Searching for Equality in a Diversity of Ethnic Identities

By Thuta 2 September 2016

The idea of “equality” has long been entangled in Burmese political history and has been a factor in the world’s longest-running armed conflicts in Burma, during which ethnic minorities have accused the Burman majority of attempting to dominate and control the country.

At this juncture, with the holding of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, the issue of equality will again be at the heart of political dialogue. It will surely come up repeatedly as a yardstick for diverse ethnic leaders to measure everything from politics to economics, social welfare, security and natural resources.

In spite of its influence and importance, however, the idea of equality has historically never been uniformly understood, and has not had an accurate and comprehensive definition shared by all citizens of the country. The term has been extensively politicized and has generated a complicated set of questions, starting with the basic: “What is equality?”

Could equality be shared, by the signing of an agreement? Could it be measured? Could someone give equality to another, or demand it from others as a right or an opportunity? Finally, does equality exist in nature?

In fact, “equality” is a highly contested concept that has served as a political slogan across the globe, perhaps most famously with the French Revolution with its call for “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” But there is no such thing as a universally accepted definition of equality.

People often misunderstand it to mean “sameness.” In Burmese politics, equality was evoked in the famous phrase attributed to Gen Aung San: “If a Karen has one kyat, a Burman must have one kyat.” But, in practice, nothing has ever been or can ever be as simple as that in terms of the way power and resources are distributed.

For example, there is no equality in the separation of powers between the three pillars of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary in a government. Instead, power is built on a concept of “checks and balances” among them. Likewise, the division of power between central and regional governments could never be equal, but could rather be arranged in a fair way.

According to the 2008 Constitution, Burma has central and regional governments as well as self-administered zones. In the future, when the country can be built according to a democratic federal system, there may be even more autonomous or semi-autonomous regions within various ethnic states, because the country is home to so very many ethnic nationalities.

Let’s think about economics. It would be very hard to find or create equality in the complex relations between the central and regional economies, or between the public and private sectors within an economy or a region.

It’s not just us. The idea of equality is fraught everywhere, and has been throughout history. The notion of equality enshrined in the ideology of socialism proved a failure with, among many other examples, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

We shouldn’t forget that the current Western model of the market economy, which has been adopted widely across the world, has never embraced equality as a norm, but has rather encouraged free competition and worship of the principle of “survival of the fittest.”

Today the world is moving towards an even wider social gap between the rich and the poor, according to the whims of globalization.

Due to global discontent over globalization, some governments have taken belated balancing actions to reduce the social gap in their societies, labeling themselves as promoters of equality. In this sense, equality can be understood as an act of balancing an imbalanced situation through the notion of social justice. But it is not about sharing “one kyat” equally among all.

In the area of security, nation states adhere to the principle of “one nation, one army,” whether they are democratic, socialist or authoritarian. But Burma has one army surrounded by more than a dozen ethnic armed organizations. Despite proposals for a “federal army,” the ethnic armed organizations would never have the chance to discuss equality with the Burmese generals at the 21st Century Panglong Conference. Instead, they would face a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration/Security Sector Reform process as part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which would have them disarm or integrate into the Burmese army with dignity.

The control and management of natural resources is often a critical issue in, and sometimes a root cause of, armed conflict in unstable, transitional states; Burma is no exception. Natural resources mostly located in the ethnic regions have formed the backbone of the country’s economy for decades. Equality in natural resource sharing will definitely be a heated topic at the 21st Century Panglong Conference, but a nation is not a piece of private property to be divided and shared among interest groups in the name of the “national interest.”

However, if equal opportunities are desired for all citizens living in this country, the distribution of wealth must be considered practically, based on a number of factors such as population density, geography, relative economic and infrastructural development, climactic variation, and so on—and not be based on ethnicity and religion.

Burma is now at the top of the list of nations at risk from natural disasters. Only in this area would we find equality, because natural disasters destroy humanity without discrimination based on political belief, ethnicity, race or religion. To all the ethnic leaders attending the 21st Century Panglong Conference: please do not forget to discuss how responsibility is to be shared in times of national emergency caused by natural disasters.

Despite the above-mentioned challenges faced by Burma, the country at least has one latecomer benefit. This is in the area of advanced information technologies such as mobile phones, computers and the Internet, which are quickly intruding into all walks of life. The younger Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Arakanese and Shan generations are now becoming friends with one another in an easy and equal manner on Facebook and other social media. Nobody regards the Myitsone Dam as only a Kachin problem, but as a problem shared by all ethnic nationalities living along the Irrawaddy River.

The modernity of the 21st century means that time and space are shrinking, so that a nation cannot live in isolation anymore, like our ancestors did in the 19th or even 20th centuries.  This is true even for ethnic groups inhabiting small regions within a nation.

The times demand that all of us escape from isolation, learn how to open our minds, broaden our perceptions and enjoy living peacefully in diversity, so that peace across the nation can lead to economic development through the fair distribution of power and wealth. Otherwise, our attitudes will become our enemy, trapping us in situations where we enjoy less equality than others.