Burma's Elusive Liberation


No pie chart, list, nor map, patchworked with stripes and dots, can properly convey the beautiful yet tragic complexity of Burma's population. Inhabiting a diamond-shaped land the size of France, people representing cultures from the far reaches of Asia have been thrown together for many centuries. Migrating along great rivers -- the Salween, the Chindwin, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong -- they formed glittering civilizations and fiercely independent tribes.

Modern Conflict and Militarization

As devastating as any previous conflict, World War II set ethnic nationalities against each other with modern ferocity. The Burmans, the largest ethnic group, are a Buddhist people who live in Burma's cities and plains. They and other predominantly Buddhist nationalities welcomed Japanese invaders driving out British colonists. Other ethnic groups in Burma -- Karens, Chins, Kachins, and Rohingyas -- who were favored by the British with degrees of autonomy, were guerrillas fighting the Japanese. At the war's end, foreign troops went home and the Union of Burma gained independence, along with India, in 1948. But ethnic conflicts were never resolved. Despite guarantees of autonomy and even eventual independence to several ethnic groups, mutiny and insurrection soon flared throughout the non-Burman frontier areas.

Burma became a military dictatorship when General Ne Win seized power from elected Prime Minister U Nu in 1962. Vowing to unify the country by force, Ne Win crushed dissent, discarded the Constitution, and put the economy under military control. His army pushed rebels from two Communist parties and several ethnic groups back to the border regions of Burma. Government battalions waged a ruthless counter-insurgency aimed at separating rebels from their civilian supporters. In contested areas, civilians of non-Burman ethnicity were automatically considered suspect and routinely subjected to abuses including torture, rape, and massacre. Civilians were constantly used as beasts of burden carrying supplies for Ne Win's troops and as human shields and mine-sweepers.

Democracy fever swept Burma in 1988. Millions of people from all ethnic groups in urban areas rose up in a series of peaceful strikes and demonstrations demanding an end to military rule. A junta of Ne Win's officers, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), suppressed protests with hails of bullets and imposed martial law throughout Burma. From then on, opposition has taken two streams: the non-violent political defiance movement led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi; and the continuation of armed struggle in the frontier areas. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won the 1990 national election by over 80% but was never allowed to take office. The SLORC arrested many elected, pro-democracy members of Parliament. Some escaped and formed the National Council of the Union of Burma with ethnic insurgents in the liberated zones. Those in opposition to the SLORC continue to use the name "Burma," rejecting the junta's new name, "Myanmar."

Ethnic Identity Under Pressure

Ne Win liked to claim that the people of Burma were "one homogenous whole." The SLORC still attempts to "Burmanize" its subjects, both as a control mechanism and out of mystical identification with ancient Burman rulers. Indigenous languages have been suppressed m the classroom and in print. Art forms are reduced to cartoon clichés for government sponsored parades, and diversity is parodied by sets of bamboo souvenir dolls with differently striped outfits. Non-Burman people have been subjected to nearly every possible form of indignity and violence in efforts to pacify them.

There are no reliable census figures for Burma; the last nationwide census, conducted in the 1930s, was erroneous in its counts of non-Burman ethnic groups. The SLORC claims the existence of 100 separate groups and diminishes their population figures as part of their deliberate marginalization. In reality, the main non-Burman groups are clearly defined in terms of language and cultural features. There is constant inter-mixing of the ethnic groups through marriage, trade, and residence. This occurs naturally, but the SLORC has frequently been accused of deliberate "Burmanization" by encouraging Burman soldiers to force ethnic minority women into marriage and religious conversion.

Buddhist ethnic groups include the Shans, a Tai people related to those of Thailand and Laos; the Mons, coastal people related to the Khmers of Cambodia; hill-dwelling Palaungs; and the Rakhine people of Arakan, on Burma's west coast. Arakan's Moslem people, the Rohingyas, are descended from traders on the Indian Ocean and speak a Bengali dialect. The Irrawaddy Delta and a spine of mountains along the Thai border are home to Karens (and related Kayans, Kayahs, Pa-Os), a large ethnic group who are Buddhist, Animist, or Christian. The Christian and Animist Kachins, live in the north, bordering China, Tibet, and India. The Chins and Nagas are predominantly Christian groups with clans in Burma and northeast India. Other tribal groups with populations that overlap Burma, Thailand, China, and Laos include the Wa, Akhas, and Lahus. Burma has substantial Chinese and Indian populations, which, along with the Rohingyas, have often been targeted by discriminatory citizenship laws and orchestrated violence.

