After the damage done by the generals, it is time for democrats to try and fashion a federal Burma. But the Rangoon regime is all for continuing the ‘status quo of disunity’ among the ethnic groups.
My blood is of the Karen so I will kill the Burman if I capture them”, declared the tattoo on the chest of a young Karen guerrilla fighter. More than a decade ago, an encounter with such a determined mind was a chilling experience for a Burman. It was especially so because one had just arrived in a Karen rebel camp, fleeing the Burmese military dragnet.
Things have changed over time, but this tattoo reflects an anger that the ethnic peoples of Burma still feel at having been subjected to unspeakable suffering by the Burmese army. This bitterness and animosity is deep-rooted and ubiquitous, and indicates the intractability of Burma’s ethnic conflicts. If there is one significant trait that Burma shares with her South Asian neighbours, this must be it.
The relevance of ethnic identity in Burma is clear from just a glance at the country’s demographics. The Burman are the dominant group but ethnic minorities make up 40 percent of the country’s population and reside in 60 percent of its land area. Also, Burma has a significant colonial legacy. While conflict in multi-ethnic Burma has pre-modern antecedents, its present-day form dates back to the early years after it gained independence from Britain. Soon after the British left Burma in 1948, the country was plunged into bloody chaos as the democratically elected government of U Nu in Rangoon came under threat from various ethnic armies. The Karen were the first to rebel, their short-lived but historic military success becoming a precursor to a wave of independence movements across the country. This struggle for power was as extensive as it was intense, and by the late 1950s all but three ethnic groups had taken up arms.
The military seized power in 1962 under the leadership of General Ne Win, the army chief, ostensibly to prevent the disintegration of the country. The reference was to the U Nu government’s attempts at redressing ethnic grievances by amending the constitution and possibly orienting the political system towards federalism. The military takeover meant an effective halt to any effort to tackle the ethnic problem within the legal and democratic framework. The 1947 constitution was abolished along with several other fledgling democratic institutions. And thus, the spirit and essence of the Pang Long Agreement, signed on 12 February 1947, was lost. In the Pang Long Agreement had been enshrined the principles of peaceful coexistence between the Burman and their ethnic brethren. It was signed by Burma’s independence hero General Aung San and ethnic leaders, and had been the basis of the 1947 constitution.
The Burmese army tried to create a socialist utopia overnight. The ethnic armies continued their fight for autonomy from the centre, but their wars were largely ignored by Rangoon. The weight of heavy-handed military rule – in the guise of homegrown state socialism – all but completely buried the ethnic leaders’ calls for a federated state. In a mock form of federalism, however, the socialist government divided the map of the country into Burman and ethnic areas. Seven administrative divisions were formed in predominantly ethnic Burman areas and seven states were established corresponding roughly to the homelands of the major ethnic groups. All real power, however, was in the centralised iron grip of the men in uniform in Rangoon. This situation was to last for 26 years as Burma’s socialist ideologues drove the country into self-imposed isolation. The nearly three decades of ‘socialist’ rule ended only in 1988 when pro-democracy protests swept the country.
Unfortunately, the pro-democracy movement failed to secure victory during the uprising. Following the large-scale massacre of unarmed demonstrators by military forces, a new group of military officers calling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) assumed power. Despite the devastating oppression, the democracy movement in the summer of 1988 paved the way for a multiparty election in 1990. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won hands down, capturing more than 80 percent of the vote. Though the SLORC rejected the results of the elections, the stage was set for political negotiations that were to come a full decade later. Most significantly, a dialogue between the military and civilian groups, and thus the discussion on federalism, was re-established. For the first time since 1962 the ethnic nationalities and Burmans sympathetic to their cause had a say in politics.
The politics of ethnicity are not linear. A year after the uprising in 1988, the Communist Party of Burma collapsed due in part to a mutiny by its Wa members, who made up the bulk of the rank and file. The SLORC responded to the development with a bold step, concluding truce agreements with the communists who then returned to their own ethnic bases and formed armies of ethnic composition. Within six years, almost every ethnic army either had surrendered or signed a ceasefire agreement with the regime at Rangoon.
As history has shown, the ceasefires were not comprehensive. Many of the armies were allowed to retain their arms and a portion of their territory, and were even granted business concessions by Rangoon. The regime, however, steadfastly refused to discuss politics with these groups. Complete surrender has been the only avenue to participation in the political process, which is effectively a non-starter due to the regime’s total lock on power. The regime’s attempt to write a constitution cementing its leadership in any future political system resulted in the NLD walking out of the constitutional convention in 1995, declaring the process and principles espoused in it unacceptable. Its demand for political dialogue was not accepted by the regime. Not surprisingly, as the uncertainty has lingered over the years, all major ethnic groups have chosen to retain their arms.
The ethnic truces complicated the already complex nature of Burma’s ethnic problem. The major effect was the creation of different status among the various ethnic groups. A number of groups remain committed to political settlement, while others have settled for lesser gains. Some groups were transformed into local defence forces, and now essentially act as Rangoon’s agents. Others, such as the Pa-O and the Kokang, traded in their political identities for business deals and closer relations with the regime. Several ethnic armies, notably the Mon and the Kachin, have tried to strike a balance between local political autonomy and a relationship with the generals in Rangoon. Still others, such as the Karen, the Karenni (Kayah) and the Shan, have maintained an armed commitment to independence or federalism. Aside from increased complexity, another result of the ceasefires has been a breakdown in interethnic unity.
