By Kanbawza Win
When the Panglong Agreement was signed in 1947 the Shan, Chin and Kachin wanted to speed up their own search for freedom together with the Myanmar brothers based on the principle of mutual equality and recognition and not to integrate their societies and their lands into the Myanmar Buddhist society or the Myanmar kingdom.1 Here the concept of coming together means coming in difference and not merging into another.
The idea of Bogoke Aung San was to build a Union of Burma, an entirely new state country and not to create a nation through nation-building. In the submission of the Union constitution to the AFPFL at Jubilee Hall on May 1947, Bogyoke Aung San himself said,
“When we build our new Burma, shall we build it as a Union or a Unitary State? In my opinion it will not be feasible to set up a Unitary State. We must set up a Union with a properly regulated provision to set up the rights of the ethnic nationalities.”2
However Myanmar contemporary historians never emphasized this phrase and wish that the people of Burma especially the ethnic nationalities would forget it. Even the arch supporter of the Burmese Junta Dr Maung Maung points out that,
“The Union States should have their own separate constitutions, their own organ of states, viz parliament, government and Judiciary.”3
It should be recollected that on the eve on the historic Panglong Conference to be exact on 11th Feb. 1947 Bogyoke Aung San said,
“The dreams of a unified and free Burma has always haunted me…We who are gathered here tonight are engaged in the pursuit of the same dream. We have in Burma many indigenous peoples, the Karen, the Kachin, the Shan, the Chin, the Burman and others. In other countries too there are many indigenous peoples, many races. Thus races do not have rigid boundaries. Religion is no barrier either for it is a matter of individual conscience…If we want the nation to prosper; we must pool our resources, manpower, wealth, skills and work together. If we are divided, the Karen, the Shan, the Kachin, the Chin, the Barman, the Mon and the Arakanese, each pulling in a different direction, the Union will be torn, and we will come to grief. Let us come and work together.”4
Bogyoke Aung San had a clear idea of nation building and saw the writing on the wall that the old concept of one religion, one race and one language had gone obsolete.5 He rejected the religiously orientated ethno-nationalism that misled religion with politics. He thus declared,
“Religion is a matter of individual conscience, while politics is social science. We must see to it that the individual enjoys his rights, including the rights to freedom of religious beliefs and worship. We must draw clear lines between politics and religion because the two are not the same thing. If we mix religion and politics then we offend the spirit of religion itself.”6
This is the essence of coming together – but as everybody knows Bogyoke Aung San and his key leaders were assassinated on 9th July 1948 and it was U Chan Htun the only proficient person whom the leaders had put their trust who betrayed Bogyoke Aung San and the ethnic nationalities of Burma by completely changing his vision to make it a unitary state. According to U Chan Htun’s interpretation the Myanmar did not form their own ethnic state, instead they combined the power of the Myanmar national State with the whole sovereign state of the Union of Burma. Thus while one ethnic group; the Myanmar control the sovereign power of the Union, that is, the administrative, legislative and judiciary of the Union of Burma, the other ethnic nationalities automatically became a vassal state of the Myanmar race.7 And this is exactly of what is happening today.
In order to control these ethnic nationalities it first set up the military base in Ba Htoo near Lawk Sauk in Southern Shan State, then it slowly expanded it to Nam Sang, Liang Khio, Mong Hsat in Shan states8 and now they have several military bases in Chin, Kachin and Karen states. Since that time the various Burmese administrations have treated the ethnic nationalities as a colonial power instead of the Union of Burma.
The government uses religion as an integration process which gives rise to the resentment of the non Buddhist especially among the ethnic nationalities. This spoils the theory of unity in diversity itself. Although Buddhism has been a powerful integrative force in the traditional Myanmar society and is used to start as a rallying point against the British colonialist it was of little use in the settings of a multi cultural and multi religious context especially for a multi ethnic plural society. U Nu made an attempt to achieve homogeneity by imposing religious and cultural assimilation. In 1953 the ministry of Religious and Culture was created to promote the process of assimilation and eventually in 1961 Buddhism was declared a state religion.9
General Ne Win came to power in 1962 he went a step further by removing the rights and culture of the ethnic nationalities as a means of creating homogeneous unitary state. This he made it by declaring the Burmese language as the only official language to be used in the country and making Burmese as the medium of teaching in all levels of education from primary to University. No doubt the standard of education fell. He also prohibited the right for the ethnic peoples to learn their own languages. Hence national building both for U Nu and Ne Win was based on the notion of one language, one language and one religion. While U Nu opted for cultural and religious assimilation in Buddhism as a means of integration Ne Win used the national language policy and denied the rights of the ethnic nationalities as a means of creating a homogeneous society.
