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Burma: In Search of a Solution For All

Nai Ong Mon

Dedicated to the Mon people, my people, who have suffered so much for almost half a century under the military dictatorship in Burma

Take up the White Man’s burden-

Send forth the best ye breed-

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild-

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child….

-Rudyard Kipling

When Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden was published in 1899, it triggered in America, as well as in Britain, a colorful debate on the moral values of racial supremacy, imperialism, and militarism (Zwick, 2006). Many saw Kipling as a hero with a noble enterprise of civilizing the uncivilized. They commended his values, defended racial supremacy, imperialism, and militarism, and supported his call to colonize other countries. Some saw Kipling as a deceptive poet with the evil ambition of subjugating other people. They opposed his values and condemned his call.

The concept of the white man’s burden has raised several questions about Kipling’s moral values. Many ask whence Kipling got his right to claim the white race had the burden of other races. Others reason that Kipling’s values were morally wrong because of his self-given right to carry out his self-proclaimed burden based on his racial supremacy belief. Critics argue that the real motive behind the white man’s burden was to satisfy greed and justify imperialism. Consequently, Kipling’s values have destroyed many ancient cultures.

When Ne Win, Burma’s former dictator, staged a coup, overthrew the government, and abolished its democratic constitution in 1962, he shared some of Kipling’s values. In his radio announcement to the nation in the morning of March 2, Ne Win said:

I have to inform you, citizens of the Union, that the armed forces have taken over responsibility and the task of keeping the country’s safety, owing to the greatly deteriorating conditions of the Union (Lintner, 1994, p. 169).

With this announcement, Ne Win invaded the autonomous territories of some non-Burman nationalities. Many Burman then saw Ne Win as a hero and supported him. Some privately praised him as the fifth builder of the Burman empire. A number of Rangoon University students protesting against the coup were gunned down and the historic student union building dynamited. Ne Win seized power without much struggle.

Although the Burman have been silent on the moral values of Ne Win’s coup, the non-Burman still ask whence Ne Win got his right to abolish Burma’s democratic constitution and invade their territories. They assert that Ne Win’s values were, similar to Kipling’s, morally wrong because of his self-proclaimed right to carry out his self-given task based on his militarist belief. Many point out that Ne Win’s real motive was to satisfy his greed for power and justify his invasion of the non-Burman’s territories. Imposing his militarist belief on the country, Ne Win has destroyed many non-Burman cultures.

As a result, ethnic nationalities such as the Chin, Kachin, Karenni, and Shan lost the right to establish their own country, a right that was guaranteed in a democratic constitution known as the 1947 constitution. Section 201 of this constitution states:

Save as otherwise expressly provided in this Constitution or in any Act of Parliament made under section 199, every State shall have the right to secede from the Union in accordance with the conditions hereinafter prescribed.

Ne Win, the military, and successive Burman-dominated governments have never honored this section.

Only four years prior to staging a coup, Ne Win believed in a totally different responsibility for himself and the military. The government in 1958 chose Ne Win, a commander in chief then, to lead a provisional government known as the Caretaker Government. According to Josef Silverstein (1980), Ne Win, then standing before the Parliament and seeking approval for his premiership, solemnly said:

I wish deeply that all Members of Parliament would hold as much belief in the Constitution and in democracy as I do. I wish deeply that all Members of Parliament would sacrifice their lives to defend the Constitution as I would do in my capacity as Prime Minister, as a citizen and as a soldier (p. 230).

Ne Win never mentioned these words during his twenty-six years of repressive rule. He totally diverged from his commitment when he staged a coup, abolished the constitution, implemented a unitary system, and transformed a once-democratic Burma into a dictatorship.

Although Burma’s diverse nationalities sacrificed their lives during Burma’s struggle for independence against the British and Japanese, after independence the Arakanese, Karen, Mon, and some other non-Burman were denied the right to rule their own people. In the aftermath of Ne Win’s coup, all non-Burman were further denied the right to exist as a people and protect their cultures, languages, customs, and ethnic identities. Teaching ethnic languages was prohibited and publishing in ethnic languages banned. Many ethnic leaders were arrested and detained. Some were killed, while others disappeared never to be seen again. Local hereditary administrations were destroyed and ethnic territories devastated.

The Burman troops have remained in the non-Burman territories as they have been transformed from invading to occupying troops. The non-Burman see these Burman troops as a foreign occupying force destroying their land and culture and imposing Burman imperialism.

