Can Burma strike a deal to hold together its 135 ethnic minorities?

In the second of his series of reports, Peter Popham meets the son of the country’s first president who believes the government can achieve its aim of turning a ceasefire with would-be separatists into a binding peace agreement

Peter Popham
Tuesday 16 June 2015 08:05
President Thein Sein’s government is trying to get minority groups such as the Chin community, in Kan Pat Lat town, Chin state, to accept a ceasefire deal before the general election in November
President Thein Sein’s government is trying to get minority groups such as the Chin community, in Kan Pat Lat town, Chin state, to accept a ceasefire deal before the general election in November

Britain’s recent electoral upset was clearly audible 5,500 miles away in Rangoon. The nationalist tsunami in Scotland resonated loud and clear in a country whose remoter bits have been trying to break off ever since Burma gained independence from Britain nearly 70 years ago.

Less comprehensible for the Burmese were the shrugs, the quiet sighs and the sangfroid with which the Scottish urge for independence was greeted by the English. How, Burmese friends wondered, could the English be so relaxed about this mortal threat to their national integrity?

The perplexity was understandable. Burmese and Brits share more in common than the decades during which Burma was an unhappy appendix to the Indian Empire. In fact, looked at through half-closed eyes, our national situations can seem remarkably similar.

The long fight of the fringes against the heartland is common to both. But the struggles of Burma’s outriders to break free recall less the campaigning of the SNP than the bloody heroics of Braveheart.

President Thein Sein inspects troops during the 67th Myanmar Independence Day Grand Military Review parade in January. The country, formerly known as Burma, gained independence from Britain on January 4th, 1948

Both Britain and Burma are dominated by one ethnic group – the English, and the Bamar or Burmans – who bestride the heartland and whose military prowess, arrogance, sense of manifest destiny or weight of numbers, delete as appropriate, has for centuries ensured their crushing superiority over the rest.

The rest consist, for England, of the Celtic fringes, and the historic relationship of the Scots, Welsh and Irish with the English is lopsided in much the same way as its equivalent in Burma. Take the Chin, for example, formerly headhunters, now mostly Baptists, who live in the harsh and unproductive Burmese highlands bordering India. Their folk tales explain how this state of affairs came about.

“All mankind,” the Chin say, “is descended from a woman called Hlinyu, who laid 101 eggs, from the last of which sprang the Chins. Hlinyu loved the youngest best; but he had gone away, and before she found him again the whole world except bleak mountain ranges had been partitioned out among her other children.” Burma’s other fringe minorities have similar hard-done-by folk tales to account for their difficulties.

But while the English have only had four minority races to contend with, the Bamar have at least 135 – most with a well-founded antipathy to the ruling race, and a recent history of taking up arms to fight it. The proximity of this blood-soaked history helps explain why the first clause of Burma’s 2008 constitution is a blanket ban on secession. No referendums on independence here.

Instead, the present Burmese government is engaged in an ambitious attempt to make peace with all of them at once. On 31 March, 14 of the main ethnic minority races signed a draft ceasefire agreement. Now the government is racing against the clock to convert that into a binding agreement before the general election in November.

“It’s incredible what the government has done,” Han Naung Wai, an expatriate businessman from the Shan minority enthused to me. The main problem he foresees is that the timetable for achieving a lasting result is too tight – and any success could be swallowed up by the coming election. “I never thought I’d say this, given that he is an ex-general,” he went on, “but I think it would be good if President Thein Sein had a second term. It’s true that he’s not very strong compared to some of his colleagues, but he listens to lots of people.”

It was this willingness to listen that brought Han Naung Wai into the peace process, when the President sent his chief ceasefire negotiator, another ex-general called U Aung Min, to Bangkok in September 2011 to persuade the Shan aristocrat to get involved.

Han Naung Wai’s life story epitomises the fluctuating fortunes of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Acknowledged at independence as vital to the new nation’s success, they were trampled by General Ne Win after he seized power and tried to “Burmanise” the whole country.

Han Naung Wai’s father, the ruling Prince or “Saopha” of one of the larger Shan states, was Burma’s first president at independence in 1948. “For a long time,” he said in his first presidential address to the nation, “the principal races of Burma… have tended to look upon themselves as separate national units. Of late, a nobler vision, the vision of a Union of Burma, has moved our hearts, and we stand united today as one nation.”

But a vision was all it was – the country was immediately plunged into civil war. Fourteen years later, he and his family were chased from their beds by soldiers under the command of General Ne Win, as military rule was clamped on the country. Han Naung Wai’s younger brother was shot dead during the coup, the only casualty in the otherwise bloodless takeover. His father died in prison later that year. “From being one of Burma’s top families, now no one wanted to talk to us,” he said. The family fled into exile in Thailand.

The coup was Burma’s watershed. A campaign to shift from a unitary to a genuinely federal system was launched in 1960, and two years later U Nu, the prime minister, agreed to implement it – precipitating the coup: Ne Win, heavily influenced by Japanese Fascists under whom he had trained as a young man, wanted to crush ethnic resistance permanently. He succeeded only in provoking a violent and sustained reaction.

Han Naung Wai’s mother, who had been an exotic presence at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, re-branded herself as a warrior queen, uniting the Shan States’ northern and southern armies into a single force. Fighting with the Burmese army only ended with the signing of a ceasefire in 2011.

Han Naung Wai emigrated to Canada, working in financial services before returning to Thailand and receiving the summons to get involved in ceasefire talks. He has no doubt that the only viable future for the Shan and the other nationalities is in a single nation with the Burmans, and believes that Thein Sein’s leadership provides the best hope of making a peace that lasts.

Others, however, are deeply sceptical. Khun Htun Oo, a leading Shan politician who was sentenced to 93 years’ jail in 2005 for high treason and released in a mass pardon of political prisoners in January 2012, is one of them. Peace will not happen until the Burmans and the minorities reach a political settlement, he says. “Until we sit down at the table and talk, there is no way out. We’ve been telling [the government] that for more than 60 years now. The process will be slow. And the thing is there is no consensus.”

In his view, the main stumbling block is the 2008 constitution which gives the military control of four key ministries, including border affairs, and allows them to clamp army rule on the country again any time they want. And the constitution is the handiwork of the same President who has ignored calls to amend it, but who is trying to force the pace on the ceasefire.

“You can’t hurry much because the main purpose of holding arms and fighting is because of this constitution,” he says. “Before it was only three or four groups fighting; now there are nearly 20 groups. And all on account of the constitution.”

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