Ethnic Issues

Peace and Reconciliation Call For New Ways of Looking Back

By Sai Latt 26 August 2016

Burma has moved one step in the right direction, towards federalism. This has been the result of mutual commitment by the government and ethnic armed groups, as part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed in October last year. The form of federalism to be adopted, and the processes of establishing it, presents a likely agenda for political dialogue between the government, the military, ethnic armed groups and political parties, which is a crucial part of the peace and national reconciliation process.

But where does history fit into this process?

The question is important for two reasons. The first relates to the possibility that political dialogue could address the country’s seventy-year-old armed conflict. This conflict resulted from the country’s colonial and postcolonial histories. Against this legacy, certain historical narratives—coded by postcolonial winners—have institutionalized the erasure of ethnic minorities’ autonomous histories, so as to legitimate the subordination, exclusion and oppression of minorities’ call for federalism and equality.

Secondly, at this important moment, when there is a rare political opening to address the conflict through dialogue among multiple actors, Rangoon University’s undergraduate history program attracted no new students for the 2016-2017 academic year.

While Rangoon University is not the only university that hosts a history department, it is the largest university in the country and its history department has monopolized historical knowledge production for half a century. That the history department has received no new students reflects a perception, not about history itself, but about historians and history education—and their significance as agents of change.

This triggered the Rangoon-based Myanmar Cultural Research Society to organize an event on Aug. 20, involving various academic historians from Rangoon University, writers and students. Participants highlighted various practices under past regimes that undermined history education’s reputation.

One major outcome of half a century of government intervention in history writing was a negative reputation for the History Department’s own history, for serving regimes with state-friendly historical narratives. While many academics were unhappy, the politicized history department—with sometimes state-friendly department heads—could not resist state seduction, perpetuating nationalistic historical narratives written from the dominant, central, urban and Burman points of view.

Homogenized and ethno-centric historical narratives, institutionalized at the university echelon of historical knowledge production, have paved the way for popular history writing that further eliminates minorities’ own autonomous and dignified histories, as well as national history—or histories—looked at from non-dominant points of view.

A topic of discussion at the Myanmar Cultural Research Society event was the reliability of existing (popular) historical knowledge. While historians highlighted that history is a matter of debate and of certain points of view, they also suggested that the content of history be addressed so as to fix known errors that have so far been politically untouchable. They also suggested changes in the methodologies used in both teaching and inquiry.

These suggestions should be supported, both domestically and internationally, and by the government and public alike. For, addressing the country’s armed conflict and realizing reconciliation require resetting the way the military and the people understand history—most importantly regarding the relationship between territory and people.

As a human geographer, I see history in terms of geographic processes, and the historical struggle over power as a struggle over territory. For power is exercised within specific territories. The power to govern people within specific territories requires that territorial boundaries be constantly redefined, as well as the relationship between people and territories.

The federalism, self-determination and autonomy that minority groups have been fighting for (however lacking in agreement over meaning and substance), and the sovereignty and unity that the military has been propounding, are narratives of struggle over territory.

On the one hand, the military claims all territories within postcolonial state boundaries as “national” territories that should be under the central government’s complete control, if the “nation” is to exercise its “national sovereignty,” however bogus the concept may be. On the other hand, minority groups see the lands known today as “ethnic states” as ancestral lands, over which they lost autonomy to colonizing Burmese regimes.

Regardless of the on-and-off independence of these “ethnic territories” prior to British invasion, and regardless of, for example, the existence of powerful Mon and Arakanese kingdoms that waxed and waned through time, the dominant historical narratives of Burma deny their autonomous histories.

The official national history of Burma starts with a “First Burma” established by King Anawratha, proceeding to “Second Burma” and then “Third Burma,” as if these were the only historical kingdoms of Burma and were continuously extensive and powerful up till the British invasion. The histories of others are subsumed into that of generalized subordinates and rebels who betrayed the rational and mighty Burmese kings, only to be crushed brutally to maintain peace.

The problem does not end there. Minorities’ ownership of ancestral land, however one defines it, goes unrecognized as well. A good example is the national anthem, which states, “We love the land because it is the heritage of our forefathers.” The question is, who is “we”, and whose “land” and “forefathers” are being referred to?

Because the national anthem sees the “nation” from the majority perspective, it leads those considered the dominant group to assume they own all pieces of the “imagined national territory.” To them, the land from the northern top to the southern tip is unconditionally theirs— and not minorities’ distinctive ancestral land. In this sense, the national anthem is an ecstasy of deception for minorities, requiring creative historical inquiry.

In short, a combination of dominant historical narratives and the national anthem effectively deny autonomous histories and the ancestral land rights of minority groups. Because of this, when minority groups call for self-determination in certain territories in the context of debates over federalism, those from the dominate position cannot understand why these minorities should want “our forefathers’ land” to themselves.

But how is this discussion relevant to the peace process and national reconciliation?

It is relevant because a big chunk of the peace and national reconciliation process is about federalism, with varying forms and degrees of self-determination, which cannot be detached from the question of struggle over territories. This requires creative historical investigation into the geographic imagining of nation, territory and politics.

Current national historical narratives do not work. Known errors only make the problem worse by subordinating minority peoples, discrediting their claims to ancestral land rights, and denying their histories of relative autonomy from the dominant group.

Apart from the conceptual dimension, practical problems arise from not investing in new approaches to historical research, narratives and teaching. That is, when dominant and minority groups engage in dialogue about federalism, peace and reconciliation, the lenses through which the past is viewed will not be the same.

Supposed national heroes, such as King Anawratha, are not minority peoples’ heroes—nor even the late Gen Aung San. Neither is Bagan a proud historical reference point for minorities. Rather, the First Burma (Bagan), Second Burma (Taungoo) and Third Burma (Konbaung) are understood to have destroyed minority peoples’ kingdoms. Forcing minorities to express pride in these figures and kingdoms only adds salt to unhealed wounds.

But when past regimes uttered such historical narratives, minorities saw it in terms of a drive to deny them equal rights and control their lands, in the name of perpetuating national sovereignty. It was understood as business-as-usual from the junta.

However, in the new political context of the peace process, where the possibility of national reconciliation is contingent on trust developing between dominant and minority groups, the reiteration of national narratives by civilians from dominant groups only causes minorities to identify their attitude with that of the junta.

The problematic reality is that civilians, even those from the establishment, might be uttering these narratives innocently, with an intention to mutually establish a peaceful federal union. Nonetheless, national history, as the only available tool for imagining the past, traps them in false convictions, causing at best embarrassment with minority groups.

To sum up, national reconciliation requires recognizing the diverse pasts of minority groups—autonomous histories that are as dignified as that of the dominant group. Regardless of bloody histories, in which groups mutually violated each other, seeing each other’s histories through more dignified, diversity-friendly and humanistic lenses is called for. As the current national narrative does not allow for this, new historical approaches are urgently needed.

This is where academic historians can, and should, play an important part in seeking new methodologies for critical research, teaching and the dissemination of historical knowledge to decision makers and the public. This is how those who study the past can contribute to today’s work on peace and reconciliation.

There is a saying that one should shoulder a sword while talking about history (and religion) because debating history only ends up in conflict; some want to avoid historical questions in order to escape complicated debates. But any attempt to fix historically contingent problems by ignoring history, and most importantly the way those problems are narrated, would be a waste of time.

Dr. Sai Latt received his Ph.D. in Human Geography from Simon Fraser University in Canada. He is a Research Associate at the York Center for Asian Research at York University in Toronto. His research covers violence, securitization and displacement.