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Burma's exiled ethnic nationalities seminar held in North America

The Politics of Recognition: Burma
 
Hre Mang
 
Abstract: This article focuses on the identity politics that demands mutual recognition and respect in Burma, between the Burman majority and the non-Burman ethnic groups, among the institutions such  as the military and the non-military institutions, and equal liberty and equal distribution of resources and opportunity. Laying at the bottom of the Burmese political crisis, until and unless all  mutually  recognize and respect  each other’s identity, the identity politics will always drag Burma's political process down, unable to reach the mutual instrumental end goal of the citizens. In Burma , the name of the country itself creates an arguable identity politics, subjugating the identities of the rest of the non-Burman ethnic groups under the banner of the ethnic name “ Burma ,” while “ Myanmar ” offers no alternative solution.
 
Some scholars, politicians, and writers considered Burma 's political crisis as constitutional, while others wholly blamed on the military dictators. When tracing the history of the Burmese people’s political psyche and social behaviors, the root cause of the political crisis laid far behind the superficial political interaction and the social contract between the military and the general public and between the military leadership and the non-Burman ethnic groups. The politics of mutual recognition, misrecognition, and identity politics reveal the in-depth nature of Burma 's political crisis, underlining the ideological and behavioral foundations of the driving factors for the long and lasting nature of political conflicts.   
 
Since time immemorial, the Burmese political leaders have violated the laws of the Buddhist god and of nature, and after independence and the establishment of the Union of Burma, the laws of the Union and the general fundamental principles of the social contract for the peaceful co-existence had been nullified and subjugated several times. If Burma 's political crisis were a mere constitutional, the problem would have been solved several times. None of the past Burma 's constitution ever allowed rape, forced labor, or any type of human rights abuse, although it opened the chances of the dictators to practice their tyrannical rules. Day to day practices of the military leaders and army personnel reflect the long standing social political behaviors of the Burmese civilization. Even during the short rule of the democratic government since independence, the Prime Minister U Nu once announced Buddhism as the only national religion which caused remarkable political setback in the modern Burma 's history. U Nu kept the non-Burma ethnics under the absolute control of the central government with the banner of democracy, where the non-Burman ethnic identities were subjugated, ignoring and marginalizing the reality of the non-Burman ethnic identities with their racial, social and cultural heritages. In reality, the components of the non-Burman ethnics’ ethnicities were misrecognized and subjugated. Therefore, under the rule of Rangoon government, every non-Burman individual has to live and survive as a second class citizen. It was not a constitutional problem but ideological discrepancy, addicted and fixed into the minds of the dictators, descended down from the ancient Bama nationalism, the political aspiration to expand the rule and influence of the Bama kingdom. This is the problem until today. In other word, the Burmanization ideology, which is deeply rooted in the political psyche of the Burman leaders, has necessitated the maintenance of a coercive force against the non-Burman ethnics. Moreover, the Bama traditional political school of thoughts had been influenced by patriarchal and warrior type of heroism that the Bama kings, unlike many ancient kings,  were warriors and fighters that the people’s submission to the king was always more coercive than a willful submission based on a consensual social contract in exchange of mutual recognition and respect. Meanwhile, the Burmese society, with its traditional hierarchical social order, still stays untouched by the 18th and 19th century enlightenments and the modern philosophy of societal leadership that left the society with a rude and tyranical rule of the regime.
 
The name of the country, “ Burma ” or “ Myanmar ” itself is exclusive term for the “Buma” ethnics, that lulls many politicians and activists and misguided many Burman politicians and thinkers that the non-Bama citizens are required to share the Bama nationality’s exclusive identity under the “Burmese” citizenship. In reality, after 50 years of a deadly struggle, even the Karen ethnic stronghold bogged down to consensually join the Union of Burma if there will be a mutual recognition and respect for ethnics identity and gidnity. Indeed, the political process turned in favor of the majority Bama identity as the name of the country bears the Bama exclusive term. After more than the 17 ethnic insurgency groups’ negotiation with the Rangoon government, the real color of the dictators became more apparent that even when the existence of the non-Burman ethnic insurgency is no longer a threat to the peace and stability of the country, the military dictators keep playing the political game to keep control of the central political power. This is an obvious political strategy of the military dictators, to partially recognize the non-Burman ethnic groups’ claimed identities and to persuade them to join with the Burma political process in which the military handles the determinant keys, while marginalizing the forces of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democratic dissidents. Nevertheless, this is a historical landmark from which the military leaders gain unearned political credits that none of the non-Burman ethnics dissidents struggle for independent nation any longer but humble themselves to be ignored in the face of the universe as an independent nation but to share the “Bama” identity in the international political phenomenon. Therefore, based on the politics of identity, the majority Burman politically gain over the identities of the non-Burman ethnic groups that the non-Burman ethnic identities are subjugated under the Bama ethnics identity. That is the Bama identity politics the military dictators have been rudely playing, overriding the truth about the existence of multi-nationalities as the foundation of the union country. Thus, as a result of the non-Burman ethnics identity subjugation, the politics of equal recognition for identity and respect for ethnic dignity will always criple the political process of the nation.
 
