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An Overview of Burma's Ethnic Politics

What little news exists about Burma usually concerns Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the struggle for democracy. But there is another, equally pressing problem in Burma: the ethnic nationalities' struggle for autonomy. While these two political battles are often considered separate issues, they are, in fact, inextricably linked.

Ethnic nationalities are the dominant populations in at least half of the territory now referred to as Burma, and make up over thirty percent of the country's total population. Because they have historically enjoyed their own polities in the plains or lived in mountainous areas untouched by Burman rule, the ethnic nationalities have sought political arrangements reflecting their independent identities. Burma's military regime, however, has insisted on political and cultural assimilation, with centralized control and a nationalist cultural agenda promoting the Burmese language and Buddhism at the expense of other languages and religions.

For over 50 years, ethnic peoples in Burma have been fighting for degrees of autonomy varying from the maintenance of their own states within a federal union to outright independence. They seek to sustain their own languages and cultures while retaining control over political and economic life in their regions. Some of the smaller ethnic groups have also called for autonomous areas within larger ethnic states. However, the Burmese government has refused to devolve power to the ethnic regions, arguing that doing so would lead to the breakup of the union.

Pro-democracy politicians in Burma are increasingly cognizant of the need to recognize ethnic political and cultural rights, but many still give precedence to the struggle for democracy. While most ethnic political leaders and civilians favor democratic rule, they are not confident that a simple restoration of democracy will lead to a resolution of their political problems. Ethnic Burmans are the dominant population and have tended to discount ethnic minority demands in the past. Consequently, Burma's ethnic nationalities worry that they will continue to be marginalized if their concerns are not addressed in conjunction with the struggle for democracy. Meanwhile, in order to prevent ethnic political forces and the pro-democracy movement from collaborating, Burma's generals have tried to limit contact between the two groups.

A Legacy of Divisions

During British rule [1825-1948], the colonial government took direct control over Burma's heartland while allowing the peoples in the less-populated hill areas to retain their own forms of government. Non-Burmans were often recruited into the colonial civil service and army and were sometimes used to put down Burman resistance movements. At the beginning of World War II, some minority peoples, including the Karen, Kachin, and Rohingya Muslims, sided with the British. The Burmans, however, welcomed the invading Japanese as their liberators. Burman soldiers massacred Karen villagers, and Karens retaliated by killing Burmans. By the end of the war, Burman support had shifted to the Allies, but both British colonial policies and the war had left deep-seated mistrust and animosity between Burmans and other ethnic groups.

Before the British would grant the country independence, they insisted that the political status of non-Burman groups be resolved. In 1947, General Aung San persuaded the ethnic groups to join in a multi-ethnic conference at Panglong, in the Shan hills, to devise a political structure acceptable to both Burmans and ethnic nationalities. Although the Karen boycotted the conference, some of the other ethnic groups participated and agreed upon the concept of a federal union within which each ethnic state would be accorded full autonomy over internal administration.

The 1947 Constitution detailed the right of the state governments to make laws, run their own civil services, and develop their own budgets. Because state heads would also serve in the Union cabinet and members of state legislative councils would serve in Parliament, the states were closely linked to the central government. The Karenni (later renamed Kayah) and Shan States were given the right to secede after ten years if they were not happy with their status within the union. The newly-formed Kachin State, which included territory previously under Burman control, was not permitted to secede, the Chin political leaders decided against forming a separate state, and the territorial dimensions of a new Karen State remained to be finalized.

Burma gained independence on January 4, 1948, but the fragile trust between Burman and ethnic minority leaders had weakened with General Aung San's assassination six months before. Karen nationalist leaders continued to argue with the Rangoon government over the boundaries of a proposed Karen State, but could not come to an agreement. Increasingly frustrated, a group of Karen nationalists took up arms in order to forcibly create an independent state that might then join the Union.

After briefly seizing control of several cities in central Burma as well as Insein, now a suburb of Rangoon, Karen forces were driven out of the plains and regrouped in the mountains to the east. In the meantime, the Mon and the Arakanese, who also wanted their own states, organized armed resistance movements. Although the 1950s were a period of parliamentary rule in Burma, the government and ethnic nationalist leaders were unable to resolve ethnic conflicts. The Burman majority held sway in the government and felt little need to compromise with ethnic peoples. The central government did almost nothing to promote development in ethnic regions, and in Shan State, central government troops, sent to push out fleeing anti-Communist Chinese soldiers, abused the local Shan population. In addition, Prime Minister U Nu upset many non- Buddhists by running his 1960 election campaign on the promise that he would make Buddhism the state religion, despite General Aung San's earlier insistence that the state remain secular.

