Only by Acknowledging Difference of Ethnicities

Even though their political views may be radically different, both the Burmese Military Government (BMG) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have frequently reinforced the need for solidarity among ethnic groups. From its onset, the BMG has highlighted the need for solidarity as two of the three national causes – non-disintegration of the union and non-disintegration of national solidarity. Aung San Suu Kyi also underscored the solidarity among the ethnic groups in her speech during the political campaign in Myitkyina, Kachin Sate on the 27th of April in 1989. The message that urges for the unity, however, is always targeted toward the ethnic minorities group in Burmese politics. It is promoted as a civic duty of the ethnic minorities, but never intended for Burmese majority. The national solidarity has always been a burden for the ethnic groups to bear.

The idea of Union enables the BMG to impose homogeneity or conformity. The Union, therefore, is always an ideological tool that has political impact. An obvious example is that the hegemonic understanding of Union becomes equivalent with the integration or absorption of ethnic minorities to the dominant majority, the Bamas. Such subtle, but violent conception of Union that dissolves or obliterates the differences or distinctiveness of ethnic groups, has been c/overtly practiced by the successive authoritarians in Burma. Such coercive conception of Union nurtures the ideology of unbridgeable difference between the Burmese majority and ethnic minorities – for us or against us. The history of the post independent Burma shows that the Union is always imposed by means of brutality. The Union that Burmese military government promotes is attainable only at the vanishing of difference that exists among the ethnic groups.

The Panglong Agreement (a foundational document of Burma signed by ethnic minorities leaders) has always been a double-edged sword for the ethnic minorities. In the abuse and misuse of it by the Burmese government, the consent of the ethnic minorities is dishonored, and for worse, their descent is suppressed. In other words, their political will is destroyed and their ethnic identity is compromised as the consequences of Panglong. The Panglong agreement has always been abused to be a charter of assimilation or submission of ethnic minorities to the Burmese majority. The Union has been so far, borrowing G. Spivak’s words, a “failed historical project” with dire outcomes.

The speech of Aung San Suu kyi aimed at the ethnic groups — “we are all comrades in the struggle for democratic rights,”echoes another wave of false dream without any clear vision for implementation or restoration of the Panglong Agreement. What will be the rights of ethnic groups in democratic Burma? Will then be just another form of majority rule again? The lack of such talks is a major obstacle for ethnic minorities to rally behind the struggle for democracy in Burma. There are increasing distrust and worrying attitude from the part of ethnic minorities to the Burmese majority due to their past harsh experiences (e.g. the Burmanization policy led by U Nu & the ethnic cleansing project though the use of drugs such as now in the Kachin State), and their current situation of being constantly under the brutal treatment of the military led by the ethnic majority Bamas.  In such milieu of undermined and unrecognized unequal ethnic relation, the consent of the ethnic minorities cannot be easily obtained without their descent is acknowledged and protected.

In today Burma, there is no need to talk about the solidarity among the ethnic groups. In Panglong, the ethnic groups have proved their desire or consent for real and lasting Union. Now, a meaningful dialogue with the ethnic minorities must fist begin with recognizing and acknowledging difference, rather than annihilating it, among the ethnic groups, including Bamas. Only then, we can strive toward a political consent that is based on this healthy and hospitable understanding of relational difference among the ethnic groups if peaceful coexistence is desired in Burma. A meaningful, real and lasting Union must be built not by imposing uniformity and homogeneity, but by cultivating diversity and difference.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect kachinlandnews’s policy.