By Banya Hongsar, Canberra–
Burma has been underdeveloped, disordered, and in decline for over half of the century. A medium-sized nation in Southeast Asia, it has faced the unrelenting dark side of social, political, and economic problems under the rule of unqualified leaders from the ruling military government for too long. A new national mode has been sought by a broad coalition of activists, students, Buddhist monks, and foreigners who desire to see a strong, prosperous, stable Burma.
A united spirit among every Burmese and non-Burmese should be fostered at every opportunity to lay the foundations for peace, development, and nation building by the country’s citizens in the 21stcentury. The challenge is enormous, the task is nearly overwhelming, and the time is limited until the whole country could fall apart with more bloodshed, war, and armed conflict.
Working for unity in the diversity of Burma is in the common interest of modern Burma’s social and political activists. Despite different interpretations of ‘unity in diversity’, the principle of unity is nevertheless not diminished by ideological conflict. ‘Unity in diversity’ means an egalitarian social, cultural, and political society for the human welfare of individuals and beyond.
It is only a matter of time until Burma will either implode or be enlightened in the 21st century. A broken Burma’s disunity will lead to a fatally fractured Burma without social or political foundations, while a united Burma will lead to a stable and prosperous nation in the newly globalised world’s social and political environment.
Historically, mistrust between Burman and non-Burman peoples has darkened the soul and attitude of our communities. The past of invading Burmans and non-Burman victims will only be healed under a guiding principle of human rights and equality under the law. As a native citizen of Burma and an ethnic Mon from Mon State, I seek unity instead of disunity, advocate for constitutional rights instead of seeking power with violence, and work to build a harmonious society with dignity instead of oppression among citizens. War and violence is not the best or last choice in solving social, political, and economic issues in modern times. The best choice is consensus political settlement with an equal partnership in national building. A newly-formed government has to be tested to show a sense of compromise with opposition and ethnic armed leaders. An acceptable political consensus should be reached under the guiding principles of human rights and the rule of law.
“For the past 20 years, foreign interest in Burma, or Myanmar, has been understandably concentrated on the problems of democracy and human rights. Although this is of continuing concern, the central, unresolved issue facing the state since independence in 1948 has been finding the solution to the problem of governance of this profoundly multi-cultural society. Through several political incarnations, each government—civilian and military, socialist and capitalist—has designated the country as the “Union” of Burma or Myanmar. Yet, the concept of union is fragile and often violently contested,” asserted David Steinberg, a Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, in April of this year.
The newly-formed Burmese government must solve long-standing predicaments on two political fronts. The first is urban-based opposition organizations led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the latter is armed ethnic organizations based along Burma’s borders. Elected members of parliament have repeatedly been calling for ‘dialogue and national reconciliation’ since 1990. Burma’s ‘fragile concept of union’ should be discussed as a key agenda item in the dialogue among political leaders from all political persuasions.
The newly-appointed government has a responsibility in the new history of Burma before the nation is dragged further into poverty and disunity. Burma must be able to stand on its own feet under the threat of China’s aggressive regional strategies. It is a mistake for Burma to rely on China’s mercy for its own political fate in the new century of democracy and human rights because China itself inconsistently upholds these principles.
It is a tragedy of Burman leadership that Burma has failed to accommodate the spirit of unity in diversity with the principles laid by General Aung San in 1947 prior to Burma’s independence from Britain. It is again a tragedy that the nation could not install his sole daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, as a new leader in 1988 when the revolution took place calling for a restoration of democracy in the country. The broken unity of Burma itself is a key issue to be solved with the guiding principles of fairness and equality. Longtime Burma observer and writer Martin Smith asserts that ‘the peaceful and lasting solution to the long-running ethnic conflicts in Burma is, without doubt, one of the most integral challenges facing the country today. Indeed, it cannot be separated from the greater challenges of social, political, and economic reform in the country at large’.
A desire for unity in diversity in Burma has been sought for over six decades by both domestic and international political players. Western scholars and policy makers have expressed sympathy for the suffering of the people of Burma, and have advocated for institutional changes for over half a century. Professor Josef Silverstein, an academic from the United States of America and a prominent Burma observer for several decades, asserted on the issue of unity and federalism in Burma that ‘a new federal constitution is a long way off; there is no sign that the military will agree to one which it does not dictate, and there is no sign that the NLD leaders and ethnic minorities will agree to a basic law which is not federal and reflects their goals and aspirations. Thus, as the days of 2002 pass, the struggle for a new constitution remains deadlocked. The chief protagonists still are not talking, and the world leaders still are unable to find a way to bring about real change in Burma’.
