Guest Column

Burma's Ethnic Conflict and the Road to Democracy

By Salai Elaisa Vahnie 30 October 2012

Less than a month after Burmese democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi concluded her highly decorated visit to the US, which was followed by the US announcement to ease sanctions on imports from Burma, major communal violence broke out in the western part of the country. It has claimed more than 100 lives and resulted in thousands of internally displaced Rohingyas. In the north, the Burmese military continues its offensive against the Kachin Independence Army.

The continued ethnic conflict in Burma reflects the nature of the political crisis in Burma—deeply rooted in and prolonged by the Burman nationalistic claim that effectively utilized the world’s most reclusive and successive military as a tool to accomplish its goals of ethnic cleansing, a policy which ravaged 60 million people with fear and poverty, killed thousands, and produced millions of refugees.

With the recent positive developments led by President Thein Sein, the international community must continue to recognize that the ethnic issue is at the heart of the country’s problem, and only when this issue has been addressed fundamentally, with constitutional and institutional arrangement, can a stable democratic state that respects human rights and embraces peaceful co-existence in diversity be realized. That is when Burma, in real sense and substance, can be considered a democratic state that is capable of positively contributing to regional and world peace, stability and economy.

Many may have observed that the opposition party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have changed her tone—or perhaps, more correctly, her approach toward Burma’s reform—from initially articulating the need for constitutional reform as the most urgent necessary step in the democratization process to that of maintaining the rule of law. It was widely noted that she largely remained silent on the topic of the continued violence in ethnic minorities areas while speaking during her recent trip to the US.

Why would Suu Kyi stopped sort of pushing constitutional reform in Burma? Has she now abandoned the ethnic minorities? There could be differing observations. However, a common agreement seems to suggest that she has shifted her traditionally held confrontational practice to a more diplomatic solution-oriented engagement with the nominally civilian government and the military for certain reasons. Will she succeed? Will the military allow a fully democratic Burma state? It all depends.

There are two things that the military will not allow to happen that easily: 1) Amending the 2008-approved constitution which reserves 25 percent for the military in all legislature; 2) the forming of a United Nations commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the military.

Something must be done before these advancements can be pushed for and achieved, otherwise the Burmese military will come and seize power.

What is that something? And why is that?

Burma’s ethnic conflict began during the struggle for independence in the 1940s when violence between the Burma Independence Army (BIA), a.k.a the 30 comrades, and the Karen ethnic group broke out. It is important to note that BIA members were immortalized in Burman or Bama nationalist mythology. The Karen ethnic Christian soldiers who had been part of the British army were disarmed by the BIA as the British retreated to India. The violence against the Karen ethnic minorities continued and the Karen National Union (KNU) was eventually forced into existence.

U Nu, the first prime minister of independent Burma, followed by Gen. Ne Win, and then Snr-Gen. Than Shwe, all embraced and fostered the Burman chauvinistic agenda—the ethnic cleansing program that became a state policy. In the process of implementing this policy, they committed atrocities and grave human rights violations. What happened then?

Than Shwe and his colleagues clearly understood that a pure military grip on power will not be sustainable in the 21st century for many reasons: they knew the power of the people; that a 8888-style uprising could reignite soon; that the wave of the Arab Spring could hit them; and that the public now understand the power of technology and media.

That’s why they outsourced some smart brains to design the Constitution approved in 2008, in which the executive branch will impress the international community with its nominally civilian movement while the military holds all key positions, including the power of the commander-in-chief which can override the president any time he feels the need to.

In other words, this constitution serves as a foundation and grants the military absolute power. With such a likable personality, President Thein Sein has been rather successful in his effort to ease pressure from both the international community and from the opposition parties. In fact, he has got US and European sanctions lifted, while Ms. Suu Kyi has joined the parliament.

Now with 25 percent of the seats constitutionally taken by the military in all legislatures, Daw Suu and the democratic forces will have to do two things to overcome the military’s “red line.”

With a clear understanding that the ethnic conflict and political crisis in Burma is a man-made crisis and is deeply rooted in the Burman nationalistic claim and the chauvinistic political culture, the majority Burmans have to realize and be convinced that for them to continue to manipulate the military for their political and racial purposes will be counterproductive.

Secondly, the Burman chauvinistic political culture has to change to reach a negotiated constitutional agreement and a consolidated political settlement in a federalist democracy. The young generation must abandon the old way of racism and embrace a new way of thinking and a democratic political culture, actively playing an important role in the democratization process. This may desirably require organizing a conference in the form of a second Panglong where all eight major ethnic groups can start engaging openly to eventually reach a negotiated agreement. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi supported this idea that her late father Aung San started.

Something that is even more important is that all Burma stakeholders work together to create conditions and a political environment where the Burmese generals’ future security is guaranteed. This may include creatively providing leeway. For this very reason, the military must take part in Burma’s democratization process.

But all this will require a sincere and open engagement, an inclusive process, a serious intention to create a win-win situation—that is, to establish a federalism-based democratic country, conducive to a long-lasting peace, where Burman, non-Burman, and all the stakeholders together can say they have won collectively.

Executive Director of the Burmese American Community Institute based in the US, Salai Elaisa Vahnie is a long-time political and student activist for change in his native country Burma. He holds an MPA degree in Policy Analysis and Comparative International Affairs. The opinions stated in this article are the author’s and do not reflect The Irrawaddy editorial policy.