During my exiled years along the Thailand-Burma border, in Bangkok, and later in the United States, I met a number of Burman and non-Burman activists, including political leaders, guerrilla soldiers, doctors, student leaders, elected MPs, former government officials, and respected monks. In several formal and informal conferences on Burma’s affairs, I occasionally had the opportunities to ask many Burman questions from a non-Burman perspective. When asked whether the non-Burman nationalities had the right to establish their own country, all insisted that the non-Burman had no right to do so. Most said that they would fight by all means to keep the non-Burman in the union. When further asked whence the Burman got their right to prevent the non-Burman from choosing their political destiny, most shrugged and remained silent. Some thought it was a meaningless question. In regard to the 1947 constitution, all expressed different negative views; the vast majority reasoned that this constitution was established a long time ago, so it should be nullified. Some argued that it was drafted under British influence. Thus, it did not represent the true will of the people. Others simply wanted to forget the past, work on the present, and plan for the future. A few even went as far as complaining that the non-Burman wanted to honor the 1947 constitution because they were narrow-minded separatists.

In contrast, the non-Burman held different views. When asked whether the Burman had the right to determine the political destiny of the non-Burman, all said that the Burman had no right to do so. In regard to whether the Burman had the right to secede from the union and found their own country, most agreed that the Burman had the right to do so. Some even said that they would be happy to help if the Burman wanted to secede from the union and found their own country. When the validity of the 1947 constitution was raised, all asserted that it was still valid because Ne Win had no right to abolish a constitution that their and the Burman’s founding fathers had established. Ne Win’s coup was illegal, and so was his abolition of the constitution. What Silverstein observed over two decades ago remains true today:

Those who fought on do so not because their memory is faulty or their aspirations are at variance with what they remember being promised but because they believe the agreements they or their fathers entered into with the Burmans in 1947 are still valid (p. 5).

It is evident that the conflicts in Burma are not only the struggle for democracy against dictatorship but also the struggle for self-determination-administrative, legislative, and judicial rights-and the cultural survival of the non-Burman against Burman domination. Immediately after Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948, the conflicts between the Burman and non-Burman began. These unsolved conflicts compounded with economic and political mismanagement led to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, in which thousands of peaceful demonstrators were massacred (Lintner, 1989; Smith, 1993).

In retrospect, a significant lesson learned from Burma’s struggle for independence is that Aung San, a Burman national hero and the father of today’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was the only Burman leader said to win the hearts and minds of Burma’s diverse nationalities. Aung San won their hearts and minds because he realized and recognized that not only the Burman but also other nationalities were entitled to the right of self-determination. Building unity with the Chin, Kachin, Kareni, and Shan (known then as the Frontier Areas’ people), Aung San said:

The affairs of the Frontier Areas are the concern of the people of those areas. If they declare they want the same rights and privileges as ourselves, they will get them…. The Hill People would be allowed to administer their own areas in any way they please and the Burmese would not interfere in the [their?] internal administration (Silverstein, 1993, p. 10).

In regard to other nationalities’ rights, Aung San stated:

They must have their political, economic and social rights definitely defined and accorded…. They must have their own right of representation…. They must have equal opportunity in all spheres of the state (p. 10).

To prevent future ethnic conflicts, Aung San, his Burman colleagues, and some non-Burman leaders established a constitution that guaranteed every state the right to lawfully secede from the union. When these founding fathers were assassinated in 1947, their legacy died with them because no succeeding Burman leader has honored their legacy or the constitution.

After Aung San, U Nu, Burma's former prime minister, was said to try to rule the country by peaceful means, but he failed. Key reasons behind his failure include the bitter rivalries among the Burman parties, the military’s support of a certain party (Sein Win, 1959), and his government’s maneuver to dishonor the 1947 constitution. Taking advantage of political stagnation, Ne Win ousted U Nu in the 1962 coup and ruled by force. Many non-Burman still suspect that Ne Win’s coup was a political trick of the military and Burman leadership to dishonor the constitution as well as to conquer ethnic territories.

When Ne Win showed no intention of transferring power to a civilian government, U Nu secretly planned to oust him by force. U Nu left Burma in 1969 and sought support from the non-Burman parties fighting against Ne Win along the Thailand-Burma border. Although U Nu arrived as a Burman and former enemy, these non-Burman parties welcomed and supported him, expecting to fight together against a common enemy (Smith, 1993). After a few years, U Nu failed again. He failed again because of rivalries among his troops and because of his denial of ethnic nationalities’ rights. U Nu finally returned to Burma during the 1980 amnesty. He passed away in 1995.

On the other hand, having ruled Burma by force for over 26 years, Ne Win finally failed in 1988. He failed because his military government not only mismanaged the economy but also waged a never-ending civil war against diverse ethnic nationalities. Most notably, Ne Win failed because he abandoned the founding fathers’ visions, abolished the 1947 constitution, implemented a unitary constitution, and denied the ethnic nationalities’ rights. While living under house arrest, Ne Win died quietly in 2002.

