This is a translation of an article written by Daehan Wi, a 4th year MA (Hon) IR student, reporting on his research in Myanmar for the Korean-language J Magazine, the monthly journal of the JoongAng Daily. Mr. Wi’s research was funded by the UoE Principal’s Go Abroad scheme.
by Daehan Wi
“If you want peace, you [do] not talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies” Archbishop Tutu said. Myanmar is riddled with one’s enemies. A sense of hatred prevails throughout the country. However, Myanmar has started to talk about nationwide peace and hold talks with aggressive opponents.
In May 2015, the Union Election Committee (UEC) of Myanmar announced the plan for the upcoming general election. The government run by the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Armed Forces) for more than 50 years promised publicly that the election would be free and fair. It gave genuine hope to the public who has long desired for democratization of the country. There were full of people on the street who wore red shirts showing that they were supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party that Aung San Suu Kyi led. They yearned for freedom of speech and other democratic values, better welfare and living standard in a free and fair society.
NLD supporters rally in the street wearing red shirts and hoping for regime change.
In November, the NLD achieved the landslide victory in the election against the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) backed by the military. In March 2016, new and first civilian government emerged with Htin Kyaw as the President and Aung San Suu Kyi as the State Counsellor and the Minister of Foreign Affair. For many years, 59F, the constitutional clause barring her from the presidency was the central issue. Not anymore. By creating a new position, the State Counsellor, she is now more powerful than she had simply become the President.
The general atmosphere in the government has become hopeful. “People support Aung San Suu Kyi and she has eventually won the election. It is a political opportunity to remove military intervention in politics and make the country democratic, and a social opportunity to remedy the legacy of previous military regimes” said Tin Oo, the former Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Union of Myanmar, and the current NLD Chairperson. He indicated in the interview with me that the country was having a moment of historical opportunity.
Peace, the first priority
Myanmar has been blighted by armed clashes between the Burmese government and the ethnic minorities, particularly resource-rich groups in the northern areas. Winning in the election does not mean the consolidation of democracy, as many countries have not been the case. For Myanmar, ‘conflict management’ and ‘peace process’ is the first step to its successful democratization. I had an interview with Nyan Win, the spokesperson of the NLD, and he said, “This government has a lot of tasks to do such as economic development and consolidation of civilian government. However, nationwide peace is the first consideration. Without peace, there cannot be national and individual development.” The NLD-led government should re-invigorate stalled peace talks, which have been left behind by the previous government under Thein Sein.
Origin of the armed conflict traces back to British colonial period in the early 1900s. In August 1941, US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill jointly declared the Atlantic Charter. The Charter set the goals of the post-war period by promising self-determination, restoration of self-government, no territorial aggrandizement and no territorial changes made against the desire of the people. British government planned to grant independence in accordance with the development stages. For Burma, the government aimed to liberate the Burmese areas first, and subsequently the other ethnic and mountainous areas. Burmese nationalist leaders including General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, became opportunistic to establish a country called ‘Burma’ that included the areas of non-Burmese ethnic minorities.
In 1947, General Aung San and representatives of ethnic communities from Kachin, Chin and Shan signed the Panglong Agreement. The ethnic communities agreed to have a united federal state called Burma in exchange for guarantee of equal treatment with Burmese and a high degree of autonomy. In January 1948, the nation finally became independent as the Union of Burma. However, his political rival U Saw, who was later executed, assassinated General Aung San, generating a leadership vacuum after independence. U Nu became the Prime Minister of the Union and the government adopted parliamentary democracy. After Aung San’s assassination, the Panglong Agreement was completely broken. In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a military coup and the ethnic minorities have been under dreadful pressures and discrimination since then.
Most ethnic minorities emphasize on history of the pre-colonial period. “We, and other ethnic communities, were the people who live in Zomia Land, the land of independent people. However, we have become the people who have to fight to preserve not only our natural resources that the government is eager to exploit, but also our culture, language and religions.”
Before British colonial period, there was no such thing as ‘Burma’ but the territory of Myanmar today was filled by city-states. Ethnic minorities settled down in mountainous areas in northern parts of Myanmar where there were rich natural resources. Rough mountains historically functioned as natural shield for them. From the 11th century to British colonial period, Burmese dynasties repeated fell and were conquered, whereas ethnic minorities were not ruled by any other invaders. In other words, ethnic people never lived with Burmese together. This is why they have been fighting against the Burmese government backed by Burmese Army, and against all discriminations from them. This armed conflict has lasted for around 70 years.
