Burma And National Reconciliation : Exploring Ethnic

Conflict And State-Society Dysfunction  

By Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe

Introduction: The Problem of State-Society Dysfunction           

Especially after the collapse  of Ne Win’s military-socialist Lanzin regime in 1988, the issue of “ethnic conflict” has, it might be said, drawn more attention from both observers and protagonists alike. This is all the more so the case following the unraveling of the socialist bloc and emergence of “ethnic” wars in those hitherto– it was presumed – stable nation-states of the socialist world.

Previously, ethnic-based resistance movements in Burma was perceived by most observers as insurgencies by disgruntled tribal isolates fighting against the modernizing and unifying state [1]. The “ethnic conflict” problem was not seen as being integral to the larger, more basic problem that revolves around the “lack of fit” between the military monopolized state (since 1962) and broader society. That there was dysfunction in state-society relation in Burma is now recognized, but the ethnic dimension of state-society dysfunction has not however been fully appreciated.   

In fact, resistance of societal segments especially that which was ethnic-based --  which constitutes an important dimension of state-society dysfunction -- was looked upon as obstructions to modernization and/or national integration and development. [2]  Ethnic-based resistance was until recently condemned not only by the new (post-colonial) states, but also by their respective external or foreign “patrons and mentors” (governments and academics) as reactionary tribal hold-outs, an impediment to the laudable nation- and state-building efforts, the integrating or unifying imperatives, of the modern state and leaders. Often, ethnic resistance movements were believed to be or were portrayed by ruling regimes as instruments of external (or as the case may be, imperialist) powers or agents. Contributing to the confusion was a situation where cold-war protagonists were not above encouraging, if not formenting, ethnic discontent and rebellion in order to destabilize the client state of the rival power.    

Ethnic Conflict in Burma: Some Basic Definitions    

Even today, when it is recognized that the “ethnic rebellions” in are part of Burma’s state-society dysfunction problem, there remains some confusion regarding the nature of “ethnic” conflict. One current perspective, one might say, sees the “ethnic” conflict in Burma in terms of ethnic minorities fighting for democratic rights or cultural-identity rights, or equal opportunity, like the blacks and other minorities in the United States and elsewhere. Even Burma’s ethnic non-Burman groups [3] and leaders – at least some of them – have, one might say, been drawn into this “minority rights, equal opportunity” paradigm. Some ethnic leaders and activists have even ventured in the field of “indigenous peoples” , i.e., defining themselves as “indigenous people”, although the term refers to native peoples (the aboriginals), those marginalized and displaced by white settlers and their state and the system of monetarized markets (i.e., modern economy) that the settlers brought with them and imposed. The use of the term “indigenous peoples” in the Burma context is odd because all ethnic segments, including the Burmans, are indigenous.

The ethnic non-Burman segments of Burma – especially the Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Chin, Rakhine, -- are not ethnic minorities, nor are they indigenous peoples. As will be clarified and shown in the passages below, they -- like the Burmans – are peoples or nations. They moreover have had the experience of administering themselves, albeit under British supervision, for five or more decades. [4] They also had, like the Burmans, their own history, or rather, a sense of history, of being significant political actors in ancient times. In their own states or home territories – clearly demarcated -- they in fact comprised the majority, and the Burmans the minority. Because of their role as co-founders of the Union of Burma, by virtue of the 1947 Panglong Accord, the ethnic non-Burman nationalities consider themselves the founding nations of the country, and have used the term, ethnic nationalities or nationalities [5] to refer to themselves collectively, rather than as ethnic minorities.     

In this paper, it is maintained that Burma’s “ethnic conflict” is not per se ethnic, nor that of the kind faced by indigenous peoples of, for example, North America, but political in a very fundamental way. The conflict is political in the sense that the although it is also about ethnic identity and rights, and about democracy, equal opportunity, and all that, it is also – in fact, in essence -- about nation-building and state-building. It involves political fundamentals as how a nation is to be built (or rather defined), by whom, in what direction, and it has much to do with problems and conflict arising from the application by the state or a set of power-holders of a certain or a particular brand of nationhood, nation-building formula. This paper will also look at the general outline of the conflict, focusing on the conceptual context of it, and it will also look at the options, and particularly the difficulties that have to be recognized and taken into account in resolving “ethnic conflict” problem in Burma.

This paper stresses that in regard to nation-building in independent Burma, the first foundation stones were laid in 1947 when the Panglong Accord was signed in Shan State between U Aung San, the supreme of the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League), the vanguard of the Burmese nationalist movement, and Shan princes (the chaofa) and Kachin and Chin leaders.

This was the accord that defined the boundaries of present-day Burma. The agreement, and the understanding reached was that they would join together in an alliance to jointly obtain independence (from Britain) and to establish a union of equal and self-determining states – the Union of Burma or “Pyidaung-su”, in Burmese – on the basis of equality. The Burmese word, “Pyidaung-su” means a union of nation-states, implying a federation of states as in other federations.  Federalism, it can be said, is embedded in the Burmese term for the post-1948 Union of Burma. Since Panglong was a historically defining moment, the genesis of the present Burma, the Accord and the Spirit underlying the Accord – the Panglong Spirit – is, one might say, politically hegemonic.  Even the successive ruling generals who have done much violence to the ideals of Panglong have nonetheless to pay lip-service to the Panglong Spirit, to the notion of equality between what they term “national races”.     

British Colonial Rule and the Making of Burma in 1947

Like all  nation-states that emerged after the withdrawal or eclipse of colonial powers – India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so on – Burma was (or is) basically  the child (or the creation) of the colonial order. Prior to the advent of colonial powers -- who re-arranged the territories that came into their hands, making them into “modern” entities which later became post-colonial nation-states -- Burma in its present form did not exist.  There were what modern historians recorded as Burmese (or Burman) kingdoms that existed side by side with Mon, Shan, Rakhine, Manipuri, Thai, Lao, and Khmer kingdoms, and which were often in conflict with one another.  Wars, both dynastic (intra-kingdom) and inter-kingdoms, were endemic. These kingdoms were not territorial nor were they based on ethnic sentiments or solidarity. They were not national kingdoms but dynastic or personal system of power and domination. [6]

In the final British annexation in 1885, [7] the Burmese king and court had very little, or no control over  territories north of the capital, Mandalay.  Moreover, an alliance of Shan princes – the Limbin Confederacy – was poised to march onto the capital to overthrow King Thibaw (whose mother was Shan, the Hsipaw Princess), and put their candidate, the Limbin Prince, on the throne.  There was, in other words, at that period, no Burmese kingdom to speak of.  A year after the fall of Mandalay, the British met with the Shan princes in Mong Yai and negotiated the inclusion of their princedoms in British India as protectorates (i.e., under the Viceroy of India). [8]

The British then proceeded to make administrative sense of the areas that had come under their control.  They re-organized or rationally re-structured their new possession that lay beyond India – one might say, “farther India” or “British Indochina”.  By the 1930s, British Burma (or British Indochina) was separated from India and organized into two distinct parts: Ministerial Burma – the homeland of the more or less majority Burman ethnic group -- and the Frontier Areas. The latter included the present-day Shan, Kachin, and Chin State, and parts of the current Karen and Arakan/Rakhine State. The present Karenni State was treated more or less as a protectorate, and the Wa area was classified as un-administered territory.

Under the British, there was no “Burma”, i.e., in its current form. It might however be argued (and has been by sundry Burman nationalists) that the British purposely divided Burma in accordance with their “divide-and-rule” policy. What can however be said about the “divide-and-rule” argument is that the “divide-and-rule” argument assumes that the population of Burma was (or is) homogenous or had hitherto been unified, in the current sense of the word, as a nation. The nationalist “divide-and-rule” argument is, it might be added, the product of a parochial mind-set that is blissfully ignorant of a practice that is common to all colonial powers. Rather than being moved by the “divide-and-rule” imperative of power – which anti-colonial nationalists attribute to colonial powers – the widely practiced system of direct and indirect rule was based on administrative convenience, itself informed by the economic-commercial viability of the real estate in question. That is to say, areas that were near the seacoast or accessible from the sea, and were fertile, productive, and where transportation infrastructures could be built with low costs, these areas were usually placed under direct rule. Areas in the far interior, where transportation was difficult, or were border or frontier lands, these were ruled through traditional rulers and chiefs, loosely supervised by colonial officers.  In Burma, the Irrawaddy basin constituting the Burman homeland, i.e., Burma Proper, was directly ruled, exploited, and thus became developed or more or less modernized. The Frontier Areas were left to their rulers and chiefs, and were benignly  neglected, and became less developed than the directly ruled areas.   

British Burma or “British Indochina” was, like French Indochina, a hodge-podge of expedient  administrative arrangements, and it was this patchwork collection of differently administered and differently developed territories that became, after the 1947 Panglong Accord, the Union of Burma.

The Nation-Building Formulas and the Rise of the Military

Concerning the thinking of Burma’s post-independence leaders and rulers – predominantly Burman – on nation-building, there can be discerned three major streams. One stream, formulated by or associated with U Aung San, the architect of independence, held that independent Burma was to be one based on equality of all national groups and states, on the principle of “unity in diversity”, and self-determination (implying the widest of autonomy for the units or members of the union). This was the vision that led to the signing of the Panglong Accord in 1947, a year before independence was obtained.

