Studying diversity, conflict and internationalizing Burma

Published on December 9, 2007

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Asian Tribune – December 10, 2007


The Union of Burma consists of 7 states and 7 administrative divisions. States are predominantly inhabited by minority ethnic groups while divisions are largely dominated by majority ethnic Burmans.


Burma gained independence with adopted name ‘Union of Burma’ in 1948 and later changed to Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma on 23rd September 1974, but reverted to the Union of Burma on 23rd September 1988. On 18th June 1989, the State Law and Order Restoration Council adopted a new name called ‘Union of Myanmar’ with which the country is now officially known at the United Nations.


The country’s total land area is 261,970 square miles. Ethnic minorities occupy roughly two-thirds: Arakan/Rakhine state- 14,200 square miles, Chin state– 13,907 square miles, Kachin state- 34,379 square miles, Karen/Kayin state- 11,731 square miles, Karenni/Kayah state- 4,530 square miles, Mon state- 4,747.8 square miles, Shan state- 60,155 square miles.


As of July 2003 estimate, population according to the military is 52.4 million; last official census which occurred in 1983 reported just over 35 million (35,442,972).  The same source puts religious affiliation in percent as: Buddhism (89.2%), Christianity (5.0%), Islam (3.8%), Hinduism (0.5%), Spiritualism (1.2%) and others (0.2%).


The military regime identifies “135 national races” of which the major ones are Arakan/Rakhine (7 sub-groups), Burman/Bamar (9 sub-groups), Chin (53 sub-groups), Kachin (12 sub-groups), Karen/Kayin (11 sub-groups), Karenni/Kayah (9 sub-groups), Mon (1 group), and Shan (33 sub-groups). The appellation “135 races” is codified on dialectical variations.


Although the accuracy is questionable, the 15th November 2007 update of the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook gives ethnic composition in Burma as: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%. Figures slightly vary from source to source.


Burma was administered as a province of India from 1886 until sundered from the British India in 1937. This was the year when settlements of the Kuki (also synonymously recorded in literature as Chin and Lushai) people were divvy up into two countries- Burma and India. With the creation of Bangladesh in 1972, the Kukis were further dispersed in three countries.


A number of research findings concluded that “Kookies” or “Kuki” is a Bengali word meaning hill men or highlanders.  These people have a tradition of passing on their history orally; and as a result, today’s researchers have to rely substantially on the works of British writers who wrote extensively on the Kuki people during colonial era. Their traditional government ‘chieftainship system’ has been abandoned in Burma, but still retained and practiced in India.


In the context of Burma, Kuki is an unpopular terminology and so is the term Chin in India. The military junta recognizes “Thado” and “Kaung Saing Chin” under Chin nomenclature. In India, particularly in the state of Manipur, “Thado” is widely written as Thadou and “Kaung Saing” as Khongsai. The connotation may sound different, yet it refers to the same people. In local dialects, they also call themselves as eimi, laimi, zomi/mizo, etc.


Prior to independence, ethnic minority territories were not part of Burma proper. Considerable effort was mobilized for the materialization of Union of Burma at Panglong on the 12th day of February 1948. The nullification of this historic Panglong Agreement and 1947 constitution had annihilated the essence of forming the Union of Burma.


Burma had a parliamentary democracy from 1948 till general Newin seized power in 1962. A broken promise of Panglong Agreement was one important factor that led to the rise of armed movements. Ethnic minorities’ demand is greater autonomy under a federated structure and not secession or disintegration.


Neither the bloodless coup of 1962 nor 1988 mass uprising was the root cause of today’s conflicts in Burma. As early as 1948, the Karen National Union under its armed wing Karen National Liberation Army had begun rebelling against the Burmese government.


The struggle in Burma is basically of 2 stages – restoration of democracy and rights of ethnic minorities. To attain the latter, the former has to come first. Any democratic set-up sidelining ethnic minorities would not bring an end to decades’ old political imbroglio.


Within the status quo states and divisions, there are sub-ethnic groups advocating for autonomy or separate administration. Although every demand of every sub-group may not be feasible, criteria for eligibility and legality need to be established. One should not expect the Union of Burma to remain forever 7 states and 7 divisions, or 8 states as envisaged by some.


For many years since independence, Burma political crisis remained a microscopic issue to the international community – either as a result of the country’s insignificant role in international politics or her too little importance to the interest and security of other nations. However, this concept has changed dramatically since 1988 mass uprising and countrywide general elections.


Non-recognition of 1990 election results led to intimidation and imprisonment of several Member of Parliament elects – which became the genesis of many of the opposition groups in exile, including National Council of the Union of Burma and National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.


Deadliest attack on the entourage of Aung San Suu Kyi at Depeyin in 2003 and her continued detention was one reason behind the passing of Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 by the U.S. Congress. The act bans the import of Burmese products and freezes the assets of senior officials.


In recent years, Burma has attracted unprecedented attention of the international community. The successful placement of Burma situation as permanent agenda of the United Nations Security Council on 29th September 2006 was a historic moment. It was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to pass a Security Council resolution on January 12th of this year.


More recently, the 2007 uprising incredibly got international community’s attention – headlines in many leading world newspapers, electronic medium and on television screens. Several world leaders and human rights activists around the world spoke up in support of Burmese democracy movement.


The entire world watched the brutality of military on its own people. The uprising immediate success was the attention it received from the world community and subsequent intervention by the United Nations Secretary General’s office through its special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.


The United States and European Union were quick to respond in taking tougher sanctions on the military generals and their businesses. Although there is no doubt about the powerful message it carries, unilateral sanctions seem to have limited impact. The vacuum created as a result of western sanctions has been filled by Burma neighboring countries.


Only western sanctions without cooperation from neighboring Asian countries have given enough space for the army generals to move around. Conflicting interests of two different approaches will continue to prolong the survival of military regime at the depletion of the country’s natural resources and collateral environmental damage.


While western powers pursue stick diplomacy, the Asian powers opt for carrot. Under such circumstance, the U.N. special envoy’s mission has become a little more than lip services with no substantive results to follow. The adamant stance of the 2 veto wielding powers (China and Russia) of the Security Council makes the world’s highest enforcement agency bootless.


The removal of Burma’s military regime could probably take less than a month or so. But unlike Iraq, the United States would not reign in its fighter jets and ground troops for reasons including: (i) Burma is insignificant importance to the U.S. national interest and security (ii) U.S. foreign policy toward Burma is more of policy oriented than strategic (iii) Rapidly advancing Asian super power is docking at the military’s backyard.


Though there is close to zero percent chance of military intervention either by the United States or by the United Nations, this would be the swiftest action to bring change to Burma should it be pursued. However, this would be a naïve prediction or suggestion for any political analyst at this point of time.


Meanwhile, the international community could consider the model of a six party talks on North Korean nuclear standoff. Six parties involving the United States, European Union, ASEAN, China, India, and Burma could break the iceberg of political crisis. Due to geographical proximity, enormous economic and diplomatic influence over Burma, China’s participation is pivotal.


If the international community continues to pursue two diametrically opposing views of western sanctions and Asian engagement, the military will continue to run the country with any resources available. Either concerted sanctions or collective engagement is needed to bring the military to a negotiating table.


Down the road, the culpable individuals in the military clique will be held accountable. Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 is one distant example that can be cited: carrot diplomacy brought warring parties to negotiation in a well devised plan.


However, stick diplomacy took its own course and the once powerful Serbian and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was tried for crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal in Hague, Netherlands.


On the death of Slobodan Milosevic in his detention cell, Richard Holbrooke, the then U.S. envoy who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords said, “I’m not going to shed any tears.”


* Read a French translation on this article here


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).