Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 8 (Spring 1997): Transitional Justice in East Asia and its Impact on Human Rights: Articles: Ethnic Reconciliation and Political Reform Before Justice in Burma

Mar 5, 1997

Reconciliation and establishment of a just, multiethnic democratic society in Burma rests on finding an appropriate model for implementing democracy and a means of coping with the legacies of the past, particularly deeply embedded political divisions. The key question, should the authoritarian State Law and Order Restor-ation Council (SLORC) release its stronghold on the country, is: Will the original cofounders of the Union of Burma—once free and equal nation-states of historically and geographically distinct peoples, such as the Burman, Shan, Chin, Karenni, Kachin—be willing and able to rebuild the Union? Can a mutually acceptable constitu-tion, one that addresses the rights concerns of non-Burmans within a democratic system, be formulated by all the parties concerned? The answers depend on whether the governmental framework proposed by the future transitional government is capable of resolving the ethnic and political problems that have bred division to date.

To outsiders, conflicts between the Burman majority and some twenty-one non-Burman ethnic nationalities stem from differences over how to achieve national unity and a sense of common purpose. What many outsiders do not understand is that these conflicts are not inevitable, but are perpetrated by the regime to obstruct political reform. The state maintains a policy of subjecting non-Burmans to cultural oppression and ethnic discrimination, not to mention the political persecution suffered by non-Burman and Burman dissidents alike. The detrimental effects of these "divide and rule" state tactics are clear: Over the course of the civil war, especially after General Ne Win s 1962 coup, the political demands of Burmans and non-Burmans pushing for reforms have diverged significantly.

The singling out of non-Burman nationals by the state raises larger moral questions as to whether the state-led persecution constitutes a policy of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic groups within Burma have not brandished this term in fear of SLORC reprisals, which could threaten the survival of ethnic nationalities who do not have cease-fires with the government in place. However, unless the Burmese government agrees to uphold the 1947 Panglong Agreement, allowing for substantial autonomy in the Frontier Areas, which are home to most non-Burman groups, and to reform and reinstate the 1948 constitution, these crimes of ethnic suppression will not be forgiven and a stable future is unlikely.

Political division began in Burma a decade after the democratic system was founded in 1948. It started with a debate over the state s ability to safeguard equality for all citizens. One side led by Burmans argued for reform of the existing single-state structure. The other side, which included non-Burman nationals, called for the creation of a federation of states. With their disparate back-grounds, the minority groups did not have the intention of forming a single, unified state when they joined in founding Burma—at least not in the short run. They certainly did not give prior consent to the rapid reduction of their own peoples political rights and status that followed the formation of the Union.

To maintain its dominant position, a faction of the Burman political party exploited the nationalistic senti-ments of the majority Burman population to silence any further suggestion of a federation. In this way, Burman hegemony over the ethnic minority groups of the country began, only to be quickly supplanted by a military dictatorship that accelerated sppression of non-Burman nationalities.

General Ne Win s 1962 coup d état began the second chapter in the history of political division. Debate over political reforms had been ongoing in parliamentary sessions, but with the coup and subsequent dismissal of the parliament, there was no longer any forum for debate. Under Ne Win, Burman hegemony was solidified, governmental reform became his exclusive domain, and those who had pushed for reforms were now seen as rebellious elements to be suppressed. Suddenly, non-Burman reform proponents were persecuted as not only political dissidents, but as enemies of the state. Political divisions solidified in 1988 when the SLORC declared martial law and turned its gargantuan military machine on citizens seeking reform. The pathologic extremes to which the policy of division has been pursued has effectively removed non-Burman struggles from the immediate concerns of political reform. This is dangerous as there can be little chance of peace and reconciliation in Burma unless the 1947 Panglong Agreement is observed and non-Burmans are brought back into the political discourse.

What began as a debate for government reform among Burman and non-Burman nationalities has become an all out struggle for survival and the preservation of age-old non-Burman traditions, languages, and social systems. Three decades of civil war fought for reform have left the ethnic groups fighting to save their culture and social organization from extinction. If there is a way out of this predicament, it would have to ensure first that these people and their cultures survive. The question is no longer just one of political reform, but cultural survival. This is the legacy of the past.

Opposing the SLORC and calling for a transition to democracy is the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It is important to remember that the leaders of the NLD are predominantly ethnic Burmans and the survival of their culture has not been similarly put at stake; thus, their struggle today is about reform only, not survival. The NLD has not clearly acknowledged or denounced the policy of minority persecution. Instead, it refers to ethnic movements as rebellions rather than struggles for reform, and speaks of minority nationalities not as equals, but as groups in need of "special" provisions.

General Zau Mai, the chairman of the Central Committee of Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), has repeatedly said that the Kachin struggle is one for political reform; armed rebellion was made necessary only because of the attitudes of the SLORC. Three years ago the SLORC finally agreed to seek political compromise with the Kachin people and a cease-fire is in place today. And yet the SLORC sees the Kachin struggle for reform as nothing but a secessionist "rebellion" to be put down. They take pride in declaring that the Kachin, for example, "have come back into the fold," when in fact we have not stopped our push for reform. Therefore "cease-fires" appear to be a euphemism for handcuffing or straight jacketing minority groups. Worse still, the SLORC is trying to frame its own constitution that would formally place the army at the center of power, as in Indonesia. Thus while it is signing cease-fires, the SLORC is also seeking to strengthen the power of the military.

The challenge facing SLORC is that of accepting "rebellious" groups, like the Kachin, as codevelopers of political solutions to the conflict in Burma. All minority parties are open to three-way negotiations among themselves, the NLD, and the SLORC. But can groups like the Kachin really negotiate for improved political status with the group that stripped it away? Restoring full political rights to the Kachin is something the SLORC cannot do without reforming the entire political system and revisiting the framework of the Burmese consti-tution. Will the SLORC ever submit to this? Or, has the SLORC simply negotiated a temporary standstill with the Kachins and others?

If negotiations for political reform do proceed, the matter of transitional justice will have to be addressed. Who, if anyone, will be made accountable for dividing the nation and assemblies?

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