Burma’s Union Perspective: Time to Stand Together
20 August 2011: Burma has been a pariah nation since 1988, shun by the civilized international community. The Burmese army is reviled domestically and around the world. This is galling to the men in uniforms and naturally these Generals want to sit smart in the community of the civilized nations in spite of their gross human rights violations.
The country, which had missed a chance to chair ASEAN in 2006 because of strong international objections led by western countries when the systematic use of rape by the Burmese soldiers was scrutinized and confirmed by International Organizations and Foreign Governments, coupled with the attempted assassination of the Nobel Peace Laureate at Depaeyin, which marked the most atrocious chapter of contemporary history of Burma, has become the most notorious country in the world.
Hence, the new administration of the junta has embarked on the public relations drive aimed at shedding a reputation synonymous with human rights violations and abuses. Despite assertions from Naypyidaw that Burma is progressing in the right direction, it remains Southeast Asia’s least developed country, and ranks 132 out of 169 countries on the UN Human Development Index and various assessments brand the country as a top source for rapes, refugees, drugs and human trafficking, hindering international aid for refugees, all of which have become a sensitive blot on the region’s reputation. Now, another chance for Burma comes out in 2014. Again this time, the rape of the Kachin women, authentically proved by the international organizations and strongly condemned by the US Congress, coupled with the massive child soldiers and staging a sham election with a dubious constitution, not to mention holding more than 2,000 political prisoners, would be an embarrassment for the region to be its chairperson.
In order to appease these crimes and to gain legitimacy internationally, as well as to gain credit among its own people, the regime had invited ASEAN Chairperson, Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesia’s Foreign Minister to visit Naypyidaw. But he had made it clear that he will go only if Burma makes a satisfactory progress towards resolving the issues, such as dialogue with pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, ceasefire with the ethnic nationalities and the releasing of more than 2,000 political prisoners.
Hence to prove it, at least cosmetically, the Thein Sein Administration has grudgingly, if not cautiously, contacted the Lady via the information minister. The irony is that, if it is according to the laws of the junta, NLD is an illegal association, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is persona non grata. Why contact now? The raison d’être is crystal clear; it wants to show to ASEAN and the world that there is already a dialogue. Then reluctantly it held a ceasefire talks with the Kachin, just to prove to the World Community that they are having a dialogue, when in fact, the regime is not sincere by dispatching only a junior officer which authentically proves that it is reluctant to find a negotiated settlement. The high watermark was by its refusal to dialogue with the Shan, Karenni and the Karen. In a way they are up to their old tricks of ‘divide and rule policy’ on the ethnic nationalities.
When it comes to a sensitive topic of releasing 2000 plus political prisoners held in inhumane and harsh conditions, it is synchronizing with some pro-engagement, anti-sanctions apologists and members of the international community in the form of a partial political prisoner release as a pretext for a “positive development” to sell western governments on the idea of lifting sanctions and dropping the call for a UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on human rights abuses in Burma. The pro-engagement, anti-sanctions diplomats, business persons and international NGOs especially led by the Nazi ancestors, are now attempting vigorously to persuade the country’s new quasi-civilian government to give them something, to show that they can be used to argue for reduced sanctions and the opportunity to invest in Burma, in order to open up a new market to exploit the country`s natural and human resources, at a time when Europe is experiencing a financial crisis.
It has been proved that behind diplomatic doors, the pro-engagement, anti-sanctions forces are asking for the release of 200-300 political prisoners all at once, and the regime relented by releasing one prisoner a day. In another three months when about 100 or so of its least-threatening prisoners have been released, then it will have create a dilemma for those who genuinely care about democracy and human rights in Burma. Simultaneously because of the thaw relations between the Thein Sein administration and NLD, there is a possibility that a fraction of the 2000 plus political prisoners will be released, now that the regime construes that the ethnic nationalities pose as their enemy No. 1 instead of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps the Generals have figured out her popularity as a pop star rather than a revolutionary figure that will inspire the masses to serious and sustained revolt and have reworked their approach to containing her just like, what the Thai army is doing to Yinluck Shinawahtra.
