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The government’s ongoing war against the Kachin, who helped establish the Union of Burma, a political union of ethnically equal communities, has demonstrated that the country’s leaders are not interested in nation building, but in empire building.
Naypyidaw’s disproportionate use of modern weaponry against the Kachins and its parroting of democracy, development and good governance betrays the deeply imperialistic, feudal nature of the regime whose ethos is stuck in the days of the failed empire-builders of the Kongbaung dynasty.
Burma’s Tatmadaw are reportedly conducting daily air raids from helicopter gunships and fighter jets and using heavy artillery to target Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions. Naypyidaw’s spokespersons, from President Thein Sein down to his underlings Ye Htut and Htay Zaw, are lying to the world with a straight face and claim that all the violence unleashed on the ground as well as from the air is, well, “in self-defence”.
Beyond the human cost on both sides of the conflict in Kachin state, the government’s escalation of its internally colonialist war is, in effect, bound to unleash a new vicious cycle of ethnic wars.
Further, the ugly realities of the war atrocities committed against the Kachin has shattered the rose-tinted view of the Thein Sein government as a ‘peace-pursuer’ – to paraphrase the title of the International Crisis Group’s quaintly named award ‘In Pursuit of Peace’, which President Thein Sein is a co-recipient.
Viewed from a historical perspective, the government’s escalation of its ethnic war against the Kachins reveals that the celebrated reformist president and his comrades-in-arm are the newest in a long line of Bama imperialists who pursue a pathological militarism towards weaker, non-Bama ethnic communities.
Historically speaking, what we today call Burma, or Myanmar, has not experienced peace since the founding of the Kongbaung dynasty, which began ruling the country’s central plains in the 1750s. The Bama-centric official history usually blames the origins of the country’s post-colonial ethnic conflicts on the legacy of British colonial rule. However, Burma was a war-torn country long before the British colonized the Bama imperialist court at Mandalay in November 1885.
Empirically, wars and conflicts in the lives of the peoples of Burma have been a constant in the otherwise ever-changing realities on the ground. The country has remained at war with itself since the British transferred sovereignty and power back to the Bama political elites in 1948.
The ruling elites of all stripes and colours since independence have always looked for easy scapegoats to blame for their own failures in pursuing lasting peace and building a healthy web of ethnic relations among pockets of multiethnic peoples. Among the official scapegoats were the ‘power-mad’ Communists, secessionist minorities, Maoists in China, rightists in Thailand, Islamists in Bangladesh, Yankee imperialists and old colonialists in London.
Whatever their outward forms, the Bama political elites – democrats, communists, rightists, socialists, militarists, generals, dissidents and civilians –have one thing in common—their certifiably imperialist complex. Invariably, they all feel an entitlement to boss around and bully the rest of the country’s ethnic people. Successive military governments since General Ne Win came to power in 1962 have only institutionalised the most virulent strain of this cancerous ideology and pursued it in thoughts and deeds.
The only Bama nationalist leader who came closest to the ideal of an ethnically fair-minded anti-imperialist was Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. “I am opposed to British imperialism, Japanese imperialism, and Bama imperialism,” said Aung San in a speech he delievered to the executive committee of the Anti-fascist People’s Freedom League, which he headed in May 1946.
On the eve of Burma’s independence in 1947, the non-Bama ethnic leaders representing the Kachin, the Karenni, the Shan and the Chin chose to join the Bama leader Aung San in founding the Union of Burma as equal and voluntary partners, signing the founding treaty among different ethnic groups which later came to be known as the ‘Panglong Treaty’. Their choice was made as a result of his convincing personal integrity and in part out of their own strategic calculations.
Aung San developed and internalised an inclusive ‘Big Tent’ multi-ethnic vision for the country on the cusp of independence. He believed rightly that the only workable formula to build a healthy multi-ethnic country was to enshrine the principle of ethnic equality among different ethnic communities and improve the conditions among non-Bama ethnic peoples living in peripheral but strategic borderlands populated by the Kachin, the Shan, the Karenni, the Chin, and so on.
But when the only Bama revolutionary leader, who represented the majority Bama public, was assassinated only months before independence, the assassins’ bullets killed not only the national visionary but also his inclusive vision of an independent Burma. Not a single one of Aung San’s colleagues and deputies, including the Bama politicians such as Prime Minister U Nu or General Ne Win, shared his conviction in creating an inclusive Union. Nor was there any institution that was tasked to realise or capable of implementing Aung San’s ‘Big Tent’ vision.
The late U Chan Tun, a British-educated barrister and key constitutional advisor to Aung San who played a vital rule in drafting the original Constitution of 1947, remarked honestly that post-Aung San’s assassination, the Union of Burma that emerged was federal only in name, and the state that was created according to that Constitution was in effect unitary in nature.
