October 20, 2007

Ethnic Nationalities question in Burma Politics

The Burmese Media and Ethnic Tension: Toward a Bleak National Conciliation? by -- May Oo

May Oo is a former Karen refugee, born and raised in Burma, a graduate of San Francisco State University, and got her LL.M from Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington, IN. She was a Snyder Research Fellow at Lauterpatch Research Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge, UK (2002). She is currently a Ph.D student in Law and Social Science at Indiana University School of Law and a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies.

Before anything else is said, it is perhaps prudent to elaborate what one means by ethnic tension in Burma. However one has understood it before, in this essay, ethnic tension is a term to describe the tension between the Burman/Burmese and the rest of the nationalities such as Karen, Shan, Mon, and Chin. Likewise, the use of the terms Burmese and Burman should probably be clarified with all due respect to the people of Burma. However one has understood them before, in this essay ‘Burmese’ is to mean a language and Burmese/Burman is to mean a particular ethnic group known as both Burmese and Burman.

There is always a contradiction in the Burmese/Burman’s claim for a love for coexistence and a desire to be dominant. This contradiction can be observed in various areas, but no observation is more poignant than in the Burmese language media or the media predominantly run by the Burmese/Burman. This essay will look at Burma and the struggle of its people since independence for freedom, peace, and prosperity. The purpose is two fold: first to identify how the struggle has been presented, portrayed, and understood; second, how such presentation, portrayal, and understanding shape and dictate the direction of the struggle. Ultimately, this essay will delve into a critical analysis between the roles of Burmese media or the media predominantly run by the Burmese/Burman and the prospect of coexistence in a country as much diverse as Burma.

Independence Movement and the Deceptive Histories

Through out the secondary education, the school children in Burma learn about the independent heroes of their country both in the history class and Burmese literature class. Of all the heroes about whom we have learned, there were fewer than two heroes who were not ethnically Burmese/Burman. The Burmese/Burman leaders were portrayed as great patriots and saviors of the country under enslavement of the British colonizer. Less than being critical toward the fact, instead the children of minorities felt belittled by a systematic indoctrination as such that undermined their status in the union of Burma. Although parents told different stories at home, what mattered was what the textbooks said. And, the textbooks did not say anything about ethnic minorities except to legitimize the melting pot of Burma as the home of all ethnic groups.

Prior to independence in 1948, some writings in histories tell us that the ethnic minorities in the so-called Burma were independent entities of their own and that they were put under the umbrella of British rule as the British continued to conquer. Also, we learn from those writings that the Burmese/Burman and the rest of ethnic groups never shared peace between them. The quarrels between other groups were understood as natural discrepancies but absolutely manageable. However, the quarrels between each of the groups and the Burmese/Burman have always been understood as irreconcilable differences of peoples and their views toward life and a call for permanent separation.

Although there were members of all ethnic groups who participated in the independence movement, recorded in the official history was only the Burmese/Burman. From those history pages, students of all ethnic groups learn about the Burmese/Burman nationalism, which students are also encouraged, if not forced, not only to cherish but also to adopt. Chanting such as --
tha kin myo hey doh bama,
bama sar thee doh sar,
bama sagar thee doh sagar
doh sar ko chit par
doh sagar ko myat noe par

...were rather provocative and exclusively ethnocentric madness that drove the Burmese/Burman population to fight for freedom from the British colonization. However, a fight for freedom from British was not the only fight the Burmese/Burman were engaging in. Simultaneously, the Burmese/Burman were continuously engaging in several other fights against Rakhine, Karen, and Mon to establish their domination upon their liberation from their colonizers. Additionally, it is crucial to note that fights between the Burmese/Burman and the Rakhine or between the Burmese/Burma and the Mon predated British occupation. Anybody who was critical of Burmese/Burman nationalism risks being labeled as pro-British, foreign axis, and therefore enemy of Burma.

On similar account, the ethnic minorities were also engaging in dual struggles – one against the British and the other against the Burmese/Burman. Although the groups did not explicitly operate on the ground that “your enemy’s enemy is your friend,” every now and then, groups were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils – the British and the Burmese/Burman. The history in Burmese language, the official history of the nation, teaches the children of Burma to believe that ethnic minorities were uneducated and used by the foreign colonizers. The same history also teaches the school children to believe that whatever harsh or brutal experience the ethnic minorities had had in the hands of the Burmese/Burman leadership was only a punishment for being axis of foreign powers and to punish them so was a perfectly understandable political expediency and had nothing to do with anti-minorities sentiment. The same history omits, without being questioned, any explanation as to why the Burmese/Burman leadership brought in the fascist Japanese under whose reign minorities in particular went through hellish life. The civil-war that broke out in 1949 was not reported to the general population until 1988. The plights of minorities did not come into discussions until the minorities’ resistance groups had to host – feed, train, equip, and protect – the Burmese students fleeing from the madness of their government’s Army in the cities.

The Myths

Yet, there is also a myth in Burma, the way the people of Burma wish to be known. And, it is the way Burma has been portrayed by and through the media of all kinds. Burma is a multi-ethnic nation and all the ethnic groups coexisted peacefully until the British occupation. In terms of government and political system, Burma has always been a (federal) union, or pyi daung su, in which minorities are fully recognized. The people of Burma know very little or nothing about the civil-war in Burma and the only official story teller about the civil-war is the successive Burmese governments. To the people of Burma, the ethnic minorities, especially who have been fighting against the successive Burmese governments, are "dividers" of the union and "destructionists" of the nation. The country is poor because the government has to engage in fighting the rebels. The most recognized by the people of Burma is that the country has been under military rule, and it is bad. Therefore, they unite themselves under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and struggle against the military regime.

