Multi-ethnic Burma and the junta will collide

No matter how carefully they tread on the issue of reviving the Union spirit among different ethnic communities, Aung San Suu Kyi and non-violent ethnic minority leaders – not to mention the armed ethnic resistance organisations – are heading for an inevitable collision course with Burma’s military junta. Here is why.

Their respective politics, as well as concerns and interests, are irreconcilable. For Suu Kyi and the multi-ethnic opposition, politics is a means towards peace, reconciliation, representative government and improved public well-being; for the ruling generals, however, it is an expression of entitlement to rule and a means of control, domination, and self-aggrandizement. The fact that Senior General Than Shwe even thought of buying out Manchester United football club while several million cyclone Nargis victims struggled for clean drinking water and dry shelter speaks volumes about the deeply callous nature of the generals that rule the country.

While the world knows plenty about Aung San Suu Kyi and what she represents, it knows almost nothing about the generals beyond their international pariah status.

As far as the generals are concerned, there is no need for reconciliation along ethnic or political lines with any person, organization or community. In short, they have done nothing wrong, for they perceive themselves as the country’s sole national guardian, untainted by partisan politics. They are committed to the abstract idea of a multi-ethnic nation and an absolutist notion of sovereignty. They love the country, but they can’t stand the people, especially the kind who refuse to go along with their design for the rest of the country.

The generals’ politics is all about resuming and completing the process of reconsolidation of the power of the ethnic Burmese majority, most specifically the soldiering class, over the rest of the ethnic minorities – a process only interrupted by the old kingdom’s 19th century defeat by Great Britain. Sixty years after independence the military has built its own version of local colonial rule wherein it serves as the constitutionally-mandated ruling class and the rest of the civilian society, both ethnic majority and minorities, as second class citizens.

In this new colonial rule, anything and anyone that doesn’t bend to the generals’ will is to be controlled, subjugated or crushed. Aung San Suu Kyi and 2,200-plus jailed multi-ethnic dissidents or politically defiant ethnic minority groups that are subject to rape, pillage, summary executions and other atrocities attest to this. And this time round the regime is likely to get really nasty, with disturbing signals of the brewing troubles ahead already emerging.

The world just witnessed 20,000 Burmese refugees fleeing the renewed, post-election fighting between the regime and a faction of Karen ethnic minority ceasefire groups into Thailand. Furthermore, the Burmese military has recently deployed massive numbers of combat-ready troops along vast stretches of the porous Thai-Burmese border and purchased and assembled 50 Russian-made Mi-24 gunship helicopters in preparation for “counterinsurgency” operations to subjugate the country’s minorities.

Burma has been engulfed in conflict, violent and non-violent, since 90 days after independence from Britain. Everyone is tired of war and conflict – that is, everyone except the top generals and those who profit from the continuation of war and conflict.

The military’s rose-tinted perception of itself as the ‘guardian of the nation’ is one thing, but the vested class and personal interests that have resulted from 50 years of successive military dictatorships are another. War may not be peace as Orwellian double-speak suggests, but it is highly profitable for the strong and the victorious.

Perpetuating domestic conflicts enables the regime to expand its military control over resource-rich and strategic minority regions which border Asia’s rising economies such as India, China and Thailand. The economically vibrant neighbours have signed multi-billion dollar commercial deals, including trans-border gas pipelines, two deep seaports, ‘development corridors’ and ‘special economic zones’, natural gas production, hydropower projects and mining, all over different minority lands along Burma’s national borders.

The regime’s opponents are incomparably weaker, outnumbered and outgunned. The regime discards such modern normative inconveniences as governmental accountability, citizens’ voice, and ecological and livelihood concerns, as it grabs natural resources and land from both ethnic majority and minority communities, while their Asian business partners look the other way. The troops are allowed to scavenge among local populations, confiscating anything of value with impunity from the top leadership. In fact, it is the senior and junior generals in Naypyidaw who push their regional, battalion and local commanders towards local economic self-sufficiency – at any cost to local communities and economies.

Ideologically, the war against minorities reinforces the Burmese military’s self-justificatory perception that its primacy and monopoly control over minority regions are necessary, lest these autonomy-seeking ethnic people break up the Union. However these days the Burmese public, weary of the governmental brutality and with greater exposure to global free media, is no longer susceptible to the regime’s ethno-nationalist propaganda. The glue that used to bind the Burmese majority with the militarist generals has come off.

Precisely because this ethno-nationalist bond has been irreparably broken down, Aung San Suu Kyi and minority leaders’ recent moves towards dialogue and reconciliation poses the greatest threat to the ruling junta. Only 20 years ago the regime, challenged by the majority Burmese public in Burma’s ‘people power’ uprising, opted for disparate ceasefire deals with nearly 20 armed minority organizations, not out of genuine desire for peace and reconciliation, but as a strategy to pre-empt the inter-ethnic solidarity between the Aung San Suu Kyi-led majority and rebellious minorities. Now that some of the most crucial ceasefires are likely to unravel, the highest strategic priority of the regime has become preventing inter-ethnic unity.

There is little wonder then that the generals’ greatest threat is Aung San Suu Kyi’s enduring popularity across ethnic lines and her politics of reconciliation. Her politics by no means induces the country’s balkanization as the generals and their supporters have implied. If anything, the military’s zero-sum politics will pave the way for national disintegration.

If one listens carefully to Burma’s disparate ethnic resistance groups, everyone is prepared to live within a single union. They are simply asking that fair political representation and ethnic equality be made central organizing principles of the Union – something the majority Burmese as represented by Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition movement have endorsed.

Foreign governments and advocates generally view the military as the only cohesive national organization capable of keeping territorial Burma together, but they conveniently ignore the realities on the ground: Burma’s military has categorically failed at nation-building – its record of 50 years in power speaks for itself.

What the generals want and pursue is power and profit while their multi-ethnic opponents can only offer peace and reconciliation. Their respective missions are bound to collide, and it’s just a matter of time before the world witnesses a new round of confrontation, conflicts and crack down.

For the foreign governments and international organisations which fear Burma’s ethnic balkanization or political instability, the best way to prevent this eventuality is to start recognizing that the generals, this generation and the next, are not going to be the ones who will bring about lasting peace, reconciliation and stability. Instead of placing misguided confidence in gradual military-led transition, these external players should invest in long-term initiatives designed to help empower multi-ethnic dissidents and their organizations, as well as ordinary citizens and their communities in order that the people may succeed in their attempts at what Aung San Suu Kyi calls a ‘peaceful revolution’, a process of change that brings about meaningful, positive and radical changes in policy, leadership and institutions.

Maung Zarni is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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