Burma: Why Did The 8888 Generation Fall Into The Army’s Trap? – OpEd


An open letter written in Burmese by little Ma Hla Myaing to the 8888 generation leaders of Burma seems to hit the nail on the head.1 The Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) visualise that the 8888 generations is the upcoming force to reckon, because it is a movement and not a political party. The Tatmadaw visualise that NLD is nothing without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and is incapable of producing young and vibrant leaders and unlike the 8888 generation who can not only organize but also works hands in glove with the Burmese Diaspora communities is more of a threat. It also sensed that NLD cannot keep its house in order.2

The master brains of the Tatmadaw cleverly crafted the policy of “Let the minority fight the minority” pitting national sovereignty versus humanitarian and human rights, just to discredit the Lady, on her trip to Europe and shore up the army’s image. But instead it finds itself on hot pebbles, compelling them to let Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tour Arakan State, who advised the Burmese government to accept an independent enquiry commission from OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation of 56 Islamic states promoting Muslim solidarity in economic, social, and political affairs) and being targeted by Islamic extremists organizations of the world. In Burmese we say  instead of trapping a rabbit, the house cat was caught.

What a shame for the country and the government which paints the picture that it is unable to settle its own domestic problem is being forced to accept international arbitration.

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. Historians know well that every story has many sides, many aspects, and many dimensions to explore. When a story is about such a topic as faith or politics, emotions can quickly become charged.3  Politics and contemporary history often intertwine, and inextricably connect, as individuals advocate for beliefs and ideas important to them. When history and beliefs are challenged, it is easy to believe we ourselves are being challenged.  Unchecked, this can open old wounds, and further the distance between us.4

Each community feels a need to retain its sense of self, its collective memory in the face of the Myanmar-centered vision of the Burmese nation by the government, which the ethnic nationalities 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 Myanmar Buddhists have often done – it is certain to trigger deep resentment and forceful, dysfunctional expression of ethno-nationalisms of the most intense category?  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) today 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 who views Burma as their ancestral home. 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 at the central plains of Pagan in the 11th century. Only the British colonization of the Myanmar Kingdom disrupted this historical development. They believe in the accounts of their mighty, expansionistic imperialist 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 neighbouring India and Thailand are their subordinates and hence should not be treated as equal. How to get rid of this erroneous disease is a major problem.5

A wildly different version is in circulation among non-Myanmar ethnic groups.  In his report on State Constitutions Drafting Process, General Secretary Lian H. Sakhong of the United Nationalities League for Democracy 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-Myanmar 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 Myanmar 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 them 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-Myanmar ethnic communities have felt that they have been deprived of equality, politically, culturally and economically under the Myanmar dominated rule for so long. The distrust and fear of the Myanmar commonly shared by non-Myanmar groups throughout the country began long before the nationalist army headed by Aung San came into existence in 1941.

Tatmadaw have become a state within the State with its own short- and long-term plans designed to ensure the institutional survival, dominance, and reproduction in the country, and this is the structural issue that can help explain the longevity of the Tatmadaw 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 as was demonstrated in the Mujahid crisis in Western Burma’s sectarian crisis.

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

Suffice it to say no Myanmar politician, however popular, has articulated where he or she really stands on the question of ethnic nationalities 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 Myanmar or those who have bought into this Myanmar-centered nationalism or worldview – and the Tatmadaw personnel, they all drink from the same ideological well-spring.  This shared ideological bond serves as an unbroken structural linkage between the Tatmadaw and the majority Myanmar.  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 Myanmar majority, their blood is still thicker than the water of friendship.

While the democratic Myanmar wishes 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 is where the 8888 Generation falls. The country’s 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-Burma and Indo-Burmese border-based dissident organizations and armed resistance groups always encounter occasions, formal and otherwise, in which the position taken by Myanmar 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 Myanmar and the non Myanmar are still mired in what Clifford Geertz terms ” the pattern of primordial dissidence.”

If the Burmese authorities continue to teach the Myanmar version of history in the Burma proper area as it is their right in as much as the ethnic nationalities continue to teach their version of history in the their own respective States and divisions and not to the whole country, it will slowly erode the Pyidoungsu spirit. In the ethnic dominated states their version of history will have to be taught as the ethnic nationalities cannot impose their version of history to the Myanmar group vice versa in as much as the Myanmar cannot impose their version on the ethnic nationalities. For history is the study of the past of the whole country the History of the Union of Burma or rather Pyidaungsu History(jynfaxmifpkordkif;) which started with the Panglong Accord should be taught. Then it must be imposed on the education of the whole country. This is just but one way of solving the historical memories and well as tantamount to solidifying the Union Spirit or Pyidoungsu Seikdat (jynfaxmifpkpdwf “gwf) and that the Myanmar and the non Myanmar are equals.

No doubt Burma’s human rights situation has improved notably in some respects but it has significantly worsened in Kachin and Arakan states. Freedoms of assembly and expression remain restricted, and hundreds of political prisoners and many prisoners of conscience remain in jail. In several ethnic minority areas, the army continues to commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against civilians, including acts that may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, Amnesty International said in a statement submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Many of these reported crimes are taking place despite cease-fire agreements between the Myanmar army and the relevant ethnic minority armed groups, the cease-fire is not being obeyed, while in others serious human rights violations continue even when the fighting has stopped.”6

It also cited “credible accounts” of the army using prison convicts as porters, forcing them to act as human shields and minesweepers. Latest report indicates that in exterminating the Kachin the Tatmadaw has deployed over 100 battalions of troops and t least 55,000 people have been internally displaced since fighting resumed in mid-2011. Extrajudicial executions, children killed by shelling and other indiscriminate attacks, forced labour, and unlawful confiscation of food and property are the usual standard of the Burmese army.7 The Investigation and prosecution of human rights violations and crimes against humanity are obstructed by Article 445 of the 2008 Constitution, which stipulates that “no proceeding” may be instituted against officials of the military governments since 1988 “in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”

In an early February statement, Ojea Quintana stressed that moving forward on Burma cannot ignore or whitewash what happened in the past, and that acknowledging the violations suffered will be necessary to ensure national reconciliation and prevent future violations from occurring. It seems that the Thein Sein administration, like the previous Junta will continue to uphold, “Lying the very concept of truth.” and so the international community and the world at large must improve its understanding of the aspirations of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and give greater attention to addressing the needs of these ethnic nationalities in discussions of the country’s human rights situation before indulging in trade and development works.

1. I label her as little because I saw her picture flashed on the media when she just was a little girl that participated alongside with her elder brother Tin Maung OO who was first student to be hanged by the Burmese army way back in 70s, now a responsible person looking after her parents and the rest of the family in Canada is carrying on the fight.
2. I learned that my Article “Killing two Birds with a Stone, a Win Win Situation” ideas an attempt of solving the Rohingya and Chinese crisis which was emailed to the lady never reaches her. On following up I lamentably discovered that even the major broadcasting stations of the world had to bribe her associates in order interview her. Very lately she herself has to discharged some of her handpicked followers The moral corruption initiated by Ne Win administrations runs deep.
3. May Oo, Naw; “Reconciliation needed for a United Burma” Irrawaddy Magazine 16th March 2010
4. May Oo, Naw; “Reconciliation needed for a United Burma” Irrawaddy Magazine 16th March 2010
5. The proof of this can be seen in the monumental statutes in Naypyidaw
6. Mizzima News 12-2-2012 U.N. should consider commission of inquiry on Burma
7. Mizzima 5 -6 -2012 Fighting in Kachin State Detailed in Free Burma Ranger’s Report

Kanbawza Win

Kanbawza Win is a political scientist based in Canada

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