Endless Warfare

The fortunes of insurgent groups have waxed and waned over the past decades. Burma's Communist rebellion implored in 1989 when troops of the Wa ethnic group overthrew their Maoist officers. The Wa-led force then signed a cease-fire agreement with the SLORC, starting an ongoing trend. The Kachin Independence Organization held substantial territory in the north, Mons in the south, and the Shan tribal army led by narcotics warlord Khun Sa, and several smaller groups have also agreed to cease-fires. The SLORC claims that all but one group have "come into the legal fold" -- a designation challenged by Kachins and others who remain armed and in opposition although not in combat. The formidable Karen National Union (perhaps the longest-fighting anti-state force in the world), and several smaller armies comprised of the Chin, Karenni, Naga, Shan, and Rohingya groups, continue to engage in guerrilla warfare against the SLORC.

As the conflict has dragged on, the anti-government forces have made many strategic errors: digging along borders; becoming corrupted by the smuggling trade (opium/heroin in some areas); depending on purchased rather than captured arms; and using the stalemated tactics of World War I trenches rather than raids or sabotage. They often live in hope of aid from the outside world which never materializes. Facing a massive (over 400,000 strong) government army which buys its weaponry from China, the armed resistance is at its weakest since the 1940s.

Liberated Zones

At their best, the ethnic rebels have provided a safe haven in their territories (controlled for the war's duration in some cases, from night to night in other cases). What they term "the liberated zones" are relatively secure places where non-Burman languages may not only be spoken, but written, printed, and read. Utopian communities sprung up when people who fled the cities because of ethnic persecution blended their education with the skills of forest relatives. Urban dissidents including Burmese students were welcomed to these zones where experiments in federalism and constitutional meetings were common. Women initiated health projects and educational programs, as well as economic innovations. Organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group, Shan Human Rights Foundation, and Mon Information Service produced meticulous documentation of human rights violations by SLORC troops throughout the frontiers. The only environmental group in Burma, Green November 32, was established to investigate and protest threats to land and water that included logging and fishing concessions.

Currently, these safe havens are few and far between as more people from the frontier flee into neighboring countries (which often, as in Thailand and Bangladesh, push them back into a life on the run from SLORC troops), or are held captive in relocation camps and forced labor projects. The use of civilians as military porters has expanded under SLORC to immense infrastructure projects including roads and railways, and to the army's base-building and commercial holdings such as plantations and mines. Extortion and the confiscation of crops, livestock, and possessions by SLORC troops is endemic, and when combined with constant demands for forced labor, have led to a breakdown of rural society throughout Burma.

The Information Network

One positive note is the burgeoning concern from the outside world. Burma's 1988 democracy uprising, though thwarted, finally brought international attention to the brutal reign of the military While much press coverage centers on Aung San Suu Kyi and the predominantly Burman urban dissidents, the pattern of abuse in frontier regions has finally seen the light of day as well. The United Nations, the United States Department of State, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch Asia, Article 19, Anti-Slavery Society, Asian Human Rights Commission, and many other institutions have reported extensively on Burma. Groups joining exiles from Burma and other activists, such as Images Asia, Southeast Asian Information Network, and EarthRights International, provide documentary training and a flow of inside information from Southeast Asian bases.

Internet links have been vital in turning support for Burma's liberation into a full-scale worldwide movement. "BurmaNet" provides daily updates on unfolding situations; opinions and background material are exchanged via this Google group, and the loose-knit but influential Free Burma Coalition, with chapters on over 100 college campuses, communicates via e-mail. Web sites are maintained by Free Burma activists (http://www.freeburmacoalition.org/), a No Petro-Dollars for SLORC campaign (http://www.irn.org), and others.

Despite years of substandard and discriminatory "education" in Burma, a great love of learning and thirst for knowledge exists among all of Burma's peoples. Defying the SLORC's attempt to strangle communications, underground groups and refugees disseminate newsletters, detailed reports, and copies of articles about Burma from Thailand's free press. They record rebel songs, make shortwave radio broadcasts, and draw subversive cartoons. Writers including Mika Rolly (a Karen), and human rights monitors including Hseng Noung Lintner (a Shan) have taken great risks to shed light on the plight of Burma's ethnic nationalities. The 1989 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly devoted to Burma was an example of such abilities, as ethnic people of Burma contributed articles about their own and each other's nationalities.

These committed individuals and organizations face extraordinarily daunting challenges at present. The SLORC'S iron-fisted militarization of the country has been financed by drug trafficking and by numerous joint ventures with foreign petroleum, timber, mining, and garment manufacturing companies. Many aspects of life in Burma have reached crisis stage under the SLORC, in particular the AIDS epidemic, cultural destruction, and environmental ravages.

AIDS Infects Burma

The degradation of women through systematic rape and other forms of torture is integral to SLORC strategy in contested areas. Underground women's organizations, such as the Kawthoolei Women's Organization (Karen), and Kachin Women's Association have formed to train women in economic empowerment and political participation. Many women, girls, and boys from Burma have been forced into prostitution in Thailand and other neighboring countries. They are vulnerable to an extremely high risk of HIV/AIDS infection while captives of brothels. Burma has Asia's third highest rate of HIV/AIDS, as the virus spreads unchecked across the borders. The SLORC has made little to no effort to educate ethnic minority people about HIV/AIDS risk and prevention. In addition to the prostitution trade, intravenous drug use and unsafe medical practices continue to spread the disease to the unwary. Some underground, rebel, and cease-fire groups have made their own efforts to educate people and improve medical safety The epidemic continues to flourish, threatening the very existence of small ethnic groups such as the Dulongs of the far north and Salongs (Sea Gypsies) of the far south who number only a few thousand.

Burma is considered the world's largest producer of opium, the raw material for heroin. The refined product is readily available even in remote villages throughout northern and central Burma. Heroin injection with shared needles is pervasive. The SLORC has been implicated in the distribution of drugs grown and refined mainly in Wa and Shan cease-fire areas. The Kachin Independence Organization has implemented crop substitution that is stamping out opium and the Wa army periodically appeals to outside aid for a similar program. However, SLORC cease-fire arrangements actually discourage such efforts.

Tourist "Culture"

Over the decades of military rule, little has been done to preserve indigenous cultural practices. The history and archeology of non-Burman ethnic groups has been neglected. Art forms such as Rohingya poetry, Karen music, and Chin weaving are rarely studied in Burma or the outside world. Some efforts are made by women's groups to encourage traditional crafts and by political dissidents to promote literature in non-Burman languages, but these take place mainly in the liberated enclaves of frontier regions struggling for survival. The SLORC has been relentlessly promoting tourism as a way to gain hard currency. To this end, landmarks of Shan architecture, mosques, and other sites have been destroyed to make way for hotels; Rakhine artifacts were confiscated for a state museum; and indigenous people were brought to a fake "tourism village" to perform diluted songs and dances for visitors. Burma's opposition movement has called for an international boycott of tourism under the SLORC.

The Fight for Resources

Burma's environment is under siege by the SLORC and their foreign partners. After suppressing the 1988 uprising, the junta granted numerous logging concessions to rapacious Thai firms which dear-cut much of the frontier forest in a few, short years. Teak and other hardwoods are also being trucked out to China and India. Mangrove wetlands are stripped and replaced with polluting shrimp farms. Highly toxic pesticides such as Paraquat and 2,4-D (for opium eradication) have been used in Burma without regulation. Fishing concessions granted by SLORC have resulted in rampant over-fishing by foreign trawlers and traditional communities of Mons, Tavoyans, and Salongs or Sea Gypsies have been driven away from the sea. In the north, overseas mining companies bring in cyanide leaching and erode mountainsides to extract gems, precious metals, and minerals. A proposed series of giant hydroelectric power dams along the Salween and Mekong Rivers would deliberately flood vast tracts of indigenous land and destroy wildlife habitat. Southern Burma's Tenasserim region has been slashed by a natural gas pipeline across the forest land of the Mons and Karens. A project of Total of France, Unocal of the United States, and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand, the pipeline has caused villages to be relocated, and local people to be used for forced labor.

With their natural heritage vanishing before their eyes, Burma's frontier people have fought back as best they could. The Teak War goes on as SLORC troops seize the forest from ethnic groups that preserved the trees. Wildlife sanctuaries established by the Karen National Union are under threat as the SLORC mounts huge offensives to drive the Karens out of their homeland. Significant sources of botanical medicines such as the Kachin forests, are disappearing before local people are able to record and pass on their knowledge of healing plants. Burma's underground groups, with the support of a few foreign scientists and networks of activists, try to educate local people about conservation and alert the outside world about the harm caused by foreign investment. The pipeline project continues, however, guarded by thousands of SLORC troops. Industrial exploitation may soon follow, as Burma has next to no environmental laws in place.

Good news from Burma has been all too rare. The human rights and environmental situations are cruel and degrading beyond imagination. The only bright spots are the continued efforts of Burma's diverse people to defy the SLORC regime and the world's new consciousness about Burma. The rich cultures entwined in Burma, with roots as far away as the Gobi Desert, and branches stretching to Polynesia, have much to offer the world. When the people of Burma are free again, we will benefit from their influence in art and literature, medicine, and religion. That day depends greatly on ending foreign economic patronage, and on supporting the courageous and tenacious indigenous movement of Burma.

Selected Reading:

Cox, Christopher. 1996. Chasing the Dragon: Into the Heart of the Golden Triangle. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

1989. Cultural Survival Quarterly. 13:4. Cambridge MA.

1996. Total Denial. Chiangmai Thailand: EarthRights International and Southeast Asian Information Network.

Leach, E.R. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: G. Bell & Son.

Lintner, Bertil. 1990. Land of Jade: A Journey Through Insurgent Burma. Edinburgh: Kiscale.

Mirante, Edith T. 1993. Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure. New York: Grove Press.

Sargent, Inge. 1994. Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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

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