Lady Liberty and the Ethnic Cauldron – II

From Himal Southasian (12 JULY, 2012)

This piece continues from the first part of the article, available here.

Burma, while firmly a part of Southeast Asia, has also had historical and contemporary links to Southasia through the time of the British Raj to the present. The Southasian Northeast forms a continuum of geography and demography between Burma and the Subcontinental mainland. Rapidly democratising Burma can take cues from Southasian societies when it comes to addressing ethnic assertion and the devolution of powers. Some of these lessons are from the contiguous societies of the Indian Northeast, others from as far afield as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. These lessons can be as much about what not to do as what to do.

A Rohingya child at a camp in Kutupalong, Burma. The Rohingyas’ plight highlights the many challenges to building an ethnically inclusive Burmese state.
Photo: flickr / FAMSI

Aung San Suu Kyi knows the north of Southasia well, having lived in Delhi when her mother Khin Kyi was ambassador to Jawaharlal Nehru’s New Delhi. She also lived in Bhutan with her late husband, the scholar Michael Aires, and she was hosted in Kathmandu by the statesman and social democrat BP Koirala, a friend of her father Aung San (who provided Koirala with arms to fight Nepal’s Rana regime, which were flown to Bihar by the maverick Orissan leader Biju Patnaik before being delivered to Nepal).

Suu Kyi left Burma for the first time in 24 years for a short visit to Thailand in early June 2012. That was followed by a two-week foray later that month to five Western European countries. She is now back home, where the challenges are bound to come fast and furious. Beyond facilitating the return to full democracy and tackling the inevitable flood of ‘donors’ and investors, Suu Kyi will have to confront the elephant in the room: disgruntled minorities who are waiting for her to show her hand with regard to devolution of power. In this, there will be more to learn from South and Southeast Asia than from Western Europe.

Subcontinental tour

Since the liberation movements of the late 1940s, Southasia’s newly independent countries have been continuously shaken by demands for the devolution of power away from the centralising state (even where the system was termed ‘federal’, as in Pakistan). Generally, the demands of ethnic and other minorities on the geographical and mental ‘periphery’ have been met by the central states’ refusal or inability to respond with empathy.

In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala-dominated establishment neglected the demands of the Tamils, who make up 12 percent of the population and are concentrated in the north and east of the country. This invited the ferocious two-decade-long Tamil insurgency that only ended in 2009.

Bangladesh has Southasia’s most demographically ‘homogenous’ population, but it also has skeletons in its closet: the Bangladeshi state’s treatment of the country’s Hindu minority, half of whom have departed since 1971, and its insensitive treatment of the tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering Burma. There, the Chakma and other groups have seen their lands overtaken by mainland settlers spurred on by a nationalistic mindset that privileges the Bengali identity.

Nepal’s trajectory in the modern era also saw a continuation of the centralisation of power in Kathmandu Valley. This trend has given momentum to the demand for a new constitution with guarantees of inclusion and federalism. But Nepal differs from Burma in that it is a country of micro-communities, with the largest community accounting for only 15.5 percent of the national population of 30 million. Also, two and a half centuries under a centralised nation-state has created a heterogeneous mix of castes and ethnicities across most of the country.

In Burma, on the other hand, the Bamar community constitutes 68 percent of the population of the central plains, while other ethnic communities inhabit discrete regions in the surrounding hilly regions that border neighbouring Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh.

Burma’s demographic make-up is more akin to that of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where, other than in the urban centres, linguistic and ethnic groups live largely within their historical homelands. For this reason, federalism in Burma can be defined more exclusively by ethnicity or language than in, say, Nepal.

In Pakistan, the Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pasthun live in separate provinces in a country that was born ‘federal’ but has not been so in spirit. Pakistan’s national establishment, including the military, is dominated by the Punjabis, in much the same manner that the Burmese establishment and military are overwhelmingly Bamar. But is Burma to take cues from Pakistan, or vice versa? Burma has been tackling multiple insurgencies from disgruntled ethnicities for over half a century, while the discontent in the Pakistani provinces other than Punjab is still only brewing. One could say that Burma is facing challenges that Pakistan will face in the future.

In Afghanistan, the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others communities continue to live in discrete areas, much as the the Karen, Shan, Wa and other communities do in Burma. To bring about a modicum of national consensus, the rulers in Kabul have turned to the loya jirga, or grand assembly. A Pashtun tribal tradition, it has been expanded recently into a gathering of power brokers and warlords brought together to ratify some new agreement or appointment. In Burma, ‘Panglong-II’ would – somewhat differently from the loya jirga – have to include minority representatives from beyond the insurgent leadership, and to acknowledge the importance of including female leadership as well as representatives of sub-groups from the different regions.

The geopolitical interests fuelling interventionist intent in Afghanistan – from the Russians, Americans, Pakistanis and Indians – can be ascribed, to a great extent, to the divisions within Afghanistan’s communities. This is something that democratic Burma will have to be alert to if it is not itself to be sucked into the vortex of regional and international geopolitics due to its internal situation. Naypidaw will have more of a challenge than the other countries of Southasia because Burma’s natural wealth attracts more pushy multinational corporations (MNCs) than that of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or even Afghanistan. These MNCs will influence Burma’s national establishment and the country’s individual provinces, as and when they are established.

Donor organisations, international think tanks, and the overwhelmingly powerful multilateral lending agencies are all in the process of entering the just-awakened Burma. Soon, there will be a cacophony of advice on the entire gamut of development, governance, elections, strategic affairs and inter-community relations. Will Burma’s national political class, civil society, academics, media and activist organisations be up to the task of managing these diverse and powerful forces, given that the country will be given much less time than others to find its feet as a democracy because of what it commands in terms of its natural resources and strategic location?

Northeast by Northwest

Even more than Afghanistan – situated as it is on the other side of the subcontinental expanse – it is contiguous Northeast India that provides democratic Burma with the most relevant lessons in devising a transition strategy. The region that encompasses the ‘seven sisters’ of the Northeast is a cauldron and microcosm all at once, where issues of military rule, human rights, inter-tribal animosity, centre-state relations and inter-state relations all come together to create an intractable state of affairs, making this one of the most continuously unstable areas in all of Asia. Only the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude of the mainland Indian political establishment and intelligentsia keeps the Northeast off the front pages of the world.

There are deep inter-state animosities and inter-community divides within the Northeast, exacerbated by the militarisation of the region by New Delhi. These tensions may be suppressed, but they continue to fester. Within the individual states, which are named after individual tribes, there are pockets of other groups, as well as sub-groups of the designated tribes. Thus, while the many separate insurgencies from Assam to Nagaland challenge the Indian Government, there are deep tensions within these states as well, such as between the Kuki and Naga in Manipur, the Dimasa and Karbi in Assam, the Boro and Santhal in Assam, and the Mizo and Bru in Mizoram. Among the surrounding states, from Meghalaya anti-clockwise to Arunachal, there is also deep suspicion of the dominant state of Assam. Assam commands the Brahmaputra plains, which are surrounded by the smaller hilly states much as the Bamar plains in Burma are circled by the minority groups in the surrounding ‘frontier regions’. Many people in Assam, in turn, have grievances against Bengali speakers, many of whom are considered unwelcome settlers.

The natural evolution of inter-ethnic and inter-state relationships in the Indian Northeast has been affected by the interests of New Delhi, which override the interests of the region’s inhabitants. These interests have to do with tackling China, with which India has yet to resolve a dispute over ownership of the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi also seems unwilling to devolve power or grant autonomy beyond a certain point because of the danger of igniting similar demands in mainland India. New Delhi’s physical distance from the Northeast is itself a drawback for Northeasterners who seek to develop their polity, because it makes it that much more difficult to sensitise the national capital, and thereby the rest of the country, to the pain of militarisation. The Indian government’s long-term strategy seems to be a conservative one, without any devolution of power or departure from present policy, in the hope that fatigue in the Northeast will provide a solution.

The long arm of the Indian state rests heavy on Northeastern society, and the fact that India is described as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ does not mean much on the ground. New Delhi uses the Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act (AFSPA) of 1958 to activate and protect its military and para-military forces as they go about tackling the many insurgencies. The AFSPA enables soldiers to detain citizens indefinitely on suspicion of militancy, and has led to torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. As Burma attains full democracy, possibly after the 2015 elections, it may also evolve like India, since a democratic country will be relatively more accessible to the metropolitan (Bamar) mainstream, while the same space for assertion and governance will be unavailable to the minorities.

The experience of Irom Sharmila Chanu, Manipur state’s celebrated civil rights activist, serves to highlight the limits and weaknesses of Indian democracy and national civil society when it comes to the Northeast and its issues of identity and nationalism. Irom Sharmila started her fast in November 2000 to protest the killing of ten civilians by the Assam Rifles constabulary. She has continued her fast to this day, remaining alive because Indian authorities force-feed her through a nasal tube. It says something of the Northeast’s distance from the Indian mainland that the Irom Sharmila’s Gandhian activism has failed to touch a chord in New Delhi and across the country.

The encounters between Southasia’s centralised nation-states (whether closed or open societies) and ethno-nationalism provide potent examples of what not to do as Burma seeks to emerge as a modern-day democracy, especially given that the country has more than its share of communitarian animosities. As a fighter for democracy in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi will have to confront the demands of her country’s minorities, and learn from the Subcontinent that lies on the other side of the Burmese Northwest.

Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila

Because it promotes the rule of law and promises stability in an open (if always turbulent) society, there is no doubt that democracy allows for long-term cohabitation between communities. But in a country coming out of decades of military rule, and where one community (the Bamar) remains numerically and politically dominant, democratic values are at a premium not only within the military but also among the militarised insurgencies. And time is always at a premium.

The answer for a Burma in the democratic era lies in the dynamic leadership of someone like Suu Kyi who speaks up for democracy, human rights, equity, inclusion and respresentational politics, while taking on, as required, the Rangoon intelligentsia, crony capitalists, foreign interventionists, recidivist generals, and Bamar supremacists. The reaction in recent months of Burma’s mainstream civil society to the violence that has affected the Kachin as well Rohingya communities provides a warning signal in terms of how Burma’s ethnic relationships could go from bad to worse. As mentioned in this article, Suu Kyi’s response (or lack of it) to the humanitarian disaster that has visited those communities is a worrying indicator of how she may lead Burma in the future, and of how the ‘Panglong-II’ conference might be conducted if and when it is organised.

The road ahead for Aung San Suu Kyi will be longer and harder than her time under house arrest, but the prize on offer is the chance to take an entire country forward while respecting the identities and aspirations of all its communities. To champion democracy and human rights in a manner that holds meaning for all of Burma’s peoples, she may want to try and understand Irom Sharmila Chanu’s relentless engagement for democracy and dignity in nearby Manipur.


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