Identity, Conflict and National Reconciliation in Burma

Published on December 11, 2006

Identity, Conflict and National Reconciliation in Burma

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Asian Tribune – December 11, 2006


Identity: In sociology and political science, the notion of social identity is individuals’ identifying themselves as members of a particular group – such as nation, social class, subculture, ethnicity, and so forth. It is in this context that sociologists and historians speak of a national identity of a particular country.

 Nehginpao Kipgen speaking at the Johns Hopkins University Southeast Asia Program, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 2006
Nehginpao Kipgen speaking at the Johns Hopkins University Southeast Asia Program, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 2006

The Union of Burma is comprised of more than 100 different ethnic groups and sub-groups, making her one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia. According to the State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s military government, ministry of foreign affairs website (, there are 135 “ethnic races” in Burma.

Although there has been no reliable census under the present military regime, the country’s population is estimated to be over 50 million; ministry of foreign affairs puts estimated population at 52.4 million as of July 2003. According to CIA – The World Factbook as updated on the 30th November 2006, ethnic groups of Burma is categorized in percent as: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%.

The same source provides religious composition as Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, animist 1%, other 2%. Burmese, spoken by ethnic Burmans, is the lingua-franca while minority ethnic groups also have their own languages and dialects.

The Union of Burma is made up of 7 states and 7 administrative divisions. The ongoing National Convention, which first convened in January 1993 and supposedly drafting a constitution, plans to change these divisions into “regions” in a hopeful “disciplined democratic Burma.”

Also, in an attempt to pacify the longstanding grievances of minority ethnic groups in states and regions, self-administered areas (zones and divisions) are prescribed: five self-administered zones (one in Sagaing division and four in Shan State) and one self-administered division (in Shan State).

Although the 1947 constitution did not make any specific mention of federalism, its purpose was to establish a federal government in which the individual states would have self governing responsibilities. However, on the contrary, the country, in post independence, has never been even quasi-federal. It should be noted here that prior to independence, the British ruled Burma under two administrative units – the valley area and the hill area states.

At the United Nations, Burma is officially known as Myanmar; a name which majority of Burmese pro-democratic forces and some western countries are reluctant to adopt. It was renamed by the then State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1989. Regardless of which name is used, Burma is a country of multi-ethnic groups. Any attempt to build a stabilized democratic society by sidelining minority ethnic groups would be a grave blunder.

Nature of Conflict

The conflict in Burma is ethnical, political and religious. Generally speaking, the major Burman ethnic group has a feeling of chauvinism over the other minority ethnic groups. There has been ethnic hatred for a long time, and dates back to the country’s pre-independence era. One of the reasons for the rise of insurgency problems in the country is due to hatred and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity.

For example, in the mid 1940s, the Chins, the Karens and the Mons were looked down by the Burmans as if they were little better than the barbarians or cheap animals. The Karens were particularly despised by the Burmans, and were referred to as uneducated people, who feed on small animals such as snakes, frogs, monkeys, and wild yams, etc. Such awkward attitude ignited ethnic hatred between the Burmans and the Karens.

It is interesting to note that the Karens did not participate in the Panglong Conference and the subsequent agreement signed between the British government and the frontier leaders in the presence of 23 representatives from the Shan State, the Kachin Hills and the Chin Hills to form an interim government. The Karens and others doubted the sincerity of the Burmans.

Although Burma is not officially declared a theocratic state, there has been persecution and restriction on minorities, belonging to religions other than Buddhism. For instance, a church, especially in villages in rural areas, has to seek prior permission for Christmas celebration or any other important religious festivals. Anyone who defies the order can be arrested and imprisoned at will.

There have been a number of cycles in the history of modern Burma, beginning from 1947, that has led to the rise of political conflicts in the country. They may be broadly classified under the following headings – (1) the Panglong Agreement & its subsequent events, (2) the 1962 military coup & its aftermath, (3) the 8888 democracy uprising (4) the 1990 general elections, and (5) the Depeyin massacre.

Political conflicts in Burma are mainly between the major ethnic Burman dominated government and other ethnic groups of the country. However, as time goes on, more dissident ethnic Burmans have joined the movement against its own government. The battle is now basically between the military junta and the democracy activists of multi-ethnic groups.

National Reconciliation

Since the 8888 uprising and the subsequent events, there has been a considerable shift in the philosophies of revolutionary groups. Almost all armed ethnic groups have been pushing for the restoration of democracy and the establishment of a federal society.

Whatever the causes are, one thing is clear that the stalemate between the Burman government and ethnic insurgent groups will continue to persist if the government ignores the doctrines of equality, liberty and fraternity at the national level. Solutions to the ongoing political imbroglio in Burma may be achieved primarily in two different ways – Intervention and Popular Uprising. A popular uprising is more likely to succeed if a break away group or disgruntled military personnel join the movement.

In resolving any conflict involving two opposite groups, the intervention of a third party is one most viable solution. Noticing the different levels of interventions such as diplomatic intervention, economic sanctions, and military intervention, political strategists need to explore which does best work for Burma. Diplomatic interventions and economic sanctions have been unevenly used for over 10 years by the international community, particularly the European Union, United States of America and the United Nations.

These actions unequivocally brought immense impact on both the populace and the ruling military regime. Had these engagements been a concerted effort involving Burma’s neighboring countries – particularly China and India, juggernaut changes could have happened.

With the recalcitrant nature of Burma’s military leaders and appeasement diplomacies of some of the influential countries on their side, no pragmatic transformation has been visualized till date. This indicates that any constructive democratization of Burma largely rests on the shoulders of neighboring countries, including the two Asian nuclear rivals – China and India.

The successful placement of Burma situation on the permanent agenda of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on September 29, 2006 and the continued engagement process is a remarkable change in history. With the UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari’s briefing to the Security Council on November 27, there is the probability of drafting a resolution as indicated by the resigning US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

It is expected that the language of the draft will test the nerves of the veto wielding powers, particularly China and Russia. A resolution is likely to happen under chapter VI rather than the much desired chapter VII of the UN Charter. If any binding resolution can be reached, non-compliance on the part of the Burmese military regime will have its ramifications. After all, this is all about politics.

Ibrahim Gambari said the good offices process of the UN Secretary General toward Burma “cannot be open ended.” “We are now waiting for the government to [take] further steps to respond to the concerns of the international community. The ball is clearly in the court of the government.”

History is the proof; nothing much should be expected from the military generals except for the slow implementation of proposed seven steps road-map toward “disciplined democracy.” In his most recent visit, Gambari reportedly met representatives from minority ethnic groups attending the National Convention. The nature of the convention speaks for itself; delegates are handpicked.

To bring a long lasting solution to the decades’ old conflicts in Burma, it needs the 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. This process of democratization has to be an inclusive approach. The international community should continue to step up its pressure against the military regime. Meanwhile, if an isolationist policy is failing or not efficacious enough, other alternative means need to be explored.

Ultimately, justice will prevail. Only when political course is set correct, will there be a congenial atmosphere for socio-economic and educational developments in this impoverished Southeast Asian nation. Burma must, eventually, prepare for creation of more new states.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

Note: This paper was presented at a discussion on “In the eyes of Burmese: Identity, Conflict and National Reconciliation in Burma/Myanmar” at the Johns Hopkins University Southeast Asia Program, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in Washington, D.C. on December 7, 2006.