(An urgent update after the coup on 1st Feb 2021: This essay was initially written in December,2020, soon after election results. The democratic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had won a landslide. People were waiting for the swearing-in of new leaders. Sadly, on the day of convening the new Parliament, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the parliament members were arrested on the early hours of 1st Feb 2021. Army inflicted a shocking coup. That heinous act is resisted till today by the people of Myanmar at a huge cost to life and livelihood. The brutality in the streets shocks the world which is fed with the harrowing scenes through the social media. The junta’s cruel response has provoked a global condemnation. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is incarcerated in an unknown place, charged with abominable crimes and denied due process of law. The continued violence shocks the world, creating anxieties of a ‘failed state’ in South East Asia, upsetting the stability of the neighbors. The democratic backslide is not only a nightmare to Myanmar but a threat to the political and economic and social stability of the region. Peace is possible provided regional powers like China, India, ASEAN and the UN proactively involve in resolving this conflict. The region can harvest a huge peace dividend when Myanmar returns to peace and democracy. This essay, left in its original format, enumerates the various roadblocks of history which gain a new urgency after the coup).
The story of Myanmar needs to be told – as a warning story – to a world fast slipping into illiberal democracies infected with demagogic populism and confrontational nationalism. Myanmar story is the story of resistance of the people against one of the most suffocating military totalitarian rule. After seven decades of conflict, displacement and deaths, Myanmar is on course to ‘disciplined democracy’. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has recently won a landslide victory in the elections. Despite the West’s apprehension about the once admired democracy idol, she holds in her fragile hands and shoulders the trust and hopes of millions of Myanmar people.
Myanmar is celebrated in history as the ‘Golden Land’. The spiritual world lauds Myanmar as the homeland of the pristine Theravada Buddhism. Two of the modern western passions, Vipassana retreat and mindfulness come from this land. A land of undoubted human and natural resource Myanmar story is the story of bad karma of endless wars,coups and displacement of millions.
The country was once hailed as the ‘Shangri la’ – the Theravada Buddhist country where 500,000 monks live an uncompromising acetic life. This is also a country of scintillating beauty, three majestic rivers dancing merrily across the land, feeding millions. The population is a riotous canvass of 8 major colorful ethnic tribes and 135 sub tribes.
Situated at a geostrategic vantage point between fast developing economies, India and China, Myanmar is surrounded by 40 percent of the world population. Resources abound – above the ground and below the ground: Gold, Jade, precious metals, gas and oil. Treasures such as rubies, sapphires, pearls, and jade are hidden in her bosom. Myanmar is the valley of rubies. Rubies are the biggest earner; 90% of the world’s rubies come from the country, whose red stones are prized for their purity and hue. 50% of all the world’s ‘wooden Gold’ teak is in Myanmar.
These resources proved to be the root of the long running ‘resource conflict’ between the center and the periphery. Center is where the majority 70 percent Bamar ethnic group lives and rules the country. The periphery is where non Bamar minority ethnic nationalities live. They are less than 20 percent of the population, but live in 40 percent of the land mass and their lands hold 80 percent of the priceless Jade, gold and rubies. Conflicts are churning despite brief interludes of ‘cease fire’ and ‘peace conferences.’
Myanmar is a country waging war against itself at three fronts: culture, resources and identity. The most critical axis of socio-political conflict since Burma’s independence has been center-periphery struggles between the central government, dominated by the majority-ethnic Bamar, and ethnic-minority insurgencies located in Burma’s borderlands. (Jones 2014). A classical center-periphery conflict.
The shopping list of hatred and death includes millions made refugees and IDPs, thousands killed and buried in unknown graves (International Crisis Group 2020). Ethnic people have faced issues such as forced relocation, underdevelopment in areas in which they reside, and high levels of poverty.
During the past decade, this plight has gathered a new intensity, accentuating a Buddhist-Muslim divide and resulting in one of the greatest Rohingya refugee crises in the modern world (International Crisis Group 2020). In October 2017, there were an estimated 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (UNHCR Aug2020). UNHCR referred to the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in north west Rakhine State as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
A variety of cleavages have led to tensions and confrontations within this state that affect its capacity to create national unity and the equitable sharing of the fruits of development, should that opportunity arise.
