Guest Column

Toward a More Perfect Union

By Wai Yan Hpone 12 February 2015

I used to be proud of being a Bamar. In the early days of my life, I was overwhelmed with pride for our rich culture, civilization and centuries-long history. We Bamar are a people who founded three great empires and produced warrior kings who were feared by our neighbors. In the view of the average Bamar, we are superior to any ethnic group politically, economically or culturally, and other minority groups have always looked up to us with fear and envy.

But once I began to explore beyond my childhood knowledge, I had to unlearn much of it. At that point, the pride I had always taken in my Burman-ness began to disintegrate, replaced by guilt and shame. I feel guilty and ashamed of my race because of its centuries-long oppression of Myanmar’s myriad ethnic minorities. Even though I am not directly liable for the wrongdoings of my fellow Bamar past and present, I feel I have a share in that responsibility. And the thought that justice for those transgressions has not been brought to this day has made me particularly embarrassed.

Growing up in Yangon, I was shielded from the truth by the city’s relatively pluralist nature, my naivety aided by the selective history conveyed in school textbooks and state media. The facade of the “Golden Land” has always prevented an urbanite like myself from seeing ethnic minorities’ true lives.

What I Learned

We were taught that a country called Myanmar has existed since as early as the 11th century as a land in which all peoples had been living “fraternally, peacefully and harmoniously.” There were times when unity faltered and we fought each other, but our relationships were fundamentally unbroken because we were “brothers.” It was because of the colonialists that we lost not just our sovereignty, but also our harmony. The colonialists used a divide-and-rule strategy to plant distrust among us, and it was all because of the British that, 130 years after they deposed of Burma’s last monarch, the country finds itself trapped in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.

According to this discourse, the Bamar and other ethnic groups are real “blood brothers” who are descendants of the same family. In diversity we can see commonalities and the Bamar, as the majority ethnic group, are at the center of that diversity. As the story goes, differences are only superficial and, in essence, we are one! The military, also known as the Tatmadaw, had needed to intervene in 1962 only to prevent the union from breaking up. At that time, unscrupulous elements were colluding to adopt a “federal system,” which could only lead to the disintegration of the country. This is the narrative our Bamar leaders have pushed for decades.

What I Relearned

Bamar contributor 2
Wai Yan Hpone is a freelance writer and translator living in Yangon.

The true history of this country is that there was never a unified nation-state before the British came. The map of Myanmar today is only a legacy of the British occupation, an arbitrary demarcation of territory with little relation to the people that live within its bounds. Many ethnic groups lived independently in their own territories and practiced different governance systems, from monarchies and fiefdoms to chieftainships. When the Bamar empire reached its peak, other ethnic peoples swore allegiance to the kingdom, but for the most part the various peoples of Myanmar coexisted with self-determination.

In the eye of non-Bamar ethnic peoples, post-independence Myanmar has never been a union but rather a unitary state. The principles of the historic Panglong Agreement have been ignored, and the Bamar are acting as if ethnic areas were their own.

Ever since independence, successive regimes have prioritized the Burmanization process. A value for ethnic diversity exists in name only, and minority identities are being subsumed by that of the Bamar. Though Myanmar is a multiethnic state, Bamar culture, the Burmese language and Buddhism represent it. Other ethnic groups, languages and religions have been systematically suppressed and assimilated into the dominant one.

When the Panglong Agreement was not realized, many of our ethnic minorities resorted to armed struggle against the Bamar-dominated central government. As the civil war escalated, the country became increasingly militarized, giving the Tatmadaw a reason to further tighten its grip on power. In the eyes of Tatmadaw elites, Myanmar’s rebel groups are enemies of the state, justifying ruthless counterinsurgency strategies against both militants and civilian populations.

For ethnic minorities, the Bamar are synonymous with the Burma Army, which has perpetrated numerous atrocities upon them—forced grabbing of their lands and resources, forced labor, forced relocation, murder, rape, torture, arbitrary taxation and summary execution, to name a few. Ethnic nationalists also fear their language and culture will become extinct because of bans on teaching ethnic languages at school. Many people in ethnic borderlands have never seen a Bamar like myself from Myanmar proper. The only Bamar they know is the army, an institution that has colonized their lands for decades, and has tried to cleanse their ancestral homelands of native peoples. They hate the Bamar because they hate the Burma Army.

Unlearned History

Those who go to government schools in Myanmar cannot see or hear the feelings of our ethnic brothers. We are taught that the Tatmadaw is the only patriotic professional army, a fighting force that has defended the country from both foreign and domestic “rebel” forces. Federalism means balkanization and it is the Tatmadaw’s time-honored mission to save the country whenever it is in crisis. The education system gave us no opportunity to explore beyond the textbooks, however, or to challenge the state’s ideologies and discourses.

With the passage of Union Day today, another government-imposed target date for the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement will have gone unmet. In my view, as long as the decision makers in the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw are not convinced that achieving peace rests upon respecting our ethnic brothers’ rights and finding justice for their deprivations, there will be no genuine peace. There is a historic phrase by Gen. Aung San: “If the Bamar get one kyat, the other ethnic groups must get one kyat respectively.” The utter failure to fulfill Aung San’s promise has led to a sarcastic joke among ethnic minorities: “After Aung San visited the seven states, the Bamar got seven kyats but other ethnic peoples got only one kyat each.”

I want the Bamar chauvinists in the Tatmadaw and the government to reflect upon their past ideologies and actions. I also want them to ask themselves whether they really want peace. We Bamar have broken promises since independence, and have consistently cheated and exploited our ethnic brothers. We are the majority—we have power and we enjoy privilege. That’s why we must show tolerance, respect and sympathy to our less dominant minority groups. Failing to do so is shameful.

Whenever I hear the grievances of my ethnic friends, I feel guilty and ashamed. As long as we cannot prove that the Bamar are a civilized, rights-respecting people, I will not be proud of myself as a Bamar.

Wai Yan Hpone is a freelance writer and translator living in Yangon. He has worked with several local media organizations and has so far published two translated books, as well as contributing to both local and international publications.