Guest Column

Ghosts Look Over the Shoulders of Myanmar Peace Negotiators

By Tony Waters 16 January 2021

Peace Studies researcher Elise Boulding wrote that peace, including the type sought today in Myanmar, is focused by a “two hundred year present.”  By this she meant that how people think about their values, fears, loyalties and dreams is inherited from the memories of parents and grandparents who recall the emotional events they heard about as children from their elders.

This is how they came to think about who is the “us” that is loved and trustworthy, and the “them” that is to be feared, avoided and distrusted.  Thus what the British jailor did to a revered great uncle during the Saya San rebellion of 1933 is important for understanding how both the Burmese and the British negotiator speak to each other today. In the same way, what we say today will have an emotional pull on children yet to be born, who will create a society in the year 2120.  This is Boulding’s 200-year present: 100 years backward, and 100 years forward.

We tend to think of “grandparent wisdom” as being about nostalgia, but it is really about emotions. Dreams and nightmares are remembered, not the “facts of history.”  Emotions inherited from grandparents describe what is honorable when speaking of your own group, and how dishonorable are those who are to be feared. Grandparent wisdom is learned in the kitchen with your grandmother, while fishing with your grandfather, and at family gatherings where children listen quietly, perhaps not quite comprehending the facts, but tuned into the emotional content.  Grandparent emotions are socialized into soldiers, diplomats, NGO workers and others seeking peace in Myanmar today, but seem always to re-emerge in odd ways. Indeed, as Karl Marx reminded the unsuccessful revolutionaries of the 1848 French uprisings: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Grandparent wisdom is also more convincing than “the facts” presented in an expensive Yangon consultancy report, the “unbiased” history classes of professors like me, judges in court, or NGO-sponsored peacemaking workshops where Burmese are routinely asked to reflect on the sins of previous generations. Grandparent accounts reflect inherently emotional attachments, which are amplified in popular culture via folk talks, books, movies, and music.  Nothing I say in a university lecture will convince my students that their grandparents’ memories of events from 100 years ago, which have been reproduced in song, film, and literature, are flawed.

So what did the Bamar/Shan/Karen/Kachin/English/American/Norwegian/German grandparents sitting invisibly at the peace table tell those diplomats about the people sitting across from them?  Who were the heroes and martyrs of the Bamar/Shan/Karen/Kachin/English/American/Norwegian/German grandparent?  Imagine a semi-fictional group that might be sitting at the peace table in Naypyitaw:

A Bamar negotiator, who had a Christian grandfather and whose Burmese father was an officer in the Burma Independence Army which massacred Karen in the Irrawaddy Delta in 1942.  

A British negotiator, whose grandfather was born in India, became a policeman in Burma where he supervised hangings, and then settled down in England to become a writer.

A Shan negotiator, who grew up in Rangoon and preferred the Burmese language to Shan but as a response to Ne Win’s Burmanization policies discarded his longyi and joined the Shan State Army for several decades. 

The granddaughter of senior civil servants in the Ne Win regime, who remembers uncles imprisoned by the British for “dacoity” in the Saya San Rebellion.

A student demonstrator from Yangon University, whose uncle was an aide to Ne Win, but who then fled to the mountains after crackdowns on student demonstrators, and joined the Karen forces in Manerplaw.

The son of a retired military man who was born in Rakhine but lived in Kayah State where his father fought for control of the opium crop, before retiring as a businessman in Yangon. The son settled in Kayah State and started humanitarian programs on the Thai-Myanmar border.

A Norwegian negotiator whose grandfather was involved with the establishment of the Norwegian Kingdom in 1906 and post-World War I humanitarian efforts. But the negotiator’s father was an officer in the Nazi-allied Quisling government during World War II, which deported Jews to Germany.  

How World War II is relevant to Myanmar peace policy

World War II was a global event shared by the West and much of Asia, including Myanmar.  Myanmar’s Bamar people remember it because Japan invaded British Burma to expel the British colonialists, who quickly retreated to India. They remember that Rangoon and Mandalay were bombed by the Allies, and that armies from Japan, British India and Thailand each occupied parts of the country. Myanmar’s grandparents especially remember the 250,000 to 1,000,000 dead family and friends.  What Myanmar child today does not hear from their elders of the brutal death of a beloved sibling, parent, grandparent, or playmate during World War II?

But foreign donors supporting the Myanmar peace process remember World War II differently. In particular, they tend to remember it as an honorable fight for democracy, and against fascist Germany in particular. The Allies remember family members who died for democracy, human rights and free markets. They also view the war as a fight against crimes of genocide and as a response to military aggression by Germany and Japan.  These memories, like those of the Burmese victims, are stored in the emotional centers of the donors’ brains and societies, impermeable to the words of professors like me.

Such self-congratulatory accounts are perhaps easily debunked by critical historians emphasizing, for example, that the British also fought World War II for the restoration of empire in places like British Burma and the protection of capitalism. But European “grandparent wisdom” instead sticks closely to themes of democracy, human rights, free markets and fascist Germany.  And this is why democracy, human rights and the avoidance of genocide are at the heart of proposals funded by the Joint Peace Fund, UKAID and USAID today.  Such policies are consistent with what Yangon’s diplomats at the Joint Peace Fund learned from their grandparents.  The idea that their honored ancestors died for the preservation of colonialism, and its cousin monopoly capitalism, seems preposterous to them. Their views have been reinforced by decades of popular culture in which foreigners rescue Burma, often as the Allied soldiers who are heroes in World War II movies like “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and “Merrill’s Marauders”. Colonial images also linger. As recently as 2017, then-British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson quoted Rudyard Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay”.

What do Myanmar’s peoples hear from their grandparents about World War II?

Myanmar remembers well World War II, but in different ways. Different Myanmar peoples allied with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), British Burma Rifles, Japanese forces and ethnic armed groups organized by the American secret services.  The peoples of Myanmar heard very different stories from their grandparents about the enemies that killed their family and playmates. The atrocities such elders witnessed in World War II created nightmares and had little to do with the abstract concepts of democracy, human rights and free markets. Much is understood in the context of betrayals, including the massacres of Karen villagers by BIA troops invading from Thailand in early 1942, the rapid retreat of British forces to India after the Japanese invasion, and the betrayal of Burmese hopes for independence by the Japanese occupiers.  Bamar heroes include most prominently the martyred General Aung San and the Thirty Comrades of the BIA. But for many Karen there is the martyred Saw Ba U Gyi. Other groups have their own heroes and villains. Memories of these wrongs are in turn reinforced by decades of movies and popular entertainment created during first U Nu’s regime and particularly the military regimes in Myanmar. For the Rangoon film industry, the enemies were inevitably British colonialists, cruel Japanese invaders, and treacherous highlanders who betrayed heroes from the BIA.  For the newer video units of the Armed Ethnic Groups the focus is on invasions by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military).

There is thus a conundrum at Myanmar’s peace table.  Whose 100-year past do you use?  Whose grandparents’ nightmares do you validate?  In Myanmar there are many choices—reflecting the fractured history of the country.  There are the Bamar grandparents who remember well the tragic history of Myanmar’s World War II experience and the 1930s hangings of heroes like Saya San.  There are also units of the King’s Burma Rifles made up of Karen and Kachin units, that remained and fought with the British in a vain hope for an independent country after the war, and which devolved into the nightmares of the Burmese Civil Wars of 1949-1950 and after.  There were also highlanders allied with Communist forces, Shan forces, Kachin, Rakhine and others. There were more than enough betrayals, torture and killings to plant the seeds for many nightmares.

Grandparents’ memories and ‘restorying’ today

So how can negotiators get beyond the nightmares of both Europe and Myanmar’s grandparents?  Hint: Describing the Myanmar grandparents as cruel, backward and barbaric probably will not work.  Nor does ignoring the excesses of colonialism, which ended in 1948 but are still fresh in many memories.  Nitpicking at the flaws of heroes like General Aung San (national hero of the Bamar), Saw Ba U Gyi (national hero of the Karen) or even General Ne Win (longtime leader of the military), is probably not going to help Myanmar recreate a past that points to a future which is modern and inclusive.

The trick is to do what peace researcher John Paul Lederach calls “restory” the situation.  To do this, negotiators identify a shared plausible past that points to a different future.  This is particularly difficult in Myanmar, where the Bamar majority have strong memories of British perfidy and betrayal, while Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, Rohingya and others have memories of times when Burmese were oppressors and the British were the liberators.

But buried inside of these stories are also tales of cooperation.  Grandparent memories also include tales of neighborliness, friendship, comradeship and kindness to fleeing neighbors.  And sometimes the oppressors became neighbors and allies.  This after all is how Burmese negotiators recreate a British police officer like George Orwell, who abetted hangings of Burmese dacoits, and instead focus on his book 1984 as a masterful critique of the totalitarian 1990s in Myanmar.

Some stories even recount the most intense of emotions, romantic love.  Indeed, if you push one of today’s pure Bamar, Karen or Kachin to identify the ethnicity of all four grandparents, or especially all eight great-grandparents, you are likely to find an “inter-ethnic” marriage.  Myanmar has a recent history of violence, but also one of tolerance and cooperation.  This is why Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the child of Myanmar’s greatest Burmese hero, General Aung San, remembers reading to her grandfather the Christian Bible.

As for the negotiators from the JPF, they have the same problem.  The American facilitators routinely forget grandfathers who killed in Vietnam, Germany and Japan; the Japanese forget the invasion of Myanmar; and the Norwegians forget the grandfather who cooperated with the Nazis.  Or rather, all remember the grandfathers they knew as a child and who took them fishing, played baseball, or maybe played checkers.  German and Japanese focus on the miraculous rebirth of democracy and the triumph of post-war economies, while remembering the uncle whose picture they saw in their grandmother’s photo album, as “just a small soldier” who disappeared in Burma or Russia during World War II.  The foreign diplomats have already effectively restoried the sins of the past. The peoples of Myanmar need to be allowed and encouraged to do the same.

But still somehow when the peace table in Naypyitaw is set, the Bamar, Karen or Kachin tend to reflect only upon the other person’s grandfather who killed and tortured.  But that is not the whole task.  Setting the table for the coming 100 years involves creating a shared honorable past, often in the face of irreconcilable brutality and betrayal, just as the British, Germans and Norwegians have done. In other words, breaking somehow with the nightmare of past generations, which weighs so heavily over any peace negotiation.

Tony Waters is Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University, Chiangmai, and Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico. He is the author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001) about the nature of International Refugee Relief. More recent academic publications include “Cross-National Attunement to Popular Songs across Time and Place” in The Social Sciences (2019), and “Rong Wongsawan’s Gonzo Journey Through California In 1976” in the Journal of the Siam Society (2019). Relevant to this commentary is “The Two Kinds of American History Taught” in The History Teacher (2005). He has also been occasionally contributing to The Irrawaddy since 2018.