Bamar Chauvinism Must End: 88 Generation Student Leader

By The Irrawaddy 9 February 2023

Prominent 88 Generation student leader U Mya Aye was detained at his house during the February 1, 2021 coup.

He was charged with incitement under Article 505(c) of the colonial-era Penal Code for inciting hate and sentenced to two years. He was released under a junta amnesty in November last year.

He was arrested for the first time in 1989 and sentenced to eight years for his role as a student leader in the pro-democracy uprising in 1988. He was freed in 1996 and continued campaigning for democracy, which led to his second arrest during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. The pro-democracy activist was released under U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.

How did you get arrested during the coup?

I assumed the military would stage a coup and I had thought I might be arrested. They seized me that day. After spending around 35 days at the Ye Kyi Ai interrogation center [in Yangon], I was sent to Insein Prison. I was charged over an email on my phone and given two years.

You were also given long prison sentences under previous regimes. What differences did you notice when you were freed from your latest imprisonment?

There was a huge difference. I was arrested for the first time in 1989 and given eight years. The economic system had switched from central planning to something closer to a market economy while I was in prison.

Yangon had changed a lot.

I was again arrested in 2007 and given 65½ years. When I was released in January 2012, I found the political situation quite encouraging. People thought we were on the right track.

I saw civil society organizations [CSOs] making progress.

When I was released this time, it was different. Large crowds welcomed us outside the jail. When I returned to my home, my neighbors heartily welcomed me with loud applause. Public support is strong. I feel I have a greater responsibility now.

People brace themselves and continue to live in hope.

But they feel like they are groping their way through the darkness. looked around my neighborhood to see their lives and I found that they are dispirited, unhappy, and weary. Today, people are suffocated in all aspects of their lives.

It has been two years since the takeover and the military has extended the emergency rule for six more months. What is your view on that?

My focus is on the changes to be triggered by junta moves. Would there have been changes had the regime held an election without extending emergency rule?

While there are so many problems in the country and the main party cannot contest the poll, holding an election would make no difference.

Everyone is suffering at the moment. We have lost all the progress in solving ethnic and federal issues and have to start again from square one.

Democracy has died out and CSOs are shackled. And things are getting worse for people who struggle to make ends meet. People are drowning in despair. We have to salvage the country.

Whether an election is held or not, we will remain locked in this vicious cycle unless the causes behind the conflict are handled.

The emergency rule is extended for six months based on an extraordinary situation as prescribed in the 2008 Constitution. We don’t know how long the junta will keep extending emergency rule.

The weaknesses of the 2008 Constitution become more apparent. I don’t think our country will ever develop while it remains.

You have continuously campaigned for federalism and democracy. Every ethnicity and pro-democracy group demands federalism in Myanmar. The regime also said it supports federalism and democracy but all of the groups have their own definitions of federalism. What is your forecast for a federal country?

Some ethnic minorities want their own states. But in most states, many different ethnic groups live together.

If we are to build a federal democracy, we must avoid assuming Myanmar is based on ethnic minority states and Bamar-dominated regions. The structure must be based only on states. Ethnicity-based politics still prevail and we can’t get rid of that for now.

The notion that one group is superior to others must be abandoned and all groups must work together based on the foundation stone of building a new union together. All ethnicities have their own histories.

We must work on equal terms to build a new nation together. There are ethnicity issues that need to be discussed. It is deep and broad. But it is essential.

The problems in our country will not be solved just because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is released and reaches an agreement with the military. The civil wars will not end just because forces in Bamar-majority areas reach an agreement. Equality must be guaranteed for all ethnicities. It is part of a new nation’s foundations.

We must shape a political landscape that can pave the way for a federal democracy, otherwise, we will not break the vicious cycle of civil war and there will be no national development. Myanmar’s development has fallen from the top to the bottom in Southeast Asia.

What else would you like to say?

I don’t like considering issues from the perspective of racism and religious conviction. But the reality in the country is ethnicities are in a defensive position, defending for fear that their race will be swallowed up. We must have understanding for them. We must learn to understand them.

It is unwise to talk arrogantly to ethnic minority groups. They see Bamar chauvinism and misunderstanding. Every institution should seriously consider how to overcome this. Otherwise, the problems will never end.