Hence the changing of the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar was an important step in assimilating the ethnic nationalities and it was done by force, and for the last half a century the Burmese Tatmadaw had implemented by killing the ethnic nationalities, destroying their livelihood, using rape as a weapon, waging war on ethic nationalities religion and culture by means of various persecution, destroying the identity of the ethnic nationalities.
Under the pretext of nation building, successive administrations have not only violated the basic human rights but also all categories of collective rights. Under cover of national sovereignty, the rights of self determination are rejected and in the name of national integration the right to follow different religions to practice different cultures, and to speak different languages are deprived and in the name of national assimilation the rights to uphold different identities and traditions are denied. In other words ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide has been going on for more than half a century. Either the ethnic nationalities must be integrated within the majority culture destroying their original cultural roots, or they must be denied the opportunity to enhance their cultural identity through political means. They seem to be inspired by Pakistan and Malaysia that make Muslim and Nepal that make Hindu as the state religion. Hence this is the basic philosophy of the Mahar Myanmar mentality which is the crux of the Burmese problem.
Currently there are two types of Myanmar, Democracy loving Myanmar who really believes in the Union of Burma and those Mahar Myanmar who still believe and interpret history only from their narrow nationalistic Myanmar perspective. The latter is hegemonic and myopically nationalistic believe that linear progression of Myanmar, save the colonial interlude of a century from a Buddhist kingdom originating in Pagan to today’s modern nation-state are considered as a Mahar Myanmar is somewhat akin to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi theory of the superiority of the Aryan race. Hence these Mahar Myanmar did not have an ounce of the Union Spirit and were unable to accept any ethnic nationality as an equal. They construe that they are imbue with a special quality far superior than others and that they must always be leaders in every aspect of society.
On the other hand the Pyidaungsu Myanmar are those genuine Burma especially from upper Burma known as Ah Nyar of our beloved Bogyoke Aung San’s lineage that want to share equally their weal and woe with the ethnic nationalities. They are the real followers of Bogyoke Aung Sau and are desirous to build the country in a modern way, humane and want to take a place in the hall of civilized nations. They did not want to be a pariah nation.
The Burmese administrations never teach the tolerance of other religion such as the minority religions adherence of Christians, Muslims, and Hindus etc. They never mentioned that some of the heroes of Pagan dynasty such as Byatwi and Byatta were Muslim brothers. Every historian on Burma will agree that in the Pagan temples all are not dedicated to Theravada type of Buddhism only but also there are temples of Mahayana type and Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu.10 Again the Pagan temples were built by the Greeks and Roman architect whom the Burmese kings invited them and in many Pagan temples the Christian cross was painted which shows that Christianity reached the first Burmese dynasty. The first Church was built in Pagan and when the Irrawaddy River changed course it was swept away. The first Burmese Christian king was Natshinnaug, the famous poet and so on. This clearly indicates that tolerance of religion existed since that days and now with the Myanmarnization of the military Junta, no such minority religion or ethnic nationalities language were tolerated.
The idea that Myanmar are a superior race and that they have vanquished not only the ethnic nationalities but also the neighbouring countries were ingrain in them wittingly or unwittingly. This is exactly the Mahar Myanmar spirit. Hence, the conclusion seems to be that all the ethnic nationalities must follow their lead and like it or not must agree with them, there is no such thing as consensus or self determination. They could not comprehend the Union Spirit Not only these Mahar Myanmar believe in this approach but also propagate and interpreted in such a way that the majority of the international community who scarcely know where Burma is came to have a vague idea on this approach. Unless one is a scholar in the study of Burmese history, one could not comprehend the general outline of the Burmese problem and the current crisis. In the Myanmar mindset they construe the other ethnic nationalities especially those who are residing on the hills such as Shan, Chin, Kachin, Karenni are wild heathen and such a categorization did not exclude their eventual incorporation into civilization by acculturations.11 So it was not ethnic diversity but cultural practice which divided people socially not necessarily politically. The Myanmar also looks down on the Arakanese and Mon. They are not categorize as hill people as they worship the same Theravada Buddhism but the Myanmar view that these Arakanese are Mon are the conquered race and people and is not worth the political thought. What more prove is wanted when both the Arakanese and Mon were not invited to the 1947 Panglong Conference and was taken for granted as part of Myanmar. This is the essence if not crux of the Mahar Myanmar mentality.
Hence in the case of the Union of Burma, firstly it can be explained as the capture of the state by the majority Myanmar ethnic group as arising out of the impact of the introduction of the modern state system upon which the authority structure of the Myanmar society stands. This definitely, dispels and dislocated the elites and the masses of the existing system many of who belong to the ethnic nationalities. 12
Secondly the domination of the state by one ethnic group the Myanmar ethnic group that give rises to the “Ethnocratic Tendencies” in which the state act as an agency for that community in promoting its ethnic values as the core component of the nationalist ideology.
Thirdly, ethnic struggles are explainable as the reaction to this disruptive penetration of the peripheral communities by the weak ethnocratic state. This penetration provoked the collapse of the old authority structure existing before the 2nd world war in the British era and dislocated the old societal cohesion. It was replaced by the new emergent elites with new levels and forms. This is the apex of the ethnic nationalities struggle against the Myanmar ethnic dominate state.
Does history treat dictatorships with kindness and understanding? Will the future hold sympathy, garlands and accolades for the Junta? 13 A military dictatorship is best viewed as a transitory phenomenon, in the manner that certain weeds flourish briefly when the topsoil is freshly disturbed. But there is a limit to how long topsoil is freshly disturbed, as against being cultivated. Sturdy plants inevitably displace the transient species. This order of succession of plant communities is immutable in nature. Ecosystem analogies are appropriate to understand the phenomena of the Junta, as its fate is also tied to the futures of disturbed conditions. The Junta is ruthlessly repressive on people and exploitative on resources. It has uncontrolled growth. If the Junta machine were compared to the thermodynamic phenomena, the primary characteristic would be that it is extremely energy intense. The generals rule is that the more energy intense. An occurrence is, the greater the problems of sustaining it will become, and the shorter the expected life-span will tend to be. The Junta’s phenomenon is a turbulence or conflagration that is doomed to burn out and to completely collapse on it. This is absolutely inevitable.14
The inviolable laws of nature remind us that the Junta will implode and it is certain to leave behind unspeakable destruction and debris. That will be the challenge for the coming up nation-builders after the quasi civilian government is gone.
Encouragement of Mahar Myanmar Mentality
Studying the contemporary history of the world, country after country, there are few examples where a single ethnic group has taken control over the state and used its powers to exercise control over others. In retrospect there has been far less national building than many analysts had expected or hoped, for the process of state building has rendered many ethnic groups devoid of power or influence. 15 The Myanmar Ethnocratic state is the current situation where the state acts as the agency of the dominant Myanmar/Burma ethnic community in term of ideologies, its policies and its resources distribution. This is because it involves three propositions.
First the Myanmar dominated ethnocratic state, is one in which recruitment to the state élite positions in the Tatmadaw, civil services and government is disproportionately and overwhelmingly from the majority Myanmar ethnic group only. Even if there is recruitment from other ethnic groups like Shan, Mon or Karen or any other ethnic race it is only after their assimilation into the dominant ethnic culture. Moreover the state elites use their positions to promote their Myanmar interest, rather than acting as either as an autonomous state bureaucracy or as representative of the socio economic class strata from where they originate.
Second, the Myanmar employs the cultural attributes and values as the core elements for the elaboration of national ideology, and the state’s choice of national symbols all derived primarily from the culture of the Myanmar ethnic majority.16 Thus the national identity which is employed to define the multi ethnic society is neither ethnically neutral nor multiethnic but is rather a Myanmar mono ethnic. Lucien Pye wrote,
“In reflecting the communal base of political parties it tend to represent total ways of life….Nationalist movements in particular have tended to represent total ways of life because such parties are inclined to feel they have a mission to change all aspects of life within their society, even conceiving themselves as a prototype of what their entire country will become in time. Members of such movements frequently believe that their attitudes and views on all subjects will become the commonly shared attitudes and views of the entire population.” 17
The third attribute to the Myanmar Ethnocratic state is that the state’s institutions-its constitution its laws and its political structures- serve to maintain and reinforce the monopolization of power by the ethnic segment. Thus the channels which the state provides for participation are such as to either restrict all avenues for politics or to secure the disproportionate representation of the ethnic segment.
