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Fog of ethnicity weighs on Myanmar's future

One of the hackneyed themes of contemporary Myanmar politics, repeated so often and so rarely questioned that it seems a truism, is the supposed conflict between the Burman majority and the various other ethnic groups lumped under the labels Kachin, Chin, Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and Kayah.  Fog of ethnicity weighs on Myanmar's future

    A similarly repeated truism is that the central government and army are dominated by the Burman group (also known as the Bama or Bamar), which is set on obliterating the ethnic diversity of the country through a process known as Burmanization. These related themes are advanced to justify the persistence of nearly perpetual low-level guerrilla warfare between the central government and armed groups that adopt the names of the various ethnic groups.

     Can this simplistic account of Myanmar's politics be questioned? If so, how? Well, for one thing, the Nov. 8 elections which produced an overwhelming majority for the National League for Democracy, a party often described as an essentially Burman organization no different from the governing establishment it is to replace, suggests that ethnicity is not as salient in Myanmar's politics as these cliched themes suggest.

     Ethnically designated parties did remarkably badly in the elections. They won only 11.2% of the seats in the bicameral national parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) and are in no position to claim to dominate the state legislatures that bear the labels of the seven largest ethnic categories, other than Burmans. In these legislatures, ethnically-designated parties won just 2 of 18 seats in Chin, 7 of 40 in Kachin, none of 15 in Kayah, 1 of 16 in Kayin, 3 of 23 in Mon, 22 of 35 in Rakhine, and 47 of 103 in Shan. (In the last case, the Shan-designated party was only one of a variety of ethnically designated parties that managed to win seats.)

     These results illustrate several truths. One is that except in Rakhine and Shan states, local ethnicity did not appear to be the most important aspects of people's political choices. The history of each of these states is unique, and their historical relationships with the central government, whether shaped by Myanmar kings, British governors, elected politicians or army officers, have also been different.

     The saliency of ethnicity in Rakhine can be explained by the fact that the region was only incorporated into the Myanmar polity under the last Myanmar dynasty, Konbaung, in 1784. Before that, it was a separate kingdom with its own distinctive institutions and traditions. It was also linguistically much more homogenous than most of the other contemporary states.

     None of the ethnically designated areas had a system of government that matched any of the others, and relations with the Konbaung and earlier dynasties were also varied. Linguistically they are diverse, hence the widespread belief in the official designation of 135 ethnic groups in the country. What such designations really mean is that when the list of 135 was first used in the 1931 census of British India, which then included Burma (as Myanmar was then known), that number of indigenous linguistic groups was recognized as extant.

     Most lived in remote mountainous reaches of the country, relatively little touched by the consequences of colonialism with its concomitant economic, political and social change. That of course was to change, especially after independence in 1948 when a unified national political discourse began to emerge.

     The emergence of that discourse was bound to include the language of the past, that is the language of so-called "advanced" and "backward" groups, ethnic and linguistic rights, little studied and therefore self-justifying histories, and other methods of heightening tensions and closing off the search for common interests and a common future.

Sophisticated urbanites

How the British colonialists saw Myanmar shaped the way people of the country saw it. This often led to patronizing and condescending language on the part of sophisticated urbanites, from which the political elite emerged, and a natural rejection of the attitudes implied by that language by the people against whom it was directed, often well-meaning but ill-considered. When the country was cut off from intellectual trends in much of the world after World War II, especially after General Ne Win's 1962 military takeover, Myanmar and its discourse on ethnicity were left mired in confusion and misapprehension.

     Among the ideas and concepts now missing from discussions of ethnicity and its implications in Myanmar is any serious attempt to understand the dynamics of differing principles of government, economic forms and interests. There is also a glaring absence of discourse on the foreign economic and political interests which stimulate and sustain so-called ethnic conflict; these are too often justified and overly simplified in any debate on the concept of struggles for ethnic self-determination.

     People involved in ethnic conflict, other than the leaders, often join armed groups due to a lack of other things to do. Their allegiances are often fluid and their identity plastic. Ethnic conflict is often driven by greed, as underscored by the smuggling of timber and jade in parts of the country's ethnically designated reaches. In the ballot box, removed from the threat of the insurgent gun, the voters felt free to express their sincere views.

     When a modern state attempts to impose its notion of impersonal and law-based rule over people who are accustomed to more informal, kin- and clan-based forms of government, there is a natural resistance to change that only education and experience can overcome. When an impecunious state attempts to do this not in 135 or even eight languages, but just one, that of the majority, is this an attack on linguistic and ethnic rights, or a matter of financial prudence and commonsense educational and administrative practice?

     Before long we can expect the NLD to take over, in conjunction with other parties and the Myanmar army, a political dialogue emerging out of the nationwide ceasefire agreement signed between the government and eight of 16 ethnically designated armed groups. Whether these armed groups represent the people, as they claim, remains in doubt, at least if the election results are an indication of the degree of national coherence that exists in Myanmar. Whether they are willing to seek a common future, with a common form of modern government, is also in doubt.

     Before a common future can be realized in Myanmar, clear thinking is needed on the diversity of the past and what it really means, as opposed to what self-serving arguments say that it means. Understanding clearly the concept of ethnicity, how it came to be understood in various parts of Myanmar, and how those concepts need to be clarified may have to happen before a successful conclusion to this political dialogue occurs. Do not hold your breath.

Robert H. Taylor is a visiting professorial research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and author of the recently published "General Ne Win: A Political Biography."

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