Guest Column

Identity Politics and Myanmar's Democratic Transition

By Mon Mon Myat 1 March 2019

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama said in an interview that the rise of identity politics was “an unhealthy situation for democracy to be in when people line themselves up according to these birth categories.”

The rise of white nationalism and the “black lives matter” movement in the U.S. was mentioned in his book “Identity Politics.”

In fact, ethnic identity politics has been present in colonized countries since the colonial era. “Many ethnic categorizations and ethnic hierarchies still functioning today were the intended or unintended results of European colonialism,” said Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen. This is also known as divide-and-rule, used by colonial powers to divide the Frontier Areas from Ministerial Burma, Hutu from Tutsi in Rwanda, and during apartheid in South Africa.

During a meeting with Britain’s Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, in London in 1947, Aung San, leading Burma’s delegation to the country, openly accused the empire of a divide-and-rule policy in Burma.

“The present division between Ministerial Burma and the Frontier Areas is the direct result of the past policy of the British rulers of Burma if not of His Majesty’s Government to do everything possible to divide the Frontier Areas from the rest of Burma,” Vum Ko Hau, an ethnic Chin scholar, wrote in the book “Profile of a Burma Frontier Man.”

When Burma claimed independence from Britain, there was a serious debate between ethnic Bamar and minority leaders about whether or not the Frontier Areas would join. Though Aung San said in his speeches that “Burma would ask for independence separately if the Frontier Areas will not join in,” he knew very well that it was “most ridiculous” to divide a country as small as Burma any further.

Vum Ko Hau reproduced his conversation with Aung San about the Frontier Areas: “The adjacent boundaries with all the important foreign countries would be with the Frontier Areas, and as such the defence of her borders would be in a hopeless position as the Frontier Areas themselves would not be able to defend themselves against their own neighbours, which are also neighbours of Ministerial Burma. On the other hand, it would be difficult for most of the Frontier Areas to stand on their legs with regards to finance when they need it most for improvement in almost all fields. There is definite mutual advantage to join together rather than to divide further as already designed by the imperialists.”

Identity politics based on nationalism and territorial control was installed in the Frontier Areas in the late colonial period. In 1946 the governor of British Burma, Dorman-Smith, and the officers in the Frontier Areas met with Kachin leaders in Myitkyina, while the director for the Frontier Areas Administration, Henry Stevenson, met with Karenni leaders in Loikaw, to introduce the Frontier Areas Regulation.

Author Mikael Gravers highlights the British influence in the Frontier Areas in his essay “Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma.”

“During the negotiations in Panglong in the Shan states,” he writes, “the British tried to the last to secure Burma’s status as a dominion within the Commonwealth — or at the very least to ensure control in ‘Frontier Areas’ and with the minorities.”

He notes Britain’s attempts “to mobilise the pro-British leaders against Aung San’s young supporters and the AFPFL in the border areas.”

The identity politics of the Frontier Areas, where a handful of feudal lords competed for territory and power, was the result of British policy.

Military rule in Bamar attire

One of the main causes of identity politics in Myanmar today is the Burmanization policy of former dictator Ne Win. Touting a “Burmese Way to Socialism,” Ne Win’s government started to control education services and press freedom. The government terminated the education services provided by Western countries to reduce foreign influence in Myanmar. The teaching of English was limited to middle and high school, and only Burmese language, literature, and history were taught in primary schools across the country. The services of the Peace Corps were rejected and the activities of the British Council and the US Information Service were suspended. The Socialist government imposed a closed-door policy to minimize foreign influence.

The recent Rohingya exodus was not the only exodus in Myanmar history. There were several cases after the advent of Ne Win’s “socialist” dictatorship in 1962. Under a nationalization law, Ne Win deported many Indian and Chinese immigrants — who dominated much of the country’s business and agriculture sectors — in 1963-64, creating an exodus to India and China of some 500,000 to 800,000 people, author Robert Holmes notes in his paper “Burmese Domestic Policy: Politics of Burmanization.”

Whether one calls it the “Burmese Way to Socialism” or “Disciplined Democracy,” it was military rule in Bamar attire. While Myanmar managed to overcome feudalism and colonialism, the country spent five decades under military or one-party rule. Ne Win’s Burmanization policy and his mismanagement fostered inequality between ethnic Bamar and minority groups and caused great suffering. While Ne Win was imposing socialist rule using nationalist identity politics, the rise of ethno-nationalism in the former Frontier Areas emerged. Ethnic leaders formed armed groups and have been fighting the Myanmar military since independence. Thus Myanmar has had more than 70 years of civil war.

Myanmar democracy and identity politics

When nationalism emerged in the 19th Century, Burmese nationalists took part in independence movements in Southeast Asian nations. When Marxist ideology was influenced in Asia, it became popular among university students in Myanmar. As with many countries across Asia, Myanmar was heavily influenced by popular ideologies around the world.

Fukuyama said 21st Century politics “is defined less by economic or ideological concerns than by questions of identity. Now, in many democracies, the Left focuses less on creating broad economic equality and more on promoting the interests of a wide variety of marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees, women, and LGBT people. The Right, meanwhile, has redefined its core mission as the patriotic protection of traditional national identity, which is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity, or religion.”

If we look at the Myanmar peace process, the Left and Right have taken hard positions with little willingness to compromise. The ethnic groups want recognition and accommodation, as they have since Myanmar gained independence. At the same time, the majority Bamar want to maintain the country’s sovereignty and to protect the traditional national identity.

After 2010, a quasi-civilian government formed by former generals took power with a military-drafted Constitution and ruled the country until 2015. Although the military is no longer officially in charge, it still plays a major role in the duel-governing system the Constitution established and continues to sell itself as the last defence against the country’s disintegration.

As a result of the shift from military to quasi-civilian rule after 2010, press freedom has increased. Many civil society groups have been establish that promote democracy. Then the 2015 elections marked a milestone in the people’s political awakening, and a civilian government was formed for the first time in 60 years.

Today there are many organizations in Myanmar promoting the rights of women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people and other oppressed groups.

During British rule, the colonialists pulled the strings of identity politics in Burma to try to secure their power in the Frontier Areas. Likewise, there are people pulling the string of identity politics now during Myanmar transition to democracy. Sometimes they pull the strings in the name of ethnic identity. Other times they use religion as cover to secure power.

Fukuyama writes: “People’s identities are neither fixed nor necessarily given by birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can also be used to unify.”

Aung San and ethnic leaders signed the Panglong Agreement in 1947. When people talk about the agreement today, they usually cite its promise of “full autonomy in the internal administration” of minority areas. The part they usually forget to mention is this: “Citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries.”

In the meantime, only a politics of democratic identity that protects individual rights and freedoms can help Myanmar with its transition, not the politics of one group, one territory or one identity, because the recognition of one’s identity is a basic tenet of democracy.

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance writer and journalist and a graduate student in the PhD program on peace building at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.