatus for decades.  Despite perennial forecasts of its imminent demise, the power center has continually re-asserted its authority; despite the ethnic nationality’s claims to control social change, the periphery remains independent; despite ethnic nationalities claims to utter differentiation, the influence of the center pervades. Therefore, not only is society in constant flux, but equally enduring is the struggle to define and control this flux through resistance and adaptation.  If change is inevitable, so too is dissent, and so is the consequent struggle to control the agents and outcomes of that change.

In Burma this context of change and resistance is chiefly characterized by ethnic nationalism.  Rival claims to the control of social change are phrased in terms of the differentiation, history and autonomy of competing ethnic groups.  The categorization of these groups is a major point of conflict.  The vagaries of geographic, linguistic, cultural and historical criteria for defining ethnic categories are widely recognized both within and outside Burma.  Defining ethnicity by any of these criteria has proved problematic not only for the academics but for other investigators of ethnicity, not to mention for the people in question.  Nevertheless, the idea of ethnic nationality is central to social conflict.

Yet, just as culture constantly changes, so does ethnicity.  Political systems are an investigation of how the categories of ethnicity, specifically those of Kachin and Shan, are in them tools in a struggle for adaptation and resistance. 

People adapt their identity as best they can to the political and economic forces which create change. Ethnicity is often classified by unique, exclusive cultural or hereditary traits, but there are as many exceptions to these categories as there seem to be rules.  These changes are marked by shifts in physical location and the economic relationships they connote, from lowlands to mountains, from rice paddies to widens plots, and from economic autonomy to participation in a feudal hierarchy.  Therefore, ethnic identity is also the product of adaptation and resistance. This formative link between identity and resistance also marks the nexus where social change in the anthropological sense of the term and the struggle for social justice

The conflict raises critical questions about the nature, role and priorities of a human rights movement.  How can those who wish to effect peace in Burma reject the dangers of ethnic nationalism, while at the same time promote successful adaptation to inevitable social change?  Can one extricate the interests of ethnic nationalist structures?  Moreover, how can this are done without submitting to nationalist hegemony from the mainstream, especially in the face of a deliberate program of Myanmarnization?

Thus Burma’s future activists, historians, poets, artists, scientists and educators may comprise a high number of people from ethnic nationalities whose skill, intellect and access to national institutions should allow them to celebrate, rather than denigrate, cultural and linguistic diversity.  They should not be forced to choose between absorption by the mainstream or social marginalization as minorities, but conditions must be drawn to enable to develop and adapt their identity as equal opportunity to other citizens.  Ultimately, more answers will be found by pursuing and expanding inclusively than by mimicking the mainstream trend towards domination and exclusion.  

The present peace struggle for its treatment of ethnicity and social change is a necessity and inevitable part of society.  Ethnic categories, which also change over time, are subject to debate and interpretation, and indeed Professor Edmond Leach was ahead of his time by recognizing that they are at best artificial and problematic. [2]

Concerning Burma, one must recognizes a fundamental tension between the reality of social change and nationalistic attempts to articulate and enforce an ethnic identity.  This tension presents a dilemma to the peace movement, which asserts that human dignity should not be seconded to the inevitability of social change, and seeks to challenge the calculated absorption of the periphery into the mainstream of Burmese society.  An aspect of social change is free will, the opportunity to make autonomous choices.  This autonomy represents basic human rights about what language people want to speak, what clothes they want to wear, how they want to live and how they wish to identify themselves.  Violence, repression and economic exploitation all intrusions into universal and inalienable human rights are what threaten human dignity and survival.  Where an international peace movement intersects with Burma’s ethnic rights struggle, it must choose its path based on what people want and need to adapt, survive and live in dignity, rather than on a prevailing nationalist ideology. Ethnic aspirations are difficult to understand; pointing out its many complications and paradoxes makes it no easier.  Nevertheless, to make the right choices the peace movement must be aware of all the resources available to it.  

