Is Burma not in the Asian Pivot?

By Kanbawza Win

Monday, April 28, 2014

Burma Map (Picture: Eastern College)
Map of Burma (Picture: Show Ei Tun, Eastern College)

President Obama trip to to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines holds much symbolic value for the US strategy of refocusing on Asia, even though few people in the region expect much tangible change in any of the key areas of concern. The two biggest doubts will be the issue of US military engagement – whether the US can be relied on to intervene militarily in Asia given its reticence over the unfolding Ukraine crisis – and whether Obama can muster enough political will at home to get any potential free-trade deals ratified.[1]

There seems to be deep skepticism in this Asian region over the Asia pivot, and the Asian leaders are watching for President Obama to make the case to Americans that Asia is fundamental to their economic future, their prosperity and their security. In other words, they want to see a political paradigm shift in the United States, in which US leaders embrace engagement with Asia – “and don’t treat it like a political third rail.”[2] If not the Asian pivot will never stand on very solid political foundations. The administration’s commitment is thus liable to be questioned whenever distractions crop up – and there have been numerous ones since last October, when Obama called off his Asia trip. The Ukraine crisis, has been damaging to the US’ Asia strategy on two fronts. First, it undermines one of the foundations of the Asia rebalance – that Europe and the Middle East are now stable enough for Washington to shift its gaze elsewhere. Second, it brings into question US military power, especially among countries nervous about China’s provocative actions. Satu Limaye, Director of the East-West Centre in Washington: “Doubts about US military intervention put too much emphasis on conflict and not enough on the US role to prevent conflict” [3] This has been very much tested in Burma/Myanmar, hitherto trumpeted as the American Foreign Policy success in bringing the dictatorial country back to civilization.

Currently, the only silver lining is that the US Embassy in Burma says it will seriously consider any request from the Burmese government and ethnic nationality groups to support ongoing dialogue as part of the country’s peace process, after General Gun Maw, an ethnic army leader recently called for greater US involvement.[4] Even though the Burmese government construe that the US track record of ending conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was “not impressive.” US Ambassador to Burma Derek, Mitchell has repeatedly urged Burmese officials to ensure that the negotiations are inclusive of all ethnic groups and concerned civil society organizations and funds capacity-building programs for civil society groups in Burma, including many based in ethnic states, to increase their skills and knowledge of topics that could be applicable to long-term political dialogue.

At least, the US is endeavouring the silent helpful partner in solving the Burmese impending crisis. The whole concept is that the Myanmar nationalist led by the army (Tatmadaw) could not comprehend or either refused to understand what is the Union and Equality is all about. The Myanmar nationalist spearheaded by the Tatmadaw construe the country as a monolithic hold been in existence since the first Burmese dynasty up to the present day except the British interlude and it is their duty to rough ride over-shod over the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities, lest they break up the country. They believe that that all the ethnic nationalities must follow their lead and agree with them and there is simply no opportunity for self-determination. So they change the country name from Burma to Myanmar, the national flag and erected the mammoth statue of the three warrior kings in Naypyidaw, without the consensus of the people. They considered the ethnic nationalities, especially those residing in the hills the Shan, Chin, Kachin and Karenni as wild heathens and would have to be incorporated into civilization by acculturations.[5] Hence, they believe that it was not ethnic diversity but cultural practice which divided people socially and not necessarily politically. Other non-Myanmar like the Arakanese and Mon, although not categorized as hill people are treated as a conquered race not worth being thought of politically as a separate people.[6] No ordinary Myanmar dared to complain about the killing of ethnic nationalities by Tatmadaw, and certainly there was never any concerted effort to stop the civil-war.[7]

So the Union of Burma is seen firstly as the capture of the state by the majority Myanmar ethnic group, arising out of the modern state system upon which the authority structure of the Myanmar society stands. This view had definitely, dispelled and dislocated the elites and the masses of the existing system many of whom belong to the ethnic nationalities. [8]

Secondly the domination of the state by one ethnic group the Myanmar ethnic group give rises to the “Ethnocratic Tendencies” in which the state acts as an agent for that community in promoting its ethnic values as the core component of its nationalist ideology.

Thirdly, ethnic struggles are explainable as the reaction to this disruptive penetration of the peripheral communities by the weak ethnocratic state. This penetration provoked the collapse of the old authority structure existing before the 2nd World War in the British era and dislocated the old societal cohesion. It was replaced by the new emergent elites with new levels and forms. This is the conflict fuelling the ethnic nationalities struggle against the Myanmar ethnic dominated state. These xenophobic Myanmar hates union or equality and is unable to treat the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities as an equal not to mention the sharing of their wealth and future. The end result is that they hate federalism which is the core word for equality and is out and out to discredit it as they want to be dominant in every aspects.

