By Kanbawza Win
In private and public forums, many of the tea-leaf-readers as well as the self appointed Burmese experts interested in the country continue to discuss without putting their finger on the single most fundamental issue of the daily misery and country’s bleak future
It is lamentable that the international community has been trying to understand or solving the Burmese ethnic crisis for more than half a century but little could they comprehend because their approach is entirely on a wrong platform and construe Burma as a monolithic whole. So until and unless one could see it from a proper perspective to the Burmese problem, there is little or no hope of understanding Burma. Even in the Myanmar ethnic history, except during the three warrior kings, had never ruled the country as a united whole and as such could not be treated as a country. Hence if contemporary history of Burma were to be studied from the perspective that Burma was country until the whole region fell under the boots of British colonialism in the 1850 would be entirely wrong.
Burma before the British annexation was just a cluster of principalities with each ethnic tribe and race having its own administration. Obviously the Myanmar were a bigger race more numerous and when they were strong they conquered the other ethnic nationalities, in as much as the other races like the Arakanese, Mon, Shan had conquered the Myanmar and ruled them. Hence when the British colonize Burma, it took a long time for the pacification of the country as it had to subjugate one ethnic race after another, when the Myanmar has already put their hands up to the British.
At that time of British colonization there was no such thing as ethnic conflicts in Burma because one ethnic has been living peacefully with the other for centuries. When Britain was about to give independence to this region, the majority of the ethnic nationalities readily join the Union which was formed by an accord signed at a little town in Shan State called Panglong in 1947, one year prior to the emergence of the Burma as an independent, post-colonial state (in 1948). The accord was between the leaders who represented the different territorial entities of what became the Union of Burma. In this sense, both historically and conceptually, the ethnic Burma’s so-called ethnic conflict is more aptly described as a political conflict against the ruling military rather than a conflict between warring ethnic groups. The conflict is primarily a conflict between the ruling military exercising a monopolistic control of the state in Burma and the ethnic nationalities. It is a vertical conflict between the state and various ethnically defined societies. It is a conflict about how the state is to be constituted and how the relation between the constituent components of society and the state are to be ordered. It is not the case of ethnic segments feuding with and killing each other, nor is it driven by the secessionist impulses. Looking at Burma’s history since 1948, a long-standing and seriously dysfunctional relationship between the state and broader society can be observed and it has been exacerbated by five decades of monopolistic military rule. Hence the word Myanmar is both politically and phonetically wrong. (The original spelling is Myanmah).
To understand the ethnic conflict, it is essential to look into the issues of conceptual differences, constitutional crisis, national identity, majority-minority configuration and other pressing issues like gross human rights violations, torture, ethnic cleansing, drugs and environmental management. The successive military regimes dominated by the Sino-Myanmar, including the ruling Junta, see Burma as an existing unified nation since 1044 AD. As such, all other non-Myanmar - Shan, Chin, Kachin Arakanese, Mon, Karen and Karenni - are seen as ethnic nationalities, which must be controlled and suppressed, lest they break up the country. This is what most of the international and the world understand or comprehend and incidentally this is also what most of the chauvinist Myanmar led by the Generals portrayed to the world. This is the crux of the Burmese problem.
On the other hand, some of the educated and well meaning Myanmar especially those from upper Burma called Ah Nyar and all the non-Myanmar maintain that the Union of Burma is a newly developed territorial entity, founded by a treaty, the Panglong Accord, where independent territories merged together on equal basis to obtain independence from Britain and this is what General Aung San (father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), the architect of Modern Burma envisage. Given such conceptual differences, the Burmese military goes about with its implementation of protecting "national sovereignty" and "national unity" at all cost. This, in turn, gives way to open conflict resulting in more suppression and gross human rights violations. The intolerance of the military and its inspiration to "racial supremacy" and to political domination and control has no limit and the climax of it could be seen by its refusal to hand over power to the winners of 1990 nation-wide election,
Almost all the non-Myanmar and pro democracy movement are in agreement that the ethnic conflict and reform of social, political and economic cannot be separated from one another as they are two sides of a coin. And the only solution and answer is to amend the 1947 Constitution according to Panglong Agreement, where equality, voluntary participation and self-determination, of the constituent states, formed the basis for the Federal Republic of the Union of Burma or in other word is the Genuine Union of Burma. The ethnic cease-fire groups, especially in the cases of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and United WA State Army (UWSA), remained such a stumbling block. If one were to make a research on it is the KIA proposal to totally give up its arms if the Junta honours the principles of the Panglong Agreement.