Due to of the implementation of the greater Burman dominion politics, under the Rangoon government, the non-Burman ethnics have been kept under control without opportunity to preserve and develop their own ethnic identities: teaching non-burman ethnic languages in schools are prohibited, social cultural development have been limited, no non-Burman national history is taught in public schools, no non-Burman ethnic tradition and cultures are officiated publicly, to name a few subjugation programs enacted by the military dictators. In other words, the Burmese political leaders misrecognized the natural components of the existence of the non-Burman ethnic identities, ignoring the reality of the multicultural co-existence as the basic foundation of the modern Burma . The Burmese leaders’ misrecognition of the non-Burman ethnicity involved misdistribution that seriously hurts the relationship between the Burmans and the non-Burman citizens.  For the non-Burman ethnic individuals, there is almost no chance to get higher official job positions such as in the cabinet level official positions, as diplomat in foreign country, etc. The civil service and public sector top official positions are always occupied by the Burman ethnics. Not only that even in the private sector, the non-Burman ethnic individuals have much less chance to access the publicly available opportunity unless any particular individual is assimilated into the Burman way of life or associated with the top Burman officials. The discrimination against the non-Burman ethnic groups in Burma is deeply rooted and affected in every function of the society. As a result, the non-Burman ethnic groups had to live as second class citizens, longing for the survival and equal recognition of their own identities and equal distribution of recourse and opportunity. Therefore, if the politics of recognition is rightly understood, the complexity and nature of Burma 's political crisis would be much easier to analyze and find ways for collective solution. In other words, the long lasting Burmese political problem is not the issue of just the superficial political interaction and social contract, but the identity politics or the politics of recognition, deeply rooted in the permanent behaviors and political psyche of the Burmese leaders.
 
Since before the WW II, the wars between kings and kings were ended. When the modern nation state came to replace the rule of monarchism, the world political movement had focused on competition among modern nation states. By the end of the WW II, the decolonization and democratic boom occupied the world political phenomenon followed by the cold war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union . The cold war represented the world’s political ideological conflicts between the democratic liberalism and communism. After the retreat of communism by its own internal collapse, the world's activists, thinkers and scholars, and politicians tend to focus on the individual civil rights, indigenous rights, human rights etc. However, the products of these quests for human common satisfaction proved that the politics of recognition laid the foundation of human struggles and conflicts of interests. In the post modern world society, the politics of recognition becomes more important and obvious as the advanced technology allows the fast and timely exchange of information and business transactions: the issues of the misrecognized people and diminishing identities become more apparent. And now, what the past tyrannical rule of the monarchs and authoritarians bypassed reoccurred as the quest for recognition of the natural components of national identity and their appropriate place in the society. “Who you are,” “how people recognize you,” become the driving factors of the common questions of the current world political movement. The politics of recognition has three main layers: individual, group, and national.       
 
The “politics of identity” laid at the foundation of the “politics of recognition.” The politics of identity, based on survival politics, tries to identify a person with her own intrinsic and social cultural components of life, such as race, color, belief system, language, sexual behavior, etc. whatever attached to her own existence as a human being, demanding an appropriate place and accommodation in the society with equal distribution of public resources and opportunity. When individuals' autonomy is misrecognized, individual citizens feel being oppressed and the pressure of coercive force of the ruling class. The western individualistic society, although, tends to be recognizing the individual autonomy by granting individual freedom with the least interference from the government, the politics of identity still raises the question of equal distribution. Especially when contradicting interests and opinions occur while the available means to meet the conflicting expectations is limited, there is always someone with dissatisfaction and sense of misrecognition, resulting self withdrawal from civic engagement or further struggle to be recognized and have equal access to the means of the society.
 