The non-Bama ethnic minorities started their membership in the new Union of Burma post-independence feeling they were cheated by the Bama political elites who reneged on their promise of ethnic equality. As early as 1953, the civilian politicians from U Nu’s government and the military leaders led by General Ne Win were collaborating in taking pre-emptive military measures against any ethnic group from seceding from the Union – constitutionally or through armed revolts.“What the country and her people need in the 21st century – and after 250 years of continual war and misery – is federalism”
Because the Shans were the most organised, sophisticated and independence-mined, the Bama elites built a new town at Ba Htoo in the Shan Hills as a site ostensibly for the Defense Services Academy. According to retired Colonel Chit Myaing, a well known commander in northern Shan state at the time, the hidden mission behind constructing the new town was to serve as the first Bama military base in the heart of the Shan territories from which the central State’s Armed Forces would project its military power in order to reign in any pro-secession centrifugal forces.
Despite the Bama elites’ political paranoia, most of the non-Bamas, including the official co-founders of the Union, namely the Kachins, the Chin and the Shans, remained loyal to the Union and fended off, alongside the Bama military and political elites, any secessionist efforts from other ethnic minorities such as the Karens.
Still, the Bama paranoia runs too deep for them to trust anyone other than themselves to retain the reins of the state in Burma. Two years after the military staged the coup in the early 1960s, many nationally acclaimed writers, for instance, the late Maung Htin, were denouncing any public mention of ‘federalism’ as a slippery slope towards the balkanization of Burma.
Maung Htin was writing anti-Federalist fear-mongering popular essays in Myawaddy – a large circulation magazine put out by the Army’s Psychological Warfare Division in Rangoon. Within the Armed Forces, the generals have succeeded in institutionalising this paranoid view that ‘federalism equals balkanization’.
In 2005, a high ranking military officer who was in charge of the National Convention outside Rangoon said to me, with deep disdain and fear, that some well-known Kachin peace-brokers proposed some federal arrangements as part of the re-construction of Burma as a peaceful Union. When powerful military leaders wrongly – and typically in knee-jerk fashion – dismiss the only viable idea, namely federalist devolution of state power to different constitutive ethnic communities, as a step towards the balkanization of Burma, then we are in for deep trouble.
After his ruthless but victorious military campaign against the lower country’s Mon rivals, U Aung Zeya, the Bama imperialist founder of the last Kongbaung dynasty stopped at a small fishing village surrounded by swamps and jungles and renamed it ‘Yangon’ or the ‘End of Strife’, in an apparent superstitious attempt to signal that his decisive military victories against the Mons marked the end an era and the beginning of another. That was in the 1750s.
Over the past 250 years, the country has not experienced any lasting peace, with or without alien British or Japanese rule. Burma is the only country in all of Southeast Asia where the civil war has not stopped since it broke out in the wake f World War II.
Bama nationalism of the masses may simply be defined as an abstract idea of what Benedict Anderson famously, but quaintly termed ‘an imagined community’. But for the ruling elites, their self-professed nationalism is definitely more than imagining a national community as they please. The Bama ruling and counter-elite’s nationalism is more about resources, land grabs and controlling strategic regions that have never really been under the effective and direct rule of Bama imperialists.
Therefore, the escalated wars against the Kachins represent a fully imperialist campaign. The old European powers such as English and French waged their imperial wars of loot and domination against non-European peoples around the world under the rubric of a ‘Civilizing Mission’. But for Naypyidaw’s brutes and sincere deceivers, there can be no such excuse against the new discourses of human rights, ethnic equality, participatory democracy, etc. Plainly put, Naypyidaw’s war is fueled by greed, militarism and imperialist delusions.
Two and a half centuries ago, the Kongbaung dynasty was built by Bama feudal warlords. This feat was carried out on the backs of the conscripted multi-ethnic soldiers and labourers, which resulted in untold miseries. The old Bama empire builders and their incessant military campaigns forced literally hundreds of thousands of Arakanese, Shan, Karen and other ethnic peoples to flee to neighbouring kingdoms and territories to seek refuge.
By all indications, today’s ruling military is resuming the old feudal delusions of grandeur, which the mightier British colonizers crushed in the early 19th century. The fake gold-gilded throne in the Parliament, the feudal title of the capital Naypyidaw, the replica of Shwedagon pagoda, the absence of compassionate humanism as the state’s ethos, giant statues of the old warrior kings in the neo-Fascist parade ground are all the distinct manifestations of the ruling elite’s embrace of self-destructive imperialist feudalism.
What the country and her people need in the 21st century – and after 250 years of continual war and misery – is federalism where ethnic equality, religious tolerance and multiculturalism would be the organising principles for a new Burma.
Maung Zarni (www.maungzarni.com) is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, and until very recently, associate professor with the Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Brunei Darussalem, Brunei
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy