Guest Column

Shan Pants, Burmese Longyi and Teenagers: Finding the Moral Imagination for Peace in Myanmar

By Tony Waters 26 May 2020

I have recently read much about federalism in Myanmar. There is of course no shortage of reports about this; after all, since 2015, international donors have assumed that federalism is a key to resolving Myanmar’s conflicts via the peace process. The donor reports search for federalist traditions in Myanmar, usually focusing on the 1947 Panglong conference at which General Aung San of the soon-to-be central government negotiated with Shan leaders about post-independence governance.

Federalism is typically presented as the pragmatic democratic compromise which well-educated donors believe will work in a complicated country like Myanmar. But I wonder if this is really a key any more than the unitary government in Naypyitaw, or even the independence asserted by de facto entities like Wa State, Kawthoolei, Arakan and Kachin. The legitimacy of any system is in fact not a technical question, but is about the morality of who is “us” and “them,” as asserted by ethnic armed groups, the Myanmar government and the peoples of Myanmar—including the teenagers!

Who is the “us” and who is the “them” matters in governance, more so than a legalistic contract of constitutional federalism. And again, this is fundamentally a moral question reflecting cultural habits, family connections, historical contingency and local traditions. Ironically, I reached this conclusion not through some technical scientific comparison by political scientists from the UK and the US, but after reading a story from Shan teacher and writer Khuensai Jaiyen, who describes his own shifting preferences for Burmese longyi, Shan pants and writing Burmese romance songs as a teenager. He wrote about this in a 2016 essay “How I Became Shan.”

Khuensai remembers that in 1962, General Ne Win took charge of Burma, and soon after implemented his Burmanization campaigns. The campaigns would last decades, during which both federalist and independence dreams became an illegal challenge to military authority. The military in response implemented the harsh Four Cuts policy to starve the Shan and other groups out of their mountain redoubts, where they operated their own independent micro-states. In the test between the unitary Rangoon government, and the independence-seeking micro-states, federalism was seemingly forgotten. The “federalism solution” seemed to reach a dead end after the Karen National Union (KNU) changed its goal from independence to federalism in 1976, but received no response from Gen. Ne Win’s government.

But such intractable conclusions in peace negotiations are seen not only in Myanmar. The peace scholar John Paul Lederach emphasizes that peace in such situations requires something more than a repackaging of older failed proposals. He writes that intractable situations require a “moral imagination,” which emphasizes thinking “outside the box.” For Myanmar’s armed groups today, the imagination of that Shan boy Khuensai, growing up in Rangoon and later in Shan State’s Lashio and Taunggyi in the 1950s and 1960s, is perhaps relevant.

Now an elder, Khuensai was a young student in the 1950s and 1960s, attending a Catholic school in Lashio, and later Kambawza School in Taunggyi. Today, he remembers alternating between the Burmese, Shan and English languages. But of the three he remembers preferring Burmese, which was the language of a broader popular culture. He saw Shan as being simply the language of his own elderly grandparents. In the 1950s and 1960s, like other teenagers in Lashio, he preferred to ride his bicycle wearing a longyi, rather than baggy Shan pants, which he feared would easily be tangled in the pedals. In other words, the teenage Khuensai was becoming Burman! Thus, he was horrified in the mid-1960s when a new military appointee assigned Shan State’s education portfolio, U Tin Ko Ko, insisted that the male pupils wear Shan pants rather than longyi. It seems that 16-year-old Khuensai just wanted to be a Shan who chose to wear longyi, not pants!

But then U Tin Ko Ko was replaced, and a new directive came from Gen. Ne Win’s new appointee: Shan pants and Shan language were banned in Shan State schools! The full force of Gen. Ne Win’s Burmanization campaign came to Shan State, and in the ensuing years all things Shan were forcefully eliminated. The increasing repression was a step too far, and Khuensai remembers becoming Shan in response. He began wearing pants, and the Burmese language in which he once wrote love songs fell into disuse. What was wrong with being Shan, wearing Shan pants, and speaking Shan in Shan State? And thus young Khuensai in 1969 embarked on a decades-long career in rebel-held territory as a teacher, journalist and liaison. Today he is an informal adviser for a Shan peace negotiating team.

