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Under the Same Sky - The Ethnic Crises in Burma/Myanmar

“I feel so small.” Those words capture the thoughts I had at that moment. I could not understand why they were all expressing such bitter hatred for my ethnic group, the Bamars, who they claimed were bad people for exploiting them. Those who were speaking referred to themselves as “ethnic minorities,” yet at that moment I felt like I was the real minority. I wished I could evaporate into thin air. I felt so much frustration but did not have enough understanding and knowledge to participate in the discussion.

Up until that moment, the class called “Program for Capacity Building,” had been one of the favorite parts of my daily schedule. During that six-month course, we pursued a variety of subjects including economics, environmental and cultural studies, and politics. It was the kind of learning experience I had yearned for, not only for myself but also for my community. I sincerely appreciated the wonderful trainers from the British Council, as well as my awesome classmates. Although we were a very diverse group in terms of gender, age, experiences and ethnicities, we all had great times together and were doing a good job sharing and learning from each other.

That day in class we were exploring “the ethnic issues in Burma.” I was very excited and motivated to move onto this new issue. As the teacher began presenting some background materials on the topic, the conversation among the participants became very heated. Many students were commenting on how Burmese people have been making a lot of troubles for the country’s ethnic minorities. My classmates from the Kachin and Kayah ethnic groups were sharing experiences about how their rights had been violated by the Burmese. Everyone seemed to be joining in on the conversation, except for one of the students who was totally lost - me. I was soaking with sweat and could not focus on what was going on. There were many questions in my mind. I used to go to school not only with Kachin and Kayah people, but also other groups like Karen and Chin, and I had never thought of them as being discriminated against. It frustrated me because, as a Bamar, I wanted to be able to explain the situation, but then I realized that I didn’t really know anything about their situation.

That discussion in class reminded me of a conversation I had some time back with my dad, who travels a lot for his job. He told me how the lives of ethnic nationality groups in Burma, such as the Mon, Rakhine and Shan, are difficult. I argued with him, countering that I had such friends in my class and thought they were treated equally to us. He explained that was because we are in Yangon, the biggest city in the country, and I would learn the truth one day if I go to the areas where they live outside of the capital. Our chatting ended there and I assumed that it was not my business and was not relevant to my life.

I was a child at the time. Now, I am in the early days of my career and am dedicated to working for the development of my country. That uncomfortable experience I had in class was two years ago, but the feelings I felt were seared into my brain. It was the first time I felt personal suffering related to the problems between ethnic nationalities and the Burmese. I have come to realize that this issue is relevant, not just to me and my community, but to all of the people living together inside this nation. I decided to investigate those disgraceful experiences that had been hidden from my life.

Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, is the second largest country in Southeast Asia. My country is very ethnically diverse, with ethnic nationalities comprising approximately a third of the total population of 50.5 million. Our diverse populace has played a major role in defining the politics, history, and demographics of the nation. We have been struggling with ethnic tensions since independence in 1948, which has led to one of the longest running armed conflicts in the world. We have 135 ethnicities in Burma, with eight major ethnic groups. The most recent CIA-World Factbook states that the ethnic composition of Burma is 68% Burman (Bamar), 9% Shan, 7% Karen, 4% Rakhine, 2% Mon, and 5% “other.” The official language of the country is Burmese, however, the various ethnic groups each have their own language as well. Burma is divided into seven states and seven divisions. Divisions are predominantly populated by Bamar and states are home to particular ethnic nationalities.

Like most Bamars, I live in a very big city which is the heartland of the country. We are able to enjoy many benefits including development, peace, prosperity, stability, and contributions from the international community. However, if we leave our comfortable places and go and stay in the areas of our ethnic sisters and brothers, we will be shocked by the tremendous human rights violations and the suppression they experience. I want know, “who are the perpetrators? Are my people, the Bamars, actually committing such brutal crimes?” One way to gain insight and empathy for those suffering is to go to their location and get to know some of them.

Kachin State is the northernmost state of Burma and it is bordered by China. Most areas are undeveloped and many people are still engaged in agriculture. Under the military regime, the government exploits the country by taking various timber lands. Although natural resources of the Kachin people have been extracted, there has been little development in infrastructure, health care, and other basic necessities for the people.

Kayah State is situated in eastern Burma and is bounded on the east by Thailand's Mae Hong Son Province. Since 1996, the Burmese government has been accused of committing massive human rights violations, including forcibly transferring the population to designated relocation sites. Villagers in that area have alleged that they live under the constant threat of rape, beatings, arbitrary arrest or execution, conscription as slave labor for the Burmese army, and having their food and possessions taken without compensation.

Much of the Kayin state is a battlefield, with civilians suffering the brunt of the war. The KNU (Kayin National Union) today forms the world's longest running resistance organization. According to official statistics, less than 10% of primary school students in Kayin State reach high school. All the institutions of higher education are located in Hpa-An, the capital of the state – located far away from much of the population.