Although, the level of the struggle for individual autonomy differed based on the general norms or hierarchical order of the society, when the individual autonomy is misrecognized, it creates the unending struggle for individual autonomy and social esteem. Within the Burmese societal context, individual’s life satisfaction is based on how he or she is recognized by the society that shapes her social image and self esteem. Historically, a normal citizen has almost no voice regarding how the public resources are distributed to each individual in the society. During the rule of the Bama king, the public administration and distribution had been top down that a normal citizen is to humble herself under the rule and distribution of the king. The society had been patriarchal and the political ideology authoritarian ever. General Aung San, the leader of Burma independent movement was the leader of the 30 comrades who went to Japan for military training. Following the traditional school of thoughts, the political mindsets of the Burmese military leaders has been authoritarian and tyrannical that according to the military mindsets the place of individual citizen in the nation’s political administration is determined by her military contribution in defense of the nation. Democratic decision making process by equal contribution of the citizens had been lacking in the minds and practices of the military leaders, and traditionally, assuming the military body is commonly accepted and recognized by the people as the highest ranking national institution in the country. In other word, in the minds of the military leaders, the political identity of the military in Burma 's history has been legitimate and paramount within the Burmese political and societal context, without which the nation would have been remained under the control of the foreign power or disintegrated into several fragments. In such a way, the military leaders both individually as well as an institutionally gratified their social and political aspiration, illusively projecting the military identity about all other national institutions, and the “Burman ethnic identity” about all the non-Burman ethnic identities.
 
However, out of no alternative option, the recent changes of the military dictators’ foreign and economic policy create a paradoxical confusion for the military leaders.  That is the politics of recognition: how the regime government is recognized or misrecognized by the Asian neighboring countries and the international communities. Unfortunately, the Burmese military regime gains the international recognition more than it deserves: no nation or international community refuses the regime’s representative as the official representative of the people of Burma , although the people of Burma obviously and internationally denounced the regime government in the 1990 general election.  Compared to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan , which had been recognized by only three foreign nations, when the US invaded in 2002, the Burmese regime has almost nothing to worry about the international communities’ misrecognition. For the Burmese military dictators, the westerners’ criticism, economic sanction, complaint over human rights abuses, are nothing more than a "lovely father’s discipline to his beloved children." The military leaders fear only a balanced force. Restoring the military institution’s historical identity at the top of the nation’s public square, the dictators will always defend the status quo of the military identity even with the expenses of the lives of millions of the people of Burma and the dignity of the people and the land.
 
What is lacking in Burma is not a legal institution or constitutional governance but mutual recognition of identity whether it be ethnic based or otherwise that entails civic inequality, unequal liberty and opportunity. Although the Burmese dictators’ burmanization policy has been partially successful, from the aspect of the dictator’s political programs of the elimination of the non-Burman ethnic identity, the consequential political problem will not end until the non-Burman ethnics are recognized as they are endowed by nature. Before, the British colonization, most of the current non-Burman ethnics of Burma had never been under the rule of the Bama kings, having their own ethnic identities as unique peoples. Under the rule of the Burmese dictatorship, the non-Burman ethnics experienced misrecognition of their own reality of nationalities, not able to keep their own ethnic identities with their rich social cultural heritages.  Lamentably, now, none of the non-Burman ethnic group claims what the Panglong agreement entitled to them, the right of secession, a complete separation, but agree to join the Union of Burma if mutual recognition is restored at both national and individual level under the rule of a democratic government, disqualifying the claim of the military dictators to justify its conntrol of the central political power by blaming the existence of the ethnic insurgency as a threat to disintegrate the union. What Burma now needs is not only the general legal frame to underline the basic social and legal contract of co-existence, but also mutual recognition and respect of multi-ethnic-identities that would guarantee both politically, socially and morally for the satisfaction of all ethnic groups for the survival and dignity of their identities.
 
There are certain problems with the politics of identities among the non-Burman ethnics and the dissidents who identified themselves as democrats and liberals against the tyrannical rule of the military regime. The military regime numbered 135 ethnic groups in Burma . In other words, there are 135 nationalities struggling for each of their own respective identity's survival that, according to the regime, the country cannot be divided into 135 separate nations. Although the military’s claims are not politically correct, there is some level of reality within the complex ethnic settings of the non-Burman ethnic groups. For example, within the Shan state, there are some who do not identify themselves as Shan, such as Wa, Pa O, Palaung, etc. Likewise, within the current Kachin state, there are Lishu, Rawong, etc. and within Chin state, Kukis, Zomis, Laimis, etc. The military regime appeared to rightly understand the politics of identity for its own political advantage which it plays more tactful than how the dissidents do. Not only that the Burmese regime also skillfully played the politics of religious identity among the Karen dissidents that broke up the opposition stronghold, the KNU. Offering self-administered zone for the misrecognized and smaller ethnic groups is also the tactic of the regime government’s identity politics that offered an independent ethnic image where the members illusively would feel more convenience than being identified themselves among the larger or the major ethnic groups. Therefore, the non-Burman ethnics, while struggling for their ethnic identity survival, should better be aware of the politics of identity among themselves, for neglecting this would return unexpected political consequence which will unnecessarily advance the political role of the military.
 
