Chin “National” Day and Self-Determination
February 16, 2006: The term “national” might have been interpreted in a variety of ways with different implications by historians, politicians, and scholars. We may notice that the word national has been marked in quotation intentionally in the title of this article to emphasize its importance in itself. In this short article, I would like to revisit and engage with a very brief historical and philosophical study on the ambiguous terms “nation, national, and nationalism” so as to bring a better understanding about the meaning of these phenomena. By doing so, the ultimate goal is to enlighten ourselves so that we may be able to realize the purpose and the essence of celebrating the Chin National Day, which indeed is re-affirming the granted right of self-determination which we have already gained fifty eight years ago.
Originally, the word ‘nation’ (from the Latin natio, meaning birth of place or origin)1 was used to referring to a certain group of foreigners from the same place whose status was lower than that of Roman citizens. These people are students from the same geographical locations attending Europe’s medieval universities. In this sense, during that time, the word nation merely was just a name for educated elites or students from a particular geographical group of people. Gradually, the word “nation” begun to be applied to a whole population of people from a particular geographical locale rather than to a student elite. One’s “national” identity, therefore, came from being a member of a certain people, which was defined as homogenously distinct in language, culture, race, and history from other peoples. Thus, “nation” came to have its contemporary meaning: “a uniquely sovereign people readily distinguishable from other uniquely defined sovereign people who are bound together by a sense of solidarity, common culture, language, religion, and geographical location.”2 Joseph Stalin in his book titled The Nation defined a nation as a historical constituted community of people. Hans Kohn in his book the Ideal of Nationalism termed the nation as the will of the people—the will of the people that is awakened by its repressed desire for freedom, self-determination and a state of its own.
Before the nation-state arises or during ancient time: the Roman republic, imperial rule, feudal state period—there was no nationalism or “national” identity issues. The reason is simple and obvious. In the mind of people of those times, there was no national political consciousness to feel a sense of belonging to a particular community of people, nor was the nation-state created. In other words, there was no freedom for people to be informed about who they are and to make a choice of their own political destiny, instead in the imperial period people and soldiers were forced to fight solely for the Roman Empire merely as the fighters and the knights. Likewise in the feudal state period, people and soldiers were bound by duties toward their feudal superiors and the church—a corrupted church. With national consciousness of some educated class, a few old nations emerged in the late 18th century and then modern nations in late 19th century. The process of forming the new nations was simple and easy to grasp. People are now politically conscious enough that they need a nation where they belong together as a group of people motivated by their desire for freedom and self-determination. National self-determination, therefore, is a determination of the will; and nationalism is a method of teaching the right determination of the will.3
As we have seen, although there is no precise definition for a nation, there are certain criteria that have to be taken into account in order to legitimize the nationalism or the existence of a nation. In ideology, it is generally agreed that a nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of common language and culture, religion, and shared myth. However, in reality, some of these characteristics simply failed to provide a satisfactory account into a nation state. For instance, the Norwegian and the Danes speak one language, but they do not constitute a single nation. Neither do Americans and English constitute a nation. Likewise, the transformation of religion into nationalist ideology is all the more inconvenient. Pakistan, whose doctrine is to transform Islam into a political ideology and used in order to mobilize Muslims against Hindus, neither constitutes a nation with the rest of the Arab nations. So are Judaism and Catholicism. Therefore, the most satisfactory criteria to legitimize nationalism or the existence of a nation is, as quoted above, the desire for self-determination, on the basis of common culture, a shared history and a shared myth of a group of people. Undeniably, politically conscious educated elites had played a very important role in the process of the formation of such modern nations in Europe.
Historically and politically freed people—satisfying the above set criteria for a nationhood, Chin people were so fortunate to have such politically conscious national leader as Pu Wam Tu Maung under whose leadership the opportunity to decide our own fate was rightfully utilized by unanimously agreeing to abandon feudal administrative system—a system in which if not the whole population, but most of the Chin people were bound by duties and obligations toward feudal lords. By abolishing such autocratic ruling system and by establishing democratic governance which was done in accordance with the will of the Chin people had made it possible for us to bear the identity of Chin “National”. The day on which we exercised such free will in history is later preciously known and politically reaffirmed as Chin National Day. We celebrate it every year re-affirming our granted self-determination.
Today, with view of celebrating their national day, people all over the world opted to observe the day on which the most significant historic event and success had ever happened to their nation and their people. The importance attached to and the degree to which it is made such observances as a national day or a national holiday enormously varies from state to state and from country to country. However, they all celebrate the day on which they obtain their self-determination as a free people. The French celebrate their national day on 14th July which is known as Bastille Day, marking the uprising of the ‘modern French nation’ in 1789. The Americans observe their Independence Day on the 4th July as their national day remembering the day when they obtained the ‘political freedom’ from the British colonial rule in 1776. So do the Chins, they celebrate their national day on the 20th February every year— the historic day – to commemorate the February 20, 1948, when more than fifty thousand Chin leaders across Chin State gathered at Falam Town, Chin State, unanimously agreeing upon the ‘transferring of the Chin feudal administrative system into a democratic system of governing’. For us (the Chins) this historic day is more than Independence Day, and this is the day on which we proclaimed our self-determination what is later known and chosen to be observed as the Chin “National” Day. Today the Chins around the globe are joyfully celebrating the 58th anniversary of Chin National Day to re-affirm the self granted self-determination.
Not only Burman military dictatorship tried to take the already achieved self-determination away from us by means of not allowing us to celebrate Chin National Day inside Burma, but they also have been trying to eliminate our “National” identity by the systematic imposition of the Chin State Day on the Chin National Day. Moreover, the regime has been downplaying the real implication of the Panglong agreement by never implementing the real purpose of it— indeed the agreement was signed with other historically constituent nations like Chin Hills—members of Union of Burma with the sole purpose to achieving the independence from British colonial rule in 1948. As a result, the essence of our National Day and Burma’s independence as a whole have been obscured by the rule of military dictatorship and it only leads Chin people and the country into political, economy and social disruptions. Therefore, it is crucial time for every Chin “national” to realize the need to be more conscious about our national unity and to be more involved in striving towards defending our national right of self-determination.
1. Opello Rosow, The Nation Sate and Global Order: “A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics” (London 2004), 191.
2. Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 382.
3 .Hutchinson & Smith, Oxford Readers: Nationalism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 54.
*Salai St. Laini is a senior year student of Informatics and Business at Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.A. He is a former Secretary of Chin Student Union based in India. He currently serves as the North America representative for the Mara People’s Party which won a parliamentary seat in 1990 Burma’s general election, and he also works as the General Secretary of Burmese Students Association, Indiana University in Bloomington.
By Salai St. Laini*