Chin is a state located in western Burma. It is bordered by Bangladesh in southwest, the Indian state of Manipur in the north, and the Indian state of Mizoram in the west. The state is a mountainous region with few transportation links. Chin State is sparsely populated and remains one of the least developed areas of the country.

Mon State is an administrative division of Burma and has a short border with Thailand's Kanchanaburi Province at its southeastern tip. Forests cover approximately half of the area and timber production is one of the major contributors to the economy. Minerals extracted from the area include salt, antimony, and granite. Natural resources such as forest products and onshore and offshore mineral resources are exploited only by top Burmese military leaders and foreign companies. At the present time one of the biggest foreign investments into Burma is for the exploitation of natural gas reserves in Mon State. The Yadana Gas project which connected pipelines alongside the towns of Mon state resulted in harassment and danger to the native Mon people.

Rakhine State is situated on the western coast and is bordered by the Bay of Bengal to the west, and the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh to the northwest. While most places in Burma suffer from chronic power shortages, in rural states like Rakhine the problem is disproportionately more so. In 2009, the electricity consumption of a state of 3 million people was only 30 MW, or 1.8% of the country's total generation capacity. In December 2009, the military government added three more hydropower plants at a cost of over US$800 million. The three plants together can produce 687 MW but the surplus electricity will be distributed to other states and divisions.

Shan State borders China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south, and five administrative divisions of Burma in the west. Shan State covers 155,800 km², almost a quarter of the total area of Burma. The state is largely rural, with only three cities of significant size. Educational opportunities in Burma are extremely limited outside the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay. It is especially a problem in Shan State where vast areas are beyond government control. According to the Myanmar Central Statistical Organization, only about 8% of primary school students in Shan State reach high school.

These are just some examples of the plights of ethnic groups and their respective communities. I continue to wonder, are Bamars the culprits of these injustices? I confess that we who predominantly live in big cities and more developed divisions enjoy a higher socio-economic status than those who live in the states. I admit that the country’s leaders who have historically suppressed ethnic nationalities are Bamar. I accept the fact that although most ethnic groups have their own language and culture, their children are forced to be “Burmanized" and to pursue their education in the Burmese language which makes it difficult to learn. I acknowledge that girls and boys are raped and tortured by the military which is overwhelmingly made up of Bamars. Realizing these things, which I had never learnt in my young age, breaks my heart and causes my blood to boil. I apologize for what my ancestors did from the bottom of my heart. I understand why many do not like us, the Bamars.

But, let me ask the questions again. “Are all Bamars responsible for these problems?” Throughout my life I have never discriminated against or treated badly members of any ethnic group. Neither have my parents or my grandparents. My sisters would also reply “No” and my Bamar friends, too. So, who is responsible for such inhumane treatment of others?

To be fair, many Bamars also face great difficulty. In the outskirts of cities like Yangon, thousands of Bamar children cannot go to school. According to the CIA-World Factbook, only 1.2 % of GDP is allocated in education expenditures, and one-third of the population live below the poverty line. We all suffer from the awful corruption in our state public offices and often feel intimidated by police and soldiers. We, the Bamars, know our brothers and sisters from other ethnic groups are under fire, yet we have no freedom of expression to speak out. We, like others, live with a feeling of inferiority on a daily basis.

I do not wish to minimize the losses of the ethnic minorities in my country. I only want to say that although I am Bamar – we face the same enemies. We know who the real criminals are. We must make a distinction between the Bamar people and the military regime, and acknowledge that we have a common enemy who is trying to drive a wedge into the Burmese family. 2011 is set to become Burma's most important and defining year in two decades. The parliament has emerged that could well determine the country's political landscape for another generation. Although the regime’s proxy party Union Solidarity and Development Party won over 75% of the seats, it was virtually impossible for ethnic and democratic leaders to meet face-to-face with any generals and ministers before that time and propose what is needed for their people. I believe if ordinary citizens also unite, they will not be able to sustain their dictatorship.

We celebrated the 64th anniversary of Union Day in 2011. It was in 1947 when 23 representatives from the Shan states, the Kachin hills, the Chin hills and General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the interim Burmese government, signed an agreement in Panglong in Shan State to form the Union of Burma. In an attempt to allay the lingering fears of the British government regarding unequal treatment of ethnic people in the Frontier Areas in the future Union of Burma, Aung San said, in an unforgettable remark: “If Burma receives one kyat (the Burmese currency), you [ethnic groups] will also get one kyat.” After the assassination of General Aung San one year later, failing to implement the Panlong agreement has increased mistrust and misunderstanding between the majority Burmese-led central government and other ethnic nationalities and continued to remain a fundamental issue. That’s why Aung San Su Kyi is attempting to call Second Panglong Conference for authentic National Reconciliation after her release in November 2010. Despite the fact that the military government is accusing her as national enemy, I trust that as long has we don’t listen to the voice of our multi-ethnic nationalities on the current situations, the essence of “Union” is still denied to Burma’s ethnic nationalities.

We must learn to speak out for what is right. We can learn this skill from others who have been oppressed but fought back - like the women in the north of Burma. The northeastern corner of Burma, close to the borders with Thailand and China, is home to some 500,000 internally displaced people. Among them are girls and women who have been raped by members of Burma’s military as a weapon of war, a trend that Shan Women Action Network documented in a disturbing 2002 report called ‘License to Rape.’ Despite the abuse they suffer however, these women do not suffer in silence when confronted by the Burmese military. Their display of anger — which has often included shouting back at Burmese troops — has also been noted in the region home to the Shan ethnic nationality, which has faced similar abuse due to another decades-long separatist conflict. Women in these situations protect their people by showing bravery and talking back to the soldiers. The remarkable strength of my fellow sisters living in those conflict areas makes me proud to be a woman. We have much to learn from them.

We must also remember that even the world’s leading democratic country, the United States, took many years to end its Civil War and to have equality for the races. Today they have an African-American president, but this could not even have been a dream in earlier times. In a closed country like Burma, it will take more time to overcome all these barriers. But we must start now to fight for equality and fairness for our people as the Shan Women have done. I absolutely believe that as long as we are putting the blame on each other, Burma’s troubles will continue and we will never see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Farona's picture

Sis ! you’re piece is the

Sis ! you’re piece is the first one I read ;- )

It’s eye-opening to know about various diverse communities in your country. I love this line “but then I realized that I didn’t really know anything about their situation” shows your true desire to bring change by challenging your own limitations..How many people do that!?
My class was very diverse and I had a classmate in my juniors from the Rakhaine region; she was a really good student.

State-sponsored discrimination is horrifying – makes task all the more difficult for women like you to help those face discrimination. Communities reach a point where they longer fear the state, and that’s when things begin to change. A par in your piece clearly demonstrates that – those women are BRAVE!

Keep us posted on the development on this issue – I am really interested !

Insha Allah's picture

Thank you so, so much

Dear sister Farona,

Thank you so, so much for taking time to read my piece and dropping such an encouraging comment. I’ll read yours and I’m very excited.

To be honest, I didn’t admit what my ancestors committed to our ethnic brothers and sisters who are living under this same sky for a time, finally, after facing many annoying things in my work and community, I realized to explore, learn, know and come to the point of truth. Sure, when state itself does such discrimination to form mistrust and misunderstanding between the regions not to harm their power, it’s much difficult to reach the positive change for activists and the people.

As, currently, I am working with many ethnic people; I know they are also smart and cute people except their rigid hatred on Bamars. That makes me really sorry and stimulates me to spread awareness among them to clear who is the true enemy.

I’ll keep my writing.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

lisastjohn's picture

Feature piece

This piece is well written, strong and incredibly informative!

Your attention to detail is great.

I was moved by your humility- and by your curiosity and willingness to get to the source of where the corruption stems from.
As an American, related to the big picture in terms of years, it was thought provoking to read that our country is not far away from the Civil war.

Thanks for sharing such a weighty and important issue with the world.

Insha Allah's picture

Thank you so much

Hi lisastjohn,

Thank you so much for reading my piece and supporting me with such motivating comment.

That piece is really from my passion and I had to explore a lot for it to reach the clear understanding in my life and am still learning.

Actually, while writing this article, I had a chance to meet and talk with an American guy (who is in his 80 and came here for bird watching) and I could learn much from him. He is a great guy and we discussed about Colonialism and after it, how countries are cut and the effect of ethic conflicts and how it takes time to overcome. I gained thought provoking information from him.

What I really would like to mean is we all are sharing and learning each other in this world. Sharing is caring and makes a difference. It’s my pleasure.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Insha Allah's picture

Thank you so much

Hi lisastjohn,

Thank you so much for reading my piece and supporting me with such motivating comment.

That piece is really from my passion and I had to explore a lot for it to reach the clear understanding in my life and am still learning.

Actually, while writing this article, I had a chance to meet and talk with an American guy (who is in his 80 and came here for bird watching) and I could learn much from him. He is a great guy and we discussed about Colonialism and after it, how countries are cut and the effect of ethic conflicts and how it takes time to overcome. I gained thought provoking information from him.

What I really would like to mean is we all are sharing and learning each other in this world. Sharing is caring and makes a difference. It’s my pleasure.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

mrbeckbeck's picture

So informative!

What a great feature story. You tactfully blend your personal experience with great background information about the different regions of your country. There is a lot to take in here, but your writing makes it digestible and I feel much better informed at the end of the piece... well done!

It seems that some kind of unity is on the horizon with the call for a second Panglong conference. I look forward to reading about those discussions, and the bright future of Burma's unified peaceful democracy. There is a long way to go, but with your voice we see the way forward.

Thanks for this insightful piece!
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

Insha Allah's picture

second Panglong conference

Hi Scott,

Thank you so much for taking time to read my piece and dropping such a supportive comment.

Even among the activists, the issue around the second Panglong conference is very controversial and the depth of mistrust and misunderstanding among the ethnicity especially Burmeses and other groups is quite far beyond than our expectations and understanding sometimes. I have just read the critics to Aung Sann Su Kyi on the issue, and am trying to write a piece on it soon based on my research and personal perspective.

Best regards from Burma,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Beautiful

This is a beautifully written piece Insha Allah. And you are brave to admit your own ignorance many years ago, and courageous to go and find out information to enlighten yourself. I think what you say is true, that all the people of Myanmar suffer from the military Junta, and it is not the normal Burmese who rape and pillage the ethnic minorities.

Having worked on the Thai-Burma border though, I can tell you there are so many horror stories that come from the ethnic minority regions. Many people I spoke to in the refugee camps talked of the burning of villages, raping of women, using people as "mine-detectors", taking food, burning crops....it goes on and on. I hope that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is able to repair some of the damage the Junta has done to your beautiful country.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Kind regards,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Insha Allah's picture

proxy

Dear Rachael,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and experiential comment. In the newspapers daily, we see the report form authority about the mine blast in some particular rural areas and sometimes they mention uncertainly, sometimes they accuse those are the rebels of opposition ethnic armies but everyone knows that’s their proxy and they commit such inhumane brutal crimes. As long as ethic groups are under oppression, hate Burmese, disorganized and unified among each other, their power can never dim. That they strategically do throughout the history since the military coup in 1962. Good things many youths in civil society aware the issue and try to enlighten among the public. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can be the true leader in the struggle to overcome. Now, do you notice she is so silent? I believe, she is finding the solutions in a very clever way unlike the past time when she used to back to the “Bigger” prison which also used to be the regime’s trap.

Thank you so much for your kind understanding and concern on the people of Myanamr.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Farona's picture

@insha

Our blood is young sis; we don’t have to bear the brunt of our ancestor’s antics. I live among incredibly diverse communities, one at war with other, one at with serious disagreement with other, one committed genocide to other – but the end of the day, it’s the young, innocent women and men bring communities together. And naturally, people don’t hold accountable the new generation for their ancestors work. But as you said, the old pass on hope but also hatred. By Listening and understanding all the misplaced hate you can move forward very smoothly. Often the expression of hate is the first step in identifying and solving ethnic tension.

You’re doing a commendable job, I am sure many would only dream sis! <3 I enthusiastically look forward to your next piece on this issue – can you interview more people from different communities ?

Much Love

Dear sister Farona,

Thank you so much again. I strongly agree with “Often the expression of hate is the first step in identifying and solving ethnic tension.” Many cases in world history have approved it. That’s why, although it can take long time, I’m optimistic and have many hopes.

I promise I’ll bring more pieces on the issue. Just give me a time. I’ll come back soon.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Paula LaPierre Kichesipirini Algonquin's picture

I have learned so much!!

Thank you so much! What a special young woman you are. To seek the truth is very brave. This is beautifully written and is done from a perspective that draws you in to learn more. I look forward to learning more from you.

Chi migwetch!
Thank you very much,

Paula
Kichesipirini Algonquin

Paula LaPierre
Principal Sachem
Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation
Kichi Sibi Anishnabe
Canada
Culture is a pillar of sustainable development. Make certain then that is is culture with integrity.
http://www.scribd.com/doc/48051716/Prior-Social-Org

Insha Allah's picture

Dear Paula, Thank you so much

Dear Paula,

Thank you so much for your encouraging comment, too! I will try my best to be able to produce more articles on the issue. That's also a life story of my own personal struggle. As a Burmese, I acknowledge the suffering of my fellow ethnicity.

Best Regards,
Insha

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Insha Allah's picture

Dear Paula, Thank you so much

Dear Paula,

Thank you so much for your encouraging comment, too! I will try my best to be able to produce more articles on the issue. That's also a life story of my own personal struggle. As a Burmese, I acknowledge the suffering of my fellow ethnicity.

Best Regards,
Insha

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Insha Allah's picture

Dear Paula, Thank you so much

Dear Paula,

Thank you so much for your encouraging comment, too! I will try my best to be able to produce more articles on the issue. That's also a life story of my own personal struggle. As a Burmese, I acknowledge the suffering of my fellow ethnicity.

Best Regards,
Insha

Shwe Wutt Hmon

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