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That is the crux of the matter for many ethnic leaders. They are used to old-world politics where one’s word was one’s bond. They want to stop fighting and negotiate but they do not feel that they can trust Thein Sein.
They wonder why his chief negotiator does not keep his word. They wonder if Aung Min really cannot control the Tatmadaw or if this all a hoax to wipe them out later. Why the government does not seem to be able to control the Tatmadaw is a serious question. However, the ethnic nationalities still need to engage with the Thein Sein government.
Why should they engage? The Union of Myanmar did not come about through the sole efforts of Bama nationalists like Bogyoke Aung San. It was built by a collective of leaders from many nationalities. At Panglong, they agreed to join their territories together and form the Union of Burma. The ethnic nationalities are co-owners of the nation with the Bama, and they have equal rights and responsibilities with the Bama to re-shape the nation. The task of nation building cannot be left to the Bama alone. They had a 50-year monopoly and made a mess of it.
At independence, the most educated people in the country were Rakhine and Karen. The early years were turbulent; but it may surprise many to learn that the problem was not started by the ethnic nationalities. The first and most serious threat to the nation was the uprising by the Communist Party of Burma, and U Nu’s other Bama political rivals.
The Burma Army even mutinied and U Nu’s government survived only because the Chin, Kachin and Karen Rifles remained staunchly loyal. In those days, the President was Shan, the Prime Minister was Bama, the Commander-in-Chief and the Air Force Chief were Karen. It was a grand experiment to create an inclusive and just multi-ethnic nation.
When General Ne Win seized power in 1962, he re-wrote history. He began a process of Burmanisation purging non-Bamas from public life. He suppressed all political dissent making it impossible to redress wrongs except through armed struggle. Those who did not espouse arms could live like second-class citizens, hide out in the jungle, become refugees or seek a new life abroad.
The first ray of light came in 1990 after Ne Win fell and elections were held. Ethnic parties contested the elections. The results were never recognized but their election victory gave the ethnic nationalities a new political voice. For the next 20 years, they were able to articulate ethnic concerns and aspirations. The world also came to understand that the ethnic armed groups are not drug dealers and rebels but part of a political movement to protect their rights, their culture and their identity.
The next opportunity came with the 2010 elections. The ethnic parties made even greater inroads. They won enough seats to keep their voices alive and to begin to exert influence in their home states and at the national level. The two elections can be seen as reversing the trend that Ne Win started.
President Thein Sein’s call for peace talks is also providing a way for those who had taken up arms to return to the political arena.
Do not misunderstand me. In the 1960s, there was no choice but to take up arms. Without the armed struggle, many ethnic identities would have been lost. My brother and mother were part of that armed struggle. But they would agree with me today that it is time to move from armed struggle back to political struggle. Why? Ne Win was astute enough to realise that he could not gain power and dominate as long as the political system was democratic and the ethnic nationalities sought a political solution. He had to subvert both the system and send the ethnic nationalities into the jungle to gain the upper hand.
I have no doubt that the ethnic nationalities can continue fighting for the next 50 years if necessary. However, it will not benefit the country as a whole and it will specifically not benefit the ethnic nationalities. Look back at the past 50 years: who are now the poorest and least educated people? Not the Bama. Who are making all the decisions about the future of the country? Not the ethnic nationalities.“The task of nation building cannot be left to the Bama alone”
The longer the fighting continues, the more marginalised the ethnic peoples will become. Until in the end, one may only find them on special cultural reservations – much like the aboriginal peoples of North America.
Sixty-five years ago a new nation emerged from a devastating war and decades of colonial rule. It had great potential to become one of the leading nations of the world. But that potential was never realised. Instead, the nation was plunged into the chaos of civil war. What happened?
One key factor was the communist concept that real change can only be brought about by a revolution. They believed that to compromise was to give up one’s ideals. The Communist Party of Burma (CPB) refused to accept the independence granted by the British as authentic.
The CPB and others embarked upon an armed revolution, paving the way for further upheavals which gave birth to the military dictatorship that plagued the country for the next 50 years. Another factor was the intense personal rivalry amongst the Bama leaders. Instead of a national vision, they had illusions of personal grandeur.
We face a similar situation today after decades of an oppressive dictatorship. But many are still saying that the change is not real because it did not come from a revolution. They say that a leopard cannot change its spots and a dictatorship cannot become a democracy. Freedom has to be won through a revolution. To compromise is to compromise one’s ideals. Personal rivalries amongst the Bama leadership are also intense.
Can we learn from our mistakes? Now, as then, conditions are not ideal. Will we wait for ideal conditions or will we make the best of the situation and try to make them better?
Harn Yawnghwe is the Executive Director of the Euro-Burma Office. He was Executive Director of the Democratic Voice of Burma from 1996 to 2002. After 48 years in exile, Harn was allowed to return to Myanmar in October 2011 to help facilitate the peace talks between the government and the ethnic armed groups. He does not hold any position in the government nor amongst the armed groups.
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.