As the central government increased the power concentrated in Burman hands, ethnic political leaders called for a more decentralized federal structure with a single Burman state and several ethnic states, each with the same powers. In the meantime, a number of Shan and Kachin university students took to the hills to fight for greater autonomy.

Federalism Becomes a Dirty Word

Arguing that military intervention was necessary to prevent the breakup of the union, General Ne Win seized power on March 2, 1962. Assuming that it would be short-lived, many Burmese initially welcomed military rule. Opinions changed when it became clear that the regime was not merely transitional. By then, however, it was difficult to organize resistance. The military government banned all political parties except the regime's own Burma Socialist Programme Party, nationalized or shut down newspapers, and dissolved most independent associations. As military rule continued, so did official rhetoric that federalism would inevitably lead to anarchy and only the armed forces could prevent the country's disintegration. Arakanese, Chin, Karen, and Mon States existed in name but were given no autonomous powers. Meanwhile, the ethnic nationalist armies continued to defend their "liberated areas" in the hills, with some groups in Northern Burma turning to drug trafficking as a means of support.

The central Burman population did not believe the regime's propaganda about the armed forces bringing prosperity and development to the country; their daily experiences told them otherwise. However, many people did believe the regime's portrayals of armed nationalist leaders as criminals, drug dealers, and warlords. Burmese citizens responded to the idea that assimilated nationalities would no longer desire autonomy.

Meanwhile, the Burmese army carried out brutal campaigns in areas where ethnic armies operated. As a result, ethnic populations were increasingly convinced that peaceful coexistence was impossible. After the 1988 nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations, as many as 10,000 students and other activists fled to the border areas where they saw for themselves the Burmese army's abuse of ethnic minority civilians. Most were shocked. They were also surprised to learn that most ethnic peoples in remote villages did not speak Burmese and had never been under Burman rule. Many of the Burman students and politicians taking refuge in border areas became more sympathetic to ethnic opposition demands.

During the same period, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) forged closer ties with the ethnic groups. Aung San Suu Kyi reached out to ethnic groups as she traveled the country campaigning in late 1988 and 1989. Following her father's ideals, she called for self-determination in political and economic affairs and equal rights for all ethnic groups. Although she and other NLD leaders never used the word `federalism', they did advocate that another Panglong conference be held once democracy was reestablished so that the issue of ethnic rights could be resolved. Many ethnic people joined the NLD believing they could best press for their rights from within the party. Others set up ethnic-based parties and formed the United Nationalities League for Democracy, an alliance that worked closely with the NLD. Other young ethnic activists made their way to the jungle headquarters of the armed opposition groups, sure that the regime would not hand power over easily. They turned out to be right. When the NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 election and several ethnic parties also gained seats, the ruling regime refused to honor the results.

Although the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations and 1990 elections did not lead to the restoration of democracy or the resolution of the ethnic nationalities' demands, there were positive consequences. The legitimacy of the pro-democracy movement was greatly enhanced both domestically and abroad, and more people began to recognize the need to protect the political rights of Burma's ethnic nationalities. Since then, stepped-up radio broadcasts from abroad have been particularly important in informing Burma's residents about the activities of ethnic minority and pro-democracy activists. At the same time, ethnic opposition groups have become more active in sending representatives to the UN and other international fora and providing information for an international audience detailing the crisis faced by Burma's ethnic peoples.

Exacerbating Tensions

The military regime has continued to insist on a unitary state and since 1990 has pushed a nationalist agenda based on Burman culture and Buddhism. While the regime claims it is promoting unity, many of its policies have instead exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. For instance, army commanders in Arakan State have encouraged Buddhist Arakanese to move into areas traditionally inhabited by Muslim Rohingyas. In Chin and Kachin States, they have removed Christian crosses on hills and replaced them with Buddhist pagodas. The military has also permitted Burman, Chinese, and Wa migration into traditionally Shan areas, depopulated by the civil war.

In addition, the regime has restricted the teaching of ethnic languages and in some cases has offered cash incentives to Burman soldiers who marry ethnic women. Such policies have served to drive ethnic peoples toward more extreme nationalism and have convinced some ethnic leaders that they cannot protect their people and cultures without independent states.

Despite a common goal -- the overthrow of the current military regime and a transition to democracy -- and the progress made toward mutual understanding and trust over the last ten years, tensions still exist between Burman pro-democracy activists and the ethnic opposition. Burman dissidents often inadvertently reinforce such mistrust. Like majorities everywhere, they tend to think less about the concerns of ethnic groups than they do about restoring democracy, which they see as the real problem. They often argue that ethnic rights can be discussed once democracy has been achieved. Similarly, armed ethnic leaders have sometimes viewed the struggle for democracy as tangential to their own struggles for political autonomy. While many of the ethnic groups living in areas controlled by the central government participated in the 1988 pro- democracy demonstrations, the leaders of the ethnic nationalist armies held their soldiers back, seeing it as an intra-Burman conflict. Even today, some ethnic leaders worry that Burman military and pro-democracy leaders will eventually reconcile, leaving the situation of ethnic nationalities unresolved.

Burma's democracy leaders are aware of these doubts. As Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in one of her "Letters from Burma" printed in Japan's Mainichi newspaper (February 3, 1997), "Our ethnic nationalists still harbor a deep feeling of mistrust of the majority Burmese, a mistrust natural to those who have not been accorded justice and fair play. In trying to build up a strong union, our greatest challenge will be to win the confidence of those who have only known repression and discrimination."

Splitting its Opposition

In addition to the alliance between the NLD and ethnic political parties inside Burma, pro-democracy groups and ethnic nationalist armies have formed military and political alliances in the border areas. For each step taken toward closer relations, however, the military regime has responded by sowing discord. The regime worries that an alliance between the pro-democracy movement and ethnic political organizations could force the generals out of office.

Intent on dividing its opposition, the Burmese government has urged armed ethnic opposition groups to accept cease fires. Under pressure from neighboring countries and outnumbered by the regime's growing army, most of the almost twenty different ethnic armies have made ceasefire deals with the regime. These agreements give ethnic groups economic privileges and allow them to retain their arms. The government has promised not to interfere with the trafficking of heroin and amphetamines by drug-producing opposition groups in exchange for ceasefire agreements. While the ceasefires have ended the horrors of the civil war in many areas, none have led to negotiations on political rights. They also contain provisions that ethnic leaders refrain from contact with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD and with their former allies.

In exile overseas or in the border areas, Burma's opposition groups have increasingly sought to formalize their collaboration and establish a legal framework for coexistence. The National Council of the Union of Burma, an alliance of pro-democracy and non-ceasefire groups, drafted its own constitution proposing a federal structure with eight ethnic states, only one of which would be Burman. This was done in response to the Burmese government's ongoing attempts since 1993 to draft a new constitution through the National Convention, a body hand-picked by the military. The regime's draft constitution stipulates that one quarter of Parliamentary representatives come from the military. NLD delegates refused to accept this provision, and many ethnic participants were angered by the regime's unwillingness to devolve power to the ethnic nationalities. In 1997, ethnic non-ceasefire groups organized the Mae Tha Raw Hta seminar, a historic meeting on the Thailand-Burma border in which participants endorsed both the pro- democracy movement and federalism. The declaration affirmed support for the NLD under Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership, insisted on the need to work toward a tripartite dialogue between the NLD, the ethnic opposition, and the military regime, and argued for the establishment of a genuine federal union. Three ceasefire groups angered the regime by signing the declaration.

In mid-1998, Aung San Suu Kyi called on the military regime to convene the 1990 Parliament within three months. When the generals did not respond, she and other pro-democracy leaders set up a Committee to Represent the People's Parliament. Ethnic politicians who worked with the NLD and this committee have subsequently been imprisoned or forced to flee the country. Though the ethnic nationalist struggles have been going on for more than fifty years, the regime continues to assume it can make the ethnic minority problem disappear.


The fact that many pro-democracy leaders in Burma now recognize the importance of ethnic issues and have developed working relationships with ethnic leaders offers hope that ethnic political demands will ultimately be resolved at the negotiating table. However, such a resolution is unlikely to be implemented by the military regime, which rejects decentralization and power- sharing. The ongoing civil war, population relocations, and religious persecution, compounded by appeals to narrow nationalism on all sides, have caused much damage. Without visionary leadership, a commitment to dialogue, and the emergence of a culture of tolerance, lasting peace will continue to elude Burma.

References & further reading

Aung San Suu Kyi (1997). Letters from Burma. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Maung Maung (1959). Burma's Constitution. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Burma Debate (November/December 1996). Special Issue on Ethnic Perspectives.

Smith, Martin (1999). Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London, UK: Zed Books.

Smith, Martin (1994). Ethnic Groups in Burma. London, UK: Anti-Slavery International.

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