On 31 August this year, the 21st century Panglong Conference kicked off by Aung San Suu Kyi. It drew inspiration from the 1947 Panglong Agreement, and aimed to end the long-lasting armed conflict between the Burmese central government/military and the minorities in a way that General Aung San pursued. It was a huge peace conference that representatives from 17 out of 20 rebel forces, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other 1700 people attended.
However, they failed to draw a practical conclusion and the conference ended a day earlier than initially planned. Three rebel forces did not participate in the conference, and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) stomped out of the room during the meeting because they did not have right to speak. The conference was meaningful in a sense that the government brought rebel forces to the table, but it showed again that there were so many challenges for government to resolve in order to achieve nationwide peace.
Irony: Peace talks in the capital city, firing in ethnic areas at the same time
While the 21st century Panglong Conference was taking place in Naypyidaw, the capital city, there was an armed clash in northern Shan State. It was a military operation of the Myanmar Army to track down rebel forces in the region. In the incident, some civilians were killed and buried in secret. The incident was shocking for the public. Moreover, it was totally not understandable since it was in the middle of the peace conference that drew attention from international community. The public started to doubt whether the government really had sincerity about peace.
When I was in Yangon, soldiers of the Myanmar Army killed a young Kachin man in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, without a good reason. The media was heavily controlled but it was quickly spread on Facebook. For this, there was a mass rally in front of Yangon City Hall. A participant said to me, “Does the government really have sincere mind for peace process? They are the one who shoots us, they are the one who kills us, but at the same time, they are the one who wants peace with us. How strange is this?” Another protester said, “So there is no reason to expect positive outcomes from the 21st Panglong Conference. This is how they prepare for the conference. We know that the 21st Panglong Conference will be designed based entirely and solely on Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal perspective not on ethnic groups!”
An immediate ceasefire has always been the first demand from ethnic communities. However, firing has consistently been reoccurred after several attempts of ceasefire. Since the independence, there have been over 250,000 civilians killed; 1 million people have become internally displaced persons (IDPs). I had a chance to interview a soldier of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). He said, “Presence of the Myanmar Army in Kachin State itself is serious disturbance for trust building between the Burmese government and Kachin people. For us, their presence is not seen as a defense purpose but an offensive operation to attack us. It is the Myanmar Army that has made us to have this stereotype.” It is the passage that tells us how serious the pressures under military have been for them. It is an obvious expression but immediate cessation of physical hostility is the first step for peace process.
Peace situation in Myanmar reminded me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King in <A Testament of hope: Essential Writing and Speeches> (1991). He said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
What other problems do the first civilian government have in peace process? Do they well understand perspectives and desires of ethnic minorities? I would like to address three issues of peace process: government-military relationship, Burmanization, and IDP alienation and future generation.
Problem 1: government-military relations
For the emergence of the civilian government, there is certainly a hope for better society, but at the same time, a peculiar feeling of betrayal coexists. “Peace is not achieved merely by peace conference. It is a process. In that process, the current government has already betrayed so many people.” A large proportion of population expresses voices of concern about the government-military relation. Aung San Suu Kyi considers the Tatmadaw as an important partner for stable government operation and peace process in the long run. A spokesperson of the NLD said, “Nationwide peace in this country requires the unification of the civilian government and military. It is not an option but a condition. We have been working hard on this.”
However, military has lost trust from the public, especially the ethnic minorities for a long time. Rather, there is active antagonism towards military for torture, rape, murder and oppressive rules. It is certainly difficult for the minorities to welcome the government that has friendly relationship with military. I interviewed four pastors in Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), a highly influential religious organization in the region, and they said, “We can trust Aung San Suu Kyi. But we do not trust Aung San Suu Kyi united with military.” A lawyer, former political prisoner, Thein Than Oo, also criticized the current government, “It is a quasi-civilian government wearing military uniform with the 2008 Constitution, which gives veto power to military in politics. How would you say this government has more trust than the previous government under Thein Sein had?”
The public want military to be removed from politics. It is not only about ethnic minorities but Burmese people also desire for true civilian government that military do not intervene in. The Chief Minister of Agriculture and Dam pointed out, “This country experienced serious corruption under military regimes. Economy collapsed, education system has been destroyed, and infrastructures have been poorly constructed. People’s lives are devastated by military officials’ efforts to keep their power.
Is it really worthy for the government to have restored relationship with military prior to the restoration of government trust from the public? It is too early to judge if it is right, but public grievances are increasingly high. It certainly is an obstacle to peace process. The government should find the balance in this relationship and also consider their relationship with the public.
