A mature political system is needed to build a federal union in Myanmar and bring about peace. The Myanmar (Burma) government is currently comprised of ninety-one political parties and over twenty armed groups. While it is an incredibly diverse region, by race, religion and cultural identity, this diversity has also brought upon the longest unresolved conflict and political crisis of any other country.The unrest has lasted for over sixty years.
In March 2016, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar (Burma), said in a speech that peace could not be achieved unless forgiveness and tolerance are attained.
National reconciliation is difficult in Myanmar not only because of conflict between the Tatmadaw and the National League for Democracy (NLD), but also because of the conflicts between the Tatmadaw and other non-Burman armed groups. While most international press covers the reconciliation between the NLD and the Tatmadaw, they neglect to include these added layers of conflict. While these conflicts have lessened between armed groups since the NLD’s election in November 2015, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Vision for Peace and Reconciliation Plan is under intense scrutiny as conflicts continue throughout Myanmar.
This mistrust between the military authority and public as well as the animosity between different ethnicities simmered during British colonialism and grew more pronounced after independence in 1947. The country was divided into two basic ideologies from the 1950’s until the 1990’s —social democracy and nationalism. Toward the end of the 1990’s, the racial and political divides created much conflict, leading to twenty years of violence. The solution was a semi-democratic constitution in 2008 but the country has yet to achieve national reconciliation.
While many political activists continue to work for a democratic union, there is still much work to be done. The Tatmadaw promotes propaganda against non- Burman political and armed groups, claiming that they are “breaking the union” and labeled them as having “unpatriotic characteristics.” These ethnic political groups accuse the Tatmadaw of “Burmanization”—erasing ethnic cultural differences and replacing them with Burmese ones. They fight for a “new democratic federal constitution,” but the Tatmadaw believe that they are the only way to keep Myanmar (Burma) a cohesive union and refuse to relinquish any power or change the constitution unless they maintain most of the control. The current constitution (signed in 2008) reflects this hunger for power and the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA, signed in 2015) proves that Myanmar (Burma) is a long way from attaining a true democracy. Considering recent events, I feel the need to revisit an article I wrote in 2003. It is eerily relevant still today.
In times of despair, it can be uplifting to look to our youth for drive and progress. I recall attending an informal ‘reconciliation’ talk in Calcutta, India in July 2003. This was also supplemented with a joint forum of Burmese youth. It was referred to as the “Nationalities Questions on Burma” and was a round table comprised of about 20 young people sponsored by Mizzima News and led by Ko Soe Myint, Editor-in-Chief of the organization.
Most of the young people did not speak Burmese as a native tongue. Significantly, they did not only talk about peaceful relations between the governing bodies—the State Peace and Development Council (the ruling military authority from 1988-2010) and the NLD. Instead, they emphasized reconciliation between all native peoples of Myanmar (Burma). Specifically, they focused on the attitudes toward national reconciliation. After 60 years of dominant Bahmar political power, the country is divided not only by political perspectives, but also by cultural ones.
For example, Miss Thin Thin Aung, one of the young people, claimed that her Bahmar friends would never publicly but instead privately discredit the role of other ethnicities in Myanmar (Burma) especially in the national rebuilding process. “It is worse; our Burman doesn’t speak frankly as our brotherhood non-Burman people do during the forum” she said with a down-to-earth attitude to participants.
The Tatmadaw fear the other ethnic armed groups and state governments because they hold substantial power in these regions. Therefore, they have a tight grip on the national government. At the Calcutta Forum, one Burman youth from upper Myanmar (Burma) stated “We have no whatsoever responsibility to you by any wrong doing in the past committed by Burman.” While he is correct in saying that he is not directly involved, it is important for him to recognize the unfair treatment of other ethnic groups by the Tatmadaw. It is time that all citizens of Myanmar (Burma) join against these injustices.
The Calcutta Forum was a display of this ideology—citizens of Myanmar (Burma) from many different areas of the country came together to work for peace and understanding. This is a call to Myanmar (Burma)’s leaders. Without open forums, public outreach, and the inclusion of youth in making decisions, we will never attain “national reconciliation.”
Unfortunately, the Tatmadaw’s stronghold is supported by many international funds. China, Russia, and other commercial dealers trade with the Tatmadaw to stop anti-regime armed forces. While they claim they are working for “national unity and reconciliation” to foreign delegates, an increase in military supplies and troops entering the non-Burman territories Kachin, Shan, and Karen State in the past few months tell a different story. In response, armed organizations in these regions are also increasing their own military defenses in common border areas. A surge of militant violence could happen at any time in the name of protecting business interests.
One ethnic conflict that has been gaining major Western media attention is the Rohingya crisis. This conflict has been the focus on Myanmar by international news, and it is a continuation of violence in Myanmar (Burma). Even though the Rohingya are not recognized as one of the 135 ethnicities in Myanmar (Burma), it is time for us to recognize useless violence when we see it.
Unfortunately, top elites and high military and government officials are the only ones who can build a new democratic-federal government and make political moves toward national reconciliation. However, let us not forget that these officials can be motivated from the bottom-up. It is up to the citizens of Myanmar (Burma) to work together to shake up old political structures and remove injustices against non-Burman ethnic groups. Only then, will the political and military leaders be held responsible to listen and heed the wishes of the people that they serve.
Note: Updated from the article released by Independent Mon News Agency, 22 July 2003.