Lady liberty and the ethnic cauldron

By Kanak Mani Dixit

29 June 2012

As the applause for her singular democratic struggle subsides, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to tackle the challenge of defining a viable nation-state while responding to the multiple assertions of identity and autonomy within Burma.
A mural of Aung San Suu Kyi in Brighton, UK. Photo: duncan, flickr

A mural of Aung San Suu Kyi in Brighton, UK.
Photo: duncan, flickr

As Aung San Suu Kyi returns to Burma from her two-week tour of Europe, with its mix of the personal and the regal, she will have to begin grappling with the ethnic tensions that have been left festering over half a century of military rule. Shedding the ‘prisoner of conscience’ mantle, she will have to take on the role of a politician in a country that was always fractious but may become fratricidal. The question is whether the politician can become a stateswoman.

While Burma continues to be run by the reformist military regime of President Thein Sein, all eyes are on Suu Kyi. The democrat, who has restricted herself thus far to human rights and rule of law, cannot now evade addressing matters of identity and autonomy. Her ultimate challenge will be to work towards restructuring the Burmese state, keeping it unified yet addressing the demands of the non-Bamar minorities which make a third of the population.

The attention on Suu Kyi – her fight against the military regime, her Nobel Peace Prize, and the years of house arrest – which has sometimes bordered on adulation, has kept the focus away from the deep-set communal animosities that have simmered in Burma. The Nobel laureate likes to point to democracy and rule of law as the starting points in the journey to nation-building, and of course she is right. But experience from other societies emerging from  autocracies indicate that she will not have time to equivocate, as the minorities push ahead with demands for self-rule. As a member of Parliament, Suu Kyi herself is now part of the state establishment of Burma which is challenged by nearly two dozen armed insurgencies, some ongoing and others in suspended animation.

Beyond democratic generalities, Suu Kyi must at long last articulate her opinion on the military’s war against the Karen, Kachin, Wa, Shan and other insurgent groups. With hundreds of thousands of lives estimated to have been lost in the various internal conflicts over the last sixty years, the scarring is deep. There is animus against the national establishment made up of the majority Bamar, the community that Suu Kyi herself was born to. Repeated reference to due process and rule of law may not be enough as the clamour for regional autonomy gathers steam and as the military junta becomes defensive and its grip weakens. Though Suu Kyi will not have a handle on the national administration till after the 2015 elections, she will have to see how to address expectations of economic progress and development before resentments pile up.

Suu Kyi and the Rohingya
What Burma needs beyond democracy is inter-community conciliation, and for this the acknowledged leader must show convincing sensitivity to the suffering of individuals and groups. Which is why it was distressing to hear Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis that overtook the north-western Rakhine state as she began her Europe tour in the middle of June. The murder and mayhem which led to the displacement of nearly a hundred thousand people reminds of earlier bouts of expulsion and exile. Many tried to flee to an unwelcoming Bangladesh.

When she was in Oslo to deliver her Nobel address 21 years after receiving the Peace Prize, Suu Kyi was asked about the unfolding conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists. The tragedy was fresh and marked by a rape followed by arson, lynchings and mass displacement, and one would have expected at least a comforting word of empathy from Suu Kyi. Yet she equivocated rather than speak directly to the human tragedy by saying, “Without the rule of law, such communal strife will only continue.”

At a subsequent press conference, Suu Kyi took refuge in the absence of proper citizenship legislation: “If we were very clear as to who are the citizens of the country under citizenship laws, then there wouldn’t be the problem that is always coming up, that there are accusations  … some people do not belong in Bangladesh, or some people do not belong in Burma.” Asked whether the Rohingyas should be regarded as Burmese, she replied, “I do not know… There are some who say that some of those who claim to be Rohingyas aren’t the ones actually native to Burma, but have just come over recently from Bangladesh. On the other hand, Bangladesh says no, they don’t want them as refugees because they are not native to Bangladesh but come from Burma.”

It sounded like the faint-hearted response of a politician unwilling to go against populist mainstream opinion back in Rangoon. For sure, many in the Burmese state establishment, national intelligentsia and even the pro-democracy movement consider the Rohingya as late-comer Bangladeshis rather than citizens. While there may be some controversy about their historical origins, there is no denying the fact that the Rohingya are now part of Burma, having lived there for generations. The state establishment may de-recognise them and seek their ouster, much as nearby Bhutan did with the southern Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa in the late 1980s, and yet the lived reality of the Rohingya in Burma demands Suu Kyi be sensitive to their enforced statelessness, their human rights, and their right to life and livelihood.

