Guest Column

Decolonize Myanmar? Start With the State

By Violet Cho 3 July 2017

The arrest of Lawi Weng, a friend and former colleague, has emotionally and psychologically affected me deeply. It disturbs a long hidden fear inside me, and probably many others from Myanmar who have lived and struggled within regimes of oppression with fear of being unjustly persecuted for who we are and what we believe. This arrest has pushed me to think about one of the key root causes that are too often taken for granted: colonialism.

Lawi Weng, Aye Nai and Pyae Bone Naing were arrested under the 1908 Unlawful Association Act enacted by the British colonial regime. This act was designed by the British colonial regime to oppress and rule the people of Burma and other colonies. The success of British colonialism depended on the use of law, courts, police, prisons, government, schools, hospitals and the economy to control subjects, to make them behave in a certain way and to submit to the new state apparatus.

Sixty years after ‘independence,’ the state continues to rely on colonial laws and practices, and we continue to internalise and reproduce colonialist ideas. This is all the more ironic since some people continue to talk about Karen as having a “slave mentality” for collaborating with the British while assuming that others are free. As long as colonial laws and practices persist, we all have a “slave mentality.”

State actors celebrate Myanmar’s liberation from British colonialism, while maintaining legacies of the colonial state for the control and suppression of the people of Myanmar. Can we say that we are independent?

There has been a long history of resistance to colonialism, in organised action, boycotts, gossip, religious movements, rituals, song, writing, violent resistance and banditry. Liberation for anticolonial activists meant many things. It could involve social and political freedom and cultural revitalization. The colonial state used various methods to suppress resistance. Just as the postcolonial state is using some of the same methods to suppress Lawi Weng, Aye Nai, Pyae Bone Naing and others who are involved in creating a better society.

Instead of creating our path towards a free society that recognises diverse views of the nation, the state is replicating acts of repression. State communication is often nationalistic, but for me, the arrest of these three journalists is not a nationalistic act.

My intention is not to dehumanise and villainize the state. We have all internalised colonial practices in our own way. Agents of the state are also in need of decolonization. In our hearts, we all want to move forward and hope for a better society, however that might look.

Decolonization needs to involve a deep analysis of how our politics and society should look like, the core values, the role of law and government, and address the violence of colonisation in imposing foreign and oppressive structures and ideologies. What we do today should not contradict core values of liberation and decolonization. Myanmar needs to be untangled from the apparatus of colonial control.

These arrests brought me back to my memory of being arrested by Thai police while I was working as a journalist along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The level of uncertainty of my safety and security because of that arrest penetrated my mental state deeply.

I am still somehow traumatised by this incident, a decade later. The context of the capture I experienced is, of course, different from the arrest of Lawi and other journalists. However, it is undeniable that they will experience deep fear and that the state is doing physical and mental harm to them. The consequences of these arrests are also doing much broader harm. It affects their families, their comrades in the media and the wider society.

The application of the Unlawful Association Act and other colonial laws and practices for the control and repression of the people of Myanmar shows that we are still caught within the legacy of the colonial system. We must critique this situation to look at what we need to do to live in a liberated and decolonised Myanmar. Right now, those directly involved in the persecution of Lawi Weng, Aye Nai, and Pyae Bone Naing need to decolonise most of all.

Violet Cho is a former reporter at The Irrawaddy and a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University.