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.