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Myanmar: Unless Minorities’ Issues Are Addressed, There Can Be No Peace – Analysis

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Experience shows that restoration of democracy has not brought relief to Myanmar’s minorities

The on-going Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in Myanmar against the imposition of military rule on February 1, has assumed unprecedented proportions. Into its 20th day on Friday, the CDM appears to be denting the determination of the junta, albeit only slightly thus far. The military rulers have promised elections in one year and the charges that they have slapped on the deposed ruler, Aung San Suu Kyi, personally, are minor. Possessing illegally imported walkie talkies is one of them.  And despite the mass turn out in demonstrations across the country, military action a la Tiananmen Square seems unlikely.      

One of the major reasons for the junta’s inability to do its worst is that China, its principal backer, is showing signs of embarrassment if not remorse. After describing the coup as nothing but a “major cabinet reshuffle” Beijing is now saying it does not desire to see what it now seeing. One of the reasons for this volte face is that workers in Chinese-owned mines in Myanmar have also joined the CDM. Work in the Kyisintaung and Letpadaung Taung copper mines stopped after thousands of employees joined the movement. In Yangon, students have been openly blaming China for the coup as China is the military’s main arms supplier.

Compromise between the junta and the leaders of the CDM cannot be ruled out and peace might eventually return to Myanmar. But there is doubt as to whether it will be a lasting peace and peace for all ethnic groups. The fear among Myanmar watchers is that it may be peace only for the majority Bamar (or Burman) community. It is doubtful if minorities like the Arakanese, Kachins, Shans, Karens, Mons, Rohingyas and numerous other tribal groups, will secure peace and equality with the Bamar.

If the minorities’ issues are not addressed to their satisfaction, Myanmar will continue to be restive and violent and the military will continue to control the government, as indeed it has, since 1962.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s short-lived democratic government’s persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas and other minorities is ample indication that the minorities’ issue will remain even after the military yields to the CDM. And the unrest arising from intolerance and lack of accommodation will ensure that the military remains the driver of the government, whether sitting in the driver’s seat or the back seat.   

Misrule by civilian governments, lack of good civilian leaders and unbridled corruption have been grounds for the periodic military take overs in Myanmar. However, successive regimes’ lack of willingness to give the minorities their rights and suppressing them violently, have led to many armed revolts, which, in turn, have led to military take overs.

One of the reasons for the military coup led by Gen. Ne Win in 1962 was the autonomy movement in the Shan and Kaya States in the periphery of the country. The Shan and Kaya people wanted to pursue an independent foreign policy and form alliances with the United States. If autonomy was given, it would have weakened Burma by making the country a part of the international conflict between the US on the one side, and the USSR and China, on the other.

An issue which no Myanmar government, whether civilian or military, has addressed, is the pernicious linking of citizenship with ethnicity. The link became law in 1982. This law was not repealed even by the Nobel Prize winning democracy icon, State Counsellor Aug San Suu Kyi. The Muslim Rohingyas for example are not Myanmar citizens because they are unfairly dubbed as Bengali immigrants of recent origin, which is incorrect. Governments have felt free to indulge in genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas, driving over 700, 000 of them into Bangladesh.   

Successive governments’ inability to address minority grievances has created a deadly arms race with almost 20 armed minority groups actively battling the government military. Some of the armed tribal groups sharing a border with China, have become tools in the hands of China which uses them to twist the arm of the Myanmar government when necessary.  

Right from independence in Britain in 1948, nationalism has been confused in Myanmar with ethnicity, race, language and religion. Only the Bamar, are considered to be properly Myanmarian, entitled to all rights of citizenship including positions of governmental power. Within a year of independence, the commander of the army, Gen.Smith Dun, a Karen-Christian, was replaced by Gen.Ne Win, a Bamar Buddhist. If Ne Win was a successful military ruler later in his career, it was because he was thought to be a hardcore Bamar Buddhist, the majority community.

Myanmar’s democratization in 2008, 2011 and 2015, was defined essentially in ethnic terms as democracy for the Bamar, and not all communities in Myanmar.     

The internationalization of the concept of democracy in ethnic terms has led to splits among the minorities themselves. For example the Shan State has smaller ethnic groups which fight each other for their rights with arms. The Arakanese did not defend the Rohingyas when the latter were attacked by the Myanmar military. This is despite the fact that both share Rakhine State and face discrimination by the Bamars ensconced in the capital Yangon.

Since 2018, there has been vicious fighting between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine State. The Arakanese in Rakhine consider themselves distinct from the Bamar, though they are also Buddhist. The other rebellious tribes like the Shans, Kachins and Karens are Christians who feel discriminated by the Buddhist Bamar.

Governments in Yangon hold discussions on ethnic rights only with those ethnic groups which have military strength. There are about 20 of these. This gives the others the impression that the powers-that-be talk only under military pressure. So they too form military units and take on the army.

No Myanmar leader has so far been willing to look at the problem of minorities with a broad vision with the aim of settling the ethnic question once and for all. Their approach has typically been piecemeal and reactive rather than proactive and comprehensive. The leaders fear that if the majority Bamar see any concession to the minorities as a “sellout”  they may be unseated.

Aung San Suu Kyi was as much a victim of this fear psychosis as other civilian or military rulers before her. This is why she went out of the way to persecute the Rohingyas and defend herself in the International Court of Justice showing no sign of remorse. Suu Kyi did not stop the army from continuing its operations against the Arakanese and others when she was in charge as State Counsellor from 2015 onwards.

Peter Popham, who has written two biographies of Aung San Suu Kyi has said that during the 2015 election her National League for Democracy (NLD) she rejected very capable Muslim candidates only to please the majority community. In 2015 Suu Kyi confessed in an interview: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa either. I have never said that I was.”

Her civilian successors will not be any different. Therefore, despite the enthusiastic participation of the minorities in the CDM, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for them, and genuine, lasting peace, will still be a far cry in Myanmar. 

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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