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New Perspective: Racial Harmony and Inclusive Democracy in Burma

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By Nai Banya Hongsar, Mon Writer’s Club – Cultural identity has been a key factor and influence in Burma for the past thousand years. The country’s recent, violent clashes of differing religious and ethnic identities provide an important lesson about the need to further investigate the significance of this powerful force. Considering international human rights norms, including economic, social, civic, political and cultural rights, Burma / Myanmar is a long way from reaching these principled standards unless cultural integration policies and a new perspective on racial harmony are embraced.

Under military rule, the gap widened between majority and minority cultures within Burma’s ethnicities, due to the former’s failure to institute assimilation policies. Now, there is a monumental opportunity for change in Burma / Myanmar. Racial harmony, civil rights, and inclusiveness in a democratic society must be the predominant agenda if the nation’s diverse people hope for radical reform.

Monland, the place of my birth in lower Burma, has been home to Mon ethnic peoples for over four thousand years. The modern borders of Mon State encompass over two million people and varied populations representing more than ten ethnic groups and many non-Buddhist religions. This shared space and communal lifestyle represent the new era of human relationships. If the racial conflict is not solved, the prospects for democracy, development, and peace will not be enjoyed in our lifetimes.

Burma’s Failed Assimilation

Burma’s rulers, including the Burman kings from 11th to late 17th centuries, have governed the nation with a policy of forced assimilation and destructive propaganda, using the justification of preventing the “disintegration of the Union.” A nation of such diverse races and cultures can only be harmonious when local people freely exercise their rights to autonomy. Burma is a place with over five thousand years of recorded civilizations, and has unique political needs relating to this longstanding, multifaceted, and vibrant history.

Last month, opinion writer Jack Healey wrote in The Huffington Post, “The future of Burma could be bright if reforms deepen and continue, but nothing will be so great of a blot on the potential of this nation as the attempt by some to baptize the meager newfound hope in the blood of a racist pogrom and attempt at excluding a people who are trying to merely live.”

After reaching ceasefire with various ethnic groups, the Burmese military should have seized the chance to start a sincere reconciliation process. The absence of this effort remains Burma’s major problem. The government needs to prioritize the people’s interests over military power, and conclusively abolish the policy of “Burmanization” that inhibits freedom and discriminates against ethnic groups.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed by the army, and abuses continue today, including rape, displaced families, homeless children, forced labor, and unlawful imprisonment. The legal system is, for all practical purposes, almost non-existent, and administrative power is under the boots of military men who line their pockets with bribes and extorted cash. The government must start bringing these perpetrators to court to prosecute them, and though victims and family members are not expected to readily forgive the atrocities committed by the Burmese army, this is an appropriate and meaningful step towards justice and reform.

Burma failed to maintain its first parliamentary democracy in the 1950-60s, and again failed to achieve the “Burmese Way to socialism” in the 1970-1980s. During a clash of ideologies among Burman’s political elites, communism collapsed despite gaining some support by local people. Military men, politicians, and community leaders from all sides need to rethink what kind of nation they want Burma to be in the 21st century and beyond. We must all start again.

Local civilians should coordinate their own values and goals in civil society, including public and private education, health systems, financial and economic management, and public administration. Politicians and army-affiliated personnel must be willing to work with the people or step aside and find alternative ways to make a living.

The Mentality of Change

Civil war, armed conflict, and political tensions have gripped Burmese society for decades. A mentality of change is the vital political oxygen needed to improve racial and cultural integration among diverse people. Burmese people should answer, “What went wrong?” and build a legal system to initiate public healing, national reconciliation, and compensation. The new government must have a mandate to bring justice to victims and cultivate the voices of those who want to be heard in the legal proceedings.

In her book “Living Silence” published in 2001, Christina Fink concluded, “For a political transition to succeed in Burma, democratic practices need to be included and a division of political power must be resolved in such a way that most people feel satisfied. After centuries under the absolutist rule of kings and decades under repressive military generals, people in Burma today have little experience with democratic norms. Even today, members of the pro-democracy movement find it difficult to develop the openness and tolerance required in a democratic culture.”

The dramatically differing perspectives of the country’s various stakeholders continue to present challenges to progress. The government claims it upholds and protects the Union, the NLD emphasizes democracy and rights, and non-Burman ethnic leaders push for Federalism. No leader or organization has ever attempted to surpass its party line, while the entire population cries for peace, equality, and a secure and just society. Despite the many liberal conservatives, progressive democrats, labor activists, and old guards of Communism in Burmese political life, if the nation does not achieve peaceful transition, the dream of reform will not last because widespread internal conflicts remain unsatisfactorily resolved.

According to U Soe Thinn, Head of the Burmese Service of Radio Free Asia in the Burma Debate in 2000, “Most of the Burmese people in the period following independence would think about politics as “party politics” and if you asked a lay-man to define politics, he would probably describe it as a vying for power. Politicians will do anything to get to a position of power, whether they conduct good governance or not is subject to the question.” Burmese political culture has not yet reached beyond party politics, and many current politicians still grip on to their positions based on old ideological constructs.

It would be foolhardy for our country to think that a single political party leader or army commander alone can achieve unity, inspire collective trust, and feed over fifty million people. The entire citizenry of Burma, including all ethnicities, has to actively participate in political life. The leaders of each political party must encourage local people to develop their skills and increase their participation in politics. An open and tolerant society at the community level is required to effectively introduce and cultivate democracy.

In the next ten to twenty years, Burma will remain the same unless a new political mindset emerges. The military has frequently proven to be inflexible, and the nation needs a flexible political framework to serve all facets of the community and ethnic groups. A pivotal role for local councils, authority in state government, new legislation for Provisional governments, and a framework for a genuine “Federal Union” are all necessary elements to bring change and justice.