Burma-born, USA-educated Aung Naing Oo also concluded in his recent piece in Irrawaddy magazine, “True, forging unity has been, and will continue to be, a difficult task. Without doubt, it will be a continuing process as the interests of political stakeholders and political paradigms shift. It will be even more difficult to build unity across the political divide, particularly with the Burmese armed forces”.
Searching for peace and unity in diversity in Burma is not only the concern of western scholars and Burman leaders, but also from a wider perspective has been the goal of ethnic leaders and scholars for decades. “A long-lasting solution to Burma’s problems needs sincerity, honesty, and the participation of all ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups should be brought into confidence, and their legitimate demands should be looked into. In sum, this process of democratization must have an inclusive approach,” said Nehginpao Kipgen, who is the General Secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum and a close watcher of Burma’s ethnic conflicts in the modern era.
Burmese journalist Ko Htwe recently commented in his piece from Irrawaddy News, ‘Despite leading to Burma’s independence in 1947, ethnic groups represented at the Panglong conference complained that the constitution it produced failed to guarantee equal rights, autonomy, and self-determination, as agreed upon at the meeting. It was one of the factors that led many ethnic groups to launch military operations against the central government’. It is clear that new and veteran social and political activists of Burma have been calling for unity in diversity with a genuine purpose of nation building. Modern Burma’s scholars since the 1988 uprising have been confronting the misjudgment of the ruling elites locally, nationally, and internationally. This is a sign of healthy debate on the state of Burma’s unity in diversity.
Dr. Maung Zarni bluntly asserted in his recent article from Irrawaddy News, ‘It is worth stressing that the ruling generals have rejected the federal spirit of ethnic equality and violently opposed any struggle towards a genuine federated Union. They have declared dead the Panglong Agreement of 1947, the founding document of a modern, post-colonial Burma, wherein ethnic equality was enshrined as an inviolable pillar of multi-ethnic Burma. In Burma’s new colonial rule under its own military, anything and anyone that doesn’t bend to the generals’ will is to be controlled, subjugated or crushed’. Dr. Zarni is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Economics.
Martin Smith remarks in his recent paper ‘Ethnic Conflict and the challenge of civil society in Burma’, “Certainly, no one is expecting the next stages to be easy. Given Burma’s troubled past, failure can never be ruled out, and, indeed, the real difficulties may have only just begun. Nevertheless, there remains a belief that, if Burma’s deep political problems are ever to be resolved, the establishment of peace is a priority, and this must eventually spread to those areas where fighting is still continuing so that the vexed issues of ethnic minority rights are addressed in tandem with democracy and greater national reform”.
A human rights-based approach underpins the best interest of each individual, community, and country at large in searching for peace, unity, prosperity, and democracy in Burma in the 21st century. National unity is the most essential requirement for the perpetuation of the sovereignty of the state, which includes a plethora of people of different ethnicities.
Even Senior General Than Shwe, Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, at the Graduation Parade of the 11th Intake of the Defence Services Medical Academy, stressed that ‘Today true patriotism means not to harbor narrow-minded nationalism, but to have the true patriotic spirit desirous of working together for the perpetuation, progress, and prosperity of the Union. National unity is the most essential requirement for the perpetuation of the sovereignty of the state, which is presided over by over one hundred national races. Although we have different faiths and traditions, all the nationalities are the citizens of the Union of Myanmar with the same characteristics such as kindness, helpfulness, patience, bravery, and patriotism’. This statement is not tested in practice in the country that locks up political activists, jails senior politicians and ethnic leaders, bans freedom of the press, and intimidates the aspiration of democracy and human rights activists in present days.
Searching for unity in diversity in Burma is a common interest of social and political activists of Burma that aspire to freedom, equality, and principles of human rights in the 21st century. A broken unity will never lead to peace and stability that sustain social and political welfare of the nation. U Thein Sein, Burma’s new president, will be judged not by his words, but by his actions toward unity in diversity and equality under the laws and rights of individuals under the constitution. Time is history.