The cleavages and tensions within contemporary Myanmar may be conceptualized as follows:
a. Between Burman nationalism and a relatively new and diverse ethnic nationalism, which is a component of center-periphery issues and relates to the issue of national unity;
b. Between civil and military sectors of the society;
c. Between globalization and nationalism;
d. Between centralism and pluralism;
e. Between orthodoxy and competing views of the role of state and society;
f. Among religious groups;
g. New geo-political, international rivalries that affect the internal attitudes of those in authority.
Scope of this essay
This brief Essay on Myanmar, will deal with the root causes of conflicts: the contested theory of internal colonization by powerful local elites in the decolonization era, the mutilating effects of exclusionary and essentialist nation building narratives, institutionalizing military intrusion into democratic polity, manipulation of the national Constitutional process, embedding discrimination, the ethnic brewing of conflicts, resource curse, corrosive illicit economy fermenting conflicts and finally the rise of religious extremism, the collusion of ethno nationalistic elites and religious elites and their use of ontological anxieties in creating scapegoats. International actors too contribute to this: Xenophobia and Islamophobia, Myanmar is full of them. The world knows Myanmar more by the treatment of Rohingya Muslims.
The study will not end in pessimism. The longest night oft silent tears, ends in a dawn. Myanmar survived five decades of military junta dictatorship. The painful transition from totalitarianism is marked by two elections. The people have voted overwhelmingly for democracy: the democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi has won in a landslide in the recent elections and she will start her second term from January 2021. The people have rejected the nationalistic extremists, the military supported party. Even the non Bamar ethnic people have voted to Aung San Suu Kyi showing their exhaustion with war and looking for a nation built on inclusiveness, justice, peace and prosperity for all. We will end welcoming the streaks of hope for a new Myanmar.
Nation Building: embedding conflict in the conception of the nation
i. Festering wounds of decolonization and binary fundamentalism
Myanmar represents the post-colonial failures in microcosm: ethnic conflict, political impasse, militarization, economic neglect and the marginalization of local peoples. (Smith Dec 2019). The nation is yet to settle down to decide on its very name Burma vs Myanmar. The seeds of discord were sowed by the British colonizers, dividing the people with a lethal binary: Bamar and Non Bamar. (Greaves 2007). One with a value, another with a negatively linked value of nothing.
British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948. Colonization thrived on the toxic theory of binary formation. There was always a “non” other. Bamar and NON Bamar ethnic tribes, through a process of ‘diluting and devaluing’ a people’s identity, providing a potential for future conflicts. Colonial supremacy, as Sium, Desai & Ritskes, argue, perfected binary configuration as the subtle tool of exploitation:
“It is important to consider the process and logics of colonial modernity and white supremacy, the way in which Europeans defined and classified people – as human and non-human – and then used this as a basis to conquer land and subjugate populations through enslaving, indenturing in labour and warring” (A. Sium, C. Desai & E. Ritskes 2012).
What relevance is this argument to Myanmar? As Paulo Freire argued in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the oppressed and dominated people internalized the values of the oppressor. In the post independent Myanmar, the majoritarian Bamar nationalists, in the decolonization process, not only appropriated the binary formula, but even adopted colonial ownership laws in the appropriation of the traditional lands and resources of the non Bamar ethnic people. This privileging of the Bamar community and the state ownership of the vast natural resources has been contested violently by the other ethnic nationalities.
This has injected a controversial concept of ‘internal colonization’. Chavez defines: “The term internal colonialism seeks to explain the subordinate status of a racial or ethnic group in its own homeland within the boundaries of a larger state dominated by a different people” (Chaves December 2011). Historical struggles such the Indians and settlers in Americas, the English and the Asians, have had much to do with claims to homeland to indigenous resources and culture (Chaves December 2011). In Myanmar, the way the non Bamar ethnic groups were treated was in a colonial mentality.
Sai Latt, an ethnic non- Bamar scholar on conflicts, writes that internal colonization is the core problem of Myanmar conflicts.