Whatever the part played by colonial and post-colonial history and politics, it is a fact that now ethnicity is now a serious matter. The Mahar/Myanmar and some foreign scholars endeavour to prove that monarchy as an example of central authority able to unite across ethnic and cultural divides. Incidentally this is the theory which the Burmese military dictatorship tries to impose. They try to find the abstract idea of ethnic community, that commanded primary loyalty and that a Myanmar king could act as the patron of ethnic e.g. Mon princely clients, and vice versa.18 That the vacuum of central authority, after the fall of the monarchy, was further exposed through British colonial policy of administering the regions in a fractured model, as contrasted with the central control that the Dutch used in governing colonial Indonesia.
“Not all Myanmar are Buddhists and yet all recognize and acknowledge the centrality of Theravada Buddhism for their Burman identity,” writes F.K.L. Chit Hlaing,
Regarding Christianity, Gravers conjectures that conversion implies political identification, and that Christianity is subsequently identified with modernity and the right to a homeland. Yet religion need not serve a unifying role, as a means of identification it can prove equally divisive.
The most prominent example of religion proving destructive within an ethnic group revolves around the 1994 split of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization from the Karen National Union. Though both groups go to lengths to state and show that both religions are represented and respected in their ranks, the truth remains that a significant number of Karen saw identification as Buddhist, or Christian, as conceivably more advantageous than maintaining a strict adherence to the precept of pan-Karen identity.
As the architects of modern Burma including several ethnic leaders were assassinated their vision of modern union of Burma on a just and equal state for every ethnic nationality residing in the Union of Burma was smashed. The vision and dream of the assassinated leaders were explicitly written in the first 1947 constitution where each ethnic state has its own constitution and have been enshrined in the right of the ethnic minorities to practise their culture. This was proven in the State flag where the five stars clustered around the larger star which represents the Myanmar ethnic group. This symbolizes the unity in diversity rather than assimilation and Buddhism was never been employed as a state ideology.However it should be remember that the development of a state structure dominated by the ethnic Myanmar personnel and values did not by itself precipitated the other ethnic rebellion. It was only when the state began to try to expand its control beyond the core areas of the colonial constituted a threat and launched vigorously couple with political centralization then it started the unrest.
Given the fundamental differences of belief, value and organization that connote pluralism, the monopoly of power by one cultural section is the essential precondition for the maintenance of the total society in its current form.19 Until and unless the new leaders have a wide vision and stop this forced Myanmarnization then there will be little or no peace in my beloved country.
1. David C William & Lian h Sakkhong; “Designing Federal Union in Burma. p20
2. See Bogyoke Aung San’s speech pp 306-307
3. U Maung Maung Burmese National Minorities 1940-1989- p170
4. See the speeches of Aung San also reprinted by Chao Tzang and LH Sakhong in The New Panglong Initiative, Rebuilding the Union of Burma p 13
5. See the speech of Aung San delivered on 20th Jan. 1946
6. Speeches of Bogyoke Aung San especially on 20th Jan. 1946
7. David C William & Lian h Sakkhong; “Designing Federal Union in Burma”. p17
8. Pe: Tin (Shan State) In Burmese 0d’l&ocifcspfarmif. &Srf;rlWSifhjynfaxmifpkawmifa&; p 16
9. Cady; John F -A History of Modern Burma p 636
10. Read the Temples of Pagan in any Burmese history books
11. Brown, David: The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia, London school of Economics p36
12. For example displacing of all the ethnic commanders and replace with the Myanmar ethnic group
13. La Raw Dr.Maran: The Nation-State of Burma and the Victimization of Its Co-founders in Burma Debate Nov./Dec 1996
14. La Raw Dr.Maran: The Nation-State of Burma and the Victimization of Its Co-founders in Burma Debate Nov./Dec 1996
15. Myron; Weiner in “Political change in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”
16. e.g. It change the country`s flag without telling or consent of the people.
17. Lucian W Pye Politics, personality and nation Building: Burma search for identity. New Haven London pp 17 18 Yale University Press
18. Smith: Christopher. Exploring Ethnicity in Mizzima News
19. See Smith;MG “The Plural Society in the British West Indies Berkley, University of California Press p 86