Khuensai, aged 17, wearing a longyi in Taunggyi, Shan State. /

But the reason Khuensai’s thoughts about Shan pants and Burmese longyi are interesting today was highlighted for him only in a meeting he had in 1998 with a Tai-Leu representative from the Chinese province of Yunnan whom he met in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  The Tai-Leu are a major ethnic minority in Yunnan, and speak a Tai language similar to Shan. Yunnan’s central government had during the previous decades adopted policies encouraging preservation of Tai-Leu language and culture. Indeed, these policies were encouraged and financed by Yunnan’s government alongside the national Mandarin language curriculum, apparently to the delight of the Tai-Leu parents. Here is how Khuensai remembered the conversation in “How I Became Shan”.

Khuensai: “I really envy your situation.”

Tai-Leu representative: “Why?”

Khuensai:  “Because the Chinese government is not only allowing you to learn Tai, but also encouraging and supporting it. The same goes for your efforts to preserve and promote your culture. I wish we in Burma are enjoying the same rights.”

Tai-Leu representative: “You may be right. But, on the contrary, we too feel envious of your situation”.

Khuensai [surprised]: “How is that?”

Tai-Leu representative: “Of course, you know the Tai saying:

The fish lives when the water is hot.

The fish dies when the water is cold.

[Nam Hawn Pa Pen, Nam Yen Pa Tai]”

The Tai-Leu man continued: “You Shans are living under suppression, like a fish in hot water. You therefore do everything to survive. So your literature and culture live on. However, we Tai-Leu, bestowed freedom by the Chinese government to preserve, promote and propagate our literature and culture, face a bigger opponent—our own youth. Given a choice between Tai and Chinese literatures and cultures, they are not interested in their own heritage anymore. To them, the choice is to go the Chinese way. Had our literature and culture been suppressed and strangled like you are, these young people would have been easier to convince.”

Policies encouraging Shan culture, language, literature, etc. were unheard of in Gen. Ne Win’s Shan State, at least since the departure of U Tin Ko Ko, and the Burmanization programs “heated up the water.” Thus, Shan youth in 1998 spoke Shan, could read and write Shan, wore Shan clothing, and had the strong and vibrant culture envied by the Tai-Leu representative. They also of course had Shan militaries governing parts of Shan State, which tried to protect the poorly financed Shan schooling from attack by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military.

And herein lies the profoundly moral question that Khuensai now imaginatively asks. What would have happened if Gen. Ne Win’s government in Rangoon had adopted Yunnanese-style policies of ethnic accommodation, rather than those of Burmanization and Four Cuts in the 1960s-1990s? Khuensai once spoke Shan with only his grandparents, but if Shan State had been peacefully governed by someone like U Tin Ko Ko after 1970, what language would Khuensai be speaking with his own grandchildren today? And would those Shan grandchildren prefer longyi, or Shan pants?

Such questions have little to with the technical aspects of good governance taught by consultancy reports about federalism, and everything to do with dignity and political legitimacy. It also has nothing to do with whether Myanmar should have a unitary or federal government, or even be a series of independent nations. Dignity and legitimacy do not come from the words of a constitution, but the attitude and trust people have for each other, whether or not there is a larger political entity.

In telling the story of his Shan pants, Khuensai is in effect challenging readers to reframe a moral question about what is at the heart of both Shan and Myanmar identity. In this context the question becomes about what type of policies give legitimacy and dignity to the people of Shan State, rather than what flavor of governance is preferred by political scientists from Oxford or Harvard. What is more, judging from Khuensai’s story, the response to a given policy is likely to change across time, as it did for the Tai-Leu from Yunnan whose youth became “Chinese,” and just as it did for Khuensai, who, as he notes, himself became more Shan because of Gen. Ne Win’s Burmanization policies.

This gets back to Lederach’s point about the moral imagination. What does thinking outside the box really mean? Maybe a now elderly Shan teacher’s question about how government policy made him “Shan” 50 years after the fact is a good place to start. Evaluating how the youthful Khuensai “became Shan” despite writing Burmese love songs is at least as insightful as the latest Yangon consultancy reports.

So what questions are really relevant to the boys and girls living in Yangon, Mandalay, Lashio, Mong La, Kawthoolei, Sittwe and Mytikyina today? Like the youthful Khuensai, they seek identities in which they can find dignity locally, nationally and internationally. The central question is not whether you choose one or the other governance system off the grocery store shelf (“Would you like unitary government, federalism or independence?”). Rather, peace involves listening to what young and old are thinking and doing, and permitting them the peace and freedom to manage changing situations, just as U Tin Ko Ko proposed in Shan State in the 1960s, and the Chinese apparently did in Yunnan for the Tai-Leu in recent decades.

Tony Waters is director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He works with Burmese, Karen and other students in the university’s PhD program in Peacebuilding. He is also a professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and author of academic books and articles. He can be reached at [email protected].

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