Suu Kyi’s tepid response indicates either a leader who agrees with the Naypidaw establishment’s conviction that the Rohingya are non-Burmese, or a politician who prefers not to antagonise the Bamar mainstream at this stage – which would then beg the question, ‘If not now, when?’ Whichever way one looks at it, the unwillingness to address the catastrophe in Rakhine at the humanitarian plane is problematic. We seem to be witnessing the transitioning of an international democratic icon into a timid politician, rather than a leader with the wherewithal to stand up to mainstream wrath.

Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya tragedy is worrying in itself, but might also provide a clue into how she would respond to the other ethnicity-tinged matters she will have to confront. Her reaction to the ongoing tragedy in Kachin state, where the Naypidaw generals have been in fresh conflict with insurgents since June 2011, underlines this. There have been a flood of refugees across the border into China, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma has spoken of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. In London, Suu Kyi was asked to defend her lack of response to the violence. In her reply, she condemned all forms of violence, but she was not clear what had happened in Kachin State.

Centre and rimland
Burma is geographically divided into Lower and Upper Burma and what were known as the ‘Frontier Areas’ of the Shan, Chin and Kachin peoples under British rule. This frontier region was brought into modern-day Burma through the Panglong Agreement negotiated by General Aung Sang, the father of Suu Kyi. The general was killed soon after the agreement was signed in 1947. The ‘centre-periphery’ relations became coagulated after the military took over in 1962 under General Ne Win. Since then, the military has remained in power, and remained there by stoking xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, exploiting fears of national disintegration.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy(NLD) and its largely Bamar membership has not shown alacrity in tackling the dissatisfaction of the non-Bamar communities over the years. This is why, as late as in the middle of 2012, we do not know what roadmap Suu Kyi and the NLD really have for the country and its myriad peoples. The military remains in power, and is in on-again off-again peace negotiations with half a dozen insurgent groups, but the focus is now on Suu Kyi and her party.

As the brittle military regime will give way to soft democracy, Suu Kyi will need all the dynamism she can muster to promote democracy from the capital Naypidaw and Rangoon to the grassroots, while simultaneously negotiating devolution of power with minority groups. Certainly, much will depend on the nature of the insurgent groups themselves, and the values they embrace.

The government recognises 175 ethnic groups in the country (not counting the Rohingya, incidentally). The larger ones inhabit discrete regions within Burma which also borders India, China, Laos and Thailand. From the Kachin highlands in the north, to the Arakan abutting Bangladesh, the Chin and Naga hills across from the Indian Northeast, the Wa hills on the Chinese frontier, and the Shan, Karenni Mon and Karen regions along the Thai-Burmese frontier, Burma is an elongated cauldron of ethnic challenge for anyone who wants to create a viable modern country. Matters are made more complex because of commercial interests, geo-strategic concerns and the fact that many of the ethnic minorities also exist across borders, which makes for intrusive neighbours.

The volatility of the situation is enhanced by the fact that the ethnic hinterland is laden with natural resources, including natural gas, hydropower, minerals, gemstones and timber, while the coastline is rich in marine products. The evolution of geopolitics and globalisation has also made Burma’s location more strategic than before. The Chinese seek linkages to the Burmese coast for the easy transport of gas, oil and goods to Yunnan. The Indians seek access to Burmese gas and want to link the Indian Northeast to Southeast Asia through Burma. Together with India, the ASEAN as well as the Western powers see in Burma a bulwark against Beijing’s accelerating outreach into the Indian Ocean region.

The fact that the economically and strategically important segments of the country are along the mountainous rim inhabited by the restive ethnic minorities is sure to affect the dynamics of negotiations between Naypidaw and the minorities. According to Railway Minister Aung Min, put in charge by the junta of conducting negotiations with the insurgent groups, the plan is to lead ceasefire agreements to political dialogue, which would then end in a national meeting bringing together the various ethnic groups. “We are planning to complete the process by 2015 within the tenure of this parliament,” he told the BBC.

Panglong I & II
Fortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi has a ready-made template for inter-community cooperation in Burma should she wish to pick it up where her father left off in 1947. That matrix was negotiated by General Aung San who called a meeting to plan the post-colonial future of Burma at the town of Panglong in the Shan region. The Panglong agreement called for ‘full autonomy in internal administration’ of the ‘frontier areas’.  Aung San was assassinated soon thereafter, and the agreement got lost amidst the turmoil and military rule that was to follow.

