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The Burmans’ Big Brother Complex

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

December 2, 2011

By Khin Ohmar

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Burma’s leaders this week, she was undoubtedly told that the government was negotiating with armed ethnic groups in the country’s conflict areas as the latest step in Burma’s political transformation. Leaders will try to construe these preliminary discussions as significant steps toward peace agreements.

While such negotiations are welcome, it is important to realize that the issues relating to ethnic minorities in Burma are very complex and cannot be solved overnight, even if new ceasefire agreements are eventually reached. Because of decades of conflict, time and effort will be required to build trust.

Previous ceasefire agreements broke down, and the reasons for their failure haven’t yet been addressed. The most obvious was the Burmese regime’s attempts to force the ethnic armed groups to transform themselves into Border Guard Forces under the control of the Burmese Army. This demonstrates the regime’s lack of willingness to address the armed ethnic groups’ political requests. More broadly, it reeks of the big-brother mentality that fuels the regime’s refusal to treat ethnic nationalities as equal stakeholders in the Union of Burma.

The government’s bullying and condescending attitude toward minorities is ongoing. In an interview at the end of the Asean Summit in Bali on Nov. 19, President Thein Sein referred to ethnic armed resistance groups as “insurgents.” Both the English word and the Burmese equivalents used by Thein Sein and others are extremely degrading and fail to acknowledge legitimate and longstanding desires for equality. If the regime is not willing to respect the aspirations of the ethnic nationalities, it is difficult to believe that recent negotiations will improve conditions for these citizens.

It matters how Burma’s rulers, all of them ethnic Burmans that make up the country’s majority, describe the non-Burman ethnic communities. The latter’s aspiration for equality and self-determination is supposed to be “ethnocentrism,” while their wants for federalism, we’re told, is really “separatism.”

Some ethnic groups may use the word “independence” in their organization’s name. However, many have stated publicly that their goal is not secession, but rather self-determination and equality within the Union. Clearly, the real threat to the Union is the continuing denial of equality for all people.

The government rhetoric on ethnic communities makes a mockery of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which was signed at the time of independence from Britain between General Aung San—the freedom fighter and father of Aung San Suu Kyi—on one hand and ethnic Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders on the other. The agreement describes ethnic minorities, or “nationalities” as they prefer to be called, as equal partners in the Federal Union of Burma—not second-class or subordinate citizens.

The armed conflict shows how this agreement to respect the minorities’ equality has been betrayed. Ethnic groups began taking up arms shortly after Independence as it became clear that they would not be given an equal role in the Union’s affairs, including political power sharing and management of natural resources.

The nationalities make up 45% of the population and own 60% of the most resource-rich land. Yet important resources on ethnic lands—and the income generated from them—were increasingly controlled by the political elite, primarily from the Burman majority. Without political recourse, it’s no surprise ethnic groups turned to armed struggle.

On a day-to-day basis, people from ethnic nationalities in different parts of the country are faced with many different forms of discrimination. To gain admission into prestigious institutions or receive promotions, non-Burmans are required to prove their assimilation into the Burman majority, such as by having Burman names.

Members of ethnic groups with armed resistance movements, such as the Karen, are routinely suspected of being members or supporters of the armed resistance themselves and are hence targeted. This often means arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, extra-judiciary killing and rape. When the regime broke its 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in June, it immediately began arresting Kachin university students studying in urban areas in lower Burma. In Kachin State it is conscripting men and women of all ages, including the elderly and children, as porters and committing violent atrocities.

Such violence is directed at all minorities. I still recall one day when a university friend from Shan state told me about six Shan women who were raped by Burmese Army soldiers. This news came as a shock to me. Belonging to the Burman majority, I did not understand the atrocities non-Burmans were subjected to. It was only when I fled to the Thai-Burma border in 1988 that I saw it with my own eyes—refugees, internally displaced people, and survivors of landmines, rape, and torture.

This suffering and subjugation of the ethnic minorities continues today. Burma will never be able to achieve genuine peace and national reconciliation by continuing to ignore the rights of the ethnic nationalities. At this potential turning point in Burma’s political history, the world must push the Burman-majority government to honor the equality of all the people of Burma.

Ms. Ohmar is Chairwoman of Network for Democracy and Development and Coordinator of Burma Partnership.

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