Posing with northern Myanmar


Former US President Jimmy Carter traveled to Myanmar in early April. In addition to meeting government officials during his trip, Carter also met ethnic leaders with whom he discussed the country’s long running civil war. Carter plans to open a branch of the Carter Center in Myanmar in order to study ethnic conflict and monitor the country’s political transformation. During Carter’s meetings, ethnic leaders, as usual, suggested that federalism and self-determination are the solutions to the country’s problems. But are they?

Since Thein Sein took office in 2011, there have been endless conferences, closed door meetings, academic talks, “civil society” seminars and a steady stream of publications devoted to “peace building”. Several new organizations dedicated to peace have also been formed with the support of the European Union and Norway. The government’s peace delegation headed by Minister Aung Min has been busy negotiating with various armed ethnic groups. “Peace” has become the buzzword for international donors and diplomats focusing on Myanmar.

How long will these peace activities last, let alone actual peace? What are the long term prospects for relations between the central government and ethnic groups?

A closer examination of the on-going cease-fire talks between the government and the various armed ethnic groups suggests the peace initiatives are at risk of breaking down. The upper echelons of the country’s nominally civilian government still maintain colonial-like attitudes towards non-Burmans in the country. These views, steeped in Burmese nationalism, are not just common among the generals, ex-generals and Thein Sein’s cabinet members but are widely held among the democratic opposition and much of the general public.

The Burmese ruling class is also committed to the complete take over of territories lived and ruled by the predecessors of those who are considered the country’s ethnic minorities. Minister Aung Min’s numerous paternalistic comments about the ethnic armed groups are a reflection of ingrained state ideologies, engineered by generations of war-fighting leaders, who treat minority peoples as unequal/inferior partners who are to submit themselves to the superior Burmese partner. As such, Minister Aung Min represents a continuity of the colonialist attitudes of the era of military rule, if not the continuity of military rule itself in a strict sense. Given these conditions, any meaningful political negotiation based on an equal footing is mere wishful thinking.

The political pathology of Burma, if I may use the rather suspicious bio-political term, is a process of internal colonization led by the Burmese ruling class. Widespread assumptions about the causes of ethnic conflict such as the lack of a “genuine” federalism, self-determination, democracy and human rights are only symptoms. Without addressing internal colonialism, all attempts at stabilizing the country are bound to fail.

How colonial is colonialism?

Saying that the Burmese state[1] has colonized and is continuing to colonize territories that are historically, culturally and economically specific to non-Burman ethnic minority groups often sparks a backlash from majority ethnic Burmans (of course, there are few exceptions). Indeed, there is only a small space for such critiques. Even many prominent writers, politicians/activists and journalists dislike, if not overtly insult and disrespect, critics who resist state oppression through an anti-colonial lens. Criticism of state colonialism is often deemed a direct offense to ethnic Burmans (which is true to an extent due to the intention and/or the limit of language itself in expressing such a delicate identity-related politics). Ethnic Burmans respond by pointing out that state oppression is not exclusively directed at ethnic minority people but members of the majority as well. They in turn label minority rights activists as narrow minded ethno-nationalists. The purpose of the anti-colonial critique is entirely misunderstood. Calls for a more sensible, just and equitable political arrangements are all too often ignored.

Recently, some critics including Dr. Maung Zarni and The Irrawaddy magazine’s editor Aung Zaw have expanded the boundaries somewhat by describing the Burmese military’s offensive in Kachin State as neo-colonial or imperialistic in nature. To push the limits of discussion further, what is taking place in Burma is not simply neo-colonialism or imperialism. If the standard definition defines neo-colonialism/imperialism as an indirect rule via economic and cultural domination, then the Burmese state’s aim is to carry out an old-fashion colonialism. Similar to European colonial states of the past, the Burmese state aims to establish the direct territorial control through military conquest and implant a pseudo-bureaucratic state apparatus. The colonizing state has the upper hand and sets the rules of the game.

But why should this be labeled colonization, not nation-state building or the expansion of modern bureaucratic administration?

It is colonization not only because of they are seeking control of territories the central government never controlled. The process also entails brutal military conquests and ruthless repression against the political determination of those who were previously independent people, however in relative term. Dictating culture, economy and political relations at the expense of human lives and dignity need not even be mentioned.

There are ample obvious evidence of internal colonization. Mushrooming battalions and army units in ethnic minority areas where the Burmese state never had any consistent hegemonic control over or political legitimacy to; on-going acts of abuse, torture, and mass murder carried out by military personnel in the name of ‘territorial control’ (or nae myae soe moe yae in Burmese); the implanting of administrative offices in so-called border areas by which ‘educated’ ethnic Burmese from the lowland/central Burma plain are deployed as state employees; the denying of the right to teach and practice minority languages and customs; the destruction of historical monuments and buildings; and the extracting of natural resources at the expense of the lives, lands and dignity of local residents are all testaments to Burmese colonialism, which is often accompanied by an ugly chauvinism.

Driving such military actions are deeply ingrained state ideologies about the nation, history, and state sovereignty. These state ideologies have been engineered by generations of poorly educated, war-fighting leaders who were loyal pupils of warriors trained by fascist Japan. Absolving themselves from public scrutiny and intellectual reasoning of history and politics, the warriors relayed to their juniors their own militaristic and colonialist beliefs which grew out of their particular experiences against the British, Japanese, Kuomintang and communists (and later ethnic armed groups). Their understanding of the past, however delusional, is now the only acceptable history of the country. Critical insights against this colonialist national history is subject to rejection not only by the state, but also by both the Burmese public and segments of the minority groups themselves.

Of course the Burmese leaders do not see military conquest as colonial. To them, they are reclaiming the historically established Burma, the land of great Burmese pride by (re)building and sustaining a strong ‘multi-ethnic union’. In this sense, nation-state building or ‘multi-ethnic union building’ is the content, or at least legitimating discourse, of colonization.

The Burmese state is indeed committed to the multi-ethnic union. There is no question about it. But will a ‘genuine’ federalism with equal distribution of power, as proposed by ethnic minority groups, solve the problem?

Indeed, such political arrangements are out of the question for the Burmese state in the first place. It is unlikely that the Burman leadership will accept any arrangements based on ‘equality’, whether it is labeled ‘federal’ or not. For their version of a multi-ethnic union is predicated not on any equal term, but on presupposed subjugation of ethnic minority groups to Burmese rule (discussed below). The Burmese ruling class will build a union on their own terms, and minority groups are to play by the rules of the game set by the Burmese: it is a matter of do or die.

The on-going Kachin conflict is a case in point. The Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) refusal to transform into a border guard force and come under the command of the central government, as it was ordered to do so, was one of the contributing factors that led to the army launching its large scale offensive in the north of the country. The KIO and the central government had a 17 year cease-fire agreement until the army chose to end the truce in June 2011 (similar to the army’s conflict with Shan State Army North who also had a long running ceasefire agreement that began in 1989). The fact that an intense military conflict could occur amidst the Thein Sein government’s widely publicized peace initiative raises numerous questions about the officially ‘democratized’ state.

For the state, there is no permanent solution until the KIO surrenders permanently or the Burmese Army ‘wipes out’ the KIO and takes over Kachin state and the Kachin inhabited areas of neighboring northern Shan state – a region that was at best only nominally controlled by the Burmese state and its colonial predecessor. The army will strike until the last ‘rebel’ is dead. There is no plan to let the ‘rebels’ decide their own territorial futures. Emerging personal accounts of former military officers and government publications about counterinsurgency operations reveal these attitudes.

That is why two seemingly contradictory elements, promotion of Buddhist Burman-centric nationalism on the one hand, and the state’s aim for a multi-ethnic union on the other, work perfectly together.

But what makes the Burmese elite think that ethnic groups must submit themselves to them? This is a question of historical geography shaped by the delusional state discourses about the country’s history and union building which entirely delegitimizes ethnic peoples’ historical entitlements to the lands their predecessors lived and ruled. The Burmese warriors’ imagination of historical geography legitimates their supremacy and territorial right and justifies their colonial endeavors.

Imagining historical geographies of the nation

First of all, state discourses present Burma, seen on a map today within its international borders, in an ahistorical fashion as if it has always existed since time immemorial (but not a product of the 1947 political contract between the Burman and ethnic leaders, known as the Panglong Agreement).

Second, state discourses present three ancient Burmese kingdoms as the First Great Burma under Anawrahta (1044-1077), the Second Great Burma under Bayinnaung (1552-1581), and the Third Great Burma under Alaungpaya (1752-1760). One important signifier of this greatness is their territorial influence that extended to parts of modern day northeast India, Thailand (Ayutthaya) and at times much of mainland Southeast Asia.

These territorial expansions were relatively short-lived; they went through phases of wax and wane. State discourses nevertheless present them as always extensive, the most powerful in the region and continuous throughout the history until the British annexation in the 19th century. Such imaginations — or fantasies — of historical geography, aiming to boost the empty pride of the present day socio-economically deteriorated Burmese, create illusions that Burma was once a proud civilization. What appears, or remains as Burma today is a non-negotiable Burmese political space; it has been Burma and it has to remain so. It is the land of the Burmese/Burman; the rulers were Burmese (or ancient tribes that later make up the Burmese); and today’s ethnic territories were parts of ‘independent and sovereign’ Burmese empires in which ethnic minority people were subjects of the Burmese rulers. Such historical imaginations normalize the assumed hierarchical relations in which ethnic minority people appear to be natural subordinates of the Burmese — not as those living in relatively sovereign feudal states of their own.

The Burmese government, however, teaches itself and the people to misunderstand that all the lands within the national borders (i.e. not just the central Burma plain but also the ethnic states of today) have belonged to Burma since ancient times. If the government were right, it should re-claim Ayutthaya, for example, which was invaded by King Bayinnaung in the 1560s, with all means of ruthlessness. If Burma has no entitlement to Ayutthaya, neither does it have entitlement to ethnic minority territories, whether or not they were under the ancient Burmese rule. (The 1947 contract that married previously ‘independent’ territories to the Burma plain is not a reason to discard my claim because successive regimes, beginning with Prime Minister U Nu’s government, rendered it meaningless.)

Colonial state doing anti-colonial politics

There is another element to the official Burmese state narrative of history and politics that deserves careful scrutiny. Two interrelated points are important to highlight here. First, the Burmese state is an extremely strong anti-colonial and xenophobic state. Government publications and official speeches quite often recount how British colonialism brought down the country, and how it manipulated ethnic groups for the purpose of divide and rule. It is noteworthy that the standard publications and government speeches which recount the sequence of events that led to the long running political crisis begin with foreign intruders (i.e. the British), suggesting that ‘foreigners’ lie at the root of the country’s political problems. This narrative presents the proud and internally peaceful/united Great First, Second, and Third Burmas as continuous throughout, but disrupted by British rule, which only shattered the Burmese pride and sovereignty. With British colonialism, the people became ‘slaves’ of a ‘foreign race’, and the people lost their great establishments (empires, superior military might, proud Buddhist civilization, and so on). It suggests that even after independence, foreign countries and neo-colonialists continue to manipulate ethnic groups and intervene in Burmese affairs, thus threatening national unity, the future of the union, and sovereignty.

Second, the state considers (neo)colonialists to be primary trouble-makers. That is, ethnic armed groups are only the victims of neocolonialist (and communist) manipulation and divide-and-conquer tactics. Having suffered manipulation, the armed groups distrust and fight their ‘Burmese brothers’. Here, minority groups historically contingent claims and political aspirations for territorial rights are all delegitimized as they are merely the confused victims of foreign intervention. It is true that outside forces have political and economic interests in manipulating armed groups, but these outside forces are not only ‘Western’ players but also Asian neighbors including China, India and Thailand, who are both friends and foes of the Burmese state. Reducing ethnic armed groups to mere victims of manipulation is not only incorrect, but also erases their political agency.

In other words, the Burmese see the British colonial regime’s separate administration of ‘frontier areas’ from the lowland (central Burma plain), and granting minority groups the right to secession under the 1947 Panglong agreement (and the 1947 constitution) as colonial plots and foreign manipulations. With this view, the Burmese ruling class has already delegitimized the historical 1947 contract that formed the very Union of Burma. Even if the state ceremonially makes reference to the Panglong agreement, any political essence of this contract has already been overruled by the distorted anti-colonial discourse.

In short, the official version of history indicates that those in power have no belief in the historically contingent territorial entitlements of ethnic people. The imagining of ancient Burmese empires delegitimizes any earlier sovereign status of ethnic states/territories. The state’s anti-colonial reasoning delegitimizes territorial rights agreed in the 1947 agreement and the constitution. Likewise, the on-going struggle for political and territorial rights is again delegitimized as it is seen as part of a neocolonial conspiracy seeking the disintegration of the once proud country.

To put it in a layman’s words, the standard Burmese view holds that they are the real owners of every plot of land that falls within the current national boundaries of Myanmar; they have owned it since ancient times, and they are to reclaim and protect it from colonialists and neocolonialists. They thus task themselves with a military mission to ‘reclaim’ the land vis-├а-vis supposedly confused and manipulated armed ethnic groups. This means, minority groups have no legitimate territorial claims whatsoever, unlike the Burmese themselves. As such, negotiation on equal terms, for federalism or otherwise, is out of the question.

Dubious ‘Union Spirit’, forty million years of history and unity

Overruling ethnic minority people’s territorial rights is only implicit in the imagination of historical geography. State discourses never say that minority people have/had no sovereign territorial rights. They only indicates that the lands are the territorial domain of Burmese rule where ethnic people once lived peacefully.

What is explicit in the state discourse is the centrality of Burmese supremacy that naturalizes internal colonization and the subjugation of ethnic minority people. What the government calls ‘Union Spirit’, the blood of the union, is a case in point.

But what exactly is the ‘Union Spirit’?

Union Spirit can be summarized as (1) deeply believing and accepting the entire union as a single family; (2) protecting amyo (race or nation) based on nationalism/the love of the nation (however undefined); (3) helping, forgiving and understanding each other; and (4) having good will and honesty. The foundation of this spirit is that ethnic groups (i.e. eight major groups Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Burman, Rakhine, Shan and the groups within their ‘sub-categories’) are real brothers and sisters and thwe chin nyi ako (literally meaning: blood brothers) who live on the same land and drink the same water as if they all grew from the same tree.

The imagination of historical and cultural geographies with regards to union spirit is even more bizarre. Referring to a recent archeological discovery that purportedly proves that humans lived 40 million years ago in the Northwest of today’s Burma, a 2011 publication from the Ministry of Information claims that these people were Burmese (or members of the ancient Burmese race). Another book from the Ministry similarly claims that Burma is the origin of the entire human race. It also claims that Myanmar people have lived in the area since the stone age, and were then dispersed to various places. Over time, depending on where they ended up, they came to speak different languages and adopted different customs and assumed different names like the Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine and Shan: the ‘national races’ of Myanmar. According to this line of thinking ethnic minority groups originally descended from the Burmese who have existed for forty million years (More nuanced propaganda suggests that the people who were dispersed into today’s Burma/Myanmar came in three groups and originated from the north. Nevertheless it is claimed they are all blood-brothers).

Such assumptions and mythology as mentioned above are widespread and well accepted. The Burmese state has succeeded in nationally standardizing them in that reading different types of books on the subject (school textbooks, government publications, history books, fiction books, books for kids, etc.) looks as if the author is the same one. Narrative styles, historical data, sequence of events, word choices, perspectives, culprits and victims, etc. are all the same.

