Lady liberty and the ethnic cauldron – I

From Himal Southasian (29 JUNE, 2012)

As the applause for her singular democratic struggle subsides, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to tackle the challenge of defining a viable nation-state while responding to the multiple assertions of identity and autonomy within Burma.

As Aung San Suu Kyi returns to Burma from her two-week tour of Europe, with its mix of the personal and the regal, she will have to begin grappling with the ethnic tensions that have been left festering over half a century of military rule. Shedding the ‘prisoner of conscience’ mantle, she will have to take on the role of a politician in a country that was always fractious but may become fratricidal. The question is whether the politician can become a stateswoman.

A mural of Aung San Suu Kyi in Brighton, UK.
Photo: duncan, flickr

While Burma continues to be run by the reformist military regime of President Thein Sein, all eyes are on Suu Kyi. The democrat, who has restricted herself thus far to human rights and rule of law, cannot now evade addressing matters of identity and autonomy. Her ultimate challenge will be to work towards restructuring the Burmese state, keeping it unified yet addressing the demands of the non-Bamar minorities which make a third of the population.

The attention on Suu Kyi – her fight against the military regime, her Nobel Peace Prize, and the years of house arrest – which has sometimes bordered on adulation, has kept the focus away from the deep-set communal animosities that have simmered in Burma. The Nobel laureate likes to point to democracy and rule of law as the starting points in the journey to nation-building, and of course she is right. But experience from other societies emerging from  autocracies indicate that she will not have time to equivocate, as the minorities push ahead with demands for self-rule. As a member of Parliament, Suu Kyi herself is now part of the state establishment of Burma which is challenged by nearly two dozen armed insurgencies, some ongoing and others in suspended animation.

Beyond democratic generalities, Suu Kyi must at long last articulate her opinion on the military’s war against the Karen, Kachin, Wa, Shan and other insurgent groups. With hundreds of thousands of lives estimated to have been lost in the various internal conflicts over the last sixty years, the scarring is deep. There is animus against the national establishment made up of the majority Bamar, the community that Suu Kyi herself was born to. Repeated reference to due process and rule of law may not be enough as the clamour for regional autonomy gathers steam and as the military junta becomes defensive and its grip weakens. Though Suu Kyi will not have a handle on the national administration till after the 2015 elections, she will have to see how to address expectations of economic progress and development before resentments pile up.

Suu Kyi and the Rohingya
What Burma needs beyond democracy is inter-community conciliation, and for this the acknowledged leader must show convincing sensitivity to the suffering of individuals and groups. Which is why it was distressing to hear Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis that overtook the north-western Rakhine state as she began her Europe tour in the middle of June. The murder and mayhem which led to the displacement of nearly a hundred thousand people reminds of earlier bouts of expulsion and exile. Many tried to flee to an unwelcoming Bangladesh.

When she was in Oslo to deliver her Nobel address 21 years after receiving the Peace Prize, Suu Kyi was asked about the unfolding conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists. The tragedy was fresh and marked by a rape followed by arson, lynchings and mass displacement, and one would have expected at least a comforting word of empathy from Suu Kyi. Yet she equivocated rather than speak directly to the human tragedy by saying, “Without the rule of law, such communal strife will only continue.”

At a subsequent press conference, Suu Kyi took refuge in the absence of proper citizenship legislation: “If we were very clear as to who are the citizens of the country under citizenship laws, then there wouldn’t be the problem that is always coming up, that there are accusations  … some people do not belong in Bangladesh, or some people do not belong in Burma.” Asked whether the Rohingyas should be regarded as Burmese, she replied, “I do not know… There are some who say that some of those who claim to be Rohingyas aren’t the ones actually native to Burma, but have just come over recently from Bangladesh. On the other hand, Bangladesh says no, they don’t want them as refugees because they are not native to Bangladesh but come from Burma.”

It sounded like the faint-hearted response of a politician unwilling to go against populist mainstream opinion back in Rangoon. For sure, many in the Burmese state establishment, national intelligentsia and even the pro-democracy movement consider the Rohingya as late-comer Bangladeshis rather than citizens. While there may be some controversy about their historical origins, there is no denying the fact that the Rohingya are now part of Burma, having lived there for generations. The state establishment may de-recognise them and seek their ouster, much as nearby Bhutan did with the southern Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa in the late 1980s, and yet the lived reality of the Rohingya in Burma demands Suu Kyi be sensitive to their enforced statelessness, their human rights, and their right to life and livelihood.

Suu Kyi’s tepid response indicates either a leader who agrees with the Naypidaw establishment’s conviction that the Rohingya are non-Burmese, or a politician who prefers not to antagonise the Bamar mainstream at this stage – which would then beg the question, ‘If not now, when?’ Whichever way one looks at it, the unwillingness to address the catastrophe in Rakhine at the humanitarian plane is problematic. We seem to be witnessing the transitioning of an international democratic icon into a timid politician, rather than a leader with the wherewithal to stand up to mainstream wrath.

Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya tragedy is worrying in itself, but might also provide a clue into how she would respond to the other ethnicity-tinged matters she will have to confront. Her reaction to the ongoing tragedy in Kachin state, where the Naypidaw generals have been in fresh conflict with insurgents since June 2011, underlines this. There have been a flood of refugees across the border into China, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma has spoken of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. In London, Suu Kyi was asked to defend her lack of response to the violence. In her reply, she condemned all forms of violence, but she was not clear what had happened in Kachin State.