Burma’s fundamental problem is not just about leadership, policy failure, dysfunctional institutions, rights abuses or fractured opposition movements but a full-scale pathological process of internal colonization, this time by its own military. This is an evolutionary process which was set in motion since the coup of 1962 decisively established one-party military rule, where the military and the State cannot be separated. Indeed Burma has evolved into a dual-colony in which the population of more than 55 million citizens is being herded into a political space via the Orwellian “7-steps road map for democracy.” The ruling military clique backed by its 400,000-strong military will continue to make all decisions with massive societal and ecological consequences for the whole population; only this time their decisions are going to be made to sound constitutionally mandated, and in accord with the laws of the land.
Further, this small group of men subscribe to an irredeemably myopic and toxic version of ethno-nationalism which refashions Burma along the old feudal lines where the majority “Myanmar Buddhists,” as defined by these men in generals’ uniform, will be more equal in their Union of Republic of Myanmar. As said earlier they have taken their philosophy if not aspirations from the three warrior kings, which founded the three Burmese dynasties not only vanquishing all the existing ethnic nationalities but also some part of the neighbouring countries of Thailand, India and part of the current China (every year columns of soldiers march past newly erected, statues of the three most prominent warrior kings in Burmese history: Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya) which justifies their colonization over the ethnic nationalities especially in the peripherals.
Needless to say, the generals will pay lip service to ethnic unity and create nominal space for the ethnic people while pursuing “divide and rule” as the overarching strategy. The ruling generals have rejected the federal spirit of ethnic equality and violently opposed any struggle towards a genuine federated Union. They have declared dead the Panglong Agreement of 1947, the founding document of a modern, post-colonial Burma, wherein ethnic equality was enshrined as an inviolable pillar of multi-ethnic Burma. Hence in new colonial rule under its own military, will control, subjugated or crushed.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic nationalities leaders, whether armed or not, are heading on an inevitable collision course with Burma’s military junta. For they have made repeated calls for national and ethnic reconciliation as well as genuine public expressions of inter-ethnic solidarity, which is the last thing any colonial power would want and would tolerate is social and ethnic solidarity across communities, regions and classes.
For those who have viewed the emerging parliamentary and formal political processes as the only space in which the people’s voices can be heard, policies debated and public welfare advanced, it is time for a serious rethinking and soul-searching. In a polity where those in power in effect accept nothing but total surrender, where politics are regarded as an extension of war and everything is viewed through Zero-Sum lens, choosing sides becomes necessary. There are no shades of gray in any colonial phenomenon. Battle lines are clearly drawn. The colonized are to be exploited, crushed, subjugated or co-opted.
The generals, of course, don’t see themselves as “native colonialists.” They feel no need for reconciliation along ethnic or political lines with any person, organization or community. In short, they have done nothing wrong, and they can do no wrong. For they perceive themselves as the country’s sole national guardian, untainted by partisan politics. What more they are the only patriots in the country ready to give up their lives while the rest are parasite living on the army`s labour and do not have a pale of patriotism. Verbally they are committed to the abstract idea of a multi-ethnic nation while practically trampling on the very idea in reality. And they embrace an absolutist notion of sovereignty where the military, not the people in whose name it exists, is sovereign.
To be candid they love the country, but they can’t stand the people, especially the kind who refuse to go along with their design for the rest of the country. Political, defiant ethnic communities and 2,100 political prisoners spring to mind. Their politics is all about resuming and completing the process of re-consolidation of the power of the ethnic Burmese majority, most specifically the soldiering class, over the rest of the ethnic nationalities –a process only interrupted by the old kingdom’s 19th century defeat by Great Britain. Nearly seventy years after independence, the military has built its own version of local colonial rule serving as the constitutionally-mandated ruling class and where the rest of the civilian society, especially the ethnic nationalities and the common people as second class citizens.
