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DVB Debate: Burma’s national identity

On the 12 February Burma celebrated Union day, one of its biggest national holidays.  However, for many people in the country, unity still seems far from reality. Civil war continues in Burma’s border regions and many ethnic political and armed groups are still calling for more independence from central government.

On DVB Debate’s panel this week: Dr. Banya Aung Moe, from the All Mon Regions Democracy Party; Ying Harn Fah from Shan Women’s Action Network; Than Than Nu, Secretary General of the Democratic Party (Myanmar); and writer Naing Oo.

Panellists discussed whether an ethnically diverse country like Burma can really have one unified national identity.  Academic Naing Oo, who has written extensively on the subject of national identity says that the notion of identity has changed to adapt to modern times.

“Identities are gradually being eroded because of globalisation and modernity,” he said. “If we hold onto only one identity, we will lose it”.

Ying Harn Fah agrees that trying to create a single identity in a diverse country like Burma would be difficult.

“The identity of all our ethnic groups should be promoted and then a new national identity should be formed,” she said.

Cartoon: DVB Debate

Mon leader Banyar Aung Moe said that until ethnic groups have equal rights it will be difficult for many to feel truly part of the nation.

“Give the ethnic s full rights. Implement federalism. And persuade to promote the spirit of union,” he said.

 The Burmese government lists 135 official distinct ethnic groups in the country.  However, there are several other unrecognised major ethnicities in the country, including Burmese Indians, Burmese Chinese, and Rohingya.

Community leaders say that in order to find a national identity all those who live in Burma must accept it.

“If we are talking about the national identity it must be an identity which is accepted by all the ethnics and all the citizens of the country,” said 88 Generation Peace and Open Society leader Ko Ko Kyi.

Both the names Burma and Myanmar derive from the majority Burmese ethnic group- which accounted for 69 percent of the population at the last census. The former military government have been accused of a campaign of so called “Burmanisation”–an attempt to destroy the language and culture of ethnic minorities in the country.

“For the ethnic people, our identities have been wiped out for so many years,” said Ying Harn Fah, insisting that the Burmese government systematically attempted to destroy the Shan culture.

“In our Shan state, we are arrested if we want to learn Shan literature. We have to learn Shan literature secretly”, she said.

However, Daw Than Than Nu disagrees, saying that all people in the country suffered under the military.

“The suppression of the military did not just affect the ethnic groups,” she said. “The majority in the military is Burman, so what happened was people thought the Burmese are no good, and the Burman suppress and restrict ethnic minorities. But actually, 
Burman were also being suppressed”.

But ethnic minorities in the audience said they did not feel represented by the Burmese-dominated national celebrations and symbols and felt they continued to be treated unequally.

Kayan youth Khun Bernard said he does not feel part of Burma on Union day. “In our spirit, there is only one day we feel is a true national day in Burma. It’s Martyrs day”.

Zomi leader Pu Cin Suan Mang said that even non-citizens have more rights than some ethnic groups. “We want to celebrate our national day, but we have to ask permission. But non-citizen Chinese don’t need any permission. So, this is suppression,” he said.

Decades of civil war and persecution in ethnic areas have forced thousands to flee over the border to Thailand where they settle in refugee camps or become migrant workers.  Panellists raised concerns about how people like this can be part of the national identity.

“Those people don’t have ID cards and family registration cards; they have no homes. Now, they are living in a foreign country, and they don’t have any documents. They are stateless,” said Ying Harn Fah.

With such a complicated mixture of different groups most people agreed that for Burma, national identity should mean celebrating diversity. But until all ethnicities are given equal rights it may be difficult for some ethnic groups to truly identify themselves as part of a united nation.

 You can join the debate and watch the full programme in Burmese at dvbdebate.com

Or share your views with us by commenting on our website at dvb.no