Obviously, anyone resisting rewarding the release of prisoners with meaningful carrots—such as reduced sanctions or support for the award of the ASEAN chair to Burma in 2014—will be accused of being a “stubborn radical” who is unwilling to compromise. The people of Burma and the international community should see this nasty trick and manoeuvre. The international community must know to allow the prisoner as human capital, bartering away as objects, some holding while others releasing, in order to obtain benefits will allow the regime to perpetuate its oppression of the Burmese people and to benefit the West is something to think of?
Even though any political prisoner release is welcomed, the international community should not allow its own economic motives to cause it to fall into the regime’s trap and give away the leverage of sanctions and a CoI at the cost of the peoples of Burma, before all of Burma’s 2,000 plus political prisoners have all been released and genuine democracy has been restored. So far the only truly significant development has been the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that was counterbalanced by barring her from participating in the election and the continued crackdown on ethnic nationalities. Can all these be counted as small and positive changes to release the punitive actions as the apologist claims?
As far as the domestic scene is concerned, the writings on the wall are clear, the regime’s propensity for violence will neither bring national reconciliation nor will it lead Burma to democracy; it will only lead to Myanmarization over the non-Myanmar and deepen the enduring political grievances of systemic alienation and suppression felt by ethnic nationalities. The ethnic nationalities have no choice left to counter it democratically but resort to taking up arms as it had done for decades to rightfully defend their national birthright of ethnic equality and self-determination within their own territory. More than ever before, the changing political trends and drama unfolding inside Burma have demanded that leaders of ethnic-based armed opposition groups stand together in their resistance of armed struggle against successive military regimes. The political stakes are too high for non-cooperation. Knowing the potential power of their collective force, they need to fight their common enemy under the banners of ‘we suffer together; we will fight together; we die together; we share together’.
Previously due to the corrosion of the internal cohesion among its members and lack of commitment in adhering to their common strategy, the military regime had succeeded in effectively undermining the front by persuading some members of the front to enter into the ceasefire agreements individually. Once, one main member party signs a peace deal with the military regime, it enables the Burmese army to break the internal cohesion and unity of the ethnic nationalities, thus subsequently weakening the collective movement.
Now over the years, understanding has reached that the collective forces of the armed group pose a serious threat to its grip on power, successive military regimes have been employing the strategy of ‘divide and rule’ in dismantling one by one of the collective forces of opposition armed groups. While many of Burma’s watchers wonder about the future of armed struggle in Burma, the recent re-unification of ethnic-based armed organizations under the umbrella of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) reinvigorates the hope of many in the ongoing ethno-democratic movements. The creation of the UNFC once again signifies the realization that the ethnic resistance forces are more powerful and stronger when they fight collectively rather than fighting separately without cooperation, as our Burmese saying goes “Nwa Kwe Kyar Kaik”.
Remembering that countless innocent lives have been sacrificed with the goals of reclaiming their inalienable rights to self-determination, equality, and universal human rights within the ethnic ancestral land, the current and future leadership of ethnic nationalities must attempt to minimize making a collateral strategic blunder in negotiating with the cunning, crafty regime one by one.
Indeed, the notion that we need each other and will stand together has long being embraced since 1976 under the banner of National Democratic Front (NDF). In this case, it is worth mentioning that Salai Za Ceu Lian, a Chin scholar, had drawn two explicit lessons from the NDF’s experience. The first is not to allow the economic and social incentives to outweigh their political rights. And the second is not to enter into a ceasefire agreement with the military regime individually and separately that would pave the way for the military regime to dismantle one by one again by the regime’s divide and rule policy. In this aspect, the Kachin, which has the most educated leaders, had done a commendable job in demanding that there should be a nation-wide ceasefire and others should follow its example. It is for the Karenni, Shan, Mon, Chin and Karen or any breakaway parties to follow suit. These are the pillars of success for the non-Myanmar whose combined population is far more than the Myanmar.
