The Raison D’être Of Obama Going To Burma – OpEd


President Obama visiting Burma may seems to be too early in lending legitimacy to the quasi military government of Burma whose hands are still soak with blood but it is understandable that strategic raison d’être overtakes the human rights concern vis a vis China. But it will be wise for the 2nd Obama Administration to balance his Asian strategy with the human rights considerations now that the genocide and ethnic cleansing is still going on Northern and Western parts of the country where the quasi military government is relentlessly pursuing its age old policy of killing, raping and displacing the ethnic nationalities.

We applauded him that his visit is confine to Rangoon and not to Naypyidaw whose capital was built secretly by the sweat and blood of the people and that President Obama continue to call the country Burma instead of the chauvinistic name of Myanmar.1 Since his stop is over only half day, after resting at the posh Chatrium Hotel, he should meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein at the Convocation Hall of the Rangoon University as a sign of encouraging democracy and education in Burma.2 We do hope that with so many Asian experts in the administration the President will comprehend that there is an un-reconcilable difference between the Myanmar and the Non -Myanmar.

The psyche and rationale of an average Myanmar view 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 showed the real civilization of the Myanmar people over the Non-Myanmar and finally lead him to Theravada Buddhism on to Nirvana. Whereas the ethnic nationalities view that the Myanmar people spearheaded by the Tatmadaw is still uncivilized as shown by their actions especially in the killing of students, women, children and even Buddhist monks and the way they are behaving for the past half a century or more and should be brought back to civilization and educate them to be in the international standard as they are coiled up in their own fantasies.

On the other hand the Burmese intellectual view that the ethnicity is an incurable disease -both the dominant one and the others – as an infectious disease which no one is immune to it. Some are able to take a step back and reflect on their own (taught) prejudices while others find ethnic sentiments to be too powerful to embrace. Underneath the beautifully worded chronic affirmation of liberal-sounding principles of federalism and other policies lurks these powerful ‘primordial feelings’. It is highly debatable whether ethnic consciousness is ‘primordial’ as some anthropologists and political scientists have asserted (e.g. Clifford Geertz) or whether it is a result of a conscious political socialization, however rudimentary and ‘primitive’ the process may be.3

An average Burmese could not comprehend whether ethnicity consciousness is an manufactured item or genetic (born) and he knows only that ethnic flame rages on at the core of Burma’s politics. Many a Myanmar Buddhist harbors an extreme frightening sentiment of Hitler’s Final Solution as a model for protecting racial and ethnic purity of people or peoples considered indigenous to the land.4 The end result is ethnic cleansing still going on in Northern and Western Burma.

It will definitely ‘shock and awe’ the readers, to copy the ethnic cleansing on the Rawanda lines but it offer a glimpse of what will happen if the 2nd Obama administration did not curb it and the classic example is the treatment of Muslims in Arakan. No doubt the ethnic nationalities will be looking to Obama, considered to be the leader of human rights and democracy to put some sense on the Burmese administration and the generals. Contemporary history has demonstrate that the classic, if misleading, debate about the two seemingly opposing priorities or missions – democracy versus ethnic self-determination – has, over the past 50 years, been a major cause of spectacular failures to forge any type of genuine solidarity – both in spirit and organizationally in the country’s modern political history.

The late Prime Minister U Nu and his armed resistance movement parted way with their resistance brothers (and sisters) – the Mons, the Karens, the Shans, etc. – in the early 1970’s over this issue, and collapsed thereafter. As far as opposition groups, the outlook toward this ethnic question evolves, progressive or regressive – depending on the policy and behavior of Burma’s main political player the generals are not adjusting their views toward ethnicity or the manner in which they will debate with anyone on it.5

On the other hand the ethnic nationalities of Burma are waging a war of survival against the Orwellian type of dictatorship It is against what they call the three A’s — Annihilation, Absorption, and Assimilation of the Non Myanmar by the Myanmar. In fact, just entering its seventh decade, it’s the world’s longest-running war for autonomy. The Burmese government is making a token attempt at democracy and able to convince the West to drop the punitive actions and re-open economic relations and accepted in the community of civilized nations.

“If they cannot bring the country’s ethnic nationalities into the fold, their chances of selling legitimacy on the back these elections are slim, to say the least.”6

No doubt, the regime was able to bring in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD with the rigged constitution and the sham elections and now Obama’s visit has reinforced its legitimacy.

But the American President should know that the Mahar Myanmar (superior) attitude which identifies with the state has played a very important role in driving the ethnic nationalities to desperation and to rebellion. It became the character of the state that drove all the ethnic nationalities to rebellion. Will Obama and Clinton make these sentiments known to the Burmese administration and generals is still to be seen?

The conflict of present Burma is neither the legacy of colonial rule nor is the secession rights entailed in the Union Constitution. But rather the chauvinistic mindset and Myanmar superior ethno-centrism possessed by the ethnic Myanmar thinking that majority Myanmar ethnic groups are superior to the rest of the Non Myanmar and other nationalities was the main raison d’ être of Burma’s internal conflict. The tyranny of the majority Myanmar and the blatant refusal to accept the equal status of the rest of the ethnic nationalities as equal partners of the Union dragged Burma into a conflict zone.7 One should understand that the colonial rulers had fully recognized the national sovereignty, self-determination, and legitimate independence of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan nations and Karen as a distinct from the majority Myanmar.

The non-Myanmar leaders collectively attempted to readdress the Constitutional crises based on federal system as envisioned in the Panglong Conference, But U Ne Win staged a military coup with the pretext of saving the Union from breaking up. However the chief reason behind his action was driven by the fact that his chauvinistic view of Myanmar being a superior ethnic groups or big brothers to the rest of other nationalities, and that very notion motivated.

In the making of modern Burma it should be recollected that U Aung San returned to consult the leaders of these independent nations that he had no right whatsoever to represent in the up-coming London talk. In the conference that was held in February 1947 after he came back from London, U Aung San had fully acknowledged the national sovereignty of Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karreni. From the time the Union of Burma became independent in 1948 until today, regardless of the parliamentary democracy era under Prime Minister U Nu, the Revolutionary Council later known as the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) which later continue as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) under Saw Maung, and currently the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) under Than Shwe, and now the new administration by Thein Sein administration are all of the same belonging to the Myanmar ethnic group. Their underlying philosophy behind their grip on power is driven by the same ideology. Their view is to hold up Burmese as a superior one and maintain that the Myanmar should control the Union by exploiting the rest of the other nationalities. Their move is to be interpreted as a force to assimilate all the diverse ethnic groups into Myanmarnization.8The late Dr. Choa Tzang eloquently pointed out that:

“It is important for all the races, especially for the Myanmar to fully embrace the idea of equality. Many Myanmar seem to think of the Myanmar as superior, or as Big Brothers, although there is no evidence of the Myanmar being superior to any race, collectively or individually.”

So Obama should simply tell these Burmese leaders that until and unless the Myanmar ethnic groups discard the superior ideology of their nationalism, no stable Union can be established, and that a more sober and educated Myanmar should lead and educates the rest of the populace or face Balkanization.

Every one knows that Thein Sein government’s engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi is strictly on individual basis and he is in a position to pull the rug under her feet anytime, if the going get rough or if the hard liners in the Tatmadaw got the upper hand. Now that the crucial point of achieving the much craved legitimacy has been achieved by the visit of the first American President he is in a position to reject the Panglong Agreement of 1947 and embark on ethnic cleansing that will enforced the ethnic nationalities to draw the conclusion that any Myanmar dominated government is untrustworthy and lack of historical responsibility to right all the wrongs that have accumulated all these years.

President Obama should know that the ethnic nationalities are ready to be part of the federal union, if their rights of self-determination, equality and genuine democracy are achieved and the American teams should emphasize on this.

In a legal sense, President Obama have known that the Union of Burma ceased to exist when General Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council, in 1962. The successive military regimes including the current Thein Sein government, are only aggressors and colonizers, occupying all the ethnic nationalities’ areas by force and the ethnics are fighting a justified, defensive war to uphold their sovereignty and rights of self-determination 9 Taking cue of the international mood and regional configuration, most ethnic nationalities have opted to rebuild a new genuine federal union and Obama should encourage this and stop the ethnic cleansing in Kachin and Arakan states.

It won’t do the regime any good by just clinging to its fraud ridden and manipulated, the Nargis Constitution, as if it is being carved into the stones, which all have to abide without question. After all, Burma has come across 1948 and 1974 Constitutions and this Nargis Constitution won’t be the last one either. The Thein Sein Administration is trying to enforce some piecemeal handout and force the ethnic nationalities or to forget the Panglong Agreement, forsaking their national identities and sovereignties accorded to them by their forefathers. Obama should hint that the men in Naypyidaw to come straight to the point, by releasing all ethnic political prisoners, ceasefire with the Kachin, enforced law and order in Arakan and make a comprehensive peace call to all armed and unarmed political oppositions. Daily life is little changed in many of the ethnic states, with Tatmadaw domination. Military offensives, especially in the Kachin and Shan States, as well as communal violence in Arakan State, have caused many citizens to question the likely shape of the future of Burma.

Obama visit to the Indo-China countries is a concerted effort to counter China’s growing influence which has become America’s major focus, if not obsession, of the US re-balancing in the Asia-Pacific. But he must also know that authoritarian if not totalitarian regimes have dominated this part of Southeast Asia peninsular not only in the former socialist countries (Burma, Cambodia. Laos and Vietnam) but also in Thailand and the use of force is still ingrain in their hearts. America have now repositioned with the emerging strategic landscape. Next year, Thailand and U S will celebrate the 180th anniversary of their diplomatic relations and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, is arriving to revitalize military cooperation with Thailand since the Cold War.10 Thailand’s close relations with China especially when the South China Sea territorial disputes are high on the agenda, her behavior toward China would always be friendly have ironically increased Naypyidaw’s strategic value for the US.

Burma’s ability to say no to China over the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State late last year demonstrated its desire to distance itself from China’s dominance and lessen the dependency on Beijing it had built up over the past three decades. That kind of clear action and policy has steered the US to move faster to normalize relations with Burma, which was once branded and condemned as a pariah state by the US and the West. The Thein Sein government has responded well to US demands in the past several months. Obama’s visit is a big endorsement of the ongoing reforms and future plans to integrate with the international community. However, continued serious human-rights violations and the plight of the Muslim minority in Arakan State and genocide in Kachin state will cloud the president’s stopover in Rangoon. President Obama’s will have to be very careful that strategic concern will not overshadow the human rights situation and for democracy even though Washington’s invitation to Naypyidaw to join the Cobra Gold war games as an observer next year sends a clear signal of what the US strategists have in mind.

Burma’s international integration in both economic and security areas are priorities that will increase the overall capacity to lessen reliance on China. 11

Cambodia host of the 7th East Asia Summit (EAS) and is the current chairperson. Joining the EAS, Washington has skilfully used ASEAN -led multilateral security platform to its advantage Credit should go to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who successfully highlighted the importance of freedom and safety of sea-lane communications in the South China Sea in July 2010. Since then, the US has made this the basis of its support of ASEAN’s ongoing effort to draft a binding regional code of conduct in the South China Sea, which has put China on the defensive. Singapore and Vietnam have linked with each other as part of the new US strategic balancing framework. All in all President’s Obama visit will be a Win Win situation for everyone provided human rights consideration in Indo-China countries improves.

1 He is Obama and not O Myanmar
2 Zaw,Aung; What Message will Obama Bring in Irrawaddy 14-11-2012
3 Perspective of Dr. Maung Zarni in several of his writings
4 Ibid
5 Perspective of Dr. Maung Zarni
6 See the writings of Daniel Pedersen in his Karen Insurgency Chronicle
7 Za Ceu Lian, Salai; The Crux of the Ethnic Conflict in Asian Tribune 23-4-05
8 Za Ceu Lian, Salai; The Crux of the Ethnic Conflict in Asian Tribune 23-4-05
9 Sai Wansai UNION OF BURMA: Rejecting Panglong Agreement could reignite extreme type of self-determination 29-8-2011
10 Chongkittavorn; Kavi Obama visit to Firm up US Policy on Asia Irrawaddy 12-11-2012
11Chongkittavorn; Kavi Obama visit to Firm up US Policy on Asia Irrawaddy 12-11-2012

Kanbawza Win

Kanbawza Win is a political scientist based in Canada

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