Centre and rimland
Burma is geographically divided into Lower and Upper Burma and what were known as the ‘Frontier Areas’ of the Shan, Chin and Kachin peoples under British rule. This frontier region was brought into modern-day Burma through the Pangong Agreement negotiated by General Aung Sang, the father of Suu Kyi. The general was killed soon after the agreement was signed in 1947. The ‘centre-periphery’ relations became coagulated after the military took over in 1962 under General Ne Win. Since then, the military has remained in power, and remained there by stoking xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, exploiting fears of national disintegration.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy(NLD) and its largely Bamar membership has not shown alacrity in tackling the dissatisfaction of the non-Bamar communities over the years. This is why, as late as in the middle of 2012, we do not know what roadmap Suu Kyi and the NLD really have for the country and its myriad peoples. The military remains in power, and is in on-again off-again peace negotiations with half a dozen insurgent groups, but the focus is now on Suu Kyi and her party.

As the brittle military regime will give way to soft democracy, Suu Kyi will need all the dynamism she can muster to promote democracy from the capital Naypidaw and Rangoon to the grassroots, while simultaneously negotiating devolution of power with minority groups. Certainly, much will depend on the nature of the insurgent groups themselves, and the values they embrace.

The government recognises 175 ethnic groups in the country (not counting the Rohingya, incidentally). The larger ones inhabit discrete regions within Burma which also borders India, China, Laos and Thailand. From the Kachin highlands in the north, to the Arakan abutting Bangladesh, the Chin and Naga hills across from the Indian Northeast, the Wa hills on the Chinese frontier, and the Shan, Karenni Mon and Karen regions along the Thai-Burmese frontier, Burma is an elongated cauldron of ethnic challenge for anyone who wants to create a viable modern country. Matters are made more complex because of commercial interests, geo-strategic concerns and the fact that many of the ethnic minorities also exist across borders, which makes for intrusive neighbours.

The volatility of the situation is enhanced by the fact that the ethnic hinterland is laden with natural resources, including natural gas, hydropower, minerals, gemstones and timber, while the coastline is rich in marine products. The evolution of geopolitics and globalisation has also made Burma’s location more strategic than before. The Chinese seek linkages to the Burmese coast for the easy transport of gas, oil and goods to Yunnan. The Indians seek access to Burmese gas and want to link the Indian Northeast to Southeast Asia through Burma. Together with India, the ASEAN as well as the Western powers see in Burma a bulwark against Beijing’s accelerating outreach into the Indian Ocean region.

The fact that the economically and strategically important segments of the country are along the mountainous rim inhabited by the restive ethnic minorities is sure to affect the dynamics of negotiations between Naypidaw and the minorities. According to Railway Minister Aung Min, put in charge by the junta of conducting negotiations with the insurgent groups, the plan is to lead ceasefire agreements to political dialogue, which would then end in a national meeting bringing together the various ethnic groups. “We are planning to complete the process by 2015 within the tenure of this parliament,” he told the BBC.

Pangong I & II
Fortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi has a ready-made template for inter-community cooperation in Burma should she wish to pick it up where her father left off in 1947. That matrix was negotiated by General Aung San who called a meeting to plan the post-colonial future of Burma at the town of Pangong in the Shan region. The Pangong agreement called for ‘full autonomy in internal administration’ of the ‘frontier areas’.  Aung San was assassinated soon thereafter, and the agreement got lost amidst the turmoil and military rule that was to follow.

The economic and geopolitical situation has changed drastically since the Pangong conference, but the dissatisfaction of the non-Bamar ethnicities over control of national establishment by the Bamar remains in place

While the fight for democracy has been led by the Bamar-led civil society, intelligentsia and clergy in 1988 and in 2007, the leadership of minority groups seeks devolution of power through federalism along with democracy. On the other hand, with the warring groups engaged in separate fights with Naypidaw, the negotiations for Burmese nation-building will have to include not only government-to-minority-groups communications, but a meeting of minds between the minorities themselves.

The insurgent groups might not only function as autocracies, they can also be (and many have been) pawns of neighbouring governments. The hilly hinterland where the minorities live are rich in natural resources, and the insurgent leadership has been vulnerable to rapacious capital, as seen in the involvement of Thai businesses in logging the Burmese jungles of the southeast.

It is under these circumstances that Suu Kyi is asked to put together a democratic Burma by negotiating devolution of power to the minority groups, while carrying along the Bamar-heavy military establishment and intelligentsia in Naypidaw and Rangoon. The organisation of a ‘Pangong II’ conference is clearly central.

Unlike in 1947, Suu Kyi will also have to contend with deep interest in Burma among neighbouring governments, as well as among those who control international capital. Meanwhile, with the move towards democracy, the international human rights community will also shift its focus to see whether the ethnic minorities are treated fairly. Further, the negotiations in ‘Pangon II’ will now have to be with many more groups than the Shan, Chin and Karen. Aung San Suu Kyi and the democrats of Burma will have to achieve that delicate balance between centrifugal force of the militant minorities as well as the pull of the Burmese Army and the national intelligentsia.

To be concluded: “Lady liberty and the ethnic cauldron – II: Unlearning from Southasia”


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