Among the Burmese democratic dissidents, the problem with identity politics is individual and ideological rather than ethnic based. After the 1988 national wide democratic uprising and after the military regime's rejection of the result of the 1990 national election, every dissident identified himself or herself with the pro-democratic force, associating one party or organization to claim the moral or political correctness of  the dissident’s stance and to fight against the ruling regime. It became apparent that the mutual recognition and respect had been lacking among most of (if not all) Burmese citizens whether an individual is identified with the military regime or the dissidents, although the level of the negative political consequence of misrecognition, of course, is not the same. The remarkable thing was the exclusion of the ethnic insurgents in the formation of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), established by the 1990 MP-elects which General Bo Mya, the longtime leader of the Karen National Union, regrettably revealed just before he went to Rangoon to talk with the Rangoon government for cease fire deal. Had the 1990 MP-elects united all opposition forces when they formed the coalition government, the process of Burma 's democratic movement would have reached much further. If the 1990 MP-elects and the prominent dissident leaders struggle just to maintain their own political identities of being political elites of the country, they would fall below their moral claim, when defending their identity requires overriding the fundamental principles of justice and democracy, drawing lines after lines among them. The political fragmentation among the dissidents into multi-organizations is one negative consequence of the politics of misrecognition. Out of such misrecognition by both the regime and the dissidents, the political aspiration of the non-Burman ethnic groups necessitated the formation of their own political alliances, such as the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), National Democratic Front (NDF), etc. where the non-Burman ethnic leaders feel more convenient to express themselves, projecting their own identities and political images. Although, no war has been declared between the Burman dissidents and the non-Bruman ethnics, there has been a constant relationship gap between them due to misrecognition of identities and unequal distribution of resources and opportunities.
 
The identity politics or politics of identity has both negative and positive impacts. The people who have been misrecognized feel more convenient and better self image when they identified themselves with their own race, ethnics, social or political groups and feel comfortable to express themselves socially or politically. On the other hand, when the role of identity overrides the role of justice and the basic fundamental principles of democratic and liberal values, it returns unexpected and unwanted social and political consequences. This kind of problem is common among multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies. This is also true to individual level when a person’s claim for individual identity and autonomous overrides the basic principles of democracy and liberal values and the role of justice and fairness, the social and political force is diverted and usually fragmented. Within the context of the Burmese dissidents' community, this usually is the major weakness that has been occurring among almost all groups and organizations that fragmented the opposition force. Moreover, the worst thing is when the identity politics turns to hatred politics that kills the moral quality of the political principles it upheld. The identity politics demands mutual recognition and respect, equal liberty, equal distribution of resources and opportunity that are for the good of all concerned individuals under peaceful co-existence, presumably guaranteed by democratic principles.  Contrarily, the hatred politics is non-negotiation, non-co-existence and total elimination of the opponents. This is also one of the biggest problems of many Burmese dissidents, which dragged them down to self contradictory and un-winnable battle ground: while practicing a non-violent political passive resistance, one cannot practice a hatred politics, because both demand two opposite results out of the movement. Unfortunately, this has been caused by the long time Burmese people’s political psyche and the four decades rule of the authoritarian dictators where people lacked the general common sense to place one’s identity appropriately in a peaceful society, without interfering the autonomies and identities of the other individuals of the society and without being filled with fear psyche and incorrect-self-esteem.
 
Rethinking the multi-nationals existence of the country, all Burmese political activists, politicians, thinkers, intellectuals, scholars, writers, students, military personnel, and all citizens have to understand the politics of identity that demands mutual recognition and respect for ethnic identity and dignity, equal liberty, equal distribution of resources and opportunity. As an essential institution, the military should have its own identity and role in the country as much as other essential national institutions would have recognition and respect. The existence of multi-nationalities must be wholly recognized and no-ethnic group must be subjugated to serve the identity of any other ethnics. In other words, there must be a mutual recognition and respect among multi-ethnic groups of Burma with equal liberty and equal distribution of resources and opportunity that would enhance the peaceful co-existence of all nationalities in the union that will eventually bring back once the beautiful and glorious name of the people and the land, the “Union of Burma.”
 
(Hre Mang: December 2004)
 
The views express here are solely the opinion of the author. (Kao Wao’s Editor)

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