By Nai Banya Hongsar – A campaign for lasting peace, with an agenda of national unity and a foundation for ethnic political inclusion, must be established in the next few years to secure Burma’s place in the 21st century world of prosperity and democracy. A new reality for the country’s more than 60 million people is progressing, beyond the interests of political elites and with sincere attention to health, education, and national pride.
The movement for peace has already begun in the wake of ceasefire agreements reached by ethnic groups and government forces in the past six months. Ethnic leaders have earned greater support for the peace process locally and internationally. A sense of national unity and shared trust is growing. A new Burma is within reach. However, effective governance cannot be implemented when so much conflict and so many problems remain unaddressed. I believe an unshakable commitment to nonviolence is the most sustainable and appropriate way to end the crisis in Burma.
Nonviolence is a uniquely moral principle in politics. It is the best quality of human beings. Moral leaders see violence as a last resort. This essay explores my thinking on nonviolence and how to achieve democracy and human rights for all citizens in Burma. Although others see me as naively optimistic, I have a dream that Burma will be a peaceful country in my lifetime.
I have been searching for the best solutions to Burma’s problems since I was a young man. Now, in my 40s, my social and political thinking are matured. For decades, I have lived in different places and cultures, and under different systems and rules, but I am always seeking for a “middle way” or path to democracy in my homeland—the country I hold dearest in my heart. It is my desire to return home and work with my fellow countrymen toward prudent and peaceful change. I am not alone in seeking this path, though some do not dare express their pursuit publically. But time is running out, and the moment is right to contribute my personal thoughts and political principles.
I was born to a poor family in a rural area and was cared for by a local Buddhist monk in my childhood. I was taught the correct way to live and encouraged to think morally. I was supported and nurtured by the moral wisdom of the senior monks. Now, I am a community worker in the western world, but I still examine myself for the moral principles I hold as a good human being.
Over two thousand years ago, the Burmese community also received its moral principles from the Buddha and his fellow monks. Forgiveness is the finest quality of the Buddhist. Military leaders and other politicians understand this principle. A nation will not survive with endless conflict. A country will never develop with armed insurgencies. Human beings cannot attain peace and harmony when there is such a clash of ideology.
The British ruled my country for almost 130 years spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. Independence was hard won and a long time coming, but when the British relinquished power, they left behind much misunderstanding and a learned practice of factionalism. The multi-ethnic nation fractured. Modern political leaders have no trust, even among themselves. The majority ethnic Burmese (Burman) leaders lack political vision, because they cling to the “winner takes all” approach that endured after Independence. The ethnic people had little political power to bargain with the Burmese leaders during the 1946 – 47 constitutional drafting process. The nation was formed with a lack of political consensus. Civil war broke out and, despite claims that it has subsided, it continues today.
The Burmese army and government troops used military power and resources to torment and intimidate the ethnic armed groups for over 40 years, until ceasefire agreements commenced in late 1990. A fledgling nonviolent approach to democracy was born.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a moral leader and founder of National League for Democracy, is the figurehead of the nonviolent movement in Burma. Millions of people stand up for their political rights under her leadership and with the support of students and workers. Our great preceding countrymen were born to struggle for independence from the British, and we were born to believe in democracy. Improved methods for cultivating the strength and assuredness of workers, students, and even Buddhist monks are being developed, and we all want to stand up for civil rights.
Active participation in civil society is not new to Burma, but it is fair to say that each group or ethnicity typically champions its own interests in politics. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has not ensured the unity of all factions. The military-led government exploited her and her party, putting her under house arrest for 15 years. Other leaders, including those from ethnic groups, have limited political capital to hold the ruling military government accountable for its corruption and mismanagement. Ceasefire groups hungry for commercial rewards and civilian-politicians ambitious for power built alliances with military leaders and ignored Aung San Suu Kyi for their own gains.
Economically, Burma has been “under-developed” for over a half century. We must rigorously analyze what went wrong—when we shifted course away from development trends, and how we can reclaim the path of growth and prosperity.
Other countries exploit resources in Burma and become richer while we, the people of Burma, are poorer. We are treated as second-class citizens in world affairs. Our currency is under-valued. Our market is under-valued. Our natural resources are sold at artificially low prices. Our seas are exploited by the Thai commercial fishing industry. Human capital is not cultivated or promoted. We simply cannot be silent anymore.
It is time for all parties in Burma, the ethnic groups and Burma’s ruling military, to be cautious and aware of global trends. The European Union and United States leaders are eyeing our small country’s many resources and potential market economy for their own national interests. If peace is not attained, development and economic growth will line the pockets of foreign investors but will not improve the lives of people in Burma. The moral principle of nonviolent protest, progress, and protections must be upheld for our own individual and national interests.
Local politicians lacked the courage to fight corrupt politicians and ethnic leaders who put their interests ahead of the public good. The corrupt behavior was morally wrong, but there is no organized debate about it today. Only a few modern leaders, especially student leaders, challenge corruption, and only a handful of local politicians pursue nonviolence.
Nonviolent methods did not achieve democracy in Burma over the last twenty years, but I would argue that violence has never proven to sustainably instill democracy either. War, undertaken for any goal and using any means, invariably costs human lives, and a political settlement reached through violence is not viable or complete. I would urge others who truly believe in nonviolence to know that we are not cowards as some may say, but strong in moral principles and tough on political and social abuse.
It is not weak to dialogue. It is not cowardly to compromise. Action supporting the public good is strong and powerful. It is wisdom to forgive someone who committed a political crime or engaged in minor criminal activities. It is our moral duty to be against the wrong kind of politics.
A peaceful nation only survives when its people have a sense of progress and belonging, of being trusted and cared for, and where all benefit from its wealth and each accept their own accountability. If lasting peace will truly be ours, we must include “equality and freedom” in the rhetoric during the peace talks. It is time that my country’s leaders and citizens come up with durable solutions. A moral principle on nonviolence must prevail. We can ask every individual with a political consciousness to uphold this principle and strike for democratic rights. I write to change the national political mindset.
There is great hope that by the 2020 election in Burma, the country will be on course as a liberal democracy. It will be a long journey. Let the past mistakes be our lesson and let wisdom and peace be our future.