In Taunggyi, the capital of Myanmar’s ethnically diverse Shan State, students, nurses and marching bands lined the streets to welcome State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on her way to to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of Union Day on February 12.
This was the day, in 1947, that Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San signed the Panglong Agreement, a preliminary accord with several ethnic groups (but crucially, not all) that has since been viewed as a touchstone of betrayal among Myanmar’s minorities toward central government rule and its unmet promises of federalism.
Since taking power in early 2016, Suu Kyi has reformulated Union Day and its associated Panglong “spirit” as a vehicle for uneven ethnic peace-building and unification based on ethnic Burman domination.
At this year’s event, the government fused military-era propaganda with Suu Kyi’s iron-discipline homilies and vague appeals to peace, “genuine Democratic Federal Union” and protecting the youth from the evils of drugs, crucially “(t)o strive with the collective strength of all ethnic nationals for rule of law, a fair justice system and the security and safety of all citizens.”
Suu Kyi’s concept of “unity”, it appears, is to celebrate ethnic diversity by commodifying and controlling it, not by seeing ethnic communities as equals or granting political concessions, economic equality and ending entrenched discrimination.
In short, Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman, appears to view ethnic minority communities as colorfully garbed but also unruly, ungrateful and uncouth, and in dire need of benevolent control.
In early February, at Yangon’s Kyakasan sports-grounds, the Myanmar Ethnics Culture Festival was conducted before a raft of nationwide ethnic “national days” ahead of Union Day, including Karen, Mon and Shan days.
The festival was nominally a celebration of diversity, and although the controversial codifying of the “official” 135 National Races of Myanmar was relatively muted, the entire event signaled a rejoicing of ethnic diversity through political marginalization.
Suu Kyi’s opening address made it clear that ethnic people had responsibilities more than rights: “It is the time for all ethnic nationals to have more unity, mutual respect and assistance among them.
Moreover, each and every one should build and lift their individual qualities like spirit, discipline, education, diligence, and honesty. I wish to see you all as peace-makers based on mutual respect and assistance.”
Suu Kyi has always had the mien of a scolding school ma’am, but her recent speeches are on another level, lecturing constantly in a condescending cadence that is a shade away from authoritarian.
She has clearly started her 2020 election campaign early.
In recent travels to ethnic states, she has delivered messages somewhere between exhortation and warning of the need for “Union spirit” and an end to unreasonable demands from ethnic communities who she says must buckle down and contribute to ethnic Burman-led state-building.
The moribund Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), with a mere ten ethnic armed group signatories, has been a lavishly funded circus moving in a circle with little, if any, forward motion since it was first signed in 2015.
Suu Kyi’s government inherited this flawed process from her military-aligned predecessor. It has incrementally been made irrelevant by rising armed conflict in Rakhine state and Shan state, and by prioritizing peace only in symbolic terms, with “Panglong Spirit” at its vapid core.
This is where the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, and Suu Kyi have reached a cynical simpatico: acknowledge federalism is the future but withhold genuine ethnic rights.
Suu Kyi’s peace process has also papered over rising inter-ethnic tensions that have often been neglected in the analysis of Myanmar’s armed conflict.
In northern Shan state, fighting between the Tatmadaw and NCA signatory the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and at times the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), as well as pitched battles among the armed groups themselves, has displaced 46,000 civilians in the past two years, with 8,800 remaining displaced.
The RCSS, the NCA’s largest signatory, has since 2015 been waging a war of aggressive expansion in northern Shan State, with reports of Tatmadaw collusion and human rights violations such as forced recruitment of child soldiers, killings of civilians and predatory taxation.
This includes allegations of RCSS gunning down three Ta’ang village heads in late 2019 in Kyaukme town. In exchange for recently rejoining the fractured peace process, the RCSS was rewarded by the attendance of many Western diplomats at its lavish celebrations for Shan National Day at its headquarter base of Loi Taileng on the Thai-Myanmar border on February 7.
The TNLA has also been implicated in the abuse and targeting of Shan civilians, as ethnic divisions, enmity, distrust and fear widen ahead of the November polls.
Ta’ang communities are feeling increasingly marginalized and stigmatized by the TNLA’s armed revolt, as official discrimination against Ta’ang civilians and intimidation of Ta’ang civil society increases and often pits Ta’ang against Shan.
In Kachin state, home to 100,000 internally displaced people, inter-clan mistrust has been on the rise – especially between the dominant Jingpaw and the smaller Lisu and Rawang clans – over hierarchy, religion, resources and perceived discrimination.
These divisions were evident at the recent government orchestrated manaw festival, which many groups boycotted. Tensions are running high between the ethnic Shan Ni (Red Shan) and Kachin groups over decades of perceived marginalization.
The dynamics of inter-ethnic division are being driven in part by the government’s formation of “People’s Militia” forces of pro-military armed groups, political parties and access to licit and illicit rents that fuel these ethnic-on-ethnic fires.
Local community leaders warned Suu Kyi about the destructive behavior of these militias during her disastrous March 2018 visit to Myitkyina in Kachin state, but they were ignored, underscoring her lack of influence in Myanmar’s security sector and her apparent disregard for how sub-contracted paramilitary units wreak havoc on ordinary people’s lives.
Tensions between the Chin and Rakhine communities, especially in Paletwa township of Chin state, have reached fever pitch following several years of an escalating armed conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and Tatmadaw, in which Chin civilians have been caught in the crossfire and suffered abuses from both sides.
Chin human rights groups and political leaders claim that Chin communities have been subject to forced labor, risk of landmines and abductions of dozens of villagers by the AA, including the detention for three months of an NLD Upper House member of parliament, Hwei Tin. He was released in late January.
Chin human rights advocates have accused the AA of the moral equivalency of the Tatmadaw over their abusive tactics, while AA leaders continue to publicly vow to protect all civilians.
Meanwhile, sporadic fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) in October 2019 over territory along the Myanmar-Thai border also hark back to a history of violent competition for land and resources between these armed groups.
Many ethnic communities, including armed group leaders, religious figures, civil society and members of parliament understandably do not feel comfortable discussing these intricate issues in public, but privately fear that divide-and-rule manipulation by the Tatmadaw is creating cleavages between communities.
In many of these areas of inter-communal violence, it is highly likely that elections will not be held in November due to security concerns, further marginalizing these communities from mainstream political and economic development.
It is difficult to see how genuine and durable federalism that suits Myanmar will emerge from these competing nationalisms, and the broader “Burmanization” of much of the country, as rent bare in Suu Kyi’s recent speeches.
Nor is it obvious how lavishly funded Western-driven perceptions of federalism, along with the intellectually bankrupt obsession with so-called “social cohesion”, has had a positive effect on peace-building in Myanmar.
In fact, internecine tensions play into the hands of Suu Kyi’s NLD government, the military and repressive ethnic armed group leaders who discuss ethnicity, identity, resources and political negotiations at cross-purposes among themselves.
What is celebrated as diversity is actually division. And this is good news at the ballot box for Suu Kyi and the NLD, who stand to reap the majority Burman vote and benefit from dysfunctional and divided ethnic states at the November elections.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst