James T Davies reflects on the challenges to establishing a unified and conflict-free Myanmar.

Inclusion, understanding, autonomy, conflict and poverty – often far from the reach of the state — reflect just some of the challenges, as opportunities and progress, linked to the emergence of an inclusive national identity in Myanmar.

They were also the focus of an excellent panel discussion as part of the 2017 Myanmar Update hosted by the Australian National University on 17-18 February.

Cecile Medail, PhD Candidate at the University of New South Wales, began the panel with a look at the grassroots voices of Mon people in forming an inclusive national identity in Myanmar. The challenges of national identity during transition, and particularly for minority communities, were noted.

Medail’s recent in-depth fieldwork stressed the importance of equality and participation, as well as the value of preserving indigenous literature and language, in the formation of an inclusive identity. Indeed, an inclusive, multi-ethnic national identity would support peace, Medail argued.

Dr Mya Mya Khin, Head of the Department Anthropology at Yangon University, also shed some light on the voices of communities intimately concerned with these issues, and which are too often ignored. Her paper looked at perceptions of ceasefire in a Mon village.

This study gave a comprehensive overview of the history of ceasefires in the area, including the impact of ethnic armed organisations’ administration on local life. For community development and poverty alleviation, Dr Mya Mya Khin argued, building understanding and discussion of these local perceptions of ceasefire is crucial.

Also on the topic of ceasefires was a paper by Lwin Cho Latt, Khin Sanda Myint and Marlar Aung, all of Yangon University. This paper dealt with the issue of “all-inclusiveness”, as perceived by the Tatmadaw, government and ethnic armed organisations. It was noted that equal political rights and self-rule were previously sought through armed struggle, and this history of conflict presents obstacles to peace and reconciliation today. They concluded that a focus on inclusiveness will open understandings of opportunities for peace.

The final paper offered a fascinating insight into the Wa Self-Administered Division in northern Shan State. Naomi Hellmann, of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, painted a picture of this little-known semi-autonomous territory, as a land far from Naypyitaw, both in terms of geography and identity.

The area is sometimes said to be a territory of China, and Hellmann likens it to the Crimea of China, “although without the threat of annexation”. Despite officially being part of Myanmar, there is little sign of the state here, and few use the Myanmar language. Food insecurity, illiteracy and poverty are widespread. Furthermore, residents have little documentation, a serious obstacle to travel or employment. It is also a tangible representation of the questions of belonging and identity for residents.

As well as the existing challenges to an inclusive national identity in Myanmar, however, we were also reminded of progress in recent years. This could be said to include the symbolic replacement of a large rice bowl monument, associated with the Bama, with the Mon Hintha in Mawlamyine.

James T Davies is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.