“The political pathology of Burma, if I may use the rather suspicious bio-political term, is a process of internal colonization led by the Burmese ruling class. Widespread assumptions about the causes of ethnic conflict such as the lack of a “genuine” federalism, self-determination, democracy and human rights are only symptoms. Without addressing internal colonialism, all attempts at stabilizing the country are bound to fail” (Latt 2013).
ii. Exclusionary and Essentialist nation building narrative
Even before Independence Bamar nationalist movements like the Dobama Asiayone (We the Bamar) began propagating quantifiers of “belonging” to the nation of Burma: to be a “dobama” (Burmese) was to be both Buddhist and Bamar, an identity that is essentialist that excluded minorities on both ethnic and religious grounds. (Clinic 2020). As the Independence came in 1948 Myanmar nation building was predicated on the sharing of homogenous attributes, in this case the Bamar ethnicity and Buddhist religion. Chinese, Indians, Muslims were expelled despite generations of living in Burma. Subsequent internal wars would force millions to leave.
The legitimacy of the post independent central state, dominated either by military junta or the civilian government was violently contested by the non Bamar and Non Buddhist minorities for the last seven decades (ICG 2017). This aggrieved sense of victimization felt by non Bamar, non – Buddhists is accentuated by the absence of any serious attempt to reframe the essentialist and exclusionary narrative surrounding race and identity. In the absence of responses to the minority ethnic grievances, political liberalization has led to strengthened ethnonationalism (ICG 2017).
iii. Military Intrusion: State deficiency and state inefficiency
The Bamar dominated military –Tatmadaw- effected coups and ruled for five decades with ruthless coercion. The continuum of peace building, state building and nation building was mutilated since the army intruded. From the time civilian government came through in 2010, the military continues to wield power from shadows. The armed forces have morphed into an unaccountable “state within the state”. Peace became a distant dream.
Its leadership continues to insist that multifaceted threats to the “state security” and “national security” of the country still exist (Renaud Egreteau 2018). Threats of “ethnic uprising” and the need to prevent the “disintegration of the union” are utilized by the military to justify its “institutionalizing intrusion into the civilian government.” Three significant ministries in the Union cabinet remain under the sole authority of the armed forces (Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs) and a quarter of all Parliamentary seats are reserved for men in uniform, granting them veto power over any Constitutional changes. This contributes towards state deficiency and state inefficiency and impacts the civilian government’s peace efforts.
The military junta was never admired by the Bamar people. But by a subtle maneuvering in image building, especially after political liberalization, the military has gained admiration by the majoritarian bamar group. The Rohingya Muslim issue unites most of the Myanmar citizens. The military consolidated through a clever ‘scapegoating’ of the Rohingya Muslims and attracting the admiration of the majoritarian Bamars. Extremist monks joined the fray. Despite western criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi, ended up defending the army in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Western support has faltered in response to the 2017 crisis in Rakhine State, where the military’s actions have emboldened its popular support and brought to the fore the ethno-nationalism that has long defined Myanmar’s polity. Army’s hidden political agenda and economic interests are major obstacles a true democratic state.
iv. Illicit Economy: the Resource Curse, International Drug Hub, Extract Industries
The country is endowed with oil, natural gas, high value timber, minerals, hydropower potential, and gemstones. Much of these natural resources are situated in the conflict-prone borderlands or off-shore (Witness 2015). The resource rich border lands are haven for Warlords and drug barons. Kachin land in the north is rich with Jade which brings billions every year. According to a report released by Global Witness in 2015 the jade industry is controlled by “[old junta] military elite, US-sanctioned drug lords and crony companies” while “very few revenues reach the people of Kachin State or the population of Myanmar as a whole”. Highlighting this stark example, Global Witness estimated that total jade production could have amounted to as much as $31 billion in 2014, while just 3% of that value was officially declared. The illicit economy is greater than the national economy. A rough estimate puts around 69 billion US dollars in illicit economy.
Drug trade, extract industry
Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, producing some 25% of the world’s opium, and forms part of the Golden Triangle. The border is the convergence of militarization, (Aung Thwin and Aung Thwin 2013) According to Global Witness, associated parties earned a total of $122.8bn from 2005 to 2015. Billions are blundered while the country languishes at the bottom of world ranking as the least developed country.
