Commentary / World

Myanmar's ethnic patchwork

An anthropologist's dream, but a political nightmare

by Richard Humphries

In terms of sheer social complexity, it has few rivals — perhaps Lebanon, possibly the Balkans. But Myanmar’s ethnic mix is truly diverse. There are some 100 languages and dialects. Major ethnic groups like the Karen, Shan, Mon, Chin and Kachin encompass others. The Chin alone have 40 subgroups. Even the majority of Myanmar citizens, some two-thirds of the total population, include numerous assimilated Mon and Karen.

While it is an anthropologist’s dream, Myanmar’s ethnic patchwork has proved a continuing political nightmare. Most of the ethnic minorities have, at one time or another, taken up arms against the central government. Some are still fighting, yet the destruction and deprivation visited upon minority communities is rarely reported.

While all sides in these conflicts bear degrees of responsibility for the turmoil, one salient fact stands out: No Myanmar government has addressed minority grievances in a fully fair and comprehensive manner. The spirit of “Unity in Diversity,” promoted by the country’s founder, Aung San, largely passed with his assassination in 1947. If minority concerns are addressed at all, then military solutions are sought for political problems. “One blood, one voice, one command” was for years a favored government army slogan.

In the last decade, the current ruling junta has acquired a vast array of armaments and increased its armed forces to almost 500,000 men. Armed ethnic groups like the Mon or Kachin have been pressured or beaten to the point where they have found it necessary to agree to ceasefires with Yangon. The junta says that represents progress, and certainly much unnecessary killing has stopped. Unfortunately, promised political dialogue has been farcical or nonexistent and promised economic development not much better. When it comes to large-scale projects, such as the Yadana gas pipeline, through Mon and Karen territory, or the projected Salween Dam in Shan State, minorities are told to step aside and are used as forced labor.

No ethnic group has fought longer or harder than the Karen. In 1949, when their struggle began, the Karen, led by the Karen National Union, controlled Mandalay and were poised to take Yangon. Today, the KNU controls little territory, and over 120,000 Karen languish as refugees in Thailand, with a much larger number internally displaced in Myanmar’s Karen State.

Outside observers have sometimes found fault with the KNU, suggesting that it is fighting an unwinnable war and is led by a largely Christian old guard. In 1995, a Buddhist faction split off and formed an armed alliance with Yangon.

In January this year, the KNU elected a new leader, Saw Ba Thin, replacing Gen. Bo Mya, who had led the organization for 24 years. Ba Thin’s path upward in the KNU has been more political than military. In appearance a genial, articulate 73-year old Karen, he was originally from the Henzada district in Myanmar’s upper Irrawaddy Delta. At a private interview in the Thai-Myanmar border area in March, Ba Thin addressed criticisms of the KNU and spoke of Karen concerns and goals.

Ba Thin acknowledged that many observers would see the KNU’s abandonment of fixed positional warfare for guerrilla tactics as a sign of weakness and admitted that “force of circumstances” had impelled the change. He emphasized, however, that the force of Karen nationalism was not something to be measured in terms of guns or territory. And that fortunes can change.

“By viewing from the outside, maybe people see us like that,” Ba Thin said. “But they don’t see the mind or the inner part of the heart of the Karen and how we feel. Take World War II. The Japanese and the Germans were very powerful, and people thought they’d overrun the whole world. But within two or three years the situation changed. There are 7 million Karen. If you can’t kill all of them at once, the heart will remember.”

The leadership change has also extended downward, and younger Karen have been brought into important positions. Significantly, a Buddhist and former monk named Saw Satila now heads the organization’s Religious Affairs Department.

“Because many of our leaders were over 75, we have to hand over power to the new generation,” the KNU president said. “They are younger and more intellectual. The struggle has been going for three generations so they have to shoulder this duty. We must encourage them. They should know how to lead and how to educate their people,”

The KNU rankles at the frequent charges in Myanmar’s government-controlled press that it is made up of separatist bandits against whom military actions are justified. “The question of the Karen people is a political one, and we feel it should be solved by political means,” Ba Thin said. “Reach an agreement. Only then there can be a real peace, real reconciliation. When you start talking you must start solving problems. It cannot be one-sided; there must be dialogue. We are not separatists. We struggle for the establishment of a federal union where all the minorities can enjoy equal rights.”

What serious dialogue there has been has not been with Yangon, but with dissident Myanmar prodemocracy activists who have sheltered in minority-controlled areas. Many of these were students who fled after the 1988 massacres perpetrated against their colleagues by government soldiers. Though obviously lacking power, they represent probably the first generation of educated Myanmar people to both share and understand many minority concerns. However, any linkup between the minorities and domestic dissidents makes the junta see red. A 1997 Ethnic Nationalities Seminar in Karen territory, followed by the playing of a videotape made by Aung San Suu Kyi wearing traditional Karen dress, led to massive Myanmar military retaliation upon KNU positions.

From time to time, the KNU, feeling pressure from Thailand or otherwise seeking to end the fighting, has engaged in ceasefire talks with Yangon. They have not rule out doing so again in the future. The last talks, in 1997, ended in failure when Yangon insisted that the KNU lay down its arms — basically surrender — and return to the “legal fold,” implying that their 50-year struggle was illegal. Ba Thin was not present at the negotiations but was clearly upset by Yangon’s demands.

“What kind of legal fold is this?” he asked rhetorically. “You are a military dictatorship. You don’t even have a constitution for the country yet. Where are the rules, laws and regulations? There is only the law of the jungle.”

For the displaced Karen in Thailand, life is getting harder. The camps are dead ends, and security is relative. Talk of repatriation is in the air, and now the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is involved in the refugee issue. Many Karen are afraid that any repatriation won’t be voluntary, although the UNHCR and some Thai officials insist it will be. They feel that, typically, an important issue affecting minority concerns is being decided over their heads. On this issue Ba Thin said, “My view is clear, unless and until we can solve the political problems of this country, it will be hopeless.” Meanwhile the war goes on.