Contesting national unity: Whither Myanmar?
Paper Edition | Page: 6
It was quite intriguing to read several articles about recent brutal attacks on the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group of Bengali origin, who occupy the northern Arakan State in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The Myanmar government has notoriously suppressed and subjugated certain elements of the population, especially the ethnic minorities, such as Karen, Kachin, Mon, Chin, and Shan; culturally as well as religiously. This situation has led the minorities on the periphery to fight against the central government and establish resistance groups.
Despite positive movements toward the democratization in Myanmar, distrust between the government and ethnic minorities still continues. On one hand, the ethnic minorities are not convinced that the government will guarantee their rights. On the other hand, there is suspicion within the government that the minorities will demand greater autonomy, which could potentially lead to the disintegration of the country. These circumstances bring into question the concept of national unity.
Unity is particularly crucial for a nation such as Myanmar which is divided religiously, ethnically, linguistically and culturally. It is the idea of national unity that holds together those different elements within a nation. It is a concept that is expected to give people a certain feeling that they all belong to the nation despite their differences. Each nation has its own concept and definition of unity and the implementation of this national philosophy or state ideology is usually imposed by the central government.
Maintaining the national unity of a country is not an easy task. Each element that is integrated into, or becomes part of, the nation may perceive unity in a different way from that which is interpreted by the central government. This has been the case in Myanmar. The military junta has dictated the ideas of a centralized regime and unity through force and violence despite differences of culture, religion and ethnicity.
The problem of being an ethnic minority in Myanmar is complex. There is division between Burmese as the ethnic majority and the non-Burmese ethnic minorities. The difficulties for ethnic minority groups from the beginning have been that they are not sure whether they belong to Myanmar and, if they do, on what terms they belong, and in
Most ethnic minorities are considered as outsiders and hatred against them is deeply rooted. The worst thing is that most of them are non-Buddhists and to be a Burmese is to be a Buddhist. Accordingly, unity is defined in a very narrow way. Unity is understood by the central government as being equal to uniformity either in religious or cultural terms. These attitudes have invited antagonism against the minorities.
In the case of the Rohingya people, they perceive themselves as Burmese of a different religion. However, they are considered by the central government to be of a different ethnicity and illegally living in Myanmar. The central government demands they have written proof that they are Burmese in order to become Burmese citizens, though they have been living in Myanmar for generations. This policy has caused the Rohingya people to become stateless in their own country and face inhumane treatment from both inside and outside Myanmar.
This recent humanitarian tragedy is nothing new to the Rohingya people but it has put the credibility of Aung San Suu Kyi as an icon of democracy, and now as a member of parliament, to the test. It is regrettable that she supports the proposal of Myanmar President Thein Sein to the United Nations to build refugee camps for the Rohingya people in a country that is willing to accept them.
It was also disappointing when she said, during her trip to the UK last June, that she was not sure if the Rohingya people belonged to Myanmar.
While many people around the world have expressed the opinion that what is happening to the Rohingya people is a crime against humanity, Aung San Suu Kyi has kept silent on the issue and did not even address the ethnic animosity against them in her recent first speech in parliament urging laws to protect the rights of minorities.
She should have consciously known that one of the basic human rights for minorities is to be granted citizenship. This attitude may possibly show that her indecision in safeguarding the rights of minorities is a result of political compromise with the state authority.
Whatever the political compromise, there is no reason for her to turn a blind eye to the persecution of minorities. As a unifying figure, she should be working for the prevention of discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity or religion. She should continue advocating human rights for all the people of Myanmar, regardless of their
The government and the people of Myanmar should honor the historic Panglong Agreement signed at the Panglong Conference in 1947 by General Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi and a nationalist leader during colonial times) and ethnic minority leaders — although not all attended.
As the representative of the Burmese government, he assured the minorities that independent Myanmar would grant equal rights to them in an effort to unify the country.
It is also worth noting that although Myanmar has been roundly condemned for its violation of human rights, there was indeed an intention by its founding fathers to uphold human rights. Myanmar was one of the signatory countries to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) back in 1948. The UDHR is recognized as the universal view of human rights, though it is not legally binding since it is a United Nations General Assembly Resolution.
A serious and concerted effort is urgently needed to bring the ethnic wars to an end in Myanmar and encourage the idea of pluralism and human rights that were aspired to by its founding fathers as their legacy in unifying the country.
The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law in University of Indonesia.