Burma on the Edge

It is not for nothing that Burma has long been the center of international attention and concern in the Asian Pacific region. Its transition from a growing democracy to a military state, and from being the rice bowl of Asia to its now present position of poverty and extreme shortages of rice does puts into historical perspective the political conditions that have caused the present crisis in Burma. Since the take over by the military junta in 1962 and the continued repression that led to the non-violent 88 pro-democracy uprising and the subsequent military crack down, Burma has been on the edge. The recent protest precipitated by the increase in gas prices is an indication of how pro-democracy groups are constantly seeking every opportunity to protest the legitimacy of the junta. These political acts of defiance are demanding a new political reality.

The struggle for democracy in Burma is however just the tip of the iceberg. There are greater fundamental issues of freedom challenging the people of Burma. These issues go back into history and like most colonies, the demand for self-determination by indigenous nations continue to pose a serious political dilemma. While it is the Burmans that have wrested political power and military control over Burma since its inception as a state, it is the struggles of the various political communities such as the Kachin, Shan, Chin, Mon, Karen, Karenni, Arakan and the Nagas that have continuously questioned the legality and legitimacy of Burma as a state. Most of these groups are fighting either for autonomy or complete independence from Burma. 

To an extent the political aspirations of different nationalities in Burma has been constructed as a conflict of interest with the Burmans, whose ultimate desire is to uphold the territorial integrity of Burma. And while the pro-democracy movement headed by National League for Democracy Party has some participation from the different political nationalities, it is for most part a Burman political party. Aung San Suu Syi, the leader of the party herself is a Burman, and there have been concerns around whether the negotiating process with the junta would fully reflect and represent the political aspirations of all the nationalities of Burma. There is skepticism. And considering the painful and divided history in which the Burman worldview violently suppressed all other worldviews in Burma, there are doubts whether NLDP can embody the political aspirations of the different nationality groups.

However for now, the politics of pragmatism prevails. Considering that the world opinion and solidarity for Burma has been shaped in the form of Aung San Suu Syi, due to her dedicated leadership and profound commitment to non-violence, leaders of the different resistance movements in Burma will have to unite together and evolve some basic point of consensus with the Burman leadership. This consensus can be found in their mutual acrimony with the junta. While it is self evident that Aung San Suu Syi is surrounded by the old school of advisors, it remains to be seen, whether the new generation of Burman activist will take this opportunity to reach out to the different nationalities and dialogue with them in creatively finding news ways to build a new Burma, in which the rights of all nationalities – not just Burmans – will be recognized and respected.

Burma is sitting on the edge. And apparently it is not just because of democracy, it is also because Burma is denying the different nationalities the right to decide their own political destiny.