March 16, 2010

Reconciliation Needed for a United Burma

by Naw May Oo

Historians know well that every story has many sides, many aspects, and many dimensions to explore. When a story is about such a topic as faith or politics, emotions can quickly become charged.

Politics and history often intertwine, and inextricably connect, as individuals advocate for beliefs and ideas important to them. When our history and beliefs are challenged, it is easy to believe we ourselves are being challenged. Unchecked, this can open old wounds, and further the distance between us.

A united Burma requires a spirit of togetherness and reconciliation from all of us. In this spirit, I respectfully call for more political sensitivity in all who are active in the movement for change.

I believe that what is most important is individual conversion and change of heart, to recognize people first and foremost in their humanity, and to respect and to treat with dignity.

However, recent articles in The Irrawaddy have caused me to pause and reflect on the condition of the movement for change in Burma.

After the