Volume VII. No. IV. July-August 2004
Table of Contents
• Forced Labor at Indo-Burma Border Trade Route
• SPDC Practice Widespread Forced Labor In Border Towns
• Villagers Forced As Porter
• Chin Refugees in Mizoram Face Threat of Deportation
Statement, Letter & Press Release
• Refugees International Letter to Sonia Ghandi
• CHRO’s Statement at the Twenty-Second Session UNWGIP
• Chin Human Rights Organization Mourns the Death of Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe
Facts & Arguments
• Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Burmese Chin Refugees in India
• Burma and National Reconciliation: Ethnic Conflict and State-Society Dysfunction
By Dr. Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe
Forced Labor at Indo-Burma Border Trade Route
August 24, 2004
Ever since Rih, a small town at India-Burma border trade route, was granted township headquarters status a year a go, the surrounding villagers have been endlessly forced to contribute their labor to implement various government projects by the authority of the ruling Burmese military regime known as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
Pu M…….(name withheld for security reason) one of the village council members from Khawthlir village complains that 15 surrounding villages have been forced to engage with construction of road and other infrastructure such as hospital, school etc. from mid 2003 to August 2004 accordance with the order issued by U Mya Win, the newly established Rih town administrator in northern Chin state.
Whenever the authority asked for forced labor, one person per household have to pack his/her own food and tools to work as forced laborer.
“Even though we heard that the government has sanction about 20 millions Kyats for construction of this new town project, the villagers never get paid for what they have done” said one of the villages council members from Khawthlir village.
The most recent forced labor lasted more than a week starting from July 12, 2004 to July 18, 2004 including Sunday. The order was issued by Major Maung Myint of Light Infantry Battalion 269. One person per house hold from 15 villages has to contribute their labor to repair India-Burma border trade route between the two villages Haimual and Lentlang. The villagers who are engage in forced labor were not even allowed to go to Church on Sunday July 18.
The 15 villages those who are constantly engage in forced labors are;
Rih Khuathar, Rih Khuahlun, Tio, Khawthlir, Phunte, Thingcang, Saek, Sianlam, Cawnghawih, Khuamual, Hmunluah, Cawhte, Lianhna thar, Lianhna hlun, Haiheng.
In another incident at Tiddim township in northern Chin state, Burma army Light Infantry Battalion 267 forced villagers along the road from Tiddim to India border including Laitui village, which consist more than 500 household were forced to work in road repair for more than a month. One person per household have to bring his/her own food and tools to work as forced laborer.
Those who fail to complete their quota have to pay 4,800 kyats to the authority.
Pu M further told CHRO that whenever a column of Burmese army is traveling around the villages along Indo-Burma border trade route, they never bring their own ration and villagers must supply them with whatever they demanded. The Burmese soldiers take whatever they want from the villagers. They didn’t spare chickens, pigs or vegetables from the farm and they drag villagers as porters whenever they want.
Border trade agreement was signed by the two trade ministers of Burma and India in 1995.
SPDC Practice Widespread Forced Labor In Border Towns
August 5, 2004
The newly established border town Rih residence has been forced to construct streets in the town accordance with the order issued by Colonel Tin Hla, commander of the first tactical command of Burma army in Chin state on July 3, 2004. The order was implemented by township administrator U Mya Win office.
The authority ordered residences of Rih town to take responsibility for laying concretes in the town’s major streets. According to local source, every household have to complete their quota, which is to lay concrete on the street 10 foot wide and 6 foot long, before August 10, 2004.
“It is a grueling job for the town residents” said one of the village council members from nearby village Khawthlir. At the first step, villagers have to carry stones from the nearby stream to lay on the bottom of the street. After that, they have to lay gravel on it and then pour sands over and at the final stage lay the concrete.
It is likely that the town residents will not be able to finish their respective quota before the deadline as most of them have only completed the first step by the time of this report.
Similarly, residents of Teddim town in northern Chin state are compel to engage in extension of the town street and laying concrete since May 2, 2004. U Sai Maung Luu, chairman of Township Peace and Development Council of Teddim town has ordered the town residents that every home owner must complete their quota to repair the street as the standard set by the authority before the end of August.
The order mentioned that anyone who fails to comply will be effectively punished.
As the civilian have to work as forced laborer most of the time, they have no time to work for themselves and it has greatly effect their survivals especially the poor and farmers.
Villagers Forced As Porter
August 5, 2004
Major Win Maung, company commander of Darkhai camp from Burma army Light Infantry Battalion 269 based in Tonzang township northern Chin state has constantly ordered villagers from Tonzang township to carry army supply from Rih army camp to Darkhai camp which is 30 miles away.
Villagers are routinely ordered to carry army supply including ration, arms and ammunition for the whole company. Every village had to contribute 15 horses and 10 persons to serve as porter for every month since the beginning of this year.
Chin Refugees in Mizoram Face Threat of Deportation
August 1, 2004
Chin refugees from Burma in Lunglei, the second largest district headquarters town of Mizoram state in India, are facing threat of eviction and deportation by the Young Mizo Association (YMA). Lunglei branch YMA issued an order in June, 2004 saying that any foreigner who does not have Inner Line Permit must leave the area before the end of July.
On August 1, 2004, the YMA has announced by bullhorn laud-speaker to the public walking every block of the town that the deadline was already pass and all foreigners who does not have Inner Line Permit must leave immediately.
The YMA further warn that they will not be responsible for any consequences that may come up on any foreigners those who ignored the order.
At least three Chin refugees have been arrested and charged them with foreigner case at the date of this report.
Soon after the order was issued, YMA started to collect the list of foreigners in Lunglei area. Again on July 18, 2004 the YMA make public announcement to remind foreigners that they must leave from the town before the end of July.
The YMA said that foreigners are being ordered to leave the area accordance with the government’s rule and regulations. This is not because of the foreigners have bad behavior or any wrong doing.
Most of the foreigners living in Mizoram state are Chin refugees from Burma who fled their home country to avoid rampant human rights violations and economic hardship caused by the rule of military dictatorship in the country.
Statement, Letter & Press Release
Refugees International Letter to Sonia Ghandi
Refugees International recently visited India’s Northeastern State of Mizoram and collected information on persecution of ethnic Chin in Burma by the Burmese military as a result of which the Chin have been fleeing to India for more than a decade. The Chin in Mizoram have been trying to survive by keeping a low profile and assimilating with the local communities, but their situation deteriorated sharply in July 2003, when they were targeted by a local youth group, forcibly evicted from their homes, and in many cases, sent back to Burma, with the cooperation of Mizoram government authorities. Almost a year later, the Chin in Mizoram told RI that the youth group continues to harass and abuse them and they live in constant fear of being deported to Burma where they could face torture and even death at the hands of the Burmese military.
RI has written a letter to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the President of India’s Ruling Congress Party, calling upon the Government of India to become involved in providing protection to the Chin in Mizoram. This letter is copied below.
The Honorable Sonia Gandhi
President, Indian National Congress
New Delhi 110011
July 28, 2004
Dear Mrs. Gandhi:
I am writing as the President of Refugees International, a Washington-based humanitarian advocacy organization, to express concern for the well being and safety of thousands of Burmese ethnic Chin, who have sought refuge in Mizoram since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising due to on-going violence and persecution in Burma. Ethnic-based politics in Mizoram have led to increasing vulnerability for the up to 30,000 Chin asylum seekers and special action by the central government is required to protect the Chin there.
I am writing to request the Government of India to allow those Burmese fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution to stay in Mizoram and to direct police to allow entry to those fleeing persecution in Burma. We also encourage the Government of India to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist the Burmese so that India does not have to shoulder the sole burden of protecting them or caring for their humanitarian needs.
The current difficult situation for the Chin in Mizoram originated in a July 2003 incident of rape of a Mizo minor girl, allegedly by a Burmese, which resulted in escalating tensions between the Mizo and Burmese communities. About 10,000 Burmese have been evicted from their homes by a local youth organization, called the Young Mizo Association (YMA), with the knowledge of local and state authorities. Several thousand people have been forced to go back to Burma, a country with a well-documented record of human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, and up to 30,000 Burmese remain in hiding in Mizoram. Although tensions between the two communities have subsided to a degree since last year, the Burmese are frequently made into scapegoats in Mizoram, especially at the time of elections, as was the case in 2003. Local authorities consider them to be economic migrants, when in reality many of them are seeking refuge in Mizoram due to political persecution or human rights abuses by the Burmese military.
As an organization that monitors the humanitarian and protection needs of refugees, Refugees International (RI) can confirm that the Chin in Burma are maltreated for being an ethnic minority and endure beatings, torture, rapes and executions. According to RI interviews with Chin deported from Mizoram, those sent back to Burma face the danger of being thrown into labor camps and prisons, where they risk torture, illness, and death.
We urge the Government of India to take steps to stop the harassment of Chin in Mizoram and cease pressure on them by local groups to go back to Burma. We are aware that some Burmese are involved in illegal activities, including drug trafficking, and agree that the Indian government has every right to address this problem under Indian law. These individuals, however, should not be confused with law-abiding people who have come to India in search of a safe haven.
An RI team recently visited Mizoram where the Chin refugees remember former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with much gratitude for his staunch support of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese pro-democracy movement. The Chin recall how under Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s Government, Indian policy was to strengthen the aspirations of the people of Burma for democracy, and no genuine refugees were prevented from seeking shelter in the country.
Now that there is once again a Congress-led national Government, Burmese refugees are daring to hope that they might receive some protection and assistance from the Government of India, along the lines of programs for refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka. We trust that you will meet the aspirations of these refugees and continue the legacy of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi by supporting those fleeing persecution in Burma.
We thank you for your attention to these matters and look forward to learning more about how a Congress-led Government will take steps to protect the Burmese refugees in Mizoram.
Kenneth H. Bacon
Enc: Refugees International bulletin on situation of Chin refugees in Mizoram
Cc: The Honorable Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India
The Honorable Natwar Singh, Minister of External Affairs of India
CHRO Intervention at 22nd Session UNWGIP
Economic and Social Council
COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Sub-Commission on the promotion and Protection of Human Rights
Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP)
By: Chin Human Rights Organization
Topic: Conflict Resolution and Indigenous Peoples
Intervener: Kenneth VanBik
Dear Chairperson and members of fellow delegates for Working Group on Indigenous Populations,
First of all, allow me congratulate you for your reelection as the Chairperson of this Working Group. I also would like to thank you for this opportunity to present the plight of my Chin peoples on this occasion.
I am Kenneth VanBik and I represent Chin Human Right Organization.
On the one hand, I agree with you that the root cause of conflict in many indigenous areas is due to the State’s refusal to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. On the other hand, I have reservation on your paper paragraph 18: “the colonization of indigenous territories also negatively affected indigenous peoples in many other ways. Indigenous populations severely diminished in number during the colonial period as a result of forced labour, warfare, malnutrition due to the destruction of the natural environment, diseases and even calculated extermination”
The reason for my reservation is that you did not specifically mention the continuation of such colonial practice in many modern States. Today some States in Asia continues the practice of the colonisers, perpetrating many atrocities against the indigenous peoples, as in Burma. For examples, forced relocations and cultural genocides have been deliberately executed by the military junta in Chin States. By cultural genocide, we mean incidents such as the denial of native language teaching in our own local schools as well as the declaration of Burmese as the only official language in our Chin communities.