All former Burman leaders in the post-independence era have failed. From U Nu to Ne Win to several well known communists or socialists leaders all have failed for the very same reason: They all abandoned the founding fathers’ visions and denied the ethnic nationalities’ rights, which had been guaranteed in the 1947 constitution. The lesson is clear: If Burma’s diverse ethnic nationalities are denied their rights, any future leader, Burman or non-Burman, will fail.

Scholars and analysts are puzzled that although dictators around the world have gradually collapsed or softened their rule, dictators in Burma have endured, one after another, for over four decades. As the military grows stronger, it is more puzzling that Burma's dictators, despite their decades of oppressive rule, seem infallible in the near future. An answer to the puzzle is that since Ne Win seized power over four decades ago, the dictatorship in Burma has been fueled not only by a leader or group of leaders but also by a concept and an attitude governing two intertwined groups: the military and the Burman.

For the military, a principal concept is that it is the sole protector and savior of the country, thus it deserves the right to lead and rule. The military has continually inflicted this sole savior concept on its troops through a popular slogan, “Only the military is mother. Only the military is father.” Also, the military’s deep-rooted distrust of the civilian government and general public compels its senior officers to unite and extend military control because they think it is the only way for them and the military to survive (Callahan, 2003; Steinberg, 2001). In a study of civil-military relations, Samuel Huntington (2003) demonstrates that in order to prevent military dictatorship as well as military interference in civilian governance, it is necessary to disengage the military from politics. In Burma, the military has engaged in politics for so long that it and politics have become one. Disengaging the military from politics remains a daunting task.

For the Burman, a common attitude is that they see themselves as traditional rulers and empire builders. Many Burman are still proud that their ancient kings defeated and conquered the Arakanese kingdom, Mon kingdom, and Thailand (Cady, 1958). They think other nationalities are inferior followers. Thus, the Burman believe they have the right and duty to rule other nationalities and lead the country.

The Burman’s sense of superiority is a main cause of disunity and distrust between the Burman and non-Burman. As a result, a necessary united force combining the Burman and non-Burman against the military is missing. The military realizes the nature of this disunity and distrust, and turns it to its own advantage by implementing a divide and rule strategy; the military rewards its supporters and punishes its opponents.

Further, the military has become the Burman military because “there is now no senior member of the Burmese military ruling elite who comes from a minority” (Steinberg, 2001, p. 73). When the military’s sole savior concept, the Burman’s sense of superiority, and a divide and rule strategy have converged in the Burman military, the consequences are what the people of Burma have faced for over four decades: Ethnic cleansing, turmoil, civil war, poverty, and seemingly infallible and exceptionally oppressive dictators.

A formidable obstacle to change is that Burma’s older generations and democratic-era people, who experienced a brief democracy in the 1950s, have aged and its younger generations and military-era people have for decades been isolated in a closed country constantly under military rule. Using isolation as a means to control the people, the military itself has been isolated. Its one blood, one voice, and one order disciplines as well as its personal worship, group loyalty, and blind faith doctrines provide a fertile ground to strengthen military rule. More challenging still, the vast majority of the military not only isolate themselves in greed and power but also lack experience in geopolitics and economics because they are neither politicians nor economists but isolationists, demonstration-breakers, and war-makers experienced in isolating themselves, breaking street demonstrations, and making war against ethnic nationalities. The prospect for a change for the better in the near future seems dim.

Since the military seized power in 1962, it has never seriously attempted to solve the ethnic conflicts. Instead, time and again, the military tries new tactics to prolong its rule. This time, the military uses a tactic called “the ceasefire agreement.” Tactics such as “exchanging weapons for democracy,” “peace talk,” and “amnesty” have already been used without much success.

In a short analysis, the ceasefire agreement has ceased only the firing between the military and the non-Burman parties. It has not ceased the struggle between them because a political dialogue is missing. In fact, the ceasefire agreement has temporarily halted firing in a sense only to prepare for severe firing in the near future; it is like the calm before the storm. The ceasefire agreement will not work. Past experience has proven that if the non-Burman are denied their rights, neither violent oppression nor peaceful maneuvers will solve the conflicts and bring about peace.

Having suffered so much for so long under military rule, some exiled Shan leaders declared Shan state independence on April 17, 2005. In return, a number of political parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, issued statements denouncing Shan state independence for various reasons. Some said that the international political situations did not favor Shan state independence, while others criticized that it would only prolong military rule because the military would not tolerate national disintegration. Many simply complained that it was not an effective way to solve the country’s problems. A few even argued that the Shan lacked the political mechanism of an independent state and were not ready to rule themselves. Remarkably, all failed to refer to the 1947 constitution that guaranteed the Shan the right to declare their independence. In fact, Shan state independence was long overdue because this constitution guaranteed the Shan the right to legally secede from Burma in 1958.

Neither the international political situation nor the military’s vow to prevent national disintegration nor other nationalities’ views can affect the Shan people’s right to determine their own political destiny. Only the Shan people have the right to decide their political future. The Shan were more than patient enough to have waited under unspeakable sufferings for almost half a century before declaring their independence.