On the other hand the opposition better known as Pyidaungsu Myanmar are those genuine pro-democratic Myanmar, who want to build the country in a modern and humane way sitting in the company of civilized nations. They are spearheaded by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the 8888 generation led by Min Ko Naing etc. including some of those in the Diaspora. Contemporary history of Burma, indicates that the architect of modern Burma Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi visualized the importance of Union and equality. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by her several trips to Europe, US and the West, automatically became recognized as a leader of not only Burma but also of the world, a great moral force. From dictatorship to democracy, the transition currently underway in Burma presents the best opportunity in several decades to address conflicts between the government and ethnic communities about the nature of their democracy. However, to achieve lasting peace, the ceasefires agreed between the government and armed ethnic groups must be extended to include participation from a range of stakeholders, and substantial discussion of all the issues emerging from more than half-a-century of armed conflict.[9] Without a political settlement, the current round of ceasefires in Burma are unlikely to be sustainable.[10]

In this context of political transition in Burma, foreign donors are preparing to increase their assistance. Assistance to conflict-affected areas should focus on confidence-building measures, delivering concrete and symbolic peace dividends. However, international organizations currently lack access to many armed conflict-affected areas, while local communities are already active on the ground. Western boycotts have almost run down – although opinions continue that this should not be until the commitment of the government to ethnic peace and democratic reform is certain. At the moment many of the same uncertainties exist in Burma while the quasi-military government pledges to prioritize ethnic peace it has not developed a consistent policy and the Tatmadaw which is a state within a state has continued military operations in the Kachin and northern Shan states raising doubts about its real intentions, as they are more prone to economic rather than political agendas in the ethnic borderlands.[11]

There is not a single country in the world that does not have ethnic nationalities but most of them are coexisting peaceably, whatever system is applied. Classic examples are US, Canada and India that aspire to liberal democracy, China, and socialist countries still have most of their ethnic minorities living peaceably once their aspirations are met. It was only in Burma that the domination of the Myanmar over the non-Myanmar is so great that the only alternative is to take up arms and fight.

One should bear in mind that a dictatorship is only as strong as the size of the weapons it holds and the fear those weapons provoke in the people, whereas, democracy is only as strong as the understanding and support of the grassroots people have of it.[12] Human rights abuses, like obnoxious weeds, are created and supported by roots which keep bearing new weeds as long as those roots remain intact and nourished. To eradicate human rights abuses the central roots must be removed. In Burma, the decades-long experience of human rights abuses is deeply rooted in the militarization which has characterized the country since 1962. The Tatmadaw that cannot even bear to hear the phrases like “Civil War, Federalism” will have to return to barracks as there is no place for them in the civilized community. Even as the NLD and 8888 generations are getting together, the ethnic nationalities must join together with the international community led by the West particularly President Obama to put the last nail in the coffin of Burmese Military dictatorship. The second Obama administration should put back Burma in the Asian pivot not only because it is the largest country in Southeast Asia peninsular but is also because of its geo strategic values with a large natural and human resources while the mass of the people have suffered more than half of a century under the tyrannical Tatmadaw.

End Notes:

[1] Au Yong: Jeremy, Trade and Military Engagement will dominate President’s visit this week. The Straits Times 22-4-2014

[2] Obama prepares to walk the tightrope in Asia The Nation (Thailand) Opinion 21-4-2914

[3] Ibid

[4] Michaels; Samantha, US Will ‘Consider Seriously’ Requests to Support Burma’s Peace Process The Irrawaddy 23-4-2011

[5] Brown, David: The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia, London school of Economics p36

[6] The proof is both the Arakanese and Mon were not invited to the 1947 Panglong Conference and was taken for granted as part of Myanmar

[7] May Oo, Naw: Ethnic Questions in Burma Politics in Unconventional Thoughts and Commentaries 20th Oct. 07

[8] For example displacing of all the ethnic commanders and replace with the Myanmar ethnic group

[9] It started from 1949 with the Burmese Communist Party and People’s Volunteer Organizations

[10] South; Ashley, Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Burma-Ceasefires to Sustainable Peace in The Irrawaddy 8-3-2012

[11] Assessing Burma’s New Government “ Challenges and Opportunities for EU Policies, Responses Amsterdam, 22 & 23 February 2012

[12] Burma Issues Human Rights abuse and Possible Solutions April, 1993


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