Twenty years ago, when the generals launched a ceasefire strategy with more than half a dozen disparate ethnic armed resistance organizations, they weren’t acting out of genuine desire for reconciliation, but following a strategy to pre-empt the inter-ethnic solidarity between the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led majority and ethnic nationalities and the calling of the 2nd Panglong Conference they were alarmed. Now that some of the most crucial ceasefires are likely to unravel, the highest strategic priority of the regime has become preventing inter-ethnic unity.
Throughout modern history, no colonialism is ever known to have offered the colonized political processes or institutions which would undo, or even undermine, such broad colonial objectives as economic exploitation of land, labour and natural resource, political domination and subjugation of populations under colonial rule, and control over the cultural and intellectual life of colonies. Whether one has in mind the formal and classical version, which dissolved, thanks in no small part to colonialists slaughtering one another during the two 20th century world wars, or the subsequent and newer versions characteristic of the Cold War, the essence, objectives and nature of colonial rules remain virtually the same.
Humanitarian assistance, developmental aid, foreign direct investment, increased trade or commerce may be needed in any systemic efforts to rebuild poverty-stricken Third World nations emerging from decades of war and conflicts. But they are no substitute for forging inter-ethnic and class solidarity, on which an inter-generational political resistance, armed and non-violent, depending on one’s own location, needs to be built.
The fact is the colonial state in the Union of the Republic of Myanmar stands in between public welfare and international assistance and increased foreign direct investment, which has been in the billions thanks to Burma’s economically predatory regional friends such as India China, and ASEAN countries, whose Asian values of economic prosperity give precedence to people’s freedom is paramount as can be seen in their Constructive Engagement Policy. In the next meeting of Association of Southeast East Asian Nations, the Myanmar delegates, with their fluttering Gaung Baung Sa (the little flag in the headdress to prove that they have shed their uniforms) will be sitting smart for all the international community to see. Unless the Junta finds the political will to release more than 2,000 political prisoners, call a nationwide cease-fire and prepare for national reconciliation talks among all political stakeholders, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, it has no business being elevated to a more responsible role on the regional stage. After all, this is a country whose leaders are facing growing calls for a full inquiry into their alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity
In short the Asian values lead by the most populous nations of India and China whose combined population and economic strength is mightier than the world’s population and economic power are calling the shots and will soon be triumphing over people’s freedom and democracy. Will the West led by the US and EU stands by, is still to be seen and Burma is a test case. Why allow the ethnic cleansing policy of the Myanmar Junta go unpunished? But most importantly will the international community allow Burma to join the rogue nations with nuclear arms like North Korea and Iran?
The ethno-democratic nationalist bond between the majority ethnic Myanmar and the ethnic nationalities call by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for the 2nd Panglong Conference leading to national reconciliation and inter-ethnic solidarity against oppression poses the greatest threat to the ruling Junta. It is a matter of time for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s to stay as a free citizen. It may see that the Burmese issue is complex, but as far as the regime’s strategy is concerned is a simple, time-tested “divide-and-rule.”
Now that Osama bin Laden is dead which indicate that the backbone of Al Quida is broken and witnessing the Arab people struggles in Egypt, Tunisia Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain one wonders whether the West will help the people of Burma whom the Junta considered be the slaves of the military forever. At least the hope is spreading even as the people of Burma know that the only way the opposition movements in particular and multi-ethnic communities in general, can defeat these native colonizers is through inter-ethnic—and inter-class—solidarity.
On their part they are endeavouring that the Northern alliance (Kachin, WA and Shan) to work hand in glove not only with the Southern alliance (Karen, Karenni, Mon, Rakhiang and Chin) but also with Daw Aung San Su Kyi and the NLD to be an alternative to the Junta’s puppet government and for this the people of Burma need the international backing, then and only then Than Shwe will be soon Burma’s Osama-bin Laden.
- Asian Tribune -