As seen, the regime had refused to have a dialogue with leaders of the UNFC as a common body and had pressured the Thai Intelligence to close down the UNFC Office in Chiang Mai and more of this can follow suit, as only then the Thais can exploit Burma’s natural and human resources now that Thaksin’s influence is gaining ground. This clearly indicates that the Burmese regime is not sincere and does not want a negotiated peace. What Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo claimed Naypyidaw would welcome peace talks with the ethnic nationalities fighting the government is just a bluff. The authenticated proof of it is that fighting in the countryside goes on unabated especially in Karen, Kachin and Shan states. La Nan, joint-secretary of the KIO, said that is just a propaganda statement which has arisen due to international pressure on Burma. For far too long, the junta had dictated the terms and conditions of ceasefire agreements in a way that serves its own interest of retaining power.
If all the ethnic nationalities could unite, should we leave out the Myanmar ethnic groups? Are all the Myanmar practicing Myanmarization policy? In other words, are all the Myanmar bad? These are the basic questions which every ethnic leader, nationalist and patriot should ask himself, now that there is a possibility of thaw relations between the pro democratic forces and the quasi-civilian government. No doubt there are genuine Pyidoungsu Myanmar and the Mahar Myanmar that are wittingly or unwittingly encouraging the Myanmarization philosophy and programme, even among the Burmese Diaspora who now are holding influential and high positions especially in the media.
One must be able to differentiate between the two. No doubt the Pyidoungsu Myanmar are the followers of Bogyoke Aung San, particularly her daughter, U Win Tin, Ko Ko Gyi and the likes but not all the NLDs are Pyidaungsu Myanmar as a great majority of them, especially the retired generals, are Mahar Myanmar, who construe that ethnic nationalities are all rebels bent on balkanization. One can easily distinguish by their actions and their philosophies especially in the interpretation of the Burmese History.
For instance, the military leaders and the great majority of the Mahar Myanmar share a belief that the present day Burma developed in a linear fashion straight from the founding of the first Burmese kingdom in 1044 AD under King Anawrahta. Only the British colonization of the Myanmar Kingdom disrupted this historical development. They believe in the accounts of their mighty, expansionistic imperialist empires (one of the proof is the three mammoth statues in Naypyidaw) with subordinate alliances made up of multi-ethnic and multi-language communities, including the Shan, the Arakanese, the Mons, and so on, encompassing the present day Burma and its political boundaries and, at times, stretching into neighbouring India and Thailand, while others are their subordinates and hence should not be treated as equal but above the ethnic nationalities.
On the other hand, the ethnic nationalities and the Pyidoungsu Myanmar believes that
“The Union of Burma is a nation-state of diverse ethnic nations (ethnic nationalities or nationalities), founded in 1947 at the Panglong Conference by pre-colonial independent ethnic nationalities such as the Chin, the Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Rakhine (Arakan), Myanmar (Burman) and Shan based on the principle of equality. As it was founded by formerly independent peoples in 1947 through an agreement, the boundaries of the Union of Burma today are not historical.”
This is a divergent – and obviously irreconcilable interpretation and will clearly differentiate between the Mahar Myanmar and the Pyidoungsu Myanmar. The latter and the ethnic nationalities who are the genuine followers of Bogyoke Aung San can vividly recall that, in the submission of the Union constitution to the AFPFL at Jubilee Hall on May 1947, our beloved leader himself has said,
“When we build our new Burma, shall we build it as a Union or a Unitary State? In my opinion it will not be feasible to set up a Unitary State. We must set up a Union with a properly regulated provision to set up the rights of the ethnic nationalities.”
But the Myanmar historians never pick up this phrase. Even the arch supporter of the Burmese junta Dr Maung Maung points out that,
“The Union States should have their own separate constitutions, their own organ of states, viz parliament, government and Judiciary.”
