Myanmar, Minorities, and the Military

The Burmese tragedy that has unfolded over the past weeks has captured the attention of the international community as no other event in contemporary Burmese history. The availability through the Internet and then through the BBC and CNN of the images of the demonstrators, especially the monks, and the beatings by the government forces (in and out of uniform) have inflamed world opinion. And these images, due to the proliferation of satellite TV dishes throughout Yangon and other urban areas, have brought the tragedy to the attention of the Burmese people. Because the government treats information as power and thus is very secretive and operates in a self-imposed penumbra, information normally spreads by rumor in that country. Although there were rumors aplenty in these past weeks, there was verifiable evidence of the brutality of the suppression of the demonstrations.

Whether this violent suppression will be sufficient to quell further disturbances over the near term is unknown. But it may safely be predicted that the cumulative effect of the political, economic, and social frustration so evident in Burmese society will not forever be stanched. So the rebellion, which some view as having failed, may still succeed over the longer term. Certainly, the images will not be forgotten. The military has tried to improve its legitimacy within the country through the controlled media by continuously and ubiquitously indicating its support for the religion that is a cornerstone of Burman identity. There is little doubt the military believes sincerely in it, but every government in the pre- and post-colonial period has also used Buddhism as a critical element of its political legitimacy.

Still, the element that has remained unstated in this whole equation of the military junta vs. the monks and the people is the reaction of the minorities. Constituting one-third of the population, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities generally live in the border regions and are split into many linguistic and ethnic groups. One group, the Karen, has been in rebellion for almost 50 years, but some part of virtually every major group has been in revolt at some time since the start of the previous military government in 1962. There have been now 17 ceasefires with armed groups. These ceasefires are generally verbal and are fragile. The former insurgents retain their weapons, and although some have advocated independence for their peoples, most now espouse some form of federal government. Yet to the military, and as early as 1962 as articulated by General Ne Win himself, the army has said that federalism is the first step to secession. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), however, has had some form of federalism as part of its party platform even though its leadership is regarded as Burman.

The National Convention has just been concluded. It has formulated, under strict military command, a new constitution that will extend the concept of a unitary state within the facade of limited local autonomy to some minority areas and smaller groups, but none with national power. The military will remain in control at all levels. There will be no federal state under the proposed arrangement.

Some of the minorities, especially the Shan and the Mon, are strongly Buddhist, and many among those groups must look with horror at the desecration of the prime internal source of legitimacy in that society, Buddhism. The minorities have not been engaged in the demonstrations, but it is unlikely that they will remain unaffected by what is going on. How they will react to increased pressures on the junta from the urban populations is a question. But the essential problem facing Burmese society under any government will be dealing in some fair manner, by Burmese standards, with the distribution of power between the Burmans and the minorities in that country.

No political solution is in sight. The visit by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari was necessary, but not sufficient. In response to his visit, Senior General Than Shwe offered to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi if she renounces support for international sanctions, a position that she and the NLD have held for years. This is theater, for he is asking her to surrender before negotiations have taken place. Whatever one thinks of sanctions – for instance, I have opposed all but sanctions against arms – if she were to agree, it would undercut whatever position she still has. If this requirement had been privately pursued, then perhaps a compromise might have been possible. But “unconditional surrender” offers no face-saving formula for an opposition movement. But it is also theater for President Bush at the UN General Assembly meeting to call for more sanctions on the Myanmar leadership, because those he already imposed in 2003 went further than the ones he mentioned in his General Assembly speech.

To the minorities, the sanctions are not terribly relevant. The factories that produce labor-intensive goods are in Burman areas, and so the sanctions, which reduce Burmese exports, little affect the minorities. The opposition’s continued support for sanctions and some form of federal state decreases the likelihood of its involvement in the new administration that will form under the proposed constitution. Although writing alternative constitutions to that officially mandated by the junta is illegal, several expatriate-drafted minority constitutions call for various forms of power sharing. Some are modest; others place all power not specifically allocated to the central government in minority legislatures. The junta has rejected all such plans. It continues to argue that devolution of real power to the minorities would mean the end of the Union of Myanmar. Yet the salient, long-term issue facing the state continues to be the resolution of the minority question.

Quiet diplomacy is needed, not posturing. But the world has been subjected to play-acting by various sides. One Burman retired officer, now deceased, once summed up the situation to this writer, saying, “The play is over, but the audience is forced to remain in their seats and the actors refuse to leave the stage.” That is where we are now. In the wings, however, the minorities have yet to be heard from. Their entrance could be a critical denouement to the present drama.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor in the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and senior visiting research scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). His latest work is “Turmoil in Burma: Contested Legitimacies in Myanmar” (2006).