The second stream was one that was adopted by the post-Aung San AFPFL leaders. This vision was embodied in the 1947 Union Constitution. It provided for a unitary form of state, one which was de-centralized to some degree, but not federal.  The relation among the members was asymmetrical: there was the Mother country, Pyi-Ma – the Burma State – and around it revolved a set of subordinate constituent states. The relation of, for example, the Shan State to the Burma (or Burman) State, the Mother State, was similar to one between Scotland or Wales and New Westminister (England).  In concept it can be said that there was in Burma, seven Scotland or Wales revolving around Rangoon. [9]

The third stream was a fascistic, chauvinistic one. It held that the Burmans had built an empire through defeating and conquering the lesser “races” [10] – the Mons, Rakhine, Shan, Karen, and so on. In this formula, Burma had been unified by force since the 11th century by great Burman conquer-kings: Anawratha, Bayinnaung, Alaungphaya, Bodawpaya, and so on. According to this nationhood vision, the British forcibly dismembered this unified kingdom, and through the divide-and-rule policy, further alienated the hitherto unified “races” of Burma from each other.

From this perspective, one that is held by the military and successive ruling generals, nationhood and nation-building was not a problem: All national “races” would be kept together by a strong state, and nationhood or unity achieved through assimilation into the Burman mainstream. Cultural and ethnic diversity was deemed as dangerous and undesirable because they were divisive. Unity or the solidarity of the Union must therefore be maintained and safeguarded by a vanguard body – the military or the armed forces --  lest the country falls apart, or become a chaotic arena of warring “races”, as in Bosnia. [11]  

The second stream, the post-Aung San AFPFL’s (or U Nu’s) unitary but decentralized nation-building formula – as represented by the 1947 Constitution -- gained ascendancy and was in force for almost 12 years, from 1948 to 1962. This national unity formula was certainly not in keeping with the Panglong Spirit nor the vision of U Aung San. Nonetheless, it worked after a fashion until it was replaced in 1962 by the military’s (and Ne Win’s) fascistic-chauvinistic nation-building formula.

Until the 1962 military coup, although the Shan, Kachin, and other ethnic nationalities leaders found the 1947 Constitution unsatisfactory, they went along with this arrangement, because they were assured in 1947 that the constitution could be amended at any time in the future. Also, the fact that independent Burma right away became a battleground between the AFPFL government and its erstwhile allies -- the Red and White Flag communist, the People’s Volunteers Organization/PVO, and Burman army mutineers, and later, Karen army mutineers and PaO rebels (in Shan State) – gave the Shan, and the ethnic non-Burman leaders very little options, but to stand with the AFPFL, or rather with, or behind U Nu. The alternative was communist victory or revolution.  

In many ways, the armed struggle led by the communists and their allies strengthen ties between the leaders and governments of the ethnic nationalities and the AFPFL.  However, at the same time, the insurgencies – Burman (communists and leftists) and Karen (and their ethnic allies, the PaOs and the Mons) – bolstered the importance of the military to the extent that as the 1960s approached, it had become very powerful and gained much autonomy.  Also, the incursions of American-backed Chinese Guomindang (nationalist) irregulars in eastern Shan State further reinforced its power and autonomy. In fighting the insurgencies and the Guomindang irregulars, the military, i.e., the army, also took on administrative functions in areas where martial law was declared or imposed.

Moreover, the split of the ruling AFPFL party into two camps and many factions which occurred in 1957 further strengthened the position and autonomy of the military. The split created a power vacuum at the very top, and it was only a matter of time before the military ventured onto the political stage, and this it did in 1958. The then Prime Minister, U Nu, was requested by the military – specifically Brigadiers Aung Gyi and Tin Pe -- to hand over power, albeit  temporarly, to the army so that the political confusion stemming from the AFPFL split could be sorted out. U Nu agreed, and with the sanction of parliament, the military ruled as a caretaking government for two years. In 1960, the caretaking military government held an election as promised, which U Nu won overwhelmingly on an anti-military, anti-military platform, in addition to promising to make Buddhism the state/official religion. In 1962, however, the military marched back to the summit of power, and has ruled Burma ever since.

Nation-Building by Ne Win and the Military

As mentioned, the military vision of national unity, its national-building formula, was fascistic, chauvinistic, narrow, exclusive. This formula dovetailed nicely with its vision of state-society relation, which was top-down and informed by a command-and-control orientation. The military’s fascistic view of nationhood and tightly controlled state-society relation may be owed to the Japanese influence since the army was trained by the Japanese during World War II, and Ne Win, its commander (and military dictator, 1962-1988), was (and is) known to be an a social misfit and a near-psychopath. [12] Under Ne Win’s command, the fascistic, chauvinistic vision of nationhood became entrenched within the military.

Also as mentioned, owing to the outbreak of insurgencies at the onset of independence, the military (or the army) was at once brought to the forefront as defenders of the new state – the AFPFL state. This role garnered for the army and its top brass substantial power. Moreover, because the military’s political masters – the AFPFL leaders – were dependent on the army to fend off dangerous challengers, particularly the Burman communists and allies, it also gained, in addition to greater power, greater autonomy as well. In other words, the military before long became a power unto itself.

In a conflict situation where the military could, as it were, write its own ticket, and came to see itself as the vanguard-defender of the nation, it took on the task of nation-building according to its notion of nationhood.

It can be said that what was of utmost concern to the military as self-acclaimed “nation-builders” was Chapter X of the 1947 Constitution. This provision granted Shan State the the right of secession after 10 years of union.  The military therefore set out to pre-empt the Shans from exercising  their right of secession. This it did by sowing terror to subjugate and cow the populace on the one hand, and on the other hand, it formented opposition in Shan State to the Shan princes (chaofas), who the military accused of hatching plots to dismember the Union, i.e., taking Shan State out of the Union.  Everywhere the military went in the Shan country, it impressed on the population its brutal power – beating, killing, pillaging, raping at will. [13]  And as 1958 drew nearer, it resorted to beating and torturing heads of villages, accusing them of hiding arms in preparation for an armed rebellion. Also, elsewhere in other non-Burman areas, the military set out to terrorize the local populace in order to make it clear to them who were superior, who were the master, who “owned” the country – i.e., conceptually, the Burman, but actually, Burmans in military uniform.

Thus, the military’s nation-building efforts created a situation where the non-Burman segments of the population was alienated by military actions from the state. The state came to be perceived by the ethnic non-Burmans as alien to society and harmful to its welfare. The situation of “lack of fit” between the state and the ethnic non-Burman segments, and the policy of terror (systemic atrocities) naturally provided ethnonationalist elements in the non-Burman states and areas with fertile ground to recruit followers for their resistance armies.   

The military’s nation-building formula and the brutal methods it employed in this regard, rather than promote a sense of nationhood among diverse ethnic groups, created a situation of vertical conflict – or dysfunction --  between the state and the ethnic non-Burman segments, which constituted a significant part of broader society.

To compound the problem of state-society dysfunction, the military seized of power in 1962. The coup-makers justified their seizure of power , followed three months later by the massacre of university students in Rangoon, on July 7th, alienated the Burman population segment from the new military regime. Further imposition by the military and its regime of repressive control in all spheres of human activities and the closing of all exchange mechanism or communication channels between the state and broader society, and the military’s monopolization of power, turned the Burman populace against the military and the “socialist” state, monopolized by the military.

The problem of state-society dysfunction was further exacerbated in 1988 when the military staged a bloody comeback following the collapse of Ne Win’s military  dictatorship, i.e.,  the military-socialist BSPP (Burmese Socialist Program Party) regime. [14]

The Politics of National Reconciliation   

State-society relation in Burma has since 1962 been dysfunctional – dysfunctional because the relation is in a one-way direction, from military power-holders monopolizing the power structures of the state at the top, to broader society below. The state is not responsive to the interest, needs, and preference of societal elements and forces. It is responsive only to the interest, preference, and needs of the armed, uniform elements within the state.  In other words, we have a situation where the state is “separated” and politically insulated and isolated from society – to both the Burman and ethnic non-Burman segments. Or in other words, the state in Burma cannot be considered as being part of society, conceptually speaking,.

The consequence of state-society dysfunction is, as the past thirty and more years have shown, economic decay, the atrophy of all political institutions, the corruption of the military, the paralysis of the state (or, importantly, its problem-solving capability), the breakdown of all service infrastructures and systems, greater impoverishment, and so on. And in the face of societal demands for political space and autonomy, and the military’s resistance, and further repression, the result is a political deadlock.  In the meantime, problems that could have been resolved are exacerbated through the incapacity of neglect of the highly autonomous or unresponsive state, and they are becoming almost un-resolvable.

The pressing need today in Burma is resolve the state-society dysfunction problem.  The state and broader society together form a single national entity, i.e., a country, a nation, a nation-state. As such, the task of re-integrating the state with society, so that the state serves society and reflects the interests and preference of society and forces within it, constitutes a major task of any national reconciliation agenda.

Re-integrating state and society is much easier said than done especially where it concerns Burma, owing to the history of repressive violence visited upon the people, especially in the ethnic non-Burman home territories by the military. One unfortunate result of this is that military personnel are perceived by the victimized ethnic non-Burmese populace as Burmans, i.e., “Burman” first, “soldier” second.. As in all war situation, where there is armed combat – a zero-sum situation – it is inevitable that the enemy will be identified by their ethnic labels.

The ethnic dimension of state-society dysfunction has therefore two facets. One is political, and the other is perception which is ethno-nationalistic, as mentioned above. The political facet concerns the constitutional problem that hinges on the question of how is the relation between the constituent units to be ordered, namely, whether Burma should be a unitary or federal.


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