In Search of a Solution For All
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
Send forth the best ye
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild-
Your new-caught sullen
Half devil and half child….
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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