Friday, January 14, 2005

Ethnic Conflict in Burma: Politics of Historical Memories

1). Burma's Ethno-Nationalisms

From: "Common Problems, Shared Responsibilities: Citizens' Quest for National Reconciliation in Burma/Myanmar" Free Burma Coalition Report, pp. 80-84. , by Zarni and May Oo, Free Burma Coalition

For full references and citations, see the full report at

Ethnic Conflict in Burma: Politics of Historical Memories

We have just demonstrated how enormous are the difficulties that exist in forging alliance between the dominant Burmans and the country’s ethnic minorities. Clearly the continuing conflict in Burma is not simply fought in terms of restoring democracy and human rights. It must be emphasized that there is a deeper politics of historical memories, which continues to serve as one of the biggest obstacles to national reconciliation.

Each minority community feels a need to retain its sense of self, its collective memory in the face of the Burman-centered vision of the Burmese nation by the government, which they have come to view as colonial power. The government’s version of Burma’s history is radically different from what their own communal and ethnic memories teach them.

Should any one group operate with racial or ethnic superiority – as Burman Buddhists have often done – it is certain to trigger deep resentment and forceful, dysfunctional expression of ethno-nationalisms of the most intense kind.

The value of memories, like anything that is human and socially constructed, has its limits. When two competing memories collide, as it were, the reliance on memories sets back the clock of history (of a nation) to day one of independence, where the primordial sentiments surge. It is no longer fruitful to use the past events or memories as a guide.

Unfortunately, it is inconceivable that these differences in memories can be sorted out in any mutually satisfactory way, given the sorry state of hardened ethnic distrust and irreconcilable versions of these memories among different ethnic communities each of whom views Burma as their ancestral home.

For instance, the military leaders and the great majority of Burmans share a belief that the present day Burma developed in a linear fashion straight from the founding of the first Burmese kingdom at the central plains of Pagan in the 11th century. Only the British colonization of the Burman Kingdom disrupted this historical development. They believe in the accounts of their mighty, expansionistic empires 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 neighboring India and Thailand.

A wildly different version is in circulation among non-Burman ethnic groups.

In his report on State Constitutions Drafting Process, General Secretary Lian H. Sakhong of the United Nationalities League for Democracy [Liberated Area, Sweden] writes: “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 representative view among many non-Burman ethnic groups in Burma. These divergent - and obviously irreconcilable - memories die hard, and there is no way a common threat out of these divergent histories can be drawn. Despite the polemics of federalism, some of the ethnic groups such as the Shan appear to have kept their independence aspirations.

The Burmese military leadership is fully aware of these centrifugal tendencies backed up by corresponding or supporting historical memories of various ethnic communities.

How should Burma proceed if its histories are tortured and unhelpful?

If her past is no guide – and then perhaps her future – more accurately, how the parties want Burma’s future to be – the vision for a future Burma - can serve as a blueprint. Such a vision born out of civic, national debate is solely needed, and so are the leaders who are equipped intellectually to appreciate this process and not allow themselves to succumb to powerful primordial sentiments in the process.

No doubt the flames of ethno-nationalisms of Burma will continue to burn, given the fact that many non-Burman ethnic communities have felt that they have been deprived of equality, politically, culturally and economically under the Burman-dominated rule for so long.

The distrust and fear of the Burmans commonly shared by non-Burman groups throughout the country began long before the nationalist army headed by Aung San came into existence in 1941.

The Common Bond: the Armed Forces and the Dominant Ethnic Burmans

Earlier, we noted that the Burma’s Armed Forces has become a state within the State (of Burma), with its own short- and long-term plans designed to ensure the institutional survival, dominance, and reproduction in the country.

We wish to emphasize one structural issue that can help explain the longevity of the army as the dominant political force. The NLD may be the most popular brand name and symbol of democratic change or the push for it. But it is the Tatmadaw which the majority of people have come to view as the institution which can repel any threats, external and internal, to the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence.

Throughout Burma’s society, not excluding the Burman majority communities, there is widely shared a great deal of animosity and even hatred toward the armed forces and the military officers at all levels, not just the top brass. However, most Burmese have a sense of Burman-centered nationalism and feel some ideological affinity with their military rulers, more than our cosmopolitan, “enlightened” Burman politicians who speak a language littered with words like “federalism” or “self-determination.”

Suffice it to say no Burman politician, however popular, has articulated where he or she really stands on the question of minorities’ right to self-determination, including the right to secede from the Union of Burma. They all take the majority position, that under no circumstances is secession of any group acceptable. For no matter how much animosity between the people – especially the Burmans or those who have bought into this Burman-centered nationalism or worldview – and the Armed Forces personnel, they all drink from the same ideological well-spring.

This shared ideological bond serves as an unbroken structural linkage between the armed forces and the majority Burman. It is a bond based on ethno-nationalistic emotions that give the great majority of people a strong sense of belonging to a national community in which they are dominant.

It is a much more powerful bond than that which may have developed among NLD supporters subscribing to a set of liberal political values and beliefs with no root in the native political culture. As far as the Burmese majority, their blood is still thicker than friendship. While Burmese wish to befriend and adopt liberal values and outlook, when push comes to shove, they will go with their blood ties at the expense of equality and ethnic justice.

This structural bond of ethno-nationalism plays out even among relatively sophisticated dissidents in exile during discussions, on-line or otherwise, that touch on ethnic equality, self-determination and re-constructing alternative histories of Burma and the ethnic communities.

When juxtaposed with the ideological discourse of human rights and democracy, it is elevated as the mainstream ideology among the NLD-led democracy movement. Likewise, Thai- and Indo-Burmese border-based dissident organizations and armed resistance groups always encounter occasions, formal and otherwise, in which the position taken by Burman dissidents resembles that of their ideological kinfolks – the members of the military government – and its official view toward ethnic relations in the country. Indeed, in the half-century since independence, the Burmans (and their minority brethrens) are still mired in what Clifford Geertz terms “the pattern of primordial dissidence.”