Bogyoke Nyar De was a song popularized by Shan singer Sai Seng Mong in the early1970’s. It was in reference to the unrealized promises of equality that Bogyoke Aung San pledged to the minorities at the time of Panglong. Although it was not fair to blame the Bogyoke, as his life was tragically cut shot before he could implement his promises, the song struck a chord with the Shans and other ethnic minorities because it symbolized the frustrations they felt over the inequalities that exist between the minorities and the majority Bamas.
The ethnic minority signatories of the Panglong Agreement had their misgivings about joining hands with the Bamas from the very beginning. Duwa (Maj) Shan Lone, who served as Secretary of the Panglong Conference, recounted in his memoirs, a pivotal conversation Bogyoke Aung San had with the Shan leaders at Panglong. Bogyoke was making courtesy calls on the hill tribes leaders at the close of the plenary session on the second day of the Conference. At his meeting with the Shan leaders, Sao Shwe Thaik, the Sawbwa of Yawngwhe, bluntly told Bogyoke Aung San that although they trusted him, they did not trust the other Burmese leaders. Bogyoke countered by telling them to put their trust instead in the constitution they would be drafting together. The Shan leaders were won over, and addressed their concerns in a clause in the constitution that accorded them the right to secede from the union if they so wished, after a period of ten years. History will attest to how well that went. It was this very clause that General Ne Win used to justify his military coup of 1962.
The ethnics did not fair too well under the parliamentary democracy of Prime Minister U Nu either. Duwa Zanhtar Sin, former Head of Kachin State, in his booklet Democracy Byaungbyan (Democracy Upturned), chronicled how U Nu and his party tried to meddle in the affairs of Kachin State in a most undemocratic way. He found U Nu’s shenanigans particularly galling, given the fact that U Nu had often, in his Union Day and Martyr’s Day speeches, acknowledged the contributions of Kachin servicemen and lauded them as saviors of the newly independent republic. It is a historical fact that the Kachins, together with other ethnic minorities, played a major role in protecting the country against a myriad of insurgencies and helped bring it back from the brink of disintegration. If U Nu’s tributes and expressions of gratitude sounded hollow then, the army’s treatment of Kachins today is harrowing to say the least.
General Ne Win, he of the infamous “shoot straight and not into the air” order, and successive army juntas have used brute force as a means of subjugating public unrest. They are, as someone elsewhere has said, “equal opportunity oppressors”, brutally mowing down all who challenge or are perceived to challenge their authority, irrespective of age, gender, creed, social standing or ethnic origin. Muslim Rohinjas, Karen or Kachin Christians, students, workers, even the revered Buddhist Sangha have borne the brunt of their wrath.
And now we have former General Thein Sein, widely lauded as a more moderate and reform-minded leader. His image polishing efforts may be paying off internationally, but to the Kachins, he is just another general whose words cannot be trusted. It has been more than a month since he made public his order to end the army’s offensive against the KIA. But there has been no cessation of hostilities. On the contrary, more than 90 battles or clashes have taken place, with a steady surge in troop reinforcement since then. Did he lie – or was he blindsided by his generals?
What of the General’s daughter – the Lady, the Nobel laureate? Ethnic groups had looked to her as the one Burmese leader they could trust, the one with the integrity, the charisma and capability to rally everyone behind her as her father once did. The Kachins also, had pinned great hopes on her, as someone with the international stature to intervene on their behalf in the face of the army’s onslaught. The KIO even held an unprecedented birthday celebration for her at Laiza, attended by none other than the KIO Chairman himself.
The KIO was clearly sending her a message. But how did the Lady react? With deafening silence. No condemnation of atrocities against helpless Kachin civilians, of chemical weapons being deployed. No statement of sympathy or solidarity with the suffering of the IDPs. No appeals made to international organizations or governments for humanitarian assistance. Mere platitudes like the need to end hostilities in ethnic areas, and offers to mediate, are of no help when the aggressor, the instigator of this genocidal war is not identified and condemned.
Where is her much touted fairness or moral courage? When the NLD did finally offer aid, following the lead of the Free Funeral Service, it was a case of too little too late. What the Lady seems to fail to understand is that this current onslaught is not just a war against the KIA, but a war against all Kachins. For the Kachin population, it is a war of survival. How can she hope to rally the Kachins behind her after this? The Kachins have been burned so often, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put this latest betrayal behind them and learn to trust and cooperate with the Bamas again.
Even now, Kachin internet chatter is getting louder and louder for outright independence, not just mere federalism. Whether that is a pragmatic goal to pursue or not is open to debate. Federalism, an anathema to the present government as it had been to previous military regimes, would be an equally elusive goal. It would seem that we Kachins do not have many good choices.
The KIO has now agreed to enter into talks with President Thein Sein’s delegation. It is the right thing to do, as it is in keeping with the KIO’s long standing declaration of its openness to genuine political dialogue. But as a David facing off a Goliath of an enemy, the KIO/KIA can take a page from the Biblical story of David. Just as David managed to slay the mighty Goliath with a single slingshot aimed at Goliath’s Achilles heel, his unprotected forehead, the KIO would be well served to strategize and use the government’s soft spot – be it international opinion, fear of Chinese hegemony, discord within the army/civilian leadership, or some other factor – to its best advantage.
Whether the talks will lead to a just and peaceful resolution remains to be seen. Our best hope is that there will not be a replay of Sai Seng Mong’s song, that President Thein Sein does not turn out to be just another general who lied.
Daughter of Pangmu