Problem 2: Burmanization, another way of oppressing the minorities
“In the views of international community, official outlook of peace process might look good due to the emergence of the civilian government and attempts for peace conference. However, ground-level situation tells something different. A very important component for peace process has been missing. That is culture.” Sai Sam Kham, The Executive Director of Metta Foundation, a local NGO helping refuges and conflict-affected communities, claimed that understanding and respecting other cultures, languages, and identity should be taken into account when considering peace process.
He defined the term ‘Burmanization’ as a carefully crafted policies by successive Burmese governments to establish a state in which only Burmese culture, language, and religion (Buddhism) exists while trying to annihilate others. A Burmanizing effort is to assimilate non-Burmese ethnic groups into the majority Burmese in social, political and cultural aspects.
In practice, Burmese governments have long been trying hard to Burmanize the country. The government under the first Burmese Prime Minister U Nu passed the State Religion Promotion Act of 1961, which made Buddhism the official religion of the state. After this, people were heavily discriminated by religions, and non-Buddhist groups such as Kachin (Christian) and Rakhine (Muslim) could not avoid conflict with the government. There are still ongoing-armed clashes in Kachin State, and Rohingya issues in Rakhine State.
During the military regimes, the military sector, the highest authority, and all other primary government agencies were filled by Buddhist Burmese. Promotion was virtually impossible for non-Buddhist. I interviewed a former diplomat, who served the Ministry of Foreign Affair for 40 years. He said he could not be promoted for 15 years due to three reasons. First, he was not a Buddhist. Second, he was not a Burmese. Last, his background was not from military. He further explained, “Most Burmese consider themselves superior to the others. Burmese is the most superior ethnic. Buddhism is the best religion. Military people are better educated than civilians. They think the government should force people to have education in Burmese contexts because it would be the only way to achieve national development. Burmese people consider this sort of education as high-civilization.”
Yangon is the most populated city of Myanmar and there are not only majority Burmese but also many different ethnic people living in different townships. Sanchaung Township is the place where Kachin and Shan people live together. In this township, I met an ethnic activist who was preparing for the Ethnic Youth Conference. The conference was to promote harmonized societies and reconciliation among young generation for long-lasting peace. The activist formally invited Burmese people to participate in the conference. However, their responses were too vain.
“In our country, there are only Burmese states, and only Burmese people are living in this country. The others are barbarians living in mountainous areas.”
Religion has often been a tool for Burmanization. There are institutions called Dhamma School all over the country, and they are established by Buddhist organizations. Young students learn about Buddhism, and they are taught in anti-Christian and anti-Muslim ways in this school. Moreover, there are Buddhist schools run by government teaching about the Buddhist ideology of ‘Maha Burma’, which was brought in by Mon ethnic monks in the name of ‘Shin Arahan’ during Anawrahta’s reign in the 11th century. It is an imaginary belief that Buddha was Burmese, so people believe Buddhism is indigenous, and the others as inferior, foreign religions.
Students in a government-run Buddhists school practice meditation and other Buddhist teachings.
Peace activists worry about young generation being taught in a seriously biased way. “We do not think religion is the cause of conflict, because true Buddhism is not about killing and dividing. It is the biased education system and Burmanizing efforts that have caused conflict in this country.” They indicate that tactfully crafted policies cause serious problems in peace process, which will ruin long lasting peace. Young students should respect each other in terms of culture, religion and identity so they can promote or maintain peace in future. There will be no difference in future if one still wants to destroy others, and the opposition wants to preserve. The activists, therefore, urge cessation of Burmanization towards young generation and the spread of Buddhist fundamentalism.
“If you omit cultural understanding, there cannot be any sort of progress in peace process” the former diplomat said. He added, “Ethnic people are living in Zomia Land. So we are the people who have preserved our culture, language, religion and our identity. Struggle for freedom and preservation has become our lifestyle. We do not know how strong the enemy is because we do not care how strong it is. We only know we have to fight to preserve ours until there is no threat to ours. Therefore, if government approaches ethnic groups with cling to the thought of ‘one ethnic, one religion, one command and one language, peace process is an impossible plan from the first outset.” The new civilian government must consider cultural aspects and they should not omit this component in peace process.
Problem 3: Still-alienated IDPs and an unpromising long-lasting peace
Another obstacle to peace process is the issue of IDPs who have lost their homes and families by conflict between the Myanmar Army and rebel forces. There are more than 600,000 IDPs in the country and most of them are teenagers. Among them, 80,000 IDPs are in Kachin and Shan State where there are frequent clashes.