Religious oppressions also have been occurring in Chin State. Pulling down many crosses and replaced them with pagodas in Chin hills by the Burmese military regime is a reflection of such religious oppression and persecution.
These kinds of atrocities inevitably lead to violent confrontation and armed conflict up until today.
Due to the above mentioned atrocities and human rights violations committed by Burma military regime, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights decided to nominate a Special Reporter on Burma in 1992 in order to monitor situation of human rights in Burma and submit his/her report to United Nations General Assembly and Commission on Human Rights. The resolution is extended every year and the year 2004is not an exception because the human rights situation in Burma remains the same.
In 1994, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to resolve the conflict in Burma. In that resolution, the UNGA strongly urged to have a tripartite dialogue among the major political players in Burma: indigenous leaders, democratic opposition led by the Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military regime. In order to implement this resolution, the UN General Secretary appointed His Special Envoy to Burma in 1995.
As of today, the effort of the Special Envoy has not eased the conflict in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house-arrest, and the military junta continued its own agenda against the will of the people of Burma as well as that of international community.
For an alternative means to resolve conflict in Burma, I strongly support for “the establishment an international body to adjudicate or advise on disputes between indigenous peoples living within the borders of a modern State and non-indigenous institutions, including State institutions” (Paragraph 77).
Chin Human Rights Organization Mourns the Death of Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe
July 24, 2004
Chin Human Rights Organization expresses its deep sorrow at the demise of Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, the Shan prince of Yawnghwe, this morning in Vancouver, Canada. Son of the first President of an independent Union of Burma Sao Shwe Thaike, Dr. Chao Tzang, also known as Eugene Yawnghwe, was a fine revolutionary, an accomplished academic and a tireless campaigner for human rights and democracy in Burma. Dr. Yawnghwe dedicated his entire life to working for the freedom of his people, the Shans, and of all the people of Burma from tyranny, inhumanity and oppression.
Before General Ne Win took over power, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe tutored English at the Department of English at Rangoon University. Soon after the military coup of 1962, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe went underground to join the Shan resistance in 1963. A prominent member of the Shan revolution, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe was among the Shan delegation that held peace talks called by General Ne Win in December 1963. A year later, Chao Tzang’s mother, Burma’s first lady and Mehadevi of the Yawnghe chaired the Shan State Army, a merger of two Shan revolutionary organizations. Chao Tzang Yawnge later rose to the position of General Secretary of the Shan State Progress Party, a political wing of the Shan State Army.
In 1985, due to health reasons Yawnghwe left the Shan revolution in order to begin a new life in Canada. Chao Tzang later earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. A true believer of freedom and human rights, Dr. Chao Tzang rejoined the revolution after the 1988 popular uprising in Burma. Since then, he had held various position of eminence and was co-founder and a member of Presidium of the United Nationalities League for Democracy (Liberated Area) UNLD/LA, Advisor to the National Reconciliation Program NRP, Ethnic Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and Chair of the Working Committee of the Ethnic Nationalities Council. He was also instrumental in helping to draft the state Constitutions for the ethnic nationalities.
A scholar who committed all his life to the freedom of Burma from tyrannical rule, Dr. Yawnghwe firmly believed in the important role of the world community in helping to realize his dreams: the smooth transition from military rule to a system of federalism and democracy in Burma. He said in his article Burma Analysis 2003, “Success for any process of political change (or transition) in Burma in the direction of democratization to which the SPDC claims to be committed to as well and the sustainability of the outcomes will necessarily depend on the focus of the international community on the problems, conflict, and issues that have confronted the peoples of Burma for many dismal decades.”
The death of Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe is an irreplaceable loss to the continuing fight for equality, self-determination, federalism and democracy in Burma. He was a hero, a revolutionary, an intellectual and a dedicated activist during whose leadership the ethnic nationalities have learned to so much to advance their cause. Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe will always be gone, but he will always be remembered as a leader, a revolutionary, a federalist and democrat who dedicated all his life for the freedom of the people of Burma.
CHRO offers its most profound condolence to the family and friends of Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe.
May his soul rest in peace.
Chin Human Rights Organization
July 24, 2004
Facts & Arguments
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Burmese Chin Refugees in India
Refugees International recently assessed the situation for Chin asylum seekers in Mizoram state, India.
Burmese Chin refugees in Mizoram state of India face the danger of being arrested, detained, and in some cases expelled back to Burma. Unlike refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet, whom the Indian government does protect as refugees, or refugees from Afghanistan and Burma living in New Delhi, who are able to access the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Chin in Mizoram have the misfortune of coming under the jurisdiction of India’s Foreigners Act of 1946, which makes no distinction between illegal immigrants and refugees. India, although on the Executive Committee of UNHCR, is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, nor does the Indian Government have a domestic refugee law. The Government of India prevents UNHCR from traveling to Mizoram, leaving the Chin there completely vulnerable.
Refugees from Chin state in Burma have been fleeing to neighboring India’s Mizoram state since 1988, when a military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), came to power after brutally crushing the pro-democracy movement. The predominantly Buddhist SPDC has embarked on a campaign to “Burmanize” the ethnic minorities in the country and a large number of Chin have come to India to escape the religious, cultural and political persecution in their state, where the majority of the population is Christian. According to the Chin in Mizoram interviewed by Refugees International, since the SPDC came to power, construction of new churches has been prohibited. Other anti-Christian measures include preventing people from attending church, destroying crosses, and forcing Chin to build pagodas in place of churches. At the time of services, Burmese government troops come to the church area to collect villagers and take them away for forced labor. For religious gatherings permission in advance from the local authorities is required and permission is often denied for no stated reason.
Whereas before 1988 only one Burmese military battalion was stationed in Chin state, today there are as many as 10 battalions, and with the increase in number of soldiers, there has been a sharp increase in the abuse of the civilian population. People are forced by the military to act as porters and carry arms, ammunition and supplies. They are routinely called for forced labor on construction of roads and army buildings. Civilians, including pregnant women, are randomly selected at any time for combat training which goes on for weeks with no pay. Teachers are pulled out of schools for forced labor; as a result, the education system is in shambles. If the SPDC suspects a civilian of involvement with the democracy movement or the Chin ethnic army, arrest and torture are common practices.
When the initial influx of refugees came to India the government set up camps for them, but the camps were closed in 1995 as ties improved between India and Burma. Since then the Chin have been scattered all over Mizoram state and in the absence of any humanitarian support have been surviving by doing whatever work they can find. In early 2003 the number of Burmese in Mizoram was estimated to be at least 50,000.
Some of the Burmese in Mizoram say that they have come for economic reasons, not to escape SPDC atrocities, but when probed about the economic reasons, often an underlying case of persecution emerges. As a Chin woman told RI, “It is true that I have come to Mizoram to earn money. My son was forcibly conscripted by the Burmese army, I have not seen him for more than two years. My husband is sick and he cannot work. I try to earn enough to feed him and my three small children, and for my husband’s medical care, but each month, for many days, I am compelled to do labor for the SPDC. What alternative do I have but to come here, earn money and take it back with me to Burma? If I don’t come to Mizoram, my family in Burma will not survive.”
At the best of times, many of the Chin have been able to live with the Mizo population and find some work to support themselves. At other times, however, they have been targeted by locals for being foreigners, harassed, and even deported to Burma. Most recently in July 2003, tensions between Mizo and Chin communities exploded following the rape of a Mizo minor girl, allegedly by a Burmese. A powerful youth group called the Young Mizo Association (YMA) began to go door to door telling the Burmese to leave their homes and warning landlords not to let foreigners stay on their property. A campaign was launched by the YMA, in collaboration with other organizations, to drive all Burmese across the border, actions carried out with full knowledge, and sometimes full cooperation, of state authorities. It is estimated that at least 10,000 Chin were evicted from their homes and the expulsion drive led to the forced return of over 5,000 Chin to Burma.
Those who had come mainly for economic purposes or had some hope of being able to survive in Burma went back at the time of the evictions and push backs, leaving behind in Mizoram those who could not return due to the danger to their lives in Burma. In Lunglei, Mizoram’s second largest city, 80% of the Burmese have gone back to Chin state; the refugees still there told RI that they had fled Burma for reasons such as deserting the army after being forcibly conscripted or being tortured by SPDC on fabricated charges of providing assistance to the ethnic Chin army. They would rather suffer at hands of YMA
in Mizoram than go back to Burma where they could be killed by the SPDC.
Although tensions have subsided somewhat since July 2003, life for many Burmese in Mizoram remains an ordeal. The biggest problem facing the Chin is that of protection and they live in daily fear of the YMA. Every few days, they are visited by YMA cadres, on occasion accompanied by local police, who tell them to pack their belongings and leave the area. When they refuse, they are assaulted, and in certain instances, put in jail overnight to “teach them a lesson.” Sometimes when the Burmese hear reports of the YMA coming to their locality, they flee their homes and hide in forests, where they eat mice and roots for survival. Once they perceive the danger to be over, they return to their homes only to find them ransacked and their belongings destroyed by the YMA.
Other difficulties facing the Chin at present include refusal of Mizo landlords to rent rooms to them as they have been warned by the YMA not to let Burmese stay on their properties. If the Burmese manage to find homes, they can be evicted at any time. The Burmese face exploitation by Mizo employers who give them the most menial and dangerous labor, the kind of work no Mizo wants to do, with minimal pay. They have limited access to heath care. When AIDS awareness activists try to go to areas where groups of refugees live, so as to educate them about the spread of AIDS, they are prevented from doing so by the YMA. Even in death the Burmese are not spared. In Lunglei district, the Mizos do not permit dead bodies of Burmese to be buried in the village graveyards; the Chin have to bury their dead in separate “orphan graveyards.”
Despite all the hardships in Mizoram, most of the Burmese living there cannot imagine going back to Burma until there is a change of government. A small population of Burmese has been able to gather sufficient money to make the expensive trip to Delhi to seek asylum with UNHCR, but for most that is not possible. In the words of Pa Thang, a Chin who was picked up by Indian police for being illegal, handed over to Burmese authorities, then tortured in a Burmese jail for many months before he was finally able to escape back to India, “For us, living in Mizoram is hardly an option, but going back to Burma is no option at all, so we will just continue to stay here and suffer day after day. Sometimes we feel we are no better than wild animals tracked and hunted by the YMA.”
Amidst this misery, there are a few signs of hope largely due to kindness of local people in certain districts in Mizoram. For example, in one part of Lunglei district, a sympathetic police superintendent is interviewing Chin in the area and if he believes they came to escape persecution, he is offering them temporary permits to stay there; in another part of Lunglei, recognizing that the Burmese are doing the most menial jobs that Mizos don’t want to do, local officials are allowing them to apply for authorization to stay in Mizoram, provided they have a Mizo employer who will validate their employment.
Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:
The Government of India
Recognize that the Foreigners Act of 1946 is an archaic law and enact a national refugee law to ensure that all genuine asylum seekers who have fled to India are offered equal protection and are not treated differently based on their nationality.
Allow UNHCR access to Mizoram, if not to set up permanent offices, then to conduct periodic fact-finding missions during which UNHCR staff have direct access to Chin asylum seekers.
In the absence of UNHCR access to Mizoram, assume responsibility for providing protection and assistance to Burmese refugees, as was the practice from 1988-1995.
The Government of Mizoram State
Acknowledge that many Chin cannot return to their country until there is a change of government, and conduct public education campaigns among the Mizo people to help them understand that the Burmese have come to escape persecution, rather than for economic reasons.
