Progressive Voice Myanmar: Newly elected NLD-Led government must work to end Burmanization

“Building Myanmar in the image of the Buddhist, Bamar, no matter what level of violence is needed, has been the modus operandi of the military rulers, and indeed civilian rulers before and after the decades of military junta rule.”

With the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a clear mandate from the voters, the next five years is an opportunity to alter its current Burmanizing trajectory and work towards genuine national reconciliation, said civil society organisation Progressive Voice in a statement on Thursday (26 Nov).

This can be achieved by overturning the structural and institutional policies and laws that work in favour of the majority Bamar ethnic group over minorities, and laying the foundations for a shift in attitude regarding ethnicity, identity, and nation.

“Since Myanmar’s independence, the idea of a Burma – or Myanmar nation – has been a contested, bitterly fought over, uneven and exclusionary notion. Ethnic identity and strict classifications of a race – a legacy of the British – have been at the forefront of these discourses,” said the organisation.

It continued, “Dominated by the Bamar – or Burman – majority military, the modern history of Myanmar has been one of violent state-building, forced assimilation of ethnic minorities, and the systematic suppression, marginalization, and exclusion of ethnic minority culture, expression, religion, and language.

“Building Myanmar in the image of the Buddhist, Bamar, no matter what level of violence is needed, has been the modus operandi of the military rulers, and indeed civilian rulers before and after the decades of military junta rule.”

Yet the ethnic-based exclusions and marginalizations are not only a feature of military rule. According to Progressive Voice, the liberal democracy-lite NLD-government of 2015-2020 – despite its limitations in exercising its power due to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution – has continued to embody the Burmanization agenda.

“Building statues of Bamar heroes in ethnic minority towns and cities at the expense of local figures and martyrs, or naming a major new bridge in Mon State after Burman independence hero, General Aung San rather than a local ethnic Mon figure, as would have been more appropriate and in the spirit of building a federal democratic union.

“These are just two high profile manifestations of wilful ignorance and disrespect to ethnic people. In fact, the lionization of General Aung San as a hero of the Myanmar nation is a telling example and has parallels with how Britain cannot come to terms with the contradictions and legacy of colonial violence of its own war hero, Winston Churchill,” it elaborated.

The civil society organisation went on to say that the violence and massacres inflicted on ethnic Karen villagers by the General Aung San-led Burma Independence Army during World War II as it advanced on Rangoon have not been reconciled in the dominant narrative of hero worship.

In its statement, it cited a new report published by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) on 18 November 2020, which detailed the impacts on peoples’ everyday lives that Burmanization policies have and the challenges faced in terms of ethnic identity.

For example, the process to gain an ID card, which is linked to proving one’s ethnic identity, is a discriminatory and complicated, difficult process for ethnic minorities, which involves collating a series of documents to prove one is ‘indigenous’ to Myanmar.

Progressive Voice asserted that such documents, especially in rural areas where the issuance of birth certificates has historically not been systematised, or in conflict-affected areas, where documents are often lost, can be almost impossible.

“Moreover, there are populations of ethnic people who live in areas governed and administered by ethnic armed organisations, and as such Myanmar State issued documents are irrelevant.

“Furthermore, dealing with Myanmar state authorities, who are primarily ethnic Bamar, are often discriminatory towards non-Bamar people can be a degrading experience. Thus, KHRG has documented how many rural, Karen villagers simply do not have this ID and therefore cannot prove their citizenship in the eyes of the Myanmar State,” it added.

The organisation argued that this will impact their ability to register land, to vote, to move freely, and attaining education beyond primary level. Additionally, if all the relevant paperwork and bureaucratic processes are followed, which is far from straightforward, the names of ethnic minorities are Burmanized.

Case in point, the honorific for a Karen male in S’gaw Karen language is ‘Saw,’ but is changed to the Burman ‘U’ in legal documentation, which is the honorific for the ethnic Bamar.

“This is just one tiny example of Burmanization that continues today, and there are many other instances of day-to-day experience that serve to deny an expression of Karen, Shan, Mon, Kachin, or any other ethnic identity, such as the name of your place, the language you are taught in school, the celebration of ethnic-national days or the flag that represents your ethnic group.

“It is, of course, worse for the Rohingya, as they are even further excluded through even more punishing laws that regulate marriages, births, movement and as well as the genocidal violence that caused most to flee to Bangladesh,” it explained.

Progressive Voice went on to say that the issues around ethnic identity and Burmanization are deeply rooted in terms of policy, laws, maps, institutions, discriminatory attitudes, and behaviours at all levels of Myanmar society.

It claimed that the NLD government will not be able to solve these challenges in just five years. However, with the overwhelming majority and the unwavering support it has from the electorate, it has the ability to lead in an overhaul of the various institutionalised structures, policies, and laws of political and social life that marginalise the identity of ethnic minorities.

Reaching out to ethnic political parties and EAOs as well as ethnic civil society and community-based organisations with respect and recognition of their equal belonging in this Union is a symbolic first step.

“Legal amendments, policy changes, and a genuine will to work together as equals – not junior partners – with ethnic political and community leaders, would build a base, or foundation, to overturn decades of Burman dominated rule – the root causes of the 70-years long civil war,” the organisation elaborated.

While it may not have the control of the military, the NLD-led government does have the mandate from the people, and it has control over tools such as the legislature, and ministerial positions to begin a process of true national reconciliation. Progressive Voice asserted that all NLD needs is the “political will”.

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