The economic and geopolitical situation has changed drastically since the Panglong conference, but the dissatisfaction of the non-Bamar ethnicities over control of national establishment by the Bamar remains in place

While the fight for democracy has been led by the Bamar-led civil society, intelligentsia and clergy in 1988 and in 2007, the leadership of minority groups seeks devolution of power through federalism along with democracy. On the other hand, with the warring groups engaged in separate fights with Naypidaw, the negotiations for Burmese nation-building will have to include not only government-to-minority-groups communications, but a meeting of minds between the minorities themselves.

The insurgent groups might not only function as autocracies, they can also be (and many have been) pawns of neighbouring governments. The hilly hinterland where the minorities live are rich in natural resources, and the insurgent leadership has been vulnerable to rapacious capital, as seen in the involvement of Thai businesses in logging the Burmese jungles of the southeast.

It is under these circumstances that Suu Kyi is asked to put together a democratic Burma by negotiating devolution of power to the minority groups, while carrying along the Bamar-heavy military establishment and intelligentsia in Naypidaw and Rangoon. The organisation of a ‘Panglong II’ conference is clearly central.

Unlike in 1947, Suu Kyi will also have to contend with deep interest in Burma among neighbouring governments, as well as among those who control international capital. Meanwhile, with the move towards democracy, the international human rights community will also shift its focus to see whether the ethnic minorities are treated fairly. Further, the negotiations in ‘Panglong II’ will now have to be with many more groups than the Shan, Chin and Karen. Aung San Suu Kyi and the democrats of Burma will have to achieve that delicate balance between centrifugal force of the militant minorities as well as the pull of the Burmese Army and the national intelligentsia.


A Rohingya child at a camp in Kutupalong, Burma. The Rohingyas' plight highlights the many challenges to building an ethnically inclusive Burmese state. Photo: flickr / FAMSI

A Rohingya child at a camp in Kutupalong, Burma. The Rohingyas’ plight highlights the many challenges to building an ethnically inclusive Burmese state.
Photo: flickr / FAMSI

[Eds: This piece continues from the first part of the article, available here.]

Burma, while firmly a part of Southeast Asia, has also had historical and contemporary links to Southasia through the time of the British Raj to the present. The Southasian Northeast forms a continuum of geography and demography between Burma and the Subcontinental mainland. Rapidly democratising Burma can take cues from Southasian societies when it comes to addressing ethnic assertion and the devolution of powers. Some of these lessons are from the contiguous societies of the Indian Northeast, others from as far afield as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. These lessons can be as much about what not to do as what to do.

Aung San Suu Kyi knows the north of Southasia well, having lived in Delhi when her mother Khin Kyi was ambassador to Jawaharlal Nehru’s New Delhi. She also lived in Bhutan with her late husband, the scholar Michael Aires, and she was hosted in Kathmandu by the statesman and social democrat BP Koirala, a friend of her father Aung San (who provided Koirala with arms to fight Nepal’s Rana regime, which were flown to Bihar by the maverick Orissan leader Biju Patnaik before being delivered to Nepal).

Suu Kyi left Burma for the first time in 24 years for a short visit to Thailand in early June 2012. That was followed by a two-week foray later that month to five Western European countries. She is now back home, where the challenges are bound to come fast and furious. Beyond facilitating the return to full democracy and tackling the inevitable flood of ‘donors’ and investors, Suu Kyi will have to confront the elephant in the room: disgruntled minorities who are waiting for her to show her hand with regard to devolution of power. In this, there will be more to learn from South and Southeast Asia than from Western Europe.

Subcontinental tour
Since the liberation movements of the late 1940s, Southasia’s newly independent countries have been continuously shaken by demands for the devolution of power away from the centralising state (even where the system was termed ‘federal’, as in Pakistan). Generally, the demands of ethnic and other minorities on the geographical and mental ‘periphery’ have been met by the central states’ refusal or inability to respond with empathy.

In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala-dominated establishment neglected the demands of the Tamils, who make up 12 percent of the population and are concentrated in the north and east of the country. This invited the ferocious two-decade-long Tamil insurgency that only ended in 2009.

Bangladesh has Southasia’s most demographically ‘homogenous’ population, but it also has skeletons in its closet: the Bangladeshi state’s treatment of the country’s Hindu minority, half of whom have departed since 1971, and its insensitive treatment of the tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering Burma. There, the Chakma and other groups have seen their lands overtaken by mainland settlers spurred on by a nationalistic mindset that privileges the Bengali identity.

Nepal’s trajectory in the modern era also saw a continuation of the centralisation of power in Kathmandu Valley. This trend has given momentum to the demand for a new constitution with guarantees of inclusion and federalism. But Nepal differs from Burma in that it is a country of micro-communities, with the largest community accounting for only 15.5 percent of the national population of 30 million. Also, two and a half centuries under a centralised nation-state has created a heterogeneous mix of castes and ethnicities across most of the country.

In Burma, on the other hand, the Bamar community constitutes 68 percent of the population of the central plains, while other ethnic communities inhabit discrete regions in the surrounding hilly regions that border neighbouring Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh.

Burma’s demographic make-up is more akin to that of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where, other than in the urban centres, linguistic and ethnic groups live largely within their historical homelands. For this reason, federalism in Burma can be defined more exclusively by ethnicity or language than in, say, Nepal.

In Pakistan, the Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pasthun live in separate provinces in a country that was born ‘federal’ but has not been so in spirit. Pakistan’s national establishment, including the military, is dominated by the Punjabis, in much the same manner that the Burmese establishment and military are overwhelmingly Bamar. But is Burma to take cues from Pakistan, or vice versa? Burma has been tackling multiple insurgencies from disgruntled ethnicities for over half a century, while the discontent in the Pakistani provinces other than Punjab is still only brewing. One could say that Burma is facing challenges that Pakistan will face in the future.

In Afghanistan, the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others communities continue to live in discrete areas, much as the the Karen, Shan, Wa and other communities do in Burma. To bring about a modicum of national consensus, the rulers in Kabul have turned to the loya jirga, or grand assembly. A Pashtun tribal tradition, it has been expanded recently into a gathering of power brokers and warlords brought together to ratify some new agreement or appointment. In Burma, ‘Panglong-II’ would – somewhat differently from the loya jirga – have to include minority representatives from beyond the insurgent leadership, and to acknowledge the importance of including female leadership as well as representatives of sub-groups from the different regions.

The geopolitical interests fuelling interventionist intent in Afghanistan – from the Russians, Americans, Pakistanis and Indians – can be ascribed, to a great extent, to the divisions within Afghanistan’s communities. This is something that democratic Burma will have to be alert to if it is not itself to be sucked into the vortex of regional and international geopolitics due to its internal situation. Naypidaw will have more of a challenge than the other countries of Southasia because Burma’s natural wealth attracts more pushy multinational corporations (MNCs) than that of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or even Afghanistan. These MNCs will influence Burma’s national establishment and the country’s individual provinces, as and when they are established.

Donor organisations, international think tanks, and the overwhelmingly powerful multilateral lending agencies are all in the process of entering the just-awakened Burma. Soon, there will be a cacophony of advice on the entire gamut of development, governance, elections, strategic affairs and inter-community relations. Will Burma’s national political class, civil society, academics, media and activist organisations be up to the task of managing these diverse and powerful forces, given that the country will be given much less time than others to find its feet as a democracy because of what it commands in terms of its natural resources and strategic location?

Northeast by Northwest
Even more than Afghanistan – situated as it is on the other side of the subcontinental expanse – it is contiguous Northeast India that provides democratic Burma with the most relevant lessons in devising a transition strategy. The region that encompasses the ‘seven sisters’ of the Northeast is a cauldron and microcosm all at once, where issues of military rule, human rights, inter-tribal animosity, centre-state relations and inter-state relations all come together to create an intractable state of affairs, making this one of the most continuously unstable areas in all of Asia. Only the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude of the mainland Indian political establishment and intelligentsia keeps the Northeast off the front pages of the world.