Denouncing Shan state independence not only weakens the democracy movement but also strengthens the military dictatorship in several ways. Firstly, it ignores the sufferings of national ethnic people, damaging necessary support for the democracy movement. Secondly, the old mistake of supporting Ne Win’s coup to subjugate the non-Burman is not corrected but compounded with the same mistake of supporting the current military’s attempts to further oppress them. Thirdly, it recognizes the military’s self-proclaimed right to lead and rule. Finally, and most importantly, it provides a certain level of legitimacy that the current military needs.

In addition, by denouncing Shan state independence, the Burman have worsened the traditional mistrust between the Burman and non-Burman. It also confirms a non-Burman view that the Burman are untrustworthy. When Ne Win seized power, he chose to fight by force rather than by the rule of law, breaking the mutual trust between the Burman and non-Burman. When the Burman parties denounced Shan state independence, they unilaterally revoked the political treaties and obligations they or their founding fathers had signed with the Shan, again breaking that mutual trust. When mutual trust is repeatedly broken by the same party, the Burman, it is difficult to restore it. Even in a future democratic Burma, it will take decades, if not generations, to restore mutual trust between the Burman and non-Burman.

 Events around the world have shown that in plural societies political oppression is a main cause of instability and economic stagnation. Also, a study shows that unsolved ethnic conflicts are among the major challenges most third world countries have to overcome to efficiently employ available human and natural resources as well as to encourage foreign investment for development (Handelman, 2000). Burma will have to solve its decades-old ethnic conflicts before it can expect stability and progress.

Power sharing among different nationalities is a required component of a stable democracy in plural societies (Linder, 1994; Lijphart, 1977), while maintaining an effective system of checks and balances between state and federal governments is a major determinant of a healthy federal union (Janda, Berry, & Goldman, 2000). Obviously, in a stable Burma, democratic or federal, guaranteeing the self-determination rights of several non-Burman nationalities is inevitable.

Furthermore, national integration in Burma, where many ethnic groups, the non-Burman, refuse to accept the domination of a single ethnic group, the Burman, cannot be built by force or subjugation. Nor is integration built this way sustainable. More important, the founding fathers did not intend to build national integration by subjugating the non-Burman nationalities and oppressing the public. The secession right guaranteed in the 1947 constitution has proven that the founding fathers placed the right of each people to determine their political destiny above the task of building national integration. In fact, the founding fathers believed that national integration in Burma could not exist without guaranteeing each people their fundamental rights and that if each people were guaranteed their fundamental rights, national integration would be secured.

If the first step to a solution for all is to bring about democracy, guaranteeing self-determination rights to the non-Burman is a minimum requirement for a sustainable democracy. Otherwise, democracy may be attainable but certainly not maintainable with stability and progress still out of reach. As long as the non-Burman are denied their rights, their struggles will continue, and democracy alone is unlikely to provide a feasible solution.

Winning the hearts and minds of the people through compromise and concession is key to solving ethnic conflicts. The choice for all in Burma is clear: Recognize and respect the right of each people to pursue their political destiny under their chosen leadership. This is the best way for all to achieve unity, peace, and progress. This is also a vision and promise for which the founding fathers paid their lives.

The military and the Burman have yet to honor their founding fathers’ visions established in the 1947 constitution. In regard to honoring the founding fathers’ visions, a common question from the Burman to the non-Burman is: How far do you want to go back in history and what is your main purpose? A common answer from the non-Burman is: We want to go back in history to a point where we can find a solution for all, and our main purpose is to find a solution for all; we are also willing to move forward to the future to find a solution.

Learning from the past to prepare for the future, a possible solution for all lays in a constitution that guarantees self-determination rights of both the Burman and non-Burman. This solution can be achieved in two ways: by mutually amending the 1947 constitution to include the rights of the Arakanese, Karen, Mon, and other non-Burman who were not included originally or by drafting a new constitution.

In conclusion, mutually amending the 1947 constitution or drafting a future constitution that will guarantee all people their fundamental rights will not only fulfill the founding fathers’ visions but also solve the ethnic conflicts, bringing about democracy and peace and transforming Burma into a nation where every nationality can contribute and all can progress. Whether the military and the Burman want to go back to the past or move forward to the future to find a solution for all is not certain. However, it is certain that as long as Burma’s diverse ethnic nationalities are denied their self-determination rights, there will be neither democracy nor peace in Burma.

(About the Author: A US-trained chemical engineer, Nai Ong Mon was a Mon student activist during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Burma and is now exiled in the United States. Nai escaped to the Thailand-Burma border on September 18, 1988, the day the military staged a bloody coup. He obtained a BS in Chemical Engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His areas of study include American Government and Political Science.)


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