Contemporary Views and the Media

There are at least three facets in the prevailing views on Burma and all the views are directly or indirectly sponsored by the Burmese language media or the media predominantly run by the Burmese/Burman. First, there is internal fighting between the Burmese government and the ethnic minorities. Sometimes, it is known as civil-war, but often it is recognized as insurgent movement with no significant cause. Although it is a war against predominant Burmese/Burman government by the non-Burman ethnic groups, the fact is always omitted. Years of the systematic destructions of the livelihood in ethnic minorities’ areas - land, fields, and properties - never amount to the destruction of a people in the view of the media. Years of the killings of ethnic minorities in remote villages never amount to the concern of the ordinary Burmese/Burman. Although there has always been a consensus in blaming the minorities for never being content, no question has ever been raised as to why these people have to fight. When severe human rights violations against minorities are reported to the media, the reports get censored because they do not constitute news. No ordinary Burmese/Burman complains about the killing of ethnic minorities by the Burmese government and or by the Burmese Army, and certainly there has never been any effort led by the Burmese/Burman to stop the civil-war.

Second, the people of Burma, especially the urban population, have successfully avoided the responsibility to keep their country peaceful by remaining silent about the sixty years old civil-war. Particularly so the Burmese/Burman population, whose voice would have been more powerful, has failed their fellow citizens, the ethnic minorities, by deliberately ignoring their plights. While individual citizens belonging to the non-Burman ethnic groups would frequently disappear and are tortured, imprisoned, and killed because they are being suspected as insurgents, the rest of the population choose to remain silent as their way of escape. While the general population hides behind the fact that the government controls the media and that they are not informed of anything about civil-war, the Burmese media or the media predominantly run by the Burmese/Burman – namely the Voice of America (VOA), the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and later the Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Democratic Voice of Burma (RFA) – outside of Burma conveniently chose to ignore the plight of the ethnic minorities for years. Print media such as Irrawaddy are not less responsible. Not only that these media institutions fail to recognize diversity of languages and cultures in the country, but also do they deliberately select news with ethnic biases. Broadcasting and publication of only sensationalized news or events are a common practice although all these groups claim to be different from the government run Myanmar Radio and New Light of Myanmar.

Third, in light of the recent political development in Burma and the headlines news it has made around the world, the time has come again for the media to talk about the ethnic minorities. Only this time, presentation on the ethnic minorities of Burma has become, not only inaccurate as ever, but also more negative than ever. Both the styles and contents of presentations – in print and broadcasting media – lately amount to incitement and unprofessional. The recent interview of DVB with the Burmese monk, for example, illustrated how ignorant the Burmese/Burman populations – including monks – are about their own country while it was also an illustration of unethical practice on the part of the journalist who asked the questions. The interview was about the deployment of soldiers by the ruling regime, recalled from their stations in the ethnic minorities’ areas such as Karen, Karenni, and Shan states, in the cities to crack down on the protesters. The interviewer asked if the soldiers deployed were of “ethnic groups” and the monk answered he was not sure but those soldiers did “speak Burmese with accent.” Not only the question was imprudent by itself, but also to broadcast such below-the-belt talks was inciting. Certainly, the population of Burma whose news sources are severely limited would hear that interview and undoubtedly ponder on it. But, DVB carries on broadcasting unapologetically.

Recently in Irrawaddy, the editor decided to publish an article questioning “the absence” of ethnic minorities in the pro-democracy movement. Instead of questioning the turning of blind-eyes by the Burmese/Burman population and the media, the article explicitly points the finger at ethnic minorities for, in his opinion, being absence in the protests. It is rather preposterous to even think that ethnic minorities do not engage in demonstrations while many of these minorities have clearly demonstrated to the government, the general populations, and to the world that they are not prepared to be governed by such an ethnically hysteric totalitarian regime. These are a few examples in terms of how sensationalized publication and broadcasting impact the understanding of the population about their own country and their fellow citizens.

The author of this essay is a staunch believer in the freedom of expression and is also a student of the first amendment right in the U.S., therefore would not be necessary to question the freedom exercised through the article both by the author as well as the editor. However, what the author wishes to question is the motive of such publication and how benefits are weighed. Commitment to democracy with peaceful coexistence in Burma is not only of Burmese/Burman politicians, but also of members of the press. Otherwise, members of the press would have less legitimate reasons to criticize the ruling regime. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to observe that Burmese media, supposedly democratic and open, are indeed part of major contributing factor to ethnic tension in Burma.

To be sure, although the pro-democracy movement claims to have gained better understanding of ethnic minorities’ plight, and also as the pro-democracy movement inside and outside Burma continues to advocate for the peaceful coexistence, it is most discouraging to reckon with the detrimental ignorance of the Burmese media. While the public looks up to media as educational institution, especially the ones outside of the military regime’s control, it is rather sickening to acknowledge the insensitivity of Burmese media or the media predominantly run by the Burmese/Burman. After over five decades of experience, it is forgivable if the ethnic minorities of Burma begin to doubt the claim of the Burmese/Burmans that they are willing to coexist peacefully with them. Unfortunately, we are compelled to confess that national conciliation will remain a distant dream so long as the ethnic minority partners are effectively marginalized.

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