Saturday, February 12, 2005

First Rooster Joke, then Ethnic Politics in Burma/Myanmar

Burma's Politics of Ethnicity

Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

I am sharing with you first some traditional Year of the Rooster jokes on:

Why DID the chicken cross the road???!!!

Saeed Al Sahaf (former head of information under Sadaam Hussein) - The chicken did not cross the road. This is a complete fabrication. We do not even have achicken!

George W Bush - We don't care why the chicken crossed the road. We just want toknow if the chicken is on our side of the road or not. The chicken is either for us or against us. There is no middle ground.

Colin Powell - Now to the left of the screen, you can clearly see the satellite image of the chicken crossing the road.

Tony Blair - I agree with George!

Hans Blix - We have reason to believ there is a chicken, but we have not yetbeen allowed to have access to the other side of the road.

Dr. Seuss - Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad? Yes,the chicken crossed the road. But why it crossed I've not been told.

Martin Luther King Jr. - I envision a world where all chicken will be free tocross roads without having their motives called into question.

Aristotle - It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.

Karl Marx - It was an historic inevitability.

Bill Gates - eChicken 2005 will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, fileyour important documents, and balance your cheque book - and internet explorer is an integral part of eChicken.

Albert Einstein - Did the chicken really cross the road, or did the road move beneath the chicken?

Ariel Sharon - Is this chicken kosher?

Col. Sanders - Did I miss one?

Homer Simpson - Mmmmmmmm .... chicken!

Ronald Reagan - What chicken?

For the Chinese who have just celebrated their new year, this is the Year of the Rooster. As the Burmese question has become almost unresolvable to anyone'ssatisfaction, I am sharing with you first the simple, but famously hilarious question "why did the chicken cross the road?" - and various (made-up) rationales andexplanations by known entities in both ancient and contemporary history.

Aftera chuckle, you will probably be greeted by a feeling of hopelessness aboutBurma.At the root of the problem is that the Burmese power elite, as well as thegrassroots citizens hold a radically different understanding of how the presentday Burma came into existence. It was a nation that was built by successivegenerations of Burmese kings as early as 11th century AD (of course, throughmilitary expedititions and conquests).

Wildly divergent ethno-nationalisms are , once again, flaring up inBurma's national politics.

(The historical development of Burma is not that different from otherethnically hetrogeneous nation throughout the world.)

This linear view of Burma's history sharply contrasts with others versions ofBurma's history in relation to various mono-ethnic groups such as the ones heldby the Karens, the Shan, the Chin, the Karenni, the Mon, and the Arakanese.

For those ethnic groups whose representatives signed the Pin-lon or PanglongAgreement on Feb. 12, 1947, declaring their endorsement of Aung San's vision for a multi-ethnic modern Burma as we know it today never existed untilthat day.

The instititional, official memories (Read 'propaganda') of the Armed Forcescollide with the alternative memories (Read 'alternative propaganda') put forthby non-Burman ethnic opposition groups. Neither side is likely to compromise on their historical memories and futurevisions. The ethnicity-focused conflict will rage on - and the future of Burma doesn't offer much hope for those Burmese who wish to seek reconciliation, reconsolidation and reconstruction of Burma as a modern nation.

Perhaps thinking that the Burmese power elite have been figuratively andliterally decimating one another, the Shan elite appeared to have decided that a new window of opportunity has arisen.

The SPDC apparently thought the denunciation of its National Convention by the shan exiles from different partsof the world who got together in New York City had everything to do with the flury of political activities involving New Generation Shan politicians,the ceasefire group - Shan State Army North, and Khun Tun Oo, who is a prominentmember of the NLD-created Committee Representating People's Parliament (CRPP) and the leader of the Shan Nationalaties League for Democracy (SNLD).

Some Burman politicians such as Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, a daughter of the lateAFPFL and socialist leade U Kyaw Nyein and the recently released U Thu Wei, who chaired the now de funct Democracy Party, also participated in these politicalactivities.

In my meeting last year with the ousted Brigadier Than Tun and Colonel Hla Min, Head of the Internal Security and Political Affairs and SPDC Spokesperson respectively, the two officials told me that ethnic issue was the number issueconfronting Burma (and by extension, the SPDC).

To the SPDC, everything else is secondary such as democratization, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom, theUS or EU sanctions or ASEAN membership. Self-serving as it may sound, theygenuinely believe the Armed Forces is the only political and military forcethat can make sure the country doesn't meet the fate of former Yugoslavia - theBalkan scenario.

An understanding of the background history might be of help here ininterpreting today's events re: ethnicity-based political conflict in Burma.

Historically, from 15th century on, Burman power elite have long forciblyintegrated the Mons and the Arakanese kingdoms - all Buddhist - into revised and expanded version of Burman kingdom. When the Burman kingdom fell to themilitarily and technologically superior British Forces, the descendents of the Burman court elite teamed up with the Arakanese and the Mon to imagine a newmodern, Burmese nation and formulated and propagated a new form of nationalism.

The only remaining cluster of formidable political systems in the Hills -various Shan provinces under Shan kings, Saw Bwa, or Chao Pha - reached a dealwith the British - on the model of the Thai monarchy and its relationships with Britain, US and Japan, which allowed the local Shan "kings" or chiefs to retain their traditional social structure and customs in exchange for theadministrative and military submission to Whitehall.

The nationalist elite of the Mon, the Arakanese and the Burman, built a strategic alliance with the left-leaning, radicalized Shan elite who were not part of the traditional feudal power structure to break the monopoly of Shanfeudal chiefs over the Shan provinces. For the Shan chiefs were viewed aslackeys of the British colonialists by the nationalists in the lowlands.

The Shan chiefs tried to monkey-wrench Aung San-led Burmese efforts forindependence of Burma. Consequently, the British questioned openly Aung San's legitimacy and right to speak for the frontier area peoples. In response to the feudal chiefs' effort to derail Burman nationalists' effortsnegotiating with Atlee's Labor Government in London, Aung San teamed up with Shan leftists and used a combination of inducement and mass display of Shan commoners' support for his effort to seek independence for his "imagined"Burma. Aung San used the recognition of the self-determination rights by the Kachinand Shan as a carrot to get the feudal chiefs from respective ethniccommunities to endorse his vision for a federated Union of Burma.

It remains highly debatable, however, whether Aung San would have accepted the claims of self-determination - in practice -(outside his vision for a unified, if federated Burma).

The nationalists' embrace of the Kachin and Shan's rights to secede from the Union of Burma (10 years after independence in 1948) appeared to have really been, in the final analysis, more a matter of politicalexpediency than any genuine acceptance of the abstract version of liberalism ofthe West, by him and his colleagues, where politics is supposed to be de-ethnicized, principle-driven and color-blind.

The idealized and romanticized national community of multi-ethnic peoples and culturs remains an ideal even in the world's oldest and largest democracies -the United States and India - or in Britain with its Constitutional Monarchy - where race riots and ethnic violence have not become a thing of of the past. No sooner were Aung San and half of his cabinet members assassinated on July19, 1947 - five months after his signing of the Pin-lon or Panglong agreement -than his nationalist colleagues who survived and/or escaped the assassination decidedly moved to re-draft the constitution of Burma, so that the future Constitution was federal only in name and unitary in substance and structure. Prime Minister U Nu tasked the late U Chan Tun, the English-trained, firstAttorney General of the soon-to-be independent Burma, with the job ofre-drafting - changing - the future Constitution of independent Burma, anassignment that U Chan Tun completed as a loyal civil servant of the newly independent Burma.

The now de funct Burmese Communist Party (BCP) headed by Thakhin (or Master) Than Tun, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's uncle, went underground on March 29, 1949-barely 14-months after independence - and waged an armed revolt against the AFPF government of U Nu.

To make matters worse, the Karen National DefenceOrganization headed by Cambridge-trained barrister Saw Ba Oo followed suit witin a year and almost succeeded in militarily defeating the Union Army underGeneral Ne Win's stewartship.

As the ethnic bloods boiled, Burmese Communists reached a secret deal withtheir ethnic brethens in PM Nu's Union Government and repelled the KNDO revolt- only to resume their bloody feud after the KNDO threat was pushed to Burma's forested areas and away from the centers of commerce and political power.

Having learned its lesson, PM Nu's Government and nationalists within theBurmese Armed Forces built military bases throughout the Shan State in the form of military training schools, including the Defence Services Academy as earlyas 1953.

Whether Aung San would have succeeded in persuading the minorities to give up their claims of self-determination peacefully can never be known. One thing remains clear - despite what he ariculated as his vision and hisintegrity, Aung San was a Burman nationalist through and through from theheartland of Burma. In his writings espousing his multi-ethnic vision of Burma, Aung San rejectedcategorically absolutist notion of "self-determination." He (and most, ifnot all, of his Burmese nationalist colleagues) privileged the sanctity ofnation above anything else.

It is highly improbable that successivegenerations of nationalist leaders who, having put their lives on line, struggled against the British rule and Japanese occupation so that the notion of ethnic self-determination for mono-ethnic communities may be placed above the prerogatives of the Burmese nation.

Neither the dominant Burmans nor their minority brethens in Burma have been able to find the right balance in their sordid tale of nation building - the balance that honors the majority's deeply rooted feeling and vision of aBurmese nation and at the same time is sensitive to the minorities'legitimategrievances and concerns. Sadly, the way things have been progressing (or regressing - depending on whereone stands) in Burma, this crucial balance remains a distant, if not unrealizable, dream.