Military-owned companies and holding groups such as Myanmar Economic Corporation are heavily invested in the extractive sector. Given that mining sites are often located in areas affected by conflict between the Tatmadaw and non-state actors, the military has vested interests in maintaining control in such areas. This does have significant implications for the peace process. The military, in its efforts to quell the border rebellions, coopted their enemies through ‘ceasefire capitalism’ – allowing open loot of resourced by armed groups, impoverishing the local people.
v. Citizenship laws and marginalization of groups like the Rohingya Population
The 1948 citizenship law specified that, to count as indigenous, a group must have made its permanent home in Myanmar prior to 1823 (the year before the first Anglo- Burmese War started). Nearly a million Rohingya Muslims are stateless. The rise of xenophobic populism in the West, which has a significant Islamophobic element, has played well into the hands of Myanmar’s “Buddhist nationalists”, lending credibility and justification to their arguments and narratives.
Towards building a future of hope
i. Democratic Spring
Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged as the great hope of Myanmar people. Her social asset has increased through her commitment to democracy. The Rohingya issue and her defense of the army in the International court of Justice remains a great stain to her, once a great favorite of the West. But that act has solidified her support among the majority Bamar. The elections were a clear endorsement of her policies. Despite the Military’s naked attempt to disrupt the elections, the Myanmar people overwhelmingly voted for Aung San Suu Kyi. Surprisingly she also got huge mandate from the peripheral non bamar ethnic people, who preferred her over their own quarrelling ethnic parties and armed groups.
She has huge social capital. The mandate is clear: Initiate reconciliation, build a nation of peace and prosperity. She has already started that journey. She is planning to have an all party coalition of nation building. This is the now or never moment for the septuagenarian leader to building trust with the country’s minority ethnic groups.
ii. Blunting the intrusion of the army
The institutionalized presence of the army in the legislature and holding three important ministries has proved to be a debilitating punch in democratic transition. The ‘moral power of her empty hands’ has already dealt a blow to the army, through her actions against the army cronies and extremist monks. She needs to remedy state fragility through her efforts at controlling the army and sending it back to the barracks. This looks like a utopia, but Myanmar is turning around.
iii. Moving away from Exclusionary and essentialist Nation building
Bamar elite need to challenge the exclusionary and essentialist process of nation building which proved to be violently contested by non Bamar nationalities. General Aung San, the father of the nation and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, set in motion a comprehensive nation building strategy through Panglong Peace conferences. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi has continued this process. She has shown sagacity in inviting the non Bamar groups to be equal partners in the new government.
iv. Towards a political and economic federalism
Natural resources have been leveraged to incentivize peace rather than conflict. In Myanmar, the majoritarian center and the minority periphery have competing demands with regards to land and natural resources: Ethnic Armed Organisations advocate for ethnic self-determination and subnational control over rights to, revenue from, and the responsibilities for the management of natural resources, while the Army Tatmadaw tries to maintain a centralized unitary state system. The government of Aung San Suu Kyi needs to implement economic federalism, ensuring the present armed ethnic militias and international mafia removed from the illicit economy. The role of Chinese and Thailand governments is vital.
v. Amending the Constitution to uphold human rights and citizenship rights
The first victim of the Military imposed 2008 constitution is: Aung San Suu Kyi. The exclusionary nature of the constitution has barred her from holding official posts, though she is hugely popular and de facto leader. She termed the exclusionary clause as: unfair, unjust and undemocratic. She must also accept that nearly a million Rohingya Muslims have been disenfranchised by this undemocratic law. Statelessness is a policy intervention by the military junta. It is heartening to see that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has included two Muslims candidates in the recent elections changing the perception of this beleaguered minority. The citizenship Act of 1982 remains one of the most unjust citizenship documents. Hope she can work on this removing this injustice.
These are major challenges. But history beckons the leader, who is loved and admired by all. The army has lost much ground in its efforts to sideline her from the public. With a landslide presence in the parliament, the call of history has arrived. Optimism abounds in the streets. Hope this is not another false start to the Golden land that had too many night mares. The people of Myanmar deserve a new dawn of hope.
(Original essay submitted on January 5th, 2021)
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[Image from Wikimedia Commons]
NGO’s working in the field