The junta, named the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, has refused to declare a blanket nationwide ceasefire. It has instead continued with its policy of proposing individual ceasefires with the remaining insurgent ethnic groups. The aim, clearly, is to maintain the status quo of disunity, and it is certain that the SPDC will respond negatively to the recent call by representatives of several ethnic groups, sounded when they met in Copenhagen, to allow them – whether as political parties, armed or unarmed, ‘ceasefire’ or ‘non-ceasefire’ – to meet freely.
For two years now, the Burmese junta has been in secret talks brokered by the United Nations with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. No tangible results have emerged from the negotiations. Suu Kyi has repeatedly expressed a willingness to cooperate with the generals, but since they have no political motivation to see these talks succeed, nothing concrete has emerged from the table yet. Recent reports even suggest that the talks have stalled. Nevertheless, when the time to tackle thorny issues comes, and hopefully it is a question of when rather than if, one of the trickiest is bound to be the ethnic question.
Leaders of ethnic groups have repeatedly asked to be allowed to participate in the negotiations, but so far these calls have gone unheeded by the regime. Reminiscent of the suspicion of leaders of the African National Congress that Nelson Mandela had sold out the revolution in his negotiations with Pretoria’s apartheid government, Burma’s ethnic nationalities are concerned that they have been left out of the loop by an NLD conspiracy. The exclusion of ethnic representatives from the dialogue between the SPDC and the NLD, which commenced when Suu Kyi was under house arrest, led the ethnic leadership to conclude that the Burman were seeking a Burman solution, to the neglect of the interests of the minority peoples.
But the fact is that the activism of the pro-democracy groups led by Aung San Suu Kyi has given the various ethnic minority groups some much-needed breathing space. “Tripartite dialogue is our policy”, confirmed Suu Kyi in May 2002 upon her second release from house arrest. She was referring to a popular phrase for the participation of ethnic groups in the negotiations, alongside her group and the junta. Besides the NLD, the UN and other international pressure groups have supported a tripartite composition at the negotiating table. However, even if the junta were to allow it, the complexities of differences in formal status, aim and political commitment of the various ethnic communities will have to be sorted out.
Furthermore, there is the question of who really represents the ethnic groups. For, apart from armed factions, there are recognised ethnic political parties working alongside the NLD as well. This provides an excuse for the regime to drag its feet at the bargaining table. The various ethnic groups have come to realise this and are now working hard to dispel the image of disunity. In the meantime, with the regime continuing to prevaricate and postpone a political showdown with the NLD, no one knows when the ethnic representatives will be taken on board.
Federalism as Balkanisation
Over the years, in Burma, the term ‘federalism’ has come to be regarded as synonymous with ‘Balkanisation’. Forty years after the 1947 constitution was shredded and discarded, this belief is as strong as ever, especially among the Burman who continue as the politically dominant group. The concept of federalism is still not understood by the ordinary Burman or by the junta, although in the case of the latter it is perhaps a wilful lapse. In order to back up its anti-federal stance, the junta has argued over the years that Burma cannot be divided into 135 pieces, referring to the official list of main and sub-ethnic groups in the country.
Proponents of ethnic reconciliation argue that ethnic conflict in Burma is unlike the situation that existed in Rwanda or Yugoslavia. They point to the fact that the army’s oppression is directed not only against the minority groups but also the ordinary Burman. They emphasise that the last episode of communal violence occurred as far back as during the Japanese occupation (1942-45) and even then it was not ordinary Burman that were responsible for the massacre of the Karen, but the Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army.
The ethnic issue is as critical as that of democracy in a country where minority peoples comprise about two-fifths of the population and live in the larger portion of the national territory. The conflict therefore cannot be considered simply a ‘minority question’. Wars have been fought, and precious resources and lives have been wasted over the years. The military policy of ‘divide and conquer’ was strategically feasible for a period of time, but is sooner or later bound to fail disastrously. The regime has already overextended itself in its obstinacy, and the results are there for all to see in the crippled economy. The time of reckoning is near, the ethnic peoples’ legitimate demands will inevitably have to be addressed.
Indeed, the ethnic issue has become more complicated the longer its resolution has been put off, to the extent that the junta is even using this as an excuse for forestalling on negotiations. Today, there is a possibility that the ethnic groups may settle for more modest concessions than they had previously sought, at least temporarily, if the negotiations are considered ‘reasonable’. They are likely to do so if the federal goal is recognised as a long-term process rather than treated as an immediate solution to Burma’s ethnic conflict. However, despite this possible change of stance, the ethnic problem is likely to always haunt Burma’s leadership — be it made up of Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta or any other person or entity. The debate over federalism will rage on, but it is this debate that will serve as the locus for peace and ethnic reconciliation in Burma.
Four decades since the military seized power, Burma has not seen a day of freedom. Nor has it seen peace, with the ethnic crisis perpetually looming large over the political landscape. Ending this crisis is obviously the key to achieving both freedom and peace in Burma. The best way to do this is to return to Pang Long, where the founding fathers of the country placed their trust in each other, and agreed to coexist and cooperate. As it was the first time around, the road to Pang Long will be long and difficult, marked by deep-rooted distrust, hatred, suspicion – all of them exacerbated by the Burmese army’s anti-federal stance. No matter how hard it may be, however, the road to Pang Long is the road home for Burma.