There are deep inter-state animosities and inter-community divides within the Northeast, exacerbated by the militarisation of the region by New Delhi. These tensions may be suppressed, but they continue to fester. Within the individual states, which are named after individual tribes, there are pockets of other groups, as well as sub-groups of the designated tribes. Thus, while the many separate insurgencies from Assam to Nagaland challenge the Indian Government, there are deep tensions within these states as well, such as between the Kuki and Naga in Manipur, the Dimasa and Karbi in Assam, the Boro and Santhal in Assam, and the Mizo and Bru in Mizoram. Among the surrounding states, from Meghalaya anti-clockwise to Arunachal, there is also deep suspicion of the dominant state of Assam. Assam commands the Brahmaputra plains, which are surrounded by the smaller hilly states much as the Bamar plains in Burma are circled by the minority groups in the surrounding ‘frontier regions’. Many people in Assam, in turn, have grievances against Bengali speakers, many of whom are considered unwelcome settlers.

The natural evolution of inter-ethnic and inter-state relationships in the Indian Northeast has been affected by the interests of New Delhi, which override the interests of the region’s inhabitants. These interests have to do with tackling China, with which India has yet to resolve a dispute over ownership of the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi also seems unwilling to devolve power or grant autonomy beyond a certain point because of the danger of igniting similar demands in mainland India. New Delhi’s physical distance from the Northeast is itself a drawback for Northeasterners who seek to develop their polity, because it makes it that much more difficult to sensitise the national capital, and thereby the rest of the country, to the pain of militarisation. The Indian government’s long-term strategy seems to be a conservative one, without any devolution of power or departure from present policy, in the hope that fatigue in the Northeast will provide a solution.

The long arm of the Indian state rests heavy on Northeastern society, and the fact that India is described as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ does not mean much on the ground. New Delhi uses the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA) of 1958 to activate and protect its military and para-military forces as they go about tackling the many insurgencies. The AFSPA enables soldiers to detain citizens indefinitely on suspicion of militancy, and has led to torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. As Burma attains full democracy, possibly after the 2015 elections, it may also evolve like India, since a democratic country will be relatively more accessible to the metropolitan (Bamar) mainstream, while the same space for assertion and governance will be unavailable to the minorities.

The experience of Irom Sharmila Chanu, Manipur state’s celebrated civil rights activist, serves to highlight the limits and weaknesses of Indian democracy and national civil society when it comes to the Northeast and its issues of identity and nationalism. Irom Sharmila started her fast in November 2000 to protest the killing of ten civilians by the Assam Rifles constabulary. She has continued her fast to this day, remaining alive because Indian authorities force-feed her through a nasal tube. It says something of the Northeast’s distance from the Indian mainland that the Irom Sharmila’s Gandhian activism has failed to touch a chord in New Delhi and across the country.

The encounters between Southasia’s centralised nation-states (whether closed or open societies) and ethno-nationalism provide potent examples of what not to do as Burma seeks to emerge as a modern-day democracy, especially given that the country has more than its share of communitarian animosities. As a fighter for democracy in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to confront the demands of her country’s minorities, and learn from the Subcontinent that lies on the other side of the Burmese Northwest.

Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila
Because it promotes the rule of law and promises stability in an open (if always turbulent) society, there is no doubt that democracy allows for long-term cohabitation between communities. But in a country coming out of decades of military rule, and where one community (the Bamar) remains numerically and politically dominant, democratic values are at a premium not only within the military but also among the militarised insurgencies. And time is always at a premium.

The answer for a Burma in the democratic era lies in the dynamic leadership of someone like Suu Kyi who speaks up for democracy, human rights, equity, inclusion and respresentational politics, while taking on, as required, the Rangoon intelligentsia, crony capitalists, foreign interventionists, recidivist generals, and Bamar supremacists. The reaction in recent months of Burma’s mainstream civil society to the violence that has affected the Kachin as well Rohingya communities provides a warning signal in terms of how Burma’s ethnic relationships could go from bad to worse. As mentioned in this article, Suu Kyi’s response (or lack of it) to the humanitarian disaster that has visited those communities is a worrying indicator of how she may lead Burma in the future, and of how the ‘Panglong-II’ conference might be conducted if and when it is organised.

The road ahead for Aung San Suu Kyi will be longer and harder than her time under house arrest, but the prize on offer is the chance to take an entire country forward while respecting the identities and aspirations of all its communities. To champion democracy and human rights in a manner that holds meaning for all of Burma’s peoples, she may want to try and understand Irom Sharmila Chanu’s relentless engagement for democracy and dignity in nearby Manipur.

~ Kanak Mani Dixit is editor and publisher of Himal Southasian.

Post Comments

Leave a Reply

Comments will have to be approved by a Himal Southasian moderator before they are published. See Comment Moderation Policy.

More from Commentary