Burma, despite its wealth of ethnic diversity, has largely neglected the issue of multiculturalism. Burmese may be the national language, but more than 10 million people (25%) within the country do not speak it. Burma, as most people know it today, is an artificial creation made by the British, who colonized territories (Burman-dominant Ministerial Burma and ethnic minority-dominant Frontier Areas) in modern Burma and tied them together during independence.
The Burmese government nominally embraces ethnic diversity. And for good reasons too. Ethnic minorities make up from a third to a half of Burma, according to Multiculturalism in Asia. The government has promoted Burma’s ethnic diversity for its tourism campaigns and even built the National Races Village, a sprawling human exhibit of Burma’s ethnic races in Thaketa, a poorer suburb of Rangoon. On the streets are billboards of a Padaung woman holding a can of coffee beans and on state television, there are karaoke music videos with women dressed in colorful ethnic costume extolling Burma’s ethnic harmony. But this is superficial.
There is mutual distrust between ethnic minorities and Burmans. Although not always the case, many from ethnic minorities, especially those in rural and border areas, have a sincere belief that Burmans are trying to dominate them, by all means possible, through cultural assimilation or through ethnic genocide, as in the case of the Karens. This excerpt of a documentary, by Front Films, shows an example of the alienation Karens feel. Genocide, mass murders of an entire ethnic group, in Burma is hard to define, partly because the military claims to be weeding out ethnic rebels by attacking their bases, which often are small villages where civilians live. A large portion of Burma’s armed forces is dedicated to eastern Burma, where many Karens live.
In contrast, many Burmans distrust ethnic minorities because of the prevailing belief that without military control or force, Burma, as everyone knows it, will be dissolved. They believe that ethnic minorities want to secede from the Union. The inner core of Burma is made up of 7 Burman-dominant divisions, which are surrounded by an outer core of 7 ethnic minority-dominant states. A sizable portion of Burma’s natural resources lie outside the divisions, including gems (Kachin and Shan States), natural gas (Arakan State) and oil (Arakan and Mon States).
It is unlikely that Burmese states would secede from the Union of Burma, but it remains one of the primary reasons the military government has used to stay in power. In effect, it is a scare tactic. Plastered on propaganda billboards of the country are the National Causes, one of which is ‘non-disintegration of the Union.’
The right for a state to secede has remained a sticking point for many ethnic groups. The 1947 constitution states this: “…every State shall have the right to secede from the Union in accordance with the conditions hereinafter prescribed.” I believe it is more symbolic, that being a part of Burma is voluntary and not forced. But since military rule began in 1962, that right has disappeared, fueling discontent.
Also, Burma’s form of government has never been a federation, where government powers are constitutionally divided between the provincial and national levels. The Kachin Independence Organization, which participated in the National Convention, made proposals to ensure the creation of a federation. According to Mizzima News, negotiations are underway in Naypyidaw. The main reason that many ethnic minorities want a federation is to ensure political sovereignty, such as the right to control local education (like teaching local languages) and to prevent the national government from overriding them.
And culturally speaking, Burmans have little in common with many ethnic groups, especially those that predominantly practice Christianity or Islam. In Burma, there are many cases of forced conversion and reports of Christian women forced to marry Buddhist soldiers and convert. Buddhism is favored, in the workplace and at school, which further alienates Christians, Muslims and animists, who are many times more likely to be from ethnic minorities. That is not to say intermixing does not exist; for centuries, Burmans have readily married Karens, Mons and Shans and many Burmans today are mixed. I wouldn’t be surprised if I am part Karen, since my maternal grandfather’s family comes from near Bassein (Pathein) and one of my great-aunts married a Karen man.
In popular culture, many actors and musicians are not in fact Burman. The Burmese have a cultural preference for light-skinned individuals and people from certain ethnic groups, like the Shan, tend to be lighter-skinned than the Burmans. This phenomenon is similar to that in Thailand, where many actors are light-skinned Eurasians or Thai-Chinese, who are disproportionately represented in that industry.
The military government has claimed that there have been much progress made in the living standards of ethnic minorities, that “Union of Myanmar [is] where all national races have been living together in peace and unity since yore.” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). I disagree with the former and the latter. A good place to start making amends is with the constitution, although it seems unlikely. Bangkok’s The Nation has a detailed article on the constitutional guidelines finished by the National Convention. It seems little has changed since I last wrote about how Burma’s government (I used documents from before 2007) will be under the new constitution.
Burma’s military has little understanding or consideration of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Its history shows that it is incapable of preventing discrimination, assault and coerced assimilation of fellow Burmese. To give it more power is ridiculous.
If Burma’s military truly wanted to keep the Union together, it would have learned to share power with its 50 million people. Since Burma became an independent nation in 1947, ethnic minorities, like Burmans, have had little to no political sway. It will take more than good governance for Burmans, Shans, Arakanese, Karens, Kachins, Chins and a myriad of other ethnic groups to walk together in true harmony, but giving the military lawful right to rule is certainly not the way to go.