by Dr. Zar Ni
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The world knows plenty about Aung San Suu Kyi and what she represents. But it knows almost nothing about the generals beyond their international pariah status.
Self-styled Burma experts attest to this general ignorance of the essence of military rule and the psyche of those in power in Naypyidaw.
In private policy circles and public forums, many of these tea-leaf-readers continue to discuss a myriad of the country’s problems, still without putting their finger on the single most fundamental issue which most broadly accounts for the people’s daily misery and country’s bleak future.
Is it “bad governance?” Is it Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s callous leadership with its characteristic total disregard for public welfare? Is it the military’s persecution of ethnic nationalities (or minorities)? Is it widespread human rights violations? Is it the war crimes, which the Tatmataw, Burma's armed forces, are allegedly committing, especially in ethnic conflict zones? Or is it the country’s kleptocratic, repressive, and pathological state? Is it the predatory neighbors?
Of course, one would be tempted to tick the box “all of the above” and argue that specific problems – the regime’s failure, for example, to provide public services in health, education and social security or to set up an adequate and functioning system of agricultural credits for the country’s farmers, who make up the bulk of the population—need to be addressed, while waiting for the revolution to deliver.
However, Burma’s fundamental problem is not just about leadership, policy failure, dysfunctional institutions, rights abuses or fractured opposition movements.
Categorically speaking, Burma is confronted with nothing less than a full-scale pathological process of internal colonization, this time by its own military. This is an evolutionary process which was set in motion within the past 50 years, at least since the coup of 1962 decisively established one-party military rule, where the military and the State became coterminous or two-sides of a coin.
Indeed, Burma’s problems can best be understood as those of a colonial order.
Sixty-two years after independence from Britain, Burma has evolved into a dual-colony in which the population of more than 50 million citizens is being herded into a political space via the Orwellian “7-steps road map for democracy.” The ruling military clique backed by its 400,000-strong military will continue to make all decisions with massive societal and ecological consequences for the whole population; only this time their decisions are going to be made to sound constitutionally mandated, and in accord with the laws of the land.
Further, this small group of men subscribe to an irredeemably myopic and toxic version of ethno-nationalism which refashions Burma along the old feudal lines where the majority “Burmese and Buddhists,” as defined by these men in generals’ uniform, will be more equal in their Union of Republic of Myanmar.
Needless to say, the generals will pay lip service to ethnic unity and create nominal space for the ethnic people while pursuing “divide and rule” as the overarching strategy.
Substantial numbers of electoral seats won by the Shan and Arakanese parties which some analysts have hailed as “symbolic victories” look rather fishy in light of the looming “counterinsurgency” operations against the Karen, the Kachin, the Karenni and others.
It is worth stressing that the ruling generals have rejected the federal spirit of ethnic equality and violently opposed any struggle towards a genuine federated Union. They have declared dead the Panglong Agreement of 1947, the founding document of a modern, post-colonial Burma, wherein ethnic equality was enshrined as an inviolable pillar of multi-ethnic Burma.
In Burma’s new colonial rule under its own military, anything and anyone that doesn’t bend to the generals’ will is to be controlled, subjugated or crushed.
Suu Kyi and ethnic minority leaders, whether armed or not, are heading on an inevitable collision course with Burma’s military junta. For they have made repeated calls for national and ethnic reconciliation as well as genuine public expressions of inter-ethnic solidarity,
The last thing any colonial power would want and would tolerate is social and ethnic solidarity across communities, regions and classes.
For those who have viewed the emerging parliamentary and formal political processes as the only space in which the people’s voices can be heard, policies debated and public welfare advanced, it is time for a serious rethinking and soul-searching. In a polity where those in power in effect accept nothing but total surrender, where politics are regarded as an extension of war and everything is viewed through Zero-Sum lens, choosing sides becomes necessary.
There are no shades of gray in any colonial phenomenon. Battle lines are clearly drawn. The colonized are to be exploited, crushed, subjugated or co-opted.
The generals, of course, don’t see themselves as “native colonialists.” They feel no need for reconciliation along ethnic or political lines with any person, organization or community. In short, they have done nothing wrong, and they can do no wrong. For they perceive themselves as the country’s sole national guardian, untainted by partisan politics.
They are committed to the abstract idea of a multi-ethnic nation while trampling on the very idea in reality. And they embrace an absolutist notion of sovereignty where the military, not the people in whose name it exists, is sovereign. They love the country, but they can’t stand the people, especially the kind who refuse to go along with their design for the rest of the country. Political, defiant ethnic communities and 2,100 political prisoners spring to mind.
Their politics is all about resuming and completing the process of re-consolidation of the power of the ethnic Burmese majority, most specifically the soldiering class, over the rest of the ethnic minorities –a process only interrupted by the old kingdom’s 19th century defeat by Great Britain. Sixty years after independence, the military has built its own version of local colonial rule serving as the constitutionally-mandated ruling class and where the rest of the civilian society, ethnic majority and minorities alike, are second class citizens.
Twenty years ago, when the generals launched a ceasefire strategy with nearly 20 disparate ethnic armed resistance organizations, they weren’t acting out of genuine desire for reconciliation, but following a strategy to preempt the inter-ethnic solidarity between the Suu Kyi-led majority and rebellious minorities. Now that some of the most crucial ceasefires are likely to unravel, the highest strategic priority of the regime has become preventing inter-ethnic unity.
Throughout modern history, no colonialism is ever known to have offered the colonized political processes or institutions which would undo, or even undermine, such broad colonial objectives as economic exploitation of land, labor and natural resource, political domination and subjugation of populations under colonial rule, and control over the cultural and intellectual life of colonies.
Whether one has in mind the formal and classical version, which dissolved, thanks in no small part to colonialists slaughtering one another during the two 20th century world wars, or the subsequent and newer versions characteristic of the Cold War, the essence, objectives and nature of colonial rules remain virtually the same.
Words such as political, ethnic and international solidarity have been used too often and too lightly.
Humanitarian assistance, developmental aid, foreign direct investment, increased trade or commerce may be needed in any systemic efforts to rebuild poverty-stricken Third World nations emerging from decades of war and conflicts. But they are no substitute for forging an inter-ethnic and class solidarity, on which an inter-generational political resistance, armed and non-violent, depending on one’s own location, needs to be built.
The fact is the colonial state in the Union of the Republic of Myanmar stands in between public welfare and international assistance and increased foreign direct investment, which has been in the billions thanks to Burma’s economically predatory regional friends such as China, Thailand, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.
Precisely because this ethno-nationalist bond between the Burmese junta and the majority Buddhist Burmese has been irreparably broken down, the recent call by Suu Kyi and minority leaders for reconciliation and inter-ethnic solidarity against oppression poses the greatest threat to the ruling junta.
While Burma’s issues are complex, as far as the regime’s strategy is concerned it is a simple, time-tested “divide-and-rule.” The only way the opposition movements in particular and multi-ethnic communities in general can defeat these native colonizers is through inter-ethnic—and inter-class—solidarity.
It’s high time the international community, as well as ordinary citizens of Burma, address this strategic need and respond to the calls from Suu Kyi and the leaders of ethnic nationalities.
Dr Zarni is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Economics.