Obama energizes Burma’s ethnic minorities

Published on November 9, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen 

Special to The China Post – November 9, 2008

Electing Barack Obama as president of the United States of America is a new history in the making. It not only gives a new hope to the Americans, but excitement is felt around the world.

He is the first president from a minority community in a predominantly white society. His election to the White House may have proven wrong to people who have prejudices about white supremacy in American politics. African-Americans make only 12.8% of the United States population as per the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 estimate. 

A number of similarities can be found in the United States politics and that of Southeast Asian country Burma. Although Burma is comparatively smaller in size than the state of Texas, there are as many as 135 “ethnic races” in the country according to the military regime. 

One similarity between Burma and the United States is that: the whites constitute 80.1% of the United States population (2006 estimate); whereas, approximately 60 percent of the population in Burma is ethnic Burmans. Ethnicity plays a vital role in Burma’s politics. 

The present military regime is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Burmans. Discrimination on the basis of religion and race is prevalent in the country. Under the present military regime, even the most outstanding and potential individual from a minority group stands little to no chance of becoming the leader of the country. 

There are a number of reasons why Obama was elected to the most coveted position on earth. Among others, his vision to take America into a new direction convinces voters in an unprecedented turnout with his words “yes we can.” 

The entire world is also buoyed by his extraordinarily successful campaigns and passionate advocacy to use diplomatic means in resolving crises around the world — from Darfur to Burma and to Afghanistan. 

His historic victory was a dream come true, and it was a shock to many Americans and people around the world until recently. Not only was he little known to the outside world, his entry into U.S. national politics was also not long ago. 

I remember talking to an African-American colleague sometime in 2006 of a black president sitting in the White House. His response was unambiguous; he never even dreamed of seeing an African-American becoming president of the U.S. in his lifetime. The gentleman, first name Terrance, was only in his 40s, hailing from Maryland State. 

The world has now seen a new history in the making. Can a similar development be expected in Burma in a distant future? The military is obdurate on its seven-step “road map” leading to a nationwide election in 2010. 

The military in its new constitution reserves 25% seats in the parliament. It is further twisted by a clause that states that amendment to the constitution requires the support of over 75% votes in the parliament; which means no amendment can happen without the support of the military. 

It was only during the first few years after independence from the British that Burma had a nominal president from the Shan minority group. Sao Shwe Thaik served as the first president of independent Burma from 1948 to 1952. 

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a union formed by different ethnic nationalities at the Panglong Agreement 1947. Although its ethnic Burman-dominated military seems to take sole ownership of the country, Burma is a nation of different nationalities. 

If a black person who belongs to only 12.8% of a country’s population can be given a chance to become a leader of the free world, Burma should give an equal opportunity to potential leaders from minority groups which make about 40% of the country’s population. 

It is participation and inclusiveness that make a nation strong, and Burma is not an exception. Should Burma fail to understand this reality, the socio-political conflicts will continue to persist even after the restoration of democracy.  

Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States of America makes one to think that everyone has a place in American democracy. His election not only gives a new hope to millions of Americans, but also energizes the ethnic minority groups of Burma. 

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