It was at Panglong in 1947, that hill tribe ethnic groups pledged their troth with lowland Bamars to form a union in order to gain independence from British colonial rule. However, finding themselves short-changed on guaranteed rights, they decided to take up arms, the consequence of which has been that ethnic borderlands have been engulfed in civil war ever since.
The ceasefire of 1994 provided a 17-year respite from war in the Kachin area, but come June 2011, war broke out again when the promised political dialogue failed to materialize and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and other armed ethnic groups were instead pressured to transform themselves into border guard forces under the control of the Burma Army.
Successive Bamar-dominated central governments, both civilian and military, have subjected ethnic minority peoples to a “tyranny of the majority”. Through legislative powers and military might, they have trampled on ethnic rights, with a blatant disregard of the rich diversity in ethnicity, language and belief systems that is Burma’s.
In 1961, Buddhism was declared state religion under the civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu. The government also made sure that no Christian was ever considered for the post of President, a ceremonial post rotated every 5 years among major ethnic groups, which include Christian majority Kachin and Chin. This discriminatory practice continues to this day. That ethnic state Chief Ministers all happen to be Buddhist under the current regime is no coincidence.
In pre-independence times ethnic peoples like the Karen, Kachin and Chin formed the backbone of Burma’s armed forces. However, the ethno-religious makeup of today’s Burma Army has changed drastically, thanks to the rigorous weeding out of non Bamar-Buddhists from its ranks. The same holds for high ranking government positions also.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that ethnic minorities see the atrocities committed against them, not as random acts of aggression, but as part of a systematic plan devised and directed from the Central to intimidate and destroy ethnic spirit and identity.
From the perspective of ethnic minorities, this view gains momentum when all the atrocities and exploitation they have been subjected to at the hands of the government and its armed forces – from the plunder and destruction of ethnic lands and resources, the brutal rape, torture and killing of ethnic civilians, to the senseless, wanton destruction of places of worship and appropriation of cultural sites and traditions – are taken into consideration.
Kachin hearts were broken and embittered when the Kachin Baptist Convention issued a statement in January 2013, that 66 churches, including designated heritage sites, had been destroyed in the renewed fighting. Their pain further intensified at seeing the crosses put up on hill tops and other prominent places in proclamation of their faith, destroyed or removed. Scenes like the one at Namsan Yang, of the small village church riddled with helicopter gunfire, shell casings still sticking out of its roof, make Kachins question the real motive behind such a ferocious destruction of a harmless place of worship.
Then there is the Army’s penchant for building pagodas in majority Christian ethnic areas. Coming from a group notorious for its non-compliance of Buddhist precepts, it can only be interpreted as a symbol of Bamar supremacy over helpless ethnic minorities rather than a pious act.
What transpired at the far northern Kachin town of Putao in 2014, is a classic example of this kind of heavy handed act. At a popular site known as the rock dragon, long regarded as sacred in the folklore of spirit-worshipping Kachins, the local army commander arbitrarily commissioned construction work to attach a painted dragon head to the long, narrow natural rock formation that looks like the serpentine body of a dragon. A pagoda was built at the hill top to make it look as if the dragon was paying homage. Another pagoda was also built on a nearby lake famous in Kachin lore as home of ancestral spirits.
Angry Kachins protested that the natural beauty and cultural value of the site have been destroyed, and petitioned for the rock dragon to be restored to its natural state. The tinkering with nature had also affected the local economy as the site is no longer a popular destination for Putao bound domestic and international tourists. Judging from past government response to ethnic complaints, the petition will no doubt be ignored.
The rising tide of ultra-nationalism among the Bamar population is another trend that does not auger well for the non-Bamar population, and for the country as a whole for that matter. In the wake of the Kokang conflict, a conflict of the army’s own making, Bamars are rallying to the side of the army which had skillfully stoked the fires of latent anti-Sino sentiments to make the collective memory of its suppressive ways fade into the background. Indeed there are some who wonder if it might not all be part of a political strategy in this election year.
It is time liberal minded Bamars question why it is that in all conflict areas – be it Karen, Shan or Kachin – the ethnic population invariably runs in the opposite direction of advancing government forces, as far away as they can from those supposed to be their protectors.
They should wake up to the fact that the Burma Army is courting disaster with its master-race policy in a multi-ethnic nation like Burma, whose very founding is based on the principle of equal rights for all ethnic groups. If allowed to continue with its attempts to squash ethnic aspirations through purely military means, it could lead to a wider outbreak of civil war, even the eventual disintegration of the country as a union.
Only genuine political dialogue leading to the establishment of a truly democratic federal union, where each state has the right to self determination, free from the dictates of a centralized Bamar-dominated government, will true reconciliation and nationwide peace and development be achieved.