Ethnic Conflicts are the Generals’ Golden Goose

The last 10 days saw the breakdown of the ceasefire between Burmese generals and the Kachin minority, one of modern Burma’s founding ethnic communities. But it’s important not to view this primarily through prism of ethnicity—emphatically, the generals are equal opportunity oppressors who discriminate not on the basis of ethnicity or religious faith, but in terms of their personal and institutional interests.

While there are “natural” ethnic prejudices among Burma’s “communities of difference” (in terms of religion, ethnicity and ideology) these prejudices don’t automatically evolve and deepen themselves into ethnic hatred and intractable conflicts. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father—the slain national hero Aung San—was able to work out a multi-ethnic treaty on the eve of the country’s independence. 

On the basis of ethnic and political equality, the country’s minorities, with legitimate historical claims over their own ancestral regions, agreed to join the post-independent Union of Burma.

This was no small achievement in the face of various attempts to mobilize ethnic grievances by local minorities and majority political elites, as well as some external players such as conservative elements within the British colonial and military establishments. As sincere as he was when he won over the Kachin, Shan and Chin leaders with his pledge of “Bama one Kyat, Shan one Kyat”, the strategic importance of the adjacent minority regions to the Bama majority’s interests was not at all lost on him.

The country’s conflicts regarding different ethnic communities are political because they are fundamentally rooted in the minorities’ demands for, and the Burmese ruling classes’ rejections of, the recognition that modern, post-independence Burma was the result of the voluntary coming together of different ethnic groups where were all equally indigenous to the land.

The politically defiant minority organizations and communities have been fighting the Burmese government since 1947—that is, just months before the country’s independence from Britain. The historic agreement to unite Burma as a voluntary federation based on the inviolable principle of ethnic equality was buried along with Aung San’s remains that same year. Virtually all of his Bama nationalist contemporaries, soldiers and civilians, held the mistaken view that federalism was about secession, and have done everything to kill minorities’ federalist aspirations accordingly.

The result was the minority groups feel the dissolution of British rule only brought them under the internal colonial arrangement imposed on them by the Bama post-colonial civilian elites, the likes of Prime Minister Ba Swe and Deputy Prime Minister Kyaw Nyein, with the help of their allies in the military who helped institute this “internal colonialism.”

Even before the decisive military coup of 1962, successive military leaderships since the country’s independence have pursued policies or strategies on a broad continuum between minimal accommodation of ethnic minorities at best, to total annihilation at worst.

During a nearly 10-hour interview with me in 1995, the well-respected nationalist former Colonel Chit Myaing said that the founding of the Bahtoo army town in Shan State as the original seat of the country’s Defense Services Academy in the early 1950s was one of the first attempts to build military bases in strategic locations throughout non-Bama ethnic regions.

The hidden objective was to ready the Bama Tatmadaw or Royal Army for preemptive strikes against any minority group with federalist and independence aspirations. The resultant dynamic is the crux of the ethnic conflicts in Burma.

Because the generals have come to view the conflicts, especially the “ethnic conflicts”, as their main justification to maintain their power structures, they have shown no interest or political will for establishing genuine and lasting peace.

In fact, the generals have turned domestic conflicts into their golden goose. That is one of the reasons why the generals have never attempted to translate the “gentleman’s ceasefire agreements”—reached in the early and mid-1990s with around 17 different armed minority organizations—into lasting political agreements.In keeping these conflicts alive, the Burmese military regime has retained the old colonial-era politics of exploiting ethnic differences in order to suit its strategy of “divide and rule.” Typically, the Burmese military have induced, searched, amplified and exploited detectable differences of interests, generations, religious faiths and visions between the Burmese majority and the minorities, between one single minority community, between families and clans, and among minorities themselves.

For instance, in Shan State where there was strong armed resistance by Shan nationalists, the military would encourage, facilitate and support formation of the Kokang Han Chinese and Shan-Chinese into minority militias and allow the latter to engage in lucrative narcotics trade.

In turn, the militias formed under the military’s indirect patronage would cooperate with the Burmese military, for instance, in terms of local intelligence gathering or providing Burmese military commanders a share in their economic spoils.

Contrary to the empirically false academic view which paints Burma’s generals as simple-minded “war-fighters” who don’t do politics, these men in uniform have proven themselves adept at manipulating both domestic and external developments.

During the past 50 years of military dictatorships under different disguises, ethnic and dialectic differences get multiplied and amplified by the regime in order to create an impression that—with more than “100 different ethnic groups”—the dreadful Balkan scenario lurks just beneath the surface of the country’s ethnic politics and will be unleashed without the strong central hand of the military to hold these centrifugal forces together.

Within Asian regional context as well as internationally, the military has maintained a very active propaganda campaign, tailoring the content to resonate with the target governments and organizations.

With Burma’s neighbors, generally stability-conscious national governments and UN agencies, the military propaganda regarding ethnic minorities is designed to stoke the general fear of Burma’s balkanization, perceived or real. In this context, the military paints itself as the only strong hand which is capable of guaranteeing the integrity of territorial boundaries and internal stability.

For the dominant Burmese majority and the Burmese-dominated military rank and files, the military maintains and propagates its own revisionist history where the ethnic minorities are secessionists hell bent on triggering the balkanization of Burma, a country where the Burmese majority have always been a superior group whose contributions—vis-à-vis those of other ethnic groups—to state and nation-building are unparalleled. From this racist and statist standpoint, genuine federalism based on ethnic equality is tantamount to nation-disintegrating political arrangement.

As a matter of fact, the generals have been modulating the volume of these conflicts, depending on the international climate of the day. Throughout the Cold War, under Britain’s arrangement, anti-Communist Burmese generals would be on study tours in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia to observe first-hand how the British military was applying “Four Cuts Strategies” (cutting the enemy of intelligence/information, supplies, new recruits and finance) against the Malay communists—strategies which the Burmese would later apply against not only their own communist troops but also minority rebel strongholds.

Within the Burmese Army itself, the uncompromising military leadership has consistently crushed any moderate cliques who begin to seek genuine understanding and peace arrangements with armed resistance leaderships such as the Kachin or the Karen minorities.

Recurring waves of dissent within the military and corresponding wholesale purges are in part related to signs of some sub-cliques within the military wanting to pursue a more peaceful—as opposed to annihilationist—policy towards both the minorities and majority Burmese dissidents.

Since the end of the Cold War there have been the shifting alliances and/or business partnerships among Burma’s military, neighboring governments such as Thailand, India and China, and various armed ethnic organizations along the 3,000-plus kilometer Indo-, Sino- and Thai-Burmese borders. These have had significant impact on the dynamic and political economy of ethnic conflicts in Burma. In this connection, the two unfolding phenomena warrant a close-up look: the resurgence of economic developmentalism and the creation of a single, integrated lucrative energy market in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS).

In Burma’s neighborhood, governments are focused on development and economic growth through large-scale projects such as dam constructions, overland cross-border trade, special trans-boundary economic zones which will turn displaced Burmese populations into cheap laborers in assembly lines and dirty industries such as oil refineries.

The integrated energy market in Southeast Asia intends to draw much of its resources and electricity from the border areas of Burma. Most of these projects are situated across ethnic minority lands.

The generals’ insensitivity to the survival needs of local communities results in the rise in military tensions with respective ethnic armed organizations. This the military uses as a way of re-framing itself as the guarantor of physical safety of these mega-development projects and provider of market stability. Ominously for the multi-ethnic communities of Burma, a confluence of interest and (pro-market) ideology between the generals and external players is emerging. 

Dr. Zarni is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

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