Prevent organizations like the Young Mizo Association from taking law into their own hands and attacking and harassing Burmese refugees.
Create systems whereby Burmese with local employers can obtain authorization to stay in Mizoram and receive protection from local authorities.
Encourage the Government of India to permit the agency to access all Burmese asylum seekers in the country and not just the handful who are able to make the journey from India’s northeastern states to Delhi.
Burma and National Reconciliation:
Ethnic Conflict and State-Society Dysfunction
[Rhododendron reprints this article of the late Dr. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe in honor of his life long struggle to restore freedom, democracy and human rights in Burma. This article was first published by” Legal Issues on Burma Journal” in December 2001 (Burma Lawyers’ Council)]
It is maintained that Burma’s ‘ethnic conflict’ is not per se ethnic, nor that of the kind faced by indigenous peoples of, for example, North America, but a conflict rooted in politics. Following the collapse of Burma’s General Ne Win’s military-socialist regime in 1988, the issue of ethnic conflict has attracted the attention from both observers and protagonists. This attention became heightened following the unraveling of the socialist bloc and the emergence of ethnic wars in those hitherto (presumed) stable socialist nation-states.
Introduction: The Problem of State-Society Dysfunction
The ethnic resistance movements in Burma were previously perceived by most observers as insurgencies by disgruntled tribal isolates fighting against the modernizing and unifying state. Especially following the emergence of new nation-states in the 1950s, political scientists cheered for the new leaders of these countries and their attempts to ‘modernize’ their ‘backward’ societies. Resistance of societal segments, especially ethnic groups, to the state was frowned upon as obstructing the laudable nation and state-building efforts of the modern state and its leaders. The ethnic conflict problem was not seen as integral to the larger, more basic problem of disjunction. This was especially the case after 1962, between the military-monopolized state and the society at large. That there was dysfunction in state-society relations in Burma is now recognized, but the ethnic dimension of state-society dysfunction has never been fully appreciated. This insight is critical for those seeking to gain a clear understanding of Burma’s current crisis. The conflict in Burma is deep-rooted. Solutions can only be found if the real issues of conflict are examined, such as territory, resources and nationality, rather than the previously accepted but superficial explanations.
When resistance of societal segments is considered obstructive, especially when these segments are ethnic-based, it constitutes an important dimension of state-society dysfunction. The need for national integration in Burma is inarguable. The problem is how it is to be defined and achieved. Integration has both vertical and horizontal dimensions, i.e. between state and society, and between the different elements of a society. Attempts at national integration ignoring these dimensions are likely to divide rather than unite. Ethnic resistance was condemned by leaders and governments of post-colonial states, and likewise by their respective former foreign patrons, as reactionary tribal holdouts. Often, ethnic resistance was portrayed by ruling regimes as instruments of external, ‘imperialist’ powers or agents. Contributing to the confusion was a situation where cold-war protagonists were encouraging ethnic discontent and rebellion in order to destabilize the state of the rival power.
Ethnic Conflict in Burma: Some Basic Definitions
Even today, when it is recognized that the various ‘ethnic rebellions’ form a part of Burma’s state-society dysfunction, there remains some confusion regarding the nature of ethnic conflict. One current perspective sees the ethnic conflict in Burma in terms of ethnic minorities fighting for democratic rights or cultural-identity rights, or equal opportunity, like the African-American and other minorities in the United States. Even Burma’s ethnic non-Burman1 groups and leaders, at least some of them, have been drawn into the “minority rights, equal opportunity” paradigm. Some ethnic leaders and activists have even defined themselves as ‘indigenous people’, although this term refers to native people or aboriginals marginalized and displaced by white settlers. The use of the term ‘indigenous people’ in the Burma context is odd because all ethnic segments, including the Burmans or ethnic Burmese, are indigenous in the sense that they are all native to Burma. The ethnic non-Burman segments of Burma, especially the Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Chin, and Rakhine, are neither ethnic minorities nor indigenous peoples. As will be clarified below, they (like the Burmans) are peoples or nations. They moreover have had the experience of administering themselves, albeit under British supervision, for about five decades.2 They also have, like the Burmans, their own history, or rather, a sense of history. In their own states or home territories the ethnic non-Burmans, in fact, comprise collectively the majority, and the Burmans the minority. Because of their role as cofounders of the Union of Burma, by virtue of the 1947 Panglong Accord, the ethnic non-Burman nationalities consider themselves the founding nations of the country. They have used the term ‘ethnic nationalities’ rather than ‘ethnic minorities’ to refer to themselves collectively.
Burma’s ‘ethnic conflict’ is not per se ethnic but political, in a very fundamental way. The conflict is political because it is both about ethnic identity and rights, about democracy and equal opportunity, and about building nation and state. It involves political fundamentals as to how a nation is to be built, defined or identified, by whom, and in what direction. It has much to do with problems arising from the application of nation-building formulae by the state or by a set of power-holders.