These assumptions and mythology that form the current dominant political understanding need to be examined closely. This includes the claim that Burma and the Burmese people existed since forty million years ago. The notion that minority people were taing yin thar (ethnic/national race) in the past who diverged also must be challenged. As the Union of Burma did not previously exist, there were no ‘majority’ Burmese and ‘minority’ ‘ethnics’/‘national races’. Neither was there ever a national unity (tain yin thar si lon nyi nyut yae) that we envision today. Concepts of union, ethnic/race, nation, national unity are all recent political constructs.

Even more important is the claim that there was a union in which ‘national races’ co-existed with Burmans peacefully until the British came. This erases the entire history of Burmese aggression against once independent peoples (and aggression against each other – internally and externally). Moreover, it obscures the long political process in which minority peoples are subjugated to the Burmese through colonial practices – territorial conquest via military oppression and creation/categorization of ethnic groups (i.e. making into ‘minority’, ‘tribe’). Erasing such processes simultaneously hides all the injustice that occurred under Burmese rule. Perpetuating these histories as the only acceptable history not only sustains colonial attitudes (i.e. Burman supremacy and territorial entitlement) but prevents future investigation into such injustices and colonization. Colonization endures and thus the so-called union spirit itself turns out to be a colonial discourse after all.

What to do with colonialism?

If President Thein Sein is to make a different future and prove that his government has departed from the military past, he must address the issue of internal colonialism. The government must stop seeing ethnic territories as properties of Burma/Burmese. The military must stop its military conquests even if ethnic minority groups choose not to play by the Burmese rules. State ideologies and discourses that distort historical realities must also be addressed. Political negotiations that fail to recognize the ethnic groups’ historically legitimate territorial entitlement will go nowhere. Only colonial attitudes and actions will linger.

Addressing this issue also requires a much wider treatment. The military, bureaucracy, and the public need a fresh education about the country’s geography and history in which every long-held assumption about the nation, union, territories, nation-state, nationalism, and sovereignty must be fundamentally challenged.

One major discourse to challenge is the national anthem. The current anthem was originated from a song called “We Burmans”. The anthem, a slight revision of “We Burmans”, was officially adopted in 1947 just before independence. The first part of the lyrics come in a Burmese traditional style. It endorses justice and equality. The lyrics of the second part, which appears in a western style, are quite Burman-centric and problematic. Until 1988, the lyrics referred to the entire territory of the union, which includes ethnic minorities lands that were considered part of central Burma in 1947, as “Bamar Pyi” (i.e. Burman land). When the country’s name was changed to Myanmar, “Bamar Land” became Myanmar Pyi.

Perhaps, the anthem’s composer, nationalist U Tin (Thakin Tin), had good intentions of his own, and did not see the coming rise of Burman colonialism in such a devastating way. But looking from today’s perspective after half a century of the Burmese state’s broken promises and colonization, calling the territory indiscriminately “Bamar Land” (or Myanmar Land) and worse calling it an “inheritance from our forefathers” sounds awful. It misleads the public to believe that Kachin state in the north belongs to the people from the southern tip of the country. This is how the military leaders like to think: Kachin territory belongs to Burma/Burmese (i.e. themselves). In this sense, the national anthem as a booster of emotion is the ecstasy of madness. It needs to be critically challenged.

As a first step, Burma needs a group of Burmese (however one wants to define this) who dare to challenge ingrained state ideologies and constitutive elements that perpetuate colonial attitudes and actions. This means, challenging the very notions of the state, nation, nationalism and sovereignty, and addressing the actions of those in power at different sites and scales. Without it, all the talk about peace is just a waste of time and energy; it will fail one day or another.

As a concluding note, it is important to mention that the illusionary and colonial imaginations of history and nation are not unique to the Burmese ruling class. My discussion does not romanticize ethnic armed groups or erase similar tendencies among some groups towards smaller and/or less powerful minority groups. Wherever colonial attitudes and actions are found, they deserve to be fundamentally challenged.

Sai Latt is a PhD Candidate at Simon Fraser University in Canada

[1] I acknowledge that the State is a contested term and that it is not a homogenous entity. But I loosely use it as a general term to refer to the government, the ruling class, and military/police, and general governmental institutions.