On the eve on the historic Panglong Conference, to be exact, on 11th February 1947, Bogyoke Aung San said,
“The dream of a unified and free Burma has always haunted me. We who are gathered here tonight are engaged in the pursuit of the same dream. We have in Burma many indigenous peoples, the Karen, the Kachin, the Shan, the Chin, the Burman and others. In other countries too, there are many indigenous peoples, many races. Thus races do not have rigid boundaries…If we want the nation to prosper, we must pool our resources, manpower, wealth, skills and work together. If we are divided, the Karen, the Shan, the Kachin, the Chin, the Burman (Myanmar), the Mon and the Arakanese, each pulling in a different direction, the Union will be torn, and we will come to grief. Let us come and work together.”
This is the essence of coming together but as everybody knows, Bogyoke Aung San and his key leaders were assassinated on 9th July 1948 and it was U Chan Htun, the only proficient person whom the leaders had put their trust on him, shows his Mahar Bamar mentality by betraying Bogyoke Aung San and the ethnic nationalities of Burma by completely changing his vision and making it a unitary state under the directions of U Nu.
Hence, an average Myanmar views the ethnic nationality as somewhat the necessary evil of the country where he is destined to live forever and that it is his unbounded duty to lead him to civilization. He/she must be shown the real civilization of the Myanmar people and finally led to Theravada Buddhism on to Nirvana whereas the ethnic nationalities view that the Myanmar people spearheaded by the Burmese army is still uncivilized as shown by their actions all these half a century especially in pillaging and raping of women, not to mention tens of thousands of child soldiers and killing of children and Buddhist monks. They were horrified that even now they are behaving in such a way that should be brought back to civilization; that they should slowly be educated to bring them back to the civilized international community.
History cannot be undone, but the point which I am emphasizing is that it will be a full mistake and a major blunder, if the ethnic nationalities did not put in the genuine Pyidoungsu Myanmar in their band wagon of the country’s epic struggle for the ultimate battle. Without the Pyidoungsu Myanmar, the ethnic nationalities will be building the Union of Ethnic Nationalities with Burmese as a lingua franca at its best and as its worst instead of the Union of Burma, which will be Balkanization. None of which is acceptable to the peoples of Burma or to the international community.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi calls for the Second Panglong Conference, not only to complete the unfinished work of her martyred father but also to potentially lay the groundwork for genuine security and economic prosperity in the border areas, where most ethnic nationalities live. It is a clear clarion call which every ethno-democratic forces should lend an ear in order to stay united with her through thick and thin.
No doubt the flames of ethno-nationalisms of Burma will continue to burn, given the fact that many ethnic communities have been deprived of equality, politically, culturally and economically under the Myanmar-dominated rule for so long. But it must be remembered that the distrust and fear of the Myanmar race groups throughout the country began long before the independence. Even though the Pyidoungsu Myanmar may feel some ideological affinity with their military rulers, more than our cosmopolitan, “enlighten ethnic nationalities” who speak a language littered with words like “federalism” or “self-determination”, their reasoning is sound under the guidance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when juxtaposed with the ideological discourse of human rights and democracy, with the world thinking in this globalized and digital world. Even now the Thein Sein administration is using his major trick by neither calling back the students and the Burmese intelligentsia in Diaspora to come back without general amnesty nor releasing the existing prisoners. But we should know that without the genuine Pyidoungsu Myanmar and vice versa, and without the ethnic nationalities, our goal is unattainable. It is a must that the two will have to stick together.
The last but not the least is not to forget the Buddhist Clergy whose moral force and stand for justice and truth have shaken the junta. The Shan, Arakanese, Mon and the majority of the Karen are still adherence of this faith and have well organized groups, both inside and outside the country. We should also recollect of what Bogyoke Aung San said as one religion, one race and one language had gone obsolete.
“Religion is a matter of individual conscience, while politics is social science. We must see to it that the individual enjoys his rights, including the rights to freedom of religious beliefs and worship. We must draw clear lines between politics and religion because the two are not the same thing. If we mix religion and politics then we offend the spirit of religion itself.”
Hence let us not commit another crime by leaving the well meaning of Pyidougsu Myanmar and the religious orders into our United Force for 100% success as the ultimate battles closes in.