With regard to nation-building in independent Burma, it is important to recognize that the first foundation stones were laid in 1947 when the Panglong Accord was signed in the Shan State. This politically defining document was signed between U Aung San, the Shan Sawbwa princes and representatives of the Shan, Kachin, and Chin peoples. The Panglong Conference reached unanimous agreement that the political freedom of all peoples there represented would be hastened by immediate cooperation with the interim government. It was further agreed at Panglong that cooperation should be implemented by the governor’s appointment of an additional councilor, to be nominated by the newly formed supreme council of United Hill Peoples. The councilor would assume executive responsibility for the Frontier Areas. Other agreements at Panglong provided for the enjoyment of democratic rights by all citizens, for continued interim financial aid by the center to the Frontier Areas, for local autonomy, and for immediate consultations looking toward the demarcation of a Kachin State.3 The Panglong Accord defined the political and geographical boundaries of present-day Burma: its peoples would join together in an alliance to obtain independence from Britain and to establish a union of equal and self-determining states—the Union of Burma or Pyidaungzu. The Burmese word Pyidaungzu means a union of nation-states, implying a federation of states. Federalism is embedded in the Burmese term for the post-1948 Union of Burma. Since Panglong was a historically defining moment and the genesis of present-day Burma, the Pang-long Accord and its underlying spirit are politically hegemonic. Even the successive ruling generals (who have done much violence to the ideals of Panglong) have to pay lipservice to the Panglong Spirit, to the notion of equality between what they call ‘national races’.4
British Colonial Rule and the Making of Burma
Like all nation-states that emerged after the withdrawal of colonial powers, such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, Burma is basically the child of the colonial order. The colonial powers re-arranged the territories that came into their hands and made them into ‘modern’ entities that later became post-colonial nation-states. Prior to the advent of colonial powers, Burma in its present form did not exist. There were what modern historians describe as Burmese (or Burman) kingdoms that existed side by side with the Mon, Shan, Rakhine, Manipuri, Thai, Lao, and Khmer kingdoms, and which were often in conflict with each other. Wars, both intra-kingdom dynastic fighting and inter-kingdom conflicts, were endemic. The kingdoms were however neither solely territorial nor based on ethnic sentiments or solidarity. That is, they were not national kingdoms but dynastic or personal systems of power and domination.
In the final British annexation of Burma in 1885,5 the Burmese king and court had hardly any control over the areas north of the capital city of Mandalay. Moreover, an alliance of Shan princes, called the Limbin Confederacy, was poised to march on to the capital to overthrow King Thibaw (whose mother was Shan, the Hsipaw Princess). The Shan princes wanted to install their candidate, the Limbin Prince, on the throne. There was at that time no Burmese kingdom to speak of. A year after the fall of Mandalay, the British met with the Shan princes at Mong Yai and negotiated the inclusion of their princedoms in British India as protectorates under the Viceroy. The British then proceeded to reorganize the areas beyond India (‘farther India’ or ‘British Indochina’) that had come under their control. By the 1930s, British Burma was separated from India and organized into two distinct parts, namely Ministerial Burma (the homeland of the majority ethnic Burmese) and the Frontier Areas. The latter included the present-day Shan, Kachin, and Chin States, and parts of the current Karen and Arakan/Rakhine State. The present Karenni State was treated more or less as a protectorate, and the Wa area was classified as un-administered territory.
Under the British, there was still no Burma in its current form. It has been held by a number of Burman nationalists that the British deliberately divided Burma in accordance with their ‘divide-and-rule’ policy. What can be said about the divide-and-rule thesis, however, is that it assumes that the population of Burma was homogenous or had already been unified as a nation in the current sense of the word. In this context the term ‘divide-and-rule’ is untenable and fails to take account of practices that were common to all colonial powers. Rather than being moved by the ‘divide-and-rule’ imperative, which anti-colonial nationalists often attribute to colonial powers, the widely practiced system of direct and indirect rule was based on administrative convenience, informed by the economic-commercial viability of the real estate in question. That is to say, areas that were accessible from the sea, fertile, productive, and where an infrastructure could be built at low cost, were usually placed under direct rule, whereas the hinterland with hardly any infrastructure, controlled by traditional rulers, was loosely supervised by colonial officers. In Burma, the Irrawaddy basin constituting the Burman homeland, i.e. Burma Proper, was ruled directly and thus became developed and reached some degree of modernization. The Frontier Areas were left to their own respective rulers and became less developed. British Burma was, like French Indochina, a mix of expedient bureaucratic-administrative arrangements, and it was this patchwork of differently administered and differently developed territories that would form the Union of Burma after the Panglong Accord.
Nation-Building Formulas and the Rise of the Military
Three major schools of thought can be distinguished with regard to Burma’s post-independence (mainly Burman) leaders on nation-building. One school of thought, associated with U Aung San, the architect of independence, held that Burma was to be a union of States based on equality of all national groups. The principles of ‘unity in diversity’ and self-determination, implying the widest of autonomy for the States, would underpin the Union. This was the vision that led to the signing of the Panglong Accord in 1947, a year before independence.
The second school of thought was adopted by the post-Aung San AFPFL6 leaders. This vision was embodied structurally in the 1947 Union Constitution. It provided for a unitary form of state, decentralized to some degree but not federal. This formula gained ascendancy and was in force for almost twelve years, from 1948 to 1962, but was certainly not in keeping with the Panglong Spirit or with the vision of U Aung San. Nevertheless, it worked after a fashion but Burma’s ethnic nationalities seethed with discontent and civil war raged. The relationship between the members was asymmetrical: there was the Mother country (Pyi-Ma, the Burma State) and around it revolved a set of subordinate constituent states. The relation of, say, the Shan State to the Burma State was similar to that between Scotland and England. In concept it can be said that there were seven Scotlands in Burma, all revolving around Rangoon.
The third school of thought was fascistic and narrowly ethno-nationalistic. It held that the Burmans had built an empire through defeating and conquering the lesser ‘races’ such as the Mon, Rakhine, Shan, and Karen. In this formula, Burma had been unified by ‘Burman conquest’ since the 11th century, by great kings such as Anawratha, Bayinnaung, Alaungpaya and Bodawpaya. According to this nationhood vision, the British had forcibly dismembered this unified kingdom and through their divide-and-rule policy further alienated the hitherto unified ‘races’ of Burma from each other. From this perspective, held by the military and successive ruling generals, nationhood and nation-building would be no problem: all national ‘races’ would be kept together by a strong state, and nationhood or unity would be achieved by obliterating all differences through forced assimilation or ‘Burmanization’. The military looked forward to everyone becoming Burmans as in the good old days. From this point of view, cultural and ethnic diversity was deemed to be undesirable and dangerous because diversity was divisive. It was therefore imperative that the solidarity of the Union had to be maintained and safeguarded by the armed forces, otherwise the country would fall apart or become a chaotic arena of warring ‘races’ as in Bosnia.7
Although the Shan, Kachin, and other ethnic nationalities’ leaders found the 1947 Constitution unsatisfactory, they went along with it until the coup in 1962, because they had been assured that it could be amended at any time in the future. Also, the fact that independent Burma immediately became a battleground between the AFPFL government and its erstwhile allies (the Red and White Flag communists, the People’s Volunteers Organization, Burman army mutineers, and later, Karen army mutineers and Pa-O rebels in the Shan State) gave the non-Burman leaders very little option but to stand with the AFPFL, or rather behind U Nu. The alternative was revolution and communist victory.
In many ways, the armed struggle led by the communists and their allies strengthened ties between the leaders of the ethnic nationalities and the AFPFL. However, at the same time, the insurgents (Burman communists, and the Karen with their ethnic allies among the Pa-O and Mon) bolstered the importance of the military to the extent that during the 1950s it had become very powerful and gained much autonomy. The incursions of U.S.-backed Chinese nationalist Kuomintang irregulars in the eastern Shan State further reinforced the power and autonomy of the military. In fighting the insurgents and the Kuomintang, the military also took on administrative functions in areas where martial law was imposed. Moreover, the 1957 split in the ruling AFPFL party into two camps and many sub-factions again strengthened the position and autonomy of the military. The split created a power vacuum at the very top, and it was only a matter of time before the military ventured onto the political stage, which it did in 1958. The then Prime Minister, U Nu, was requested by Brigadiers Aung Gyi and Tin Pe to hand over power to the army, albeit temporarily, so that the political confusion stemming from the AFPFL split could be sorted out. U Nu agreed and, with the sanction of parliament, the military ruled as a caretaker government for two years. In 1960, as promised, the military held an election which U Nu won overwhelmingly on an anti-military platform. In addition, U Nu promised to make Buddhism the official state religion. In 1962, however, the military marched back to power, and has been ruling Burma ever since.
Nation-Building by Ne Win and the Military
The military’s nation-building formula dovetailed nicely with its top-down idea of state-society relations, still with a command-and-control orientation. The military’s fascistic view of nationhood and tight control may be owing to Japanese influence, since the army was trained by the Japanese during the Second World War. Under General Ne Win’s rule, from 1962 to 1988, the fascistic, chauvinistic vision of nationhood became entrenched within the military. As a result of the outbreak of insurgencies at the onset of independence, the military was at once brought to the forefront as the defender of the new (AFPFL) state. That role garnered substantial power for the army, because the AFPFL leaders were not only the military’s political masters but also dependent on the army to fend off dangers—particularly dangers caused by the communists. The eventual effect was that the military became a power unto itself.
The military took on the task of nation-building according to its notion of nationhood. This formula has not only been destructive but also a failure in terms of creating a viable multi-ethnic nation-state. It can be said that what was of utmost concern to the military (as self-acclaimed ‘nation-builders’) was Chapter 10 of the 1947 Constitution, which granted the Shan State the option of secession after 10 years of union. The military, however, set out to preempt the Shan from exercising that option, whether or not they actually planned to do so. The military intimidated the population by sowing terror, and it fomented opposition in the Shan State towards the Sawbwa princes, whom the military accused of hatching plots to dismember the Union.
Everywhere the military went in the Shan State, they unleashed on the population their brutal power with apparent immunity. It was only after the 1988 people’s uprising that atrocities in the non-Burman areas came to light. Previously, because Cold War strategies had dwarfed all other issues, and because the ethnic non-Burmese resistance was regarded as tribal rebellion, stories of widespread atrocities perpetrated by the military were dismissed as rebel propaganda. As 1958 drew nearer, the military resorted to beating and torturing village headmen, accusing them of hiding arms in preparation for an armed uprising. The military also set out to terrorize the local populace in other non-Burman areas as a display of power. Thus, the military’s nationbuilding efforts created a situation where the non-Burman segments of the population were alienated by military actions carried out by and for the state. The state came to be perceived by the ethnic non-Burmans as alien to society and harmful to their welfare. The situation of ‘lack of fit’ between the state and the ethnic non-Burman segments, and the policy of terror by systematic atrocities, naturally provided ethno-nationalist resistance in the non-Burman States.
The military’s nation-building formula, and their brutal methods, did not promote any sense of nationhood among the ethnic groups but instead created a situation of vertical dysfunction between the state and the significant non-Burman segment of the broader society. When the military seized power in 1962, they hoped to win the support of the Burman populace. The generals claimed that drastic action was necessary because the Union was threatened by the ‘secessionist plots’ of Shan princes. However, the cruel massacre of university students in Rangoon on 7 July 1962, four months after the coup, alienated the Burman population from the new military regime. Moreover, further imposition of repressive control in all spheres of society turned the Burman populace against the military and against the ‘socialist state’ which it monopolized.
The problem of state-society dysfunction was further exacerbated in 1988 when the military staged a bloody comeback following the collapse of Ne Win’s military dictatorship, the military-socialist BSPP (Burmese Socialist Program Party) regime.
The Politics of National Reconciliation
Especially since 1962, state-society relations in Burma have become increasingly dysfunctional. The state generally remains unresponsive to the needs and problems of Burmese society. However, it is quick to respond to the priorities of the armed, uniformed elements within the state. A situation has developed in which the state is separated, politically insulated and isolated from its citizens.
The consequence of state-society dysfunction is, as the past decades have shown, economic decay, atrophy of political institutions, corruption of the military, paralysis of the state and its problem-solving capacity, breakdown of infrastructure, and greater impoverishment of the people. The military’s resistance to societal demands for political participation has resulted in political deadlock. The pressing need in Burma today is to resolve this problem of state-society dysfunction.
