Confronting the Demons

Since independence we Bama have been living a collective lie that is both hegemonic and myopically nationalistic. The supposedly linear progression of Burma or Myanmar, save the colonial interlude of 120 years, from a Buddhist kingdom originating in Pagan to today's modern nation-state is a complete fallacy, devoid of any empirical evidence.

The "we" here refers to post-colonial ethnic Bama, civilian and military, exiles and in-country compatriots, who unquestioningly embrace and ritualistically recycle our popular nationalist historiography, according to which Myanmar, or Burma as we know it, has been in existence since time immemorial.

As a post-colonial society, we have been stuck in class and ethnicity-based political conflicts since independence from Britain. According to the reactive version of Bama-centered nationalist historiography on which our history curriculum rests, we are but a post-colonial mess left behind by the British Raj.

However, these nationalist discourses are not fully honest intellectually, although there is a tinge of truth to them. They are largely silent about our own troubled pre-colonial pasts. Our pre-colonial histories are marked by local imperialisms, brutal slave raids, rigidly enforced caste-like social stratification, institutionalized gender oppression, monopolistic economic exploitation of peasantries by ruling feudal houses, and wasteful and gigantic pagoda and palace building projects, be they of the Bama, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, etc.

Since the early days of what may be considered "the emergence of a modern Burmese nationalism" around the turn of the 20th century, members of our chattering classes—from U May Oung and Dr Ba Han, writing about their colonial Burma in the now defunctJournal of Burma Research Society, to the nationalist folklorist Maung Htin Aung, who authored, among many other books,“The Stricken Peacock: An Account of Anglo-Burmese Relations 1752-1948” (Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), from ex-Brigadier Maung Maung, Ne Win's deputy and author of “Burmese Nationalist Movements (1940-48)” (Kiscadale, 1994), to (Dr)Thant Myint-U of “The River of the Lost Footsteps: A Personal History” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)—have recycled this old Bama-centered and irredeemably elitist historiography.

Misinformed by the skewered readings of our past, the dominant Bamas imagine ourselves as a historically cohesive nation whose organizational integration with minority peripheries only needs to be completed either democratically or by force.

In fact, the history of post-colonial Burma centers on a pathological process of neo-colonization of non-dominant members of the Union at the hands of the dominant Bama elite, who subscribe to the deeply problematic ideological view of "Burma"—where the Bamas, urban elites and males, and now soldiers, are more equal than other ethnic communities, classes and females.

Following independence, Bama politicians and soldiers alike have resumed this old expansionist mission in the name of post-colonial nation-state building. During a lengthy tape-recorded interview in 1994, ex-Colonel Chit Myaing, a Revolutionary Council member and the well-known deputy-commander of the Burma Rifle No. 5, told me frankly that as early as 1952 Bama nationalist soldiers, with political support from leading nationalist politicians from the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), built Ba Htoo army-town as the first military base on Shan soil. It was a preemptive military move against the Shans, who the Bama nationalists feared might exercise their right of secession as guaranteed (to them and the Karenni) by modern Burma's founding Constitution of 1947.

Also the late U Chan Tun, the chief legal advisor to Aung San and subsequently the Chief Justice of independent Burma, reportedly confessed that even that Constitution was federal only in name, but unitary in both nature and substance.

While the dominant elite built the Bama-centered unitary state under the disguise of a federal union immediately after independence, the non-dominant groups, for their part, waged resistance against this Bama imperialist revival, igniting equally problematic
mono-ethno-nationalisms.


The ethno-logic of "Arakan for the Arakanese" explicit in the recent interview with the Arakanese historian Dr Aye Kyaw (vide The Irrawaddy online, 3 Oct 2009) is the type of "blood"-based ethno-vision which so typifies ethnic resistance-thinking prevalent amongst minority "insurgents." The Karen National Union's curriculum with its anti-Bama ethno-nationalism is another case in point.

The troubled inter-ethnic relations between the dominant Bama and the other "dominant minority" groups (such as the Mon, the Shan, the Karenni, and the Arakanese who had their own sovereign kingdoms, or the Kachins and others with their own clan-based traditional political governance and social organizations) are not the only ethnic problems.

These "dominant minorities" in many cases behave neo-colonialistically towards numerous other smaller ethnic and linguistic groups, indigenous or recent arrivals.

To fully appreciate this tapestry of ethno-colonialisms, one needs to look at the deeply racist attitude of the Arakanese and the Bamas towards the Muslim minorities that have long put down their roots in our country, the dominant Shan towards smaller minorities such as the Pa-O, Intha, Palaung and so on, or the internecine struggles for supremacy among Chin clans, the dominant Jing-Hpaws towards Lisu, Lahu, Ahka and other groups, the numerically greater Buddhist Karen against Christian Karen—and the list goes on.

Even the National League for Democracy's vision statement (dated 6 November 1989) failed to problematize the idea of Burma as a federated union, where some of the largest or political significant minorities such as the Karen, the Mon and the Arakanese would not have seats at the head table. Instead the NLD leadership falsely assumed that with "democracy's return" the ethnic problems could be resolved. It is only to be expected that the current junta which views politics as a zero-sum extension of war would attempt to reduce the most vital issue of ethnic relations to nothing more than the Tatmadaw or royal army's recruitment mission for its "Border Guard Force"!

However, we can't fruitfully examine ethnic relations as stand-alone, social-psychological issues as if popularized elite imagination alone and reified collective identities were a sufficient basis of nationhood, without addressing such tangible issues as economic and class domination, control and exploitation.

To appreciate the economic and class foundations of a "nation-state," one only needs to ask a few rhetorical questions which have clearly discernible answers: Who, and which institution, controls, exploits and profits from building deep-sea ports on the Arakanese coast, drilling gas off the Mon's Gulf of Martaban, felling teak and other valuable hard-woods in Kawthoolei or ancestral Karen land, mining jade, rubies, iron ore, copper, uranium from the soils that historically belong to the Shan, Kachin, Karenni and other "sub-national" minorities? Which class produces staples for the society? Who regulates export-import markets and cross-border trade? In whose interests is the State run? Who "eats" the country's foreign exchange earnings? Who defines "national objectives" or national vision?

Tragically, in the 62 years since independence the country has become a "double-colony" along ethnic and class lines, this time under the native militarists. By "double-colony," I mean the existing political, ideological and economic system whereby successive military regimes since 1962 have reconstructed social and economic relations between the military and the rest of the society, that is, multi-ethnic communities and other non-military classes (e.g., the intelligentsia, professionals, peasants and workers, career bureaucrats, merchants and entrepreneurs, clergies of all faiths and so on) for the sole purpose of buttressing the supremacy of the Tatmadaw as a distinct and most dominant social class. In the 2010 "elections," the military is attempting blatantly to arrogate to itself the right to rule and to exploit land, labor and resources in order to consolidate its own class interests.

While the "Nargis Constitution," so-called as it was adopted in the midst of our greatest national suffering, was clearly designed to simply legalize this double-colony, the standard Bama-centered nationalist historiography helps justify, wittingly or unwittingly,
the military's self-perception as the "nationalist" guardian of the nation that never was.

Bama intellectual elites need to stop poisoning the public psyche with well-worn statist and ethnocentric nationalist views so typical of contemporary scholarly and policy discourses about "Burma" and "Myanmar." If we are to break with our failed and in-glorious pasts we must confront our own nationalist selves, western-educated or tradition-bound, sophisticated or rabid.


Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is a columnist for The Irrawaddy and Research Fellow on Burma at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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