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Uniting Myanmar’s Ethnic Minorities: A Challenging but Still Hopeful Task

24 JULY 2023 | REPORTING ASEAN

Could federal democracy be taking root among the Bamar, the ethnic majority that has dominated politics in Myanmar since its independence?

On 1 June, the revolutionary forces of the north-west Sagaing Region, the heartland of the resistance to military rule by the Bamar majority, announced the establishment of a regional consultative council aimed at eliminating authoritarian systems, promoting self-determination and self-governance, and coordinating local organisations’ actions in line with the Federal Democracy Charter.

This charter reflects the commitment among a wide spectrum of groups opposed to Myanmar’s military regime to make the country a federal democracy in the future. For those in the Sagaing Forum, as the council is called, their ultimate goal is to make the Sagaing Region a unit in this federal union.

The forum was set up in online meetings held on 30-31 May, which came after multiple Zoom meetings led by Civil Disobedience Movement teachers, campaigners and local People’s Defence Forces.

At the May discussions were representatives of 30 armed groups and 173 resistance groups from Sagaing, along with 31 observers that included local administration units, CDM groups, and 28 township representatives. The National Unity Consultative Council, an advisory body to the parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed after the military coup of February 2021, took part as well.

Building a genuine federal democracy is a challenge for any society. But it is a particularly arduous task for the NUG given the complexity and nuance involved in managing relations among Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups.

The first main difficulty comes from history. The majority of the ethnic minorities in the country of over 55 million people have historically exercised autonomy– with some being de facto governments of their regions today – and were never under a single ruler.

In its post-colonial form, Myanmar, which became independent in 1948, was assembled by British over the course of three Anglo-Burmese Wars, from 1824 through 1885. Out of geographic convenience for its colonial rule, the British brought together 13 small, independent kingdoms and principalities that bordered  – and had a long history of conflict – with each other.

For example, Arakan was an independent kingdom, annexed by Myanmar King Bodawpaya only in 1797. The Shan were ruled by the British through traditional hereditary rulers called the Sawbwas, but their homeland was never a single entity. The Chin were governed by their own traditional chieftains under Britain’s Chin Hills Regulation of 1896, through which the British exercised indirect rule. The Kachin and Karen had similar arrangements.

DISTRUST, DIVERSITY, COMPLEXITY

The Bamar, who make up some 68 percent of the population, had limited engagement with ethnic minorities throughout the country’s history, except through war to gain their submission as tribute-paying vassals.

Thus, the average Myanmar citizen has very little in-depth knowledge about, and interaction with, realities of the other ethnic communities. This has translated into minimal trust and goodwill among the different peoples that make up this country.

The second difficulty lies in the cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity embedded within, as well as among, ethnic groups.

A hundred or more languages are spoken inside Myanmar, much like the Tower of Babel in biblical literature. The country is home to nearly 140 different ethnic groups.

Our lack of familiarity with the many languages in society – language is among the most important elements of cultural expression – has hindered our understanding of our own peoples’ cultures. 

Even within a single ethnic community, many distinct languages, as opposed to dialects, are spoken. For example, at least 11 languages are spoken among the Chin ethnic minority in north-western Myanmar.  The Chin have over 50 subtribes, speaking languages so different that interpreters are often required to fully comprehend what is being said even among the Chin themselves. The same applies to the Myanmar’s other ethnic groups.

The average Myanmar citizen has very little in-depth knowledge about, and interaction with, realities of the other ethnic communities. This has translated into minimal trust and goodwill among the different peoples that make up this country.

Despite their differences, these disparate ethnic groups and the Bamar united to fight against the Japanese during the Second World War. The Shan, Kachin, Chin and General Aung San, who was representing the Government of Burma, came together to sign the 1947 Panglong Agreement and agreed, in principle, to form the Union of Burma, the first post-colonial government. 

In hindsight, that was a great success, and one that can hopefully be repeated against the current military dictators. 

During the 75 years since Myanmar’s independence, all its disparate ethnic groups have, despite tensions and differences that are often described as irreconcilable, managed to interact with each other in the Union of Burma. 

While challenges continue after the coup, many ethnic groups have been collaborating with one another and supporting the NUG and its allies against the military, including the Karen and the Rohingya who did not sign the Panglong Agreement. Even the Arakan Army, described as having de facto control of western Rakhine state today, supports the resistance against Myanmar military rule. This collaboration should be considered a success in itself.

The third difficulty in the road to a federal democracy stems from the divide-and-rule tactics of Myanmar’s military dictators as well as other regional powers, including China.

Among Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups, many have formed their own armies or military wings. These ethnic armed organisations have their own unique, often conflicting, interests, sometimes finding commonality only in their distrust of, and hatred for, the central Bamar-led government. Alliances among these actors have shifted through the decades, often motivated by financial incentives and access to natural resources.

Over time, the military’s strategies have exacerbated these divisions. While it has long promoted itself as the unifier of Myanmar, the military actually does so by keeping the country’s ethnic groups split in order to maintain its power base. 

Neighbouring countries like China have backed various groups to help secure its access to minerals or energy resources in Myanmar, by seemingly keeping the country’s military in check. 

Finally, the existence of sub-ethnic groups within each ethnic minority state adds to the complexity of the situation.

Remember that while Myanmar has nearly 140 ethnic minority groups, it only has seven ethnic-minority states – Arakan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah), Mon, Shan. There are however seven Bamar regions,include Sagaing, in the current map of the country. There are also many more minority groups inside each ethnic-minority state.  

In short, the recognition of the identities and rights of ethnic minorities within the larger Myanmar nation is a necessity in a future federal democracy. 

One potential solution is to divorce citizenship from ethnicity. But ethnic pride makes this a challenge, one that requires extensive education, dialogue, religious tolerance, and understanding.

UNITY AGAINST THE MILITARY

More than two years after the coup, the Myanmar military has been successful in fostering unity in the country – by making just about everyone hate them because of their cruelty and total disregard for human life, welfare and dignity. 

This sentiment could help tip the scale against the few tribal elites who side with the junta for personal gain. As it is, many of the Ethnic Armed Organisations are helping the resistance against the military. Some are staying neutral, but none are openly siding with the military.

Significantly, there is more ethnic representation in the NUG than in the pre-coup civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The NUG’s ranks also include more non-NLD members. NUG Health Minister Dr Zaw Wai Soe says 53 percent of the Cabinet are non-Bamar ethnics, and only 39 percent are from the NLD.

Much more complexity and many more challenges lie along the path to a genuine federal democracy in Myanmar. 

Overcoming historical divisions, fostering unity and hope, and addressing linguistic and cultural diversity are crucial steps in this journey. But the efforts of the NUG and those bent on ending military dictatorships in Myanmar, along with support from internal and external stakeholders, are crucial for reaching lasting peace and progress in the country.

*Ruth Collins (a pseudonym) and James Shwe are activists among the Myanmar diaspora in the United States, advocating for democracy in Myanmar and informing local communities and the US public about the country. Ruth is a lawyer in Indiana, and James is an engineer based in California. 

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(END/Edited by JSon)

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