The Importance of Ethnicity
On 23 May 1947, less than three months before his death, Bogyoke Aung San gave a speech which made his thoughts on democracy very clear. He distinguished ‘true’ from ‘sham’ democracy. He said,
Only true democracy can work for the real good of the people, real equality of status and opportunity for every one irrespective of class or race or religion or sex. Not every democracy is true democracy. Some are imperfect democracies concealing in democratic guise the dictatorship of the capitalist class. True democracy alone must be our basis if we want to draw up our constitution with the people as the real sovereign and the people's interest as the primary consideration. Democracy alone is the basis upon which the real progress of a nation can be built.[3]

But lamentably none of the Myanmar leaders follow his vision. During 1948- 1958, the government under U Nu was at first running pretty smoothly, even thought being pressurized by the Myanmar nationalists. U Nu changed the Constitution. By 1961 the Saophas realized that the Union was not only totally under the control of the Myanmar but becoming under the Military; therefore, the question of “ to secede  or not to secede “ came to be an issue amongst Shan leaders including U Htoon Myint who was anti- Saophas. This was not a crime, it was a right provided by the Constitution (The Shan State had the right to secede after ten years, 1958). Hence the   secession issue did not arise out of conspiracies by the Shan leaders; it originated from real grievances.
Bogyoke Aung San’s daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was shocked to discover the military’s actions of injustice, subjugation of the people, the shooting of thousands of students and the heinous human rights violations practiced against the ethnic nationalities. She exposed that the method used by the military in ruling the country was not what her father had wanted. By this exposure she damaged the military regime’s legitimacy. This is one, if not the main, reason why the military generals especially Than Shwe hated her so much and is so afraid of her 

To move forward there has to be National Reconciliation of all nationalities coming together at a round table. The talk has to be built on truth, trust and transparency. In a country like Burma there has to be an understanding of the principle of territorial integrity and fundamental respect for diversity, and different peoples’ wishes for freedom, equality and justice. [4] In other words there must be a Second Panglong Conference which she has called.

To have a genuine democracy in Burma then dictatorship and Tatmadaw has to be abolished for good as it has no place in the modern and civilized world and in its place must be the people’s army Pyidaungsu Tat, the Federal army. In the United States is that: the whites constitute 80.1% of the United States population (2006 estimate); whereas, approximately 60 percent of the population in Burma is ethnic Myanmar and the present military regime is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Myanmar.

 If a black person who belongs to only 12.8% of a country's population can be given a chance to become the President of the United States and leader of the free world, Burma should give an equal opportunity to potential leaders from the ethnic groups which make about 40% of the country's population. Ethnicity plays a vital role in Burma's politics.[5] It is participation and inclusiveness that make a nation strong, and Burma is not an exception. Should Burma fail to understand this reality, the socio-political conflicts will continue to persist even after the restoration of democracy. Barack Obama's election not only gives a new hope to millions of Americans, but also energizes the ethnic nationalities groups of Burma. Genuine national reconciliation and nation-building must precede the restructuring of the state.

 The neighboring countries especially ASEAN China and India because of their selfish motives under the beautifully coined word of Constructive Engagement Policy have help prolong the military administrations in Burma and only now because of the punitive actions of the West that the rottenness of the dictatorship was reveal now should help Burma to be on the right road. Their selfish motive indirectly encouraging the regime with “Containing Balkanization” in Burma could easily lead to a resumption of localized arm conflicts again. Then as usual military-owned businesses, Junta cronies, foreign investors and traders, and ethnic drug lords and elites plunder the natural resources of the ethnic states, local ethnic populations will continue to be denied economic opportunities and  the ethnic nationalities states will also see their environment further destroyed by greedy businesses and bad governance. [6]

It is now up to the leaders of the ethnic groups to decide whether they will betray the 60-year long struggle for their ethnic people or stand together with an effective strategy to fight for equal ethnic rights. The rest will be history.

Last but not the lease is that the architect and butcher of 8888 uprising Khin Nyunt and his band of former Military Intelligence are let lose again coined by most Burmese as hell hound at large and by his conversation we know that he want to come back into the scene. This is a very dangerous trend both for the ethnic nationalities and the prodemocracy movements as he could twist both the international community and the ethnic nationalities. He together with Than Shwe should be standing in the gallows if real democracy and ethnic equality is to be achieved. We still has to see how Burma is unfolding,

[1] Burma Issue Vol. 9 No 5 Ethnicity, Nationalism and Social Change Part 1 p 6
[2] The fuller, finer points of Professor Leach’s work belong to the realm of social science, and much has been omitted and oversimplified here.  Nevertheless, it is hoped that even this cursory look might introduce an informed and articulate voice from the past to an enormous and complex struggle for social justice in the present. Read Political Systems of Highland Burma, Edmund R. Leach, Athlone Press, London, 1970.
[3] See Speeches of Aung San.
[4] S. N. Oo: Diversity and Democracy in Burma
[5] Nehginpao Kipgen :  ”Obama energizes Burma's ethnic minorities” in Kuki Forum
[6] Min,Zin: Ethnicity, the Triumph Card in Irrawaddy

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