April 13, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Burma’s Ethnic Conflict and the Way Forward for Democracy

31 October 2012: Less than a month after the Burmese democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi concluded her highly decorated visit to the US, which was followed by the US announcement to ease its sanctions on imports from 1Burma, another major communal violence broke out in the western part of the country that have claimed more than 100 lives and resulted in thousands of internally displaced Rohingyas. In the north, the Burmese military continues its offensive against the ethnic armed group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The continued ethnic conflict in Burma reflects the nature of political crisis in Burma –deeply rooted in and prolonged by the Burman nationalistic claim that effectively utilized the world’s most reclusive and successive military as a tool to accomplish its goals of ethnic cleansing agenda– which ravaged 60 million people with fear and poverty, killed thousands and produced millions of refugees.

With the recent positive developments led by President Thein Sein, something to optimistic and encourage with cautious, the international community must continue to recognize the ethnic issue is the heart of the country’s problem and only when this issue has been addressed fundamentally, with the constitutional and institutional arrangement, a stable democratic state that respects human rights and embraces peaceful co-existence in diversity can be realized. That is when Burma, in real sense and substances, can be considered a democratic state that is capable of positively contributing to the regional and world peace, stability and economy.

Many may have observed the opposition party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to have changed her tone – perhaps more correctly her approach about Burma reform – from initially articulating the need for constitutional reform as a more urgent necessary step in democratization process to maintaining the rule of law, while she had largely remained silent on the topic of continued violence in ethnic minorities areas as it was clearly seen from her speeches during her recent trip to the US.

Why would Suu Kyi stop any sort of pushing the constitutional reform in Burma? Has she now abandoned the ethnic minorities? There could be differing observations. However, a common agreement seems to suggest that she has shifted her traditionally held confrontational practice to a more diplomatic solution-oriented engagement with the nominal civilian government and the military for certain reasons. Will she succeed? Or would the military allow a fully democratic Burma state? It all depends.

There are two things that the military will not allow to happen easily: 1) Amending the 2008 approved constitution which reserves 25% for the military in all legislatures2  and 2) Forming a United Nations commission of inquiry to investigate the possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the military. The Obama administration and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi supported the UN Commission of Inquiry, which is also recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur Mr. Tomas Ojea Quintana3 . In other words, these are the ‘red line’ for the Burmese military leadership. Something must be done before these advancements can be pushed for and achieved, or the Burmese military will come back to coup the power.

What is that something? Why is that?

Burma’s ethnic conflict began during the struggle for independence in the 1940s when violence between the Burma Independence Army (BIA), a.k.a the 30 comrades, and the Karen ethnic group broke out. It is important to note that BIA members were immortalized in Burman or Bama nationalist mythology. The Karen ethnic Christian soldiers who had been part of the British army were disarmed by the BIA as the British retreated to India. The violence against the Karen ethnic minorities continued and the Karen National Union (KNU) was eventually forced into existence.

U Nu, the first prime minister of independent Burma, followed by General Ne Win, and then Sr General Than Shwe, all embraced and fostered the Burman chauvinistic agenda – the ethnic cleansing policy that had become a state policy – that had rather successfully been carried out towards achieving their goals. In the process of implementing this policy, they committed atrocities and grave human rights violations. What happened then?

Sr. General Than Shwe and his colleagues clearly understood a pure military grip on the power will not be sustainable in the 21st century for many reasons – they know the power of the people; the 8888 style uprising could come back soon; the wave of the Arab spring could hit them, and they understand the power of technology and media. So they outsourced some smart brains to design the constitution approved in 2008 where the executive branch will impress the international community with its nominal civilian movement while the military hold all key powers, including the power of the Commander-in-Chief that can override the President’s power anytime they need to.

In other words, this constitution serves as a foundation and grants the military to hold the absolute power. With such likable personality, President Thein Sein has rather been very successful in his effort in easing the pressure from both the international community and the opposition parties. In fact, he has got the US and European sanctions lifted and Ms. Suu Kyi join the parliament.

Now with 25% of the seats constitutionally taken by the military in all legislatures, a nominal civilian government installed in March 2011, Daw Suu and democratic forces will have to do two things to overcome the military’s ‘red line’.

With a clear understanding that the ethnic conflict and political crisis in Burma is man-made crisis and deeply rooted in the Burman nationalistic claim and the chauvinistic political culture, the majority Burman firstly have to realize and be convinced that a continuation of manipulating the military for their own political and racial purpose has been counterproductive, seen unintended consequences, and effected the whole country including ethnic groups such as Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan and Bama themselves.

The Burman chauvinistic political culture has to change and reach a negotiated constitutional agreement and a consolidated political settlement in a federal democracy. The Burmese young generation must abandon the old way of racism and embrace new ways of thinking and democratic political culture , and play an active and important role in the democratization process. This may desirably require organizing a conference in the form of the second Panglong where all eight major ethnic groups can start engaging openly, but seriously to eventually reach a negotiated agreement. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi supported this idea and also called for the 21st century style of Panglong Conference which her late father Aung San started.

Something that is even more important is all Burma stakeholders should work together toward creating a condition and political environment where the Burmese Generals’ future security is guaranteed. This may include providing leeway creatively. This is for this very reason that the military must take part Burma’s democratization process.

But all this will require a sincere and open engagement, an inclusive process, a serious intention to create a win-win situation – that is to establish a federalism-based democratic country, conducive to a long lasting peace, where Burman, non-Burman, and the stakeholders together could say they have won collectively.

By Salai Elaisa Vahnie

The author, Executive Director of the Burmese American Community Institute based in the US, is a longtime political and student activist for change in his native country, Burma. He holds an MPA degree in Policy Analysis and Comparative International Affairs.


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