Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape military persecution in Rakhine state in Myanmar. The author says the government of Myanmar needs to work with minority groups such as the Rohingya to establish an all-inclusive national identify. Photo: AFP/Dibyangshu Sarkar

Last month two UN advisors suggested that the government of Myanmar establish a common national identity for all ethnic groups in order to end the ongoing ethnic and religious conflict in the Southeast Asian country.

In a statement released Oct. 19, Adama Dieng and Ivan Simonovic said the current conflict threatens the entire country.

Dieng is a special advisor on the prevention of genocide. Ivan Simonovic, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, last year was named special advisor on the responsibility to protect by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The statement called for immediate action against atrocities said to be occurring in northern Rakhine state against the Rohingya people, a largely Muslim ethnic minority. The Myanmar government has denied the claims.

The two special advisors urged the government to work to establish a national identity which all populations, including the Rohingya people, “feel part of.”

Bigotry stands in the way of national unity

In the same vein, on Oct. 27 the Brussels, Belgium-based International Crisis Group said that if narrow or bigoted nationalist sentiments are unopposed by the government, it will it more difficult “to forge an inclusive national identity, essential for such an ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse country.”

I have argued that to resolve the ethnic conflict the Union of Burma, created in 1948 after the British left, must be reconstituted. Forging a new political entity and a common, national identity are closely intertwined.

However, successive military regimes, including the current quasi-civilian-military regime headed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, see Burma as a unified country. As such, all other non-Burmans or non-Bamar — the Shan, Kachin, Chin, Arakanese, Mon, Karen, and Karenni peoples — are seen as minorities, which must be controlled and suppressed, lest they break up the country.

But non-Burmans maintain that the Union of Burma is a territorial entity, founded by a treaty, the Panglong Agreement of 1947, under which independent territories merged on an equal basis.

The Burmese military protects “national sovereignty” and “national unity” at all cost. This has created conflict between the ethnic minorities and successive Bamar-dominated governments, resulting in more suppression and gross human rights violations.

The conflict has persisted since independence from the British in 1948, with all sides unable to compromise to resolve power-sharing and resource-sharing through a political settlement.

The conflict has persisted since independence from the British in 1948, with all sides unable to compromise to resolve power-sharing and resource-sharing through a political settlement.

In an article titled Defining a National Identity Might Bring Peace to Myanmar, Burmese writer Ma Thida touched on the theme of national identity in nation-building:

“We, Myanmar, ourselves need to answer a question: What is Myanmar society? What is our national identity? This is the key challenge we all in Myanmar now face. The current government lists 135 ethnic groups and these are grouped into eight major national ethnic races: Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Kayin (Karen), Chin, Mon, Bamar, Rakhine, and Shan. There are altogether 64 languages spoken in Myanmar and these are grouped into five language families, including Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, and Hmong-Mien. So, Myanmar is a multi-ethnic community. And it is also a multi-religious country. Amongst all this, how do we identify ourselves? This is still very unclear for the people of Myanmar.”

The government recognizes four religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. In 1989, the Burmese military unilaterally, without the consent of the ethnic minorities, changed the country’s name from “Burma” to “Myanmar.” But the change has not been accepted by the non-Burman ethnic groups as a common identity. “Myanmar,” “Bamar” and “Burman” are only identified with the majority Bamar and have nothing to do with the non-Burman ethnic groups.

If you ask Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon, Arakanese or Chin people what nationality they belong to, the answer would be their specific nationality — not Kachin-Myanmar or Shan-Myanmar and so on.

There has never been an earnest attempt to forge a national identity by successive governments for non-Bamar ethnic nationalities either to instill a sense of togetherness or even of involving them in choosing a common, national identity. Power- and resource-sharing are the exclusive domains of the military — and lately the Bamar political elite which now rules the country with the military.

The failed nation-building process is rooted in the inability to resolve the constitutional crisis that has prevailed since independence.

An all-embracing national identity is only possible if equitable power- and resource-sharing can be worked out politically between the Bamar or Burman majority and non-Burman ethnic groups who aspire to equality, democracy, and self-determination within a genuine federalism.

A durable solution remains elusive

A durable solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict requires constitutional amendments based on a common, national identity that everyone can live with. However, it should be noted that after nearly seven decades of independence from the British, the country is still nowhere near to forging an acceptable, common national identity.

Thus, it would be more pragmatic to accept the existing diversified identities of all ethnic groups as a fact and work for a new common, national identity in a federal union, with the consent and participation of all ethnic groups, Bamar included.

Since ethnic nationalism is a rising global trend — the recent push of Catalan and Kurdish independence movements are examples — a compromise short of outright secession and maximum devolution will be the only way to resolve the ethnic conflict in Myanmar.

This is only possible if those involved earnestly embrace “unity in diversity” and “diverse actions, common goal.” Accepting an inclusive working social theory that unites the country’s ethnic groups moving in the same direction should be the way to go. A multi-ethnic society that allows diversity and not the coercive assimilation that has been the policy for decades needs to be corrected.

(Note: Myanmar and Burma are interchangeably used in this article for lack of clarity and consensus in the “national identity” debate.)

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Sai Wansai

Sai Wansai is a columnist for Mizzima Weekly and regular contributor of the online Shan Herald Agency for News.

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