“Children in IDP camps do not expect positive outcomes from peace process. They see Burmese as enemy and ‘mistrustful people’ and the one from whom they should protect their family.”
An activist in the Kachin Peace Network (KPN) pointed out that the IDPs have still been alienated and trauma healing has not yet been done for them. Many IDP children desire to become a soldier to protect their ethnic community and family. In practice, most of teenagers in the KIA have been conscripted while they were in IDP camps. The children who have suffered a trauma in deeply sad emotions decide to grab guns in their hands after all.
Sai Sam Kham claimed that young IDPs should not be politicized by any actors in peace process and their rights to education should be respected regardless of political situations. They have often been denied access to education. According to an activist in the KPN, many IDP children, who have successfully passed their 9th grade and achieved good marks in the University Entry Exam, have been rejected by the government. They have to retake the exam in Burmese schools and they generally cannot get into the top-level universities even if they obtain good marks.
It will seriously divide the levels of education between Burmese and non-Burmese. A KPN activist indicated, “Capacity building for young IDP students is a big issue. It is certainly a necessary condition for peace process because negotiation could not be fair when one actor is considered only poor and disadvantaged. Peace negotiators should have similar levels of capacity and development in order to have fair negotiation in peace process. The first step to this would be fair education system for young generation.”
Tasks for peace: Forgiving, Understanding and Future Generation
Peace cannot be achieved by one actor. In other words, the new civilian government cannot achieve it alone. The whole population should contribute to peace process. Then what do they have to do together?
Nelson Mandela said, “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace.”
I visited a refugee camp located near Yangon, and met young Kachin IDP students. They are aged from 10 to 14. I heard so many hopeless opinions in many interviews, but from these students, I could feel optimism for the future. They gave me impressive answers to my question: what kind of country they want for Myanmar to be.
“A country where there is no war and no hatred, a free and fair country, a country where powerless people can obtain power, a country where elderly people receive good healthcare, a country where streets are clean, a country that reconstruct broken bridges and houses by wars, a country where there is no division by ethnicity, a country where there is no political deceptions and a country where everyone has right to education.”
I asked them again why Myanmar is not such a country they desire yet and what they should do to make peaceful Myanmar. “Because people do not love each other, do not forgive, hate each other and they are selfish.” They added, “We should keep loving our people in Myanmar even when Burmese threat us or do something bad to us. We should become good people first, and we should treat them equally.”
These are the answers that I could not hear from adults. The students desire to be a pastor to console devastated people, a singer to sing a song of consolation, a teacher who teaches children who lost their families and a doctor who takes care of injured people from wars. I could only hope they become leading people in the country and promote peace in future.
This message is important also for ethnic groups. The former diplomat indicated, “Ethnic people tend to be too nationalistic and protective. They share social responsibilities to protect their people and culture from majority Burmese. They are narrow-minded. Their unconscious hatred towards Burmese people disturbs trust building between the Burmese government and ethnic communities.” It is not wrong that ethnic groups distrust Burmese as they have been suffered for a long period of time. However, the stereotype towards Burmese should be removed for peace process. Peace can be hardly achieved while possessing unconscious hatred.
Lastly, the civilian government should prepare a long-term plan for peace process. A scholar at Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security Studies (MIPSS) pointed out the importance of long-term plan. “In a democratic country that Myanmar is trying to become, new government emerges regularly. However, it is rarely possible to draw the plan of peace process in a 5-year timeline because we do not know how long it will take, and what kind of measures and systems we need at a certain period. If the whole peace process goes into hands of one government, we will have to see different approaches whenever we have new governments. We should have a consistent strategy of peace process until the final result comes out.”
Peace process is a long process that should include future generation. It is also important for the consolidation of democratic civilian government. Consideration for future generation means the preparation for post-Aung San Suu Kyi period. Thein Than Oo said, “Post-Aung San Suu Kyi period means the loss of powerful democratic leadership in this country, which military will welcome. This civilian government must have efforts on education for young students, lawyers, women, and people in ethnic communities.” Sai Sam Kham also added that the new leader who will replace Aung San Suu Kyi should be cultivated within a democratic bloc, and also capable of countering against extreme nationalism. The government and all actors involved in peace process should draw realistic and feasible long-term goals so that the current leadership does not follow populism.
I expect Myanmar would become the country for which the IDP students desire in future. For long-lasting peace, future generation should be taken into account when considering peace process.