Hundreds of thousands of armed resistances forces, political activists, human rights workers, journalists, and civil society members must prepare to work together. A campaign is needed for a “Just Burma / Myanmar” that achieves national interests in peace, equality, and tolerance in all political circles. No military man should be allowed to rule the nation forever, and the people in the House of Assembly or Parliament should not tolerate political elites bent on power. The Burman is best served by the Burman community, while the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Arakan, Chin, Kachin and other ethnic peoples are best served by their own people. But the country as a whole should have a vision of inclusion and harmony.

Internal and External Actors for Peaceful Transition

Over the last twenty years, hundreds of seminars, conferences, trainings, and workshops have been conducted on Burma in neighboring Thailand and overseas. Experts, observers, policy makers, and NGO workers have all learned how complex Burmese politics and cultures are, involving several different histories and psychologies. Hundreds of demonstrations have taken place in Bangkok and in exile communities around the world, and “Free Burma” campaigns in the U.S. and Europe have been actively and successfully working towards change.

The United Nations, ASEAN, EU, and U.S. leaders are able to lend a helping hand in Burma’s affairs, but citizens and leaders of Burma have to remember that these foreign officials have their own obligations in their own countries. It is the responsibility of Burma’s political community and leaders to engage with local people and focus on local problem-solving techniques. Yet, it seems that military men have ignored many recommendations from domestic and international authorities on Burma, choosing instead to remain hardnosed in finding their own political solution.

Currently, military officials have the upper hand when playing political games with the opposition. The NLD, the civilian led political party headed by Daw Suu Kyi and veteran former politicians, stands firmly on democratic principles, while the military men pursue a “modern nation” regardless of public opinion or opposition party goals. Border-based, non-Burman armed leaders and their political organizations adhere rigorously to “self-determination” objectives, while the Rangoon-based military men have rejected that notion since Burma’s independence. Progressive leaders must share common political doctrines with a public majority in order to mobilize the country, but most fall back on party politics or cronyism.

There are talented men and women from Burma that could successfully contribute to the nation-building process, but they are leaving by the thousands, being driven to neighboring countries or a third country (for example, Canada, the United States, or Japan) by poverty, conflict, and human rights violations. A growing population, a declining national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), rising costs, and transnational crime have emerged in recent years, at a time when we most need qualified people to work on strengthening Burmese political and social environments.

An independent media is a crucial tool to support this cause. There are hundreds of books and journals covering Burma written in English, while only a few books exist in native languages for local people to learn, teach, study, and encourage and pursue change in their country.

New Paradigm of Hope: Sharing pain and gain

Last month, Professor Carlyle A. Thayer said, “Myanmar still has a long way to go. There are an estimated 300 political prisoners to be released, national reconciliation with the ethnic minorities may prove elusive, and the military’s entrenched constitutional role in the political system will need to be altered prior to national elections in 2015.”

All citizens in Burma have to adopt a “What If?” theory, being able to anticipate what will come next, while undertaking a principle of “do your best and do no harm,” a logical mantra for democracy and human rights. As long as Burma’s different ethnicities threaten and intimidate one another, it will remain a nation of killing and self-interested individuals. Over fifty million people share the same water, land, climate and forestry, so it makes sense that we all need to share common burdens and take responsibility for our own cultural identity and national heritage.

In 1988, there were countless organizations in Rangoon involved in the uprising that formed strike camps in the struggle for democracy. By the mid 1990s, there were only a few pro-democracy organizations on the Thai-Burma border, other than the armed groups. Shortly after, students who left the jungle and came to Thailand for security or sanctuary formed dozens of new political organizations by the end of the decade. Now, over fifty organizations are active in Thailand, with many more in exile.

Each organization uses the rhetoric of “democracy and federalism,” but in reality, the leaders have minimal human and financial resources to achieve these common goals. There are millions of migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore who have no communication with the heads of Thailand-based political organizations. Many legal and illegal migrant workers have substantial financial resources, but most of their income goes toward personal and family expenses. If the people of Burma have it in their minds to change the political situation, to mobilize their energy on a common front, then they must take charge of the campaign for freedom in a big way. These migrant workers have been left outside of political circles for years, having to be satisfied with reading newspapers published by exile-based organizations, but they represent a major political force for change.

Many activists based in Thailand, India, and other neighboring countries have little legal protection afforded to them in immigration laws, though they have been given some consideration by local Thai authorities. Unless activist organizations and border-based leaders have sufficient financial and technical resources, it will be hard to overcome the massive obstacles they face in the political arena.

A new culture of politics is needed to give voice to local people and grassroots organizations—they must be heard and their concerns must be brought to the table. Armed and political factions must protect women and children and the new generation of progressive leaders both in military circles and civil society have to be in touch with community life. The military, which largely controls resources, economic access, and capital markets, cannot impede civil society and infrastructure development. Military officials must go beyond their personal and party interests to meet the challenges of the global environment. Finally, businessmen and investors must play fair and adhere to regulations in the new, welcoming economic and political environment.

Racial Hope and Lasting Reform

The leaders of ceasefire groups, members of political parties in Rangoon and other cities, and senior leaders from every religion must come forward and carefully review what has gone wrong in the country for so many years.

There will be no peace without equality, no harmony without tolerance, no unity without respect, and no democracy without freedom of expression. The current government, the NLD, other political parties, and community-based organization’s leaders have to heal past wounds, repair diseased ideology, and rein in their egos that continue to cling to power. Leaders of all military and political factions ought to lift up the spirits of their fellow citizens to take a more active role in local, national, and regional affairs by working together to create a new policy agenda and framework. A tragic future awaits us if leaders fail to listen to their followers or if the government does not heed public opinions.

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