ASEAN and Asian Scene
Part of the Truman doctrine of the Cold War period was creating a string of Defence Treaty Organizations (NATO in Europe, CENTO, Baghdad Pact in the Middle East, FETO in the Far East) and SEATO or the Manila Pact was born in 1954 including Thailand and Philippines to contain the socialist countries of Russia and China. Once it became obsolete, it was replaced by ASEAN in 1967 by newly independent nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore joined by Philippines and Thailand but it was not a defence pact but rather an economic entity. Since then, membership has expanded to include all the ten Southeast Asian countries and aims at the the acceleration of economic growth, social progress, cultural development, the protection of peace and stability of the region, and to provide opportunities for member countries to discuss differences peacefully.
Due to the economic nature of ASEAN, the Constructive Engagement Policy on Burma was adopted when she was in trouble, just to exploit the country’s natural and human resources to their benefits. ASEAN for years held the position that the crisis in Burma is a domestic issue; and closes their eyes to the fact that people are fleeing their homes and spilling into neighbouring territory. It does nothing about the situation and according to the guidelines of the Constructive Engagement Policy continued investing in the many mega-projects inside the country and has no qualms about giving the chair to Burma.
But the association’s most influential Western partners and the civilized international community have said the case must be decided based on Burma’s political and economic reforms and the region’s reputation and credibility would be greatly harmed by supporting a member country as its leader that promotes dictatorship and the violation of basic human rights. Lessons from ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting where EU cancelled because of Burma) must be heeded and could not afford a break with the West.
Besides as an emerging economic region with a long history of political instability, ASEAN governments have increasingly spoken of their desire for a leadership that can tackle the manifold social, political and economic problems they collectively face – a call that gains pertinence as borders become more porous, trade grows and an ASEAN ‘community’ blossoms. They also realise that in an apparent attempt to project a reformist image, the quasi-civilian government has sought the help of the International Monetary Fund in modernizing its currency exchange system and have withdrawn foreign exchange certificates (FECs) and is craftily using Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to seek normalization of their deepening and constitutionalized military -business class to be acceptable in terms of international relations,
On the other hand, the Arab Spring has blossomed, Southeast itself is changing, the Philippines and Indonesia have become full blown democracy, one party dictatorship under the smokescreen of democracy as in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are waning, Vietnam and Cambodia have adopted market economy and the leaders of ASEAN are now plodding with the idea of whether it is time for ASEAN to assist Burma in securing justice and if possible to stop human rights violations. Of course it can easily do this by bringing the legal process to bear on the perpetrators and providing relief and comfort to victims’ families and those who suffer in natural catastrophes. This would be a huge step in the resolution of one of the world’s most shameful conflicts between a government and its people.
The people of Burma and the international community have learnt that the Burmese gridlock is not a horizontal one with one ethnic nationality or party fighting another but all the pro-democratic forces and the ethnic nationalities are fighting against the military junta and its accomplice. The generals still perceive themselves as good, family men trying their level best to defend Myanmar’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They view themselves as the saviour of the nation from potential Balkanization and keepers of law and order. Virtually, all of them are insular, are stuck in the old father-knows-best mentality and demand complete and utter loyalty. While the rank and file live rather poor lives, not dissimilar to the bulk of the population, a handful of top generals live extremely lavishly by local standards.
The Burmese army view that ordinary people and civil servants of the country live more easy-going lives. They are undisciplined and have many leisure hours. They do business just to enrich themselves. When the army cracks down on peaceful demonstrators, they view them as lazy opportunists who are asking for rights without working hard and sacrificing like them. The army as a whole works hard whereas others don`t do. The soldiers work industriously and are disciplined and for this, they are simply reaping the advantages from performance. The end result is that soldiers believe they have the sole right to hold state power due to their hard work and sacrifices and could not comprehend of why these foreign countries are always asking the army to give up power.
No doubt foreigners work hard and think smarter than lazy people of Burma, and these are the reasons developed countries ahead of Burma seems to be the Burmese army’s logic and rationale. In other words, the Burmese army in a way blame the people for failing to develop the country. When ordinary people go abroad to seek job opportunity, they see them as betraying the country and opting for a foreign one. Not a single general or soldier had the slightest idea that the country could not move forward because of the army’s heavy handed control. The Burmese army propaganda encourages a blind racist nationalism, full of references to protecting the Myanmar ethnic race, leaving out the other ethnic nationalities. This implies that if the Myanmar do not oppress other nationalities then they find themselves to be oppressed. For them, national reconciliation means assimilation and preventing disintegration of the Union of Burma, and all the ethnic races must be assimilated into the Myanmar race including their language, culture and values. With such kind of mindset, it is still to be seen how ASEAN will respond to be eligible for the chairperson.
Will ASEAN support for the call of the international community and the United Nations to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the crimes against humanity which is the only way to achieve the ultimate goal or will they prove that ASEAN chairperson to be the highest stage of this Constructive Engagement is still to be seen?
Given the staunch political support and unprincipled business dealings from Beijing’s bogus neo-communists with their unquenchable thirst for Burma’s energy resources, as well as the support of the veto-wielding Russia, the international community has so far not been powerful enough to either strong-arm or persuade the regime to find a peaceful resolution to their self-perpetuated war against their own citizens.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s focus on a more durable and equitable resolution of Burma’s festering inter-ethnic relations should pique interest from Kunming to Zhongnanhai and make the men on the dragon throne sit up. Proposing to reopen negotiations on a new Second Panglong Agreement modeled on the 1947 pact would be in China’s interests since it would resolve the dilemma arising from its present conflicted role. Beijing poses as both the protector of ethnic Chinese minority peoples on the Burmese side of the border, and the political protector and economic enabler of their tormentors.
It can be seen that the Chinese government’s hopes that the recent elections would help move the country in that direction have proven to be illusory, as armed conflict has resumed in the wake of widespread disenfranchisement and continued state violence in ethnic areas. This unstable situation has major implications for China’s quest to exploit Burma’s natural resources, as both petroleum pipelines and major hydro-electric projects traverse or are located in ethnic homelands. These projects have already been the site of anti-Chinese violence. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can succeed where the junta’s coercive approach has failed, China would be one of the biggest beneficiaries.
Another factor is the junta’s poor response to HIV/AIDS (usually named as SLORC’s disease for when the country first opened its door HIV/AID was the first to come in) epidemic and the nature of cross-border trade between China and Burma. Public health experts and epidemiologists have tracked a vector of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases begun in Burma have swept into China’s Yunnan province—home of China’s highest HIV/AIDS infection rates—before spreading out into the rest of the country. On the other hand, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to an HIV/AIDS clinic in Rangoon and her exhortation to do more for those suffering from Burma’s epidemic will definitely be a benefit to China, too.
Now that China has a potential to be the next super power, at least economically, (America’s biggest foreign creditor, holding $1tn of debt) where even the Vice-President Joe Baden has to kowtow to the next generation of the men on the Dragon throne that have a lot of brains will have to think twice for the continued support of the junta’s accomplice. If the ethno-democratic forces remain united, they would really be an alternative to the junta and definitely will get the support from the emerging economic powers of China, India and Japan. Hence it is high time for the ethnic nationalities (UNFC), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the clergies to be united in one voice.
By Kanbawza Win
(Even though the author’s email has been compromised by the Junta and its accomplice, he can still be reached at [email protected])
[i] Lian,Salai Za Ceu In Chinland Guardian “United we Stand, Divided We Fall.” 2nd Aug 2011
[iii] See Bogyoke Aung San’s speech pp 306-307
[iv] U Maung Maung Burmese National Minorities 1940-1989– p170
[v] See the speeches of Aung San also reprinted in The New Panglong Initiative, Rebuilding the Union of Burma p 13 by Chao Tzang and LH Sakong
[vi] See Contemporary of the speech of Aung San delivered on 20th Jan. 1946
[viii]Zarni,Maung Dr.; Monks Vs. Generals Opinion Asia Sept 2007
[ix] Wall Street Journal 25th Nov.2010