Slightly different version published in ABC The Drum 27 November 2013.
Aung San Suu Kyi will be in Sydney Australia today (27 November 2013) to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Technology, originally bestowed on her in 1996 and given to her late husband in 1997 in her absence (she was unwilling to leave Yangon). Daw Suu Kyi is widely expected and hoped to be the winner of the 2015 election in Myanmar, but her accession to the leadership, even if it occurs, leaves many problems yet to confront. Even the pathway over the next eighteen months remains treacherous.
Key issues Myanmar faces in the lead up to the 2015 election, a turning point that many commentators hope will produce a final transformation of the polity into one which is both politically democratic and economically egalitarian, can be traced back to its origin as as an “abandoned colony”. The Economist recently argued that of these ethnic conflicts were the main road-bloc to economic development and democratic stability.
Myanmar cannot escape its history as a former British colony as easily as changing government. In a statistical analysis of the impact of forms of colonialism on post-colonial violence, two Montreal sociologists Matthew Lange and Andrew Dawson have argued that ex-colonies formerly ruled by the UK have a shared profile of fractured social relations once the colonial power has left. The reason for this is the way in which the British typically organised their colonies, and as importantly, the way in which they departed. Ethnic violence or suppression are the most characteristic of the forms of conflict that emerge. Australia went that way (think Indigenous Australians and think White Australia), as did a myriad of other places, from Singapore to Zimbabwe. Myanmar continues today to deal with the fall-out from having been British Burma.
Lange and Dawson review 160 ex-colonies once ruled by a range of European metropolitan powers: where the British have been in charge, the picture seems to be:
- a diverse range of ethnic communities, some “imported” to fill key colonial tasks, with embedded and conflicting identities
- a political economy where the division of labour is “communalised”
- a stratification system in which the distinctions within the hierarchy are ethnic in form
- animosity between indigenous and non-indigenous populations
- the imposition of arbitrary political borders that suit the ruling power
- despotic forms of rule
- ineffective states
- a power vacuum at independence.
When the post-war British Labour government said to the Burmese independence leaders that they were “out of here” in 1946, they set in train a tragic sequence of events. These are acutely poignant for Aung San Suu Kyi; her father, a wartime leader of the struggle against the British and post-war architect of a possible egalitarian nation state, was assassinated by competitors for state power. His dream, of a united states of Burma, became instead the nightmare of decades of wars and struggles between various ethno-national and sometimes Christian quasi-states on the periphery of the nation, against the Burman Buddhist majority in the centre. Most recently, as most of these statelets on the edges of the nation have made a sort of peace with the centre, Buddhist violence against Muslims has re-ignited.
When the British finally defeated the last king of the Burmans in 1885 and sent him into exile in India (exchanging him for the last Muslim rajah of India, who was buried in an unmarked grave in Rangoon), they significantly transformed the country through manipulation of ethnic boundaries and the imposition of ethnic hierarchies. Importing thousands of Indians from Bengal and beyond to fill jobs from labourers to clerks in government and business, the colonial power sought to destroy the capacity of the Burmans to resuscitate their defeated kingdom. They empowered the hill peoples, and enabled the conversion of many to Christianity – Baptists and Catholics found ready converts where economic and political advantage would follow. The colonial army offered career opportunities to the Shan, while opium production began to provide monetary rewards in the hill country, as did the logging of the teak forests.
Muslims have been in the territory of Burma since their earliest days as purveyors of their evangelising mercantile religion. By the time of the first British invasion of 1825 they were well integrated, including as military servants of the King, some captured in raids in Bengal before the British came. Their numbers increased with the import of Indians and the spread of Bengalis along the coast and through the mountains into the west of Rakhine state (the Rohingya).
Anti-Muslim sentiment was interwoven with British colonial power, with economic competition, and with the support of Muslims for the British against the Japanese in 1942 . The Japanese were initially supported by the Burmese National Army, led by Aung San, in a war of independence against the British, who then pulled back to British Bengal, behind a native defensive shield including Muslim troops.
The contemporary unrest builds on decades of an essentially militarised neo-fascist regime that had locked together Burmese nationalism with Buddhism; its civilian replacement has not entirely escaped that heritage. A specific trigger for anti-Muslim local conflicts in lowland Myanmar came in 2001 the wake of the Taliban destruction of the buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, seen by Burmese Buddhist activists as a sign of the utter treachery of Muslims en bloc. The recent release from prison of a Buddhist monk active in that conflict has provided new leadership and revitalised the movement, with tragic consequences.
The Myanmar nationality law of 1982 contains a very essentialist definition of who can be a citizen. It adopts a jus sanguinis approach, which lists the blood and soil peoples (none that come after the British invasion of 1825 are acceptable). The Rohingya of Rakhine are especially not part of the national story, and are corralled into their edge of the country and prohibited to travel elsewhere. Some Burmese Muslims try to distance themselves from the Rohingya so as to avoid the constraints and the prejudice they fear for themselves. Aung San Suu Kyi has also found the Rohingya a difficult issue, embedded as she is in the ideology of a national Burmese federation of original peoples, promulgated by her father.
In the lead up to their 2015 election, the peoples of Myanmar have some tricky issues to resolve – how to articulate a plural nation that ensures economic equality and opportunity; how to smooth the edges of ethno-national resentments that have the capacity to crack open the whole development story; and how to take the country from the poly-ethnic conflict of the British legacy to a multicultural egalitarian democratic polity based on inclusion and social justice. Critical to this will be how they deine who can be a Myanmar citizen and share in the democratic story. Exclusion of any group may erode the legitimacy of the system for everyone.