RANGOON — Dominant narratives portray Burma as beautiful, exotic and rich, particularly so since reforms began in 2011. If only that picture were realistic, we wouldn’t have more than 100,000 internally displaced people spread out across Kachin and northern Shan states. This is a different narrative, another reality in Burma.
I grew up in a government-controlled area of Kachin State during the ceasefire years, when the Burmese government had reached a pact with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). I didn’t experience the extreme violence of the Tatmadaw—as the Burmese Armed Forces are known—that was committed in ethnic minority villages with total impunity for decades, but I had a different kind of struggle, an institutional one.
From the age of five I attended government schools, with government curricula. I spoke Burmese language and I learned Burmese history. I knew about the kingdoms, Burmese poetry and literature. I memorized every detail of their history; the Burmese were so powerful and civilized. What was missing from my childhood was a chance to learn the culture and history of my own people, the Kachin. Every ethnic child is required to learn Burmese history and to study the victories and ancient triumphs of the Burman people. A brief section on ethnic people described them as petty chiefs in charge of small villages. We have no history, according to the textbooks.
The damage done to me by this forced assimilation was huge. I was ashamed to speak my own language. I didn’t like the sound of my own name, which was different from the Burman names. I didn’t like having my name called out by the teacher each day as she checked the attendance. I felt like a failure when people pointed out that I had an accent when I spoke Burmese.
Cultural assimilation of minorities serves only to erase our ethnic identity and reconstruct a new one that is submissive to the Burman power structure. Full assimilation is not an option; ethnic minorities are not empowered by being brought into the fold of Burmanization. This is obvious just by looking at the percentage of ethnic people in the military and government institutions; even though there are a few minority representatives, they do not typically reach positions of power.
Moreover, this cultural takeover has been ongoing for so long and in such a way that even ethnic people sometimes do not feel entitled to what is theirs. Arrogant rulers exploit the land and milk the money out of ethnic areas, only to enjoy their gratitude when and if they return a small fraction of what was stolen from them in the first place. Case in point, I recently spoke with an executive member of a Kachin cultural committee in Hpakant, a part of Kachin State known as the source of most of the world’s jade. When the Burma Army commander in Hpakant made a donation of 10 million kyats (US$7,765) to a cultural project, the executive couldn’t stop talking about the generous gift handed over by the Burma Army. He must have forgotten that Naypyidaw brought in about US$8 billion in jade sales during 2011 alone—about one sixth of GDP for that same year—according to a recent report by the Ash Center at Harvard University. Meanwhile the people who live in Hpakant still have yet to receive decent infrastructure, health care and social services, and many have fallen prey to drug addiction and the spread of HIV/AIDS that has accompanied development of the rich site. These problems have reached other parts of the state as well, particularly affecting young people, and have claimed tens of thousands of Kachin lives to date.
Some people think that colonialism ended when Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, but that’s not the case. What we have now is a new brand of colonialism under the Burmese military and its corollary, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This government continues the tradition of colonial oppression by dominating the people, especially in areas populated by ethnic minorities. They justify this to the Burman majority by projecting an image of moral, intellectual and cultural superiority, while a broad range of people in Burma—no matter whom they are or where they came from—are routinely denied basic human rights.
While it is undeniable that the ethnic Burman population has suffered much under the former regime and its socio-economic legacy, the military feels a certain threat posed by ethnic people and their fight for political equality. Because of what is, in fact, ethnic peoples’ real right to autonomy and self-governance, they strike harder against minorities.
For example, President Thein Sein recently signed off on a controversial legal package known as the “race and religion protection laws.” A senior official from the President’s Office justified Thein Sein’s support for the laws by saying that “it is the desire of the Myanmar people,” as reported by German news agency DPA. The laws, which include provisions restricting interfaith marriage and religious conversion, aim to protect the “pure blood” of the Burmese Buddhist population, the majority. The move clearly indicates a perception that this majority is somehow culturally and ethnically superior to others, and seeks to limit or even terminate those who are different.
A Mandatory Imperative for the International Community: Learn to Listen
Several of Burma’s ethnic armed groups plan to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government this month, but the Kachin are not among them. The international community has failed to appreciate the reasons why ethnic people continue to resist the current government and its systems of power. Human rights violations committed by the Tatmadaw are not a part of history, but an ongoing element of experience for many villagers in ethnic areas beyond the line of sight in tourist destinations and major cities such as Rangoon and Naypyidaw. Ethnic people continue to be displaced, and for Kachin people the level of displacement has even reached new heights since the reform process began in 2011.
Political power is still deeply centralized, seated in the capital Naypyidaw, while decision making power is still not shared with ethnic nationalities in the various states. We have no say in how our ethnic values and teachings could be incorporated into the education system, or how the revenue from natural resource projects could be shared to improve the well-being and quality of life for our people. Though the President, himself a former general, has appointed a Kachin Chief Minister for the state and a Chin Chief Minister in Chin state, that fact doesn’t translate into federal democracy and should not be viewed as such. These appointed chief executives may be nothing more than “token ministers” who have close and personal relationships with the former dictator and his generals.
It is not clear that the international community really understands this quandary. Without listening to the concerns and the worries of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, international assistance has done more harm than good. Programs such as the European Union’s crowd control training for the police force, for instance, have worked to empower authorities and served no real good for the people that they have so often oppressed. As one Kachin activist put it, the international community is “teaching the government how to steal and rob in broad daylight. Before, they only knew how to steal and rob late at night.”
Similarly, the European Union has committed millions of euro to “support” for the peace process, hundreds of thousands of that going directly to the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a government-affiliated technical support body. While they are receiving this support to negotiate on behalf of the government, the ethnic armed groups who hold a stake in the process don’t always have the funding for expert advisors and technical assistance. Beyond being disempowered, they are also at a great financial disadvantage.
Yet international observers and “supporters” of the peace process are viewed as pressuring these groups to move toward a ceasefire, as though Burma’s ethnic armed groups had no experience in political negotiations. The Kachin Independence Organization has reached four ceasefire agreements with the Burma Army since our armed struggle began in 1961. As Naing Hong Sar, a member of the ethnic negotiation team, wrote recently for The Bangkok Post, “Trust is based not only on words; it is based on an understanding that actions back and substantiate one’s words. Trust is something proven over time.”
Our experience of dealing with the military dates back six decades. Therefore, our expertise should not be dismissed or looked down upon. If the voices of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, including those living in displacement camps, are listened to carefully and thoughtfully, it is clear that we want a genuine peace agreement with promising potential to allow us to determine our own future in a true federal union that respects our differences and views us as equals.
If the international community can learn to listen to these voices, they may be able to effectively help the people of Burma achieve genuine and lasting peace.
Stella Naw is an advocate for democratic federalism in Burma, with a special interest in reconciliation and the rights of ethnic and indigenous peoples.