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Beyond Racial Politics in Burma

Wagaru Mon

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Racial politics have been rooted within Burma’s political sentiment for over two centuries. This new era of democratization has entered a phase of change within the country’s social and political movements. A diverse ethnic population of over 50 million people are shaping their future with the support of Western-led democratic institutions for the cause of a brave new Burma. In December of this past year, Time Magazine displayed news from Burma in an article titled, “Brave New Burma.” This sentiment of a ‘Brave New Burma’ came alive when leaders of the new generation moved the mindset beyond racial politics.

This is a bold call for a real change. Racial politics is not only a tool for the revolutionary spirit of the anti-British forces within Burma’s new ruling elites, but also current ethnic political and armed forces in the last sixty years. It is also a highly complex subject to be discussed among Burma’s diverse political leaders based on the historical context of the past, as well as the current thread of political motivations among them. However, the subject will never disappear among scholars and Burma’s prominent writers who look to the bottom of the crisis, not only the surface where current issues between the President Thein Sein’s administration and pro-Aung San Suu Kyi’s force for democratic change, under the leadership of the National League for Democracy, lie.

Burmese / Mon prominent writers and scholars have been searching for a genuine partnership between those working at the grassroots level and those in the majority, as a means to have lasting peace and national reconciliation.

After 20 years of reading about political movements in my country, this subject must be addressed before it comes too little too late for the new generation of our time. We could escape further tensions on racial and cultural differences. History is the past, but the present is the history of the future. I am fighting for a different history for our shared future, with a sense of hope for genuine unity among all the races and ethnic groups in the country nicknamed the “Golden Land.”

A multicultural community has been living in the country for over 3,000 years. The name ‘Burma’ was given after the last ethnic war, during the last part of the 17th century, when the Burmese won against other local races such as the Mon, Ra Khine and Shan. The 50 million-plus current citizens in Burma are culturally diverse, politically unique and spiritually aligned to one another.

Racial politics are being played among all rivals, both old and new political leaders of the armed and political conflicts over the past 60 years. It is a winning card for some, and for others a losing game. The language of “unity” is widely used by the politicians of our time, but the fundamentals of unity have not reached the mindset of the ruling elite. A leading voice of the democratic front, Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to be the face of aspiration in politics, avoided playing the racial card in a game that has maintained her status-quo as an icon of democracy and leader of the people. Her now iconic face is seen posted on every street corner.

However, racial politics among other parties, including former military-affiliated party USDP, remain unchanged. Their own political ideology of ‘Burmisation’ has been indicated as the ultimate goal of the party under the banner of a “flourishing and disciplined” democracy for the country. In the context of “[a] turning point, change in the air and flicker of changes,” the new generation of leadership among the Aung San Suu Kyi led NLD, and other ethnic leaders have a daunting challenge with the cunning politics of the old military-affiliated members of the current cabinet and parliament. Those are the people who are in favor of Burmanisation dominating within the parliamentary system.

Racial politics, as a short-term goal, is the last survival card for new politicians in Burma. Non-racial politics will be playing a critical role if Burma seeks a new market economy, free market liberation, and aligns itself with regional trends on financial and economic investments in the country. After 40 years of isolation from the industrialisation that Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have experienced, Burma has little room to play a racially political card if they intend to follow genuine democratic principles, like a free market and economic liberation, with the new agenda reform.

According to the recently released essay of Nai Hong Sa, General Secretary of the New Mon State Party and spokesman for United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), the effort for pro-unity leaders among Burmese and non-Burmese races has been in crafting military policy initiatives over the past 20 years, despite being ignored by current and past military ruling elite. This month he has released his latest political essay and vision for peace and unity among all races in Burma in a 122 page document. Nai Hong Sa, the longest serving political leader among the Mon people and prominent activist among Burma’s 17 armed ethnic and political leaders, has analyzed the root causes of the crisis over the past 60 years.

For breaking the political deadlock in the country, he urged the current ruling military elites and the new Parliament to convene a national unity convention under the chairmanship of the current President, if the country seeks a real and lasting unity and peace. He also urged that freedom of speech be granted throughout the convention so that the public might be made aware of national affairs. The 17 essays written by Nai Hong Sa are not widely read among Western researchers due to the language barrier, but the booklet is read among Burma’s politicians, including government officials.

The exit strategy for reform can be reached between the currently ruling military elite and the members of the cabinet only if the new leadership of Burma’s races reaches beyond racial and political issues to become centered on national unity and national interests. Efforts for this purpose have already been made by Burma’s living political veteran Tha.Khin Thein Pe, who held a unity seminar for Burmese and non-Burmese leaders in his home on 20 November 2010. Burma’s major ethnic leaders also issued a common statement for seeking ‘unity’ between current military elites and non-Burmese ethnic leaders on 24 October 2010 at Ka Lay Town. The best hope came when Aung San Suu Kyi, the mother of “Burmese Democracy,” the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, General Aung San, also publicly called for ‘unity’ beyond race on 14 November 2010, and to act as mediator for the peace process and unity conference. To serve this unity purpose, armed forces of ethnic nationalities led by Karen, Mon and Kachin leaders formed a ‘Committee for emergence of Federal Union (CEFU) on 4 November 2010. Likewise, the founding father of New Burma, General Aung San addressed the unity congress six days before his assassination on 13 July 1947 (He was assassinated on 19 July 1947 during a cabinet meeting in Rangoon), stating that if unity could not be reached, no matter who rules the country, it will be like a ‘prostitute.

The lesson must be learned by 2012, after 60 years of armed conflicts that have killed and tortured countless numbers of men and women from all sides of politics and race. My own assertion is that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party could hold a few seats in the up-coming election. New MPs and other MPs from non-USDP (not affiliated with the military ruling elites) could form a coalition of opposition in the parliament while pressing the President to call on a ‘National Unity Conference’ as an urgent matter for the nation.

Playing the racial card in politics may serve short term political goals, but the new world is moving beyond borders, beyond race and beyond social and cultural traditions. On that note, Mon people occupying a small area of land on the world map will be lost to the world if Mon leaders capture the current trend of the world’s political movements without preserving a strong identity. Mon Historian, Rev Palita, published his 66 page account of the massacres and losses within the Mon nation since 1975. He argued for Mons to find peace with the courage of unity while maintaining a Mon sense of identity and pride. He urged for this to be done in balance, seeking peace and unity among other races. 

A mistrust among Burma’s races over the past two centuries; the painful experiences of the past hundred years of suffering over wars and racial conflicts among the humans of the Golden Land; and the present trauma and hardships of trying to live with dignity and humanity: my homeland, with it’s rich resources and beauty, shall give birth to ‘unity’ again. We shall be unified under a shared purpose for social, cultural and political pluralism among our generation and those to come.

This “Brave New Burma” will be tested in the next two to three years, to see whether the road to peace and recovery is reached inside my country. 

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