The ethnic dimension of state-society dysfunction in Burma has two interrelated facets. One is political, and the other has to do with the restoration of ethnic harmony. The political facet concerns the constitutional problem of how the relationship between the ethnic and territorial constituent components of the Union is to be arranged. Or, in other words, whether Burma should be a unitary or federal state. Ethnic hatred such as in former Yugoslavia, that makes it difficult to achieve national reconciliation after years of brutal military rule and widespread atrocities, does not exist in Burma. There is still an understanding among political leaders that the problem of ‘ethnic conflict’ is political and constitutional rather than ethnic. The leaders of the various ethnic nationalities in Burma have participated in the struggle for democracy together with ethnic Burmese on the basis of the principle of equality, national self-determination, and the shared goals of democracy and federalism.
The years of shared struggle for democracy, especially after 1988, have induced closer interaction between the ethnic Burmese and the other ethnic nationalities. As a result, a number of building blocks and even consensus have been put into place for building a peaceful, democratic, federal Burma, and for the resolution of the country’s multi-faceted problems through a dialogue process. The unity achieved among the opposition may be owed to a great extent to the emergence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on to the political stage in 1988. She has over time projected an image of a leader who is staunchly democratic, intelligent, humane and fair-minded, and who empathizes with the plight of the ethnic nationalities and their aspiration for equality, selfdetermination, human dignity and human rights.
However, other things are seldom equal. Intervening variables over which political actors in Burma have no control,8 always have the potential to put an end to any sort of dialogue in Burma, thus putting any national reconciliation efforts or hopes on the shelf for an indefinite time.9 Even if dialogue continues, the military’s opposition to federalism (notwithstanding the generals’ lipservice to the Panglong Spirit, equality, and brotherhood) remains a big hurdle.
The main reason for the military’s objection to federalism may be that federalism would bring decentralization of both power and power structures. In a federal union, power would no longer be concentrated in the centre, nor can it be monopolized by one element of the state. Power would rest in different levels of government and be made accessible to democratically empowered local communities. Thus, in a democratic federation, the state (or rather, governments at both federal, state, and local level) would necessarily have to be responsive to the priorities, needs, and problems of citizens within the broader society, and most importantly, be committed to the Rule of Law. In this way, the problem of state-society dysfunction in Burma, the main root of the country’s problems, will be solved and national reconciliation achieved.
Nevertheless, given the military regime’s staunch opposition to democratic federalism, there may have to be a paradigm shift in looking at how the military can be persuaded to give up its monopolistic grip on the state in Burma and its (failed) fascistic nation-building vision. The politics of transition and national reconciliation are complex and require an equal measure of firmness and flexibility.
* Professor Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe from Vancouver, Canada, is a participant in the struggle for a federal and democratic Burma. His father, Soo Thanke, was Burma’s first independent President.
1. The term ‘ethnic non-Burman’ is here used to denote the Mon, Kachin, Rakhine, Shan, etc. segments of the population in Burma, and to differentiate them from the Burmans (i.e. the speakers of Burmese) or ethnic Burmese. This practice is however not in common usage because many scholars use the term ‘Burmese’ to denote all citizens of Burma, and ‘Burman’ to refer to the Burmese-speaking ethnic segment—like ‘British’ and ‘English’. This is however problematic because the term ‘Burmese’ refers to the language of the Burman and denote things Burman, such as Burmese food, Burmese dress, and so on. The term ‘Burmese’ does not come anywhere near the term ‘British’.
2. Regarding self-administration, the pre-colonial period is problematic. The people as a collectivity had no say however (and whatsoever) in the management of affairs that affected their lives. At least under colonial rule, the administrators were held accountable for their actions.
3. “Report of the Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry, 1947”. Rangoon, 1947. Part I, pp. 16-18.
4. Curiously, the term ‘race’ is commonly used in Burma when speaking of ethnic or national groups. There is no specific Burmese word for race, nation, or ethnic group. All are Lu Myo or humankind. In Burmese, Tarok Lu Myo means Chinese, or ethnic Chinese. Why Lu Myo has been translated as ‘race’ is something that needs looking into. It is probably the result of the wide use of the term ‘race’ by the British in colonial times, when scholarship on ethnicity and race was not yet developed. In those days, even up to the early 20th century, no distinction was yet made between races, ethnic groups, tribes, etc.
5. The British annexation of Burma was undertaken in three stages. During the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826, the British annexed Arakan and lower Tenasserim. Lower Burma was annexed during the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-1853). In the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-1886), the capital city of Mandalay was captured and King Thibaw sent into exile in India.
6. AFPFL stands for Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, the vanguard of the Burmese nationalist movement, formed during the Second World War by U Aung San and U Than Tun.
7. This is the ‘national unity’ mantra of the military in Burma, employed to justify military dictatorship, military monopoly on power, as well as military terror tactics in the non-Burman ethnic areas: arbitrary killing, rape, forcible relocation of villages, pillage, plunder, extortion, and so on.
8. Such as, for example, the current increased Thai concern with the Wa and their methamphetamine production on the Thai-Shan State border, combined with renewed interest at least of the U.S. military in the Thai war on drugs. The renewed fighting on the border between the Shan army and the Burmese junta’s troops has the potential of escalating into a larger Thai-Burmese border war.
9. The border dispute with Thailand has probably strengthened the hands of the junta’s Secretary No. 1, General Khin Nyunt, vis-à-vis other military factions and his rivals, such as General Maung Aye and his followers. There is no external enemy, either real, imagined, or manufactured, to rally the troops. Having firmed up his position within the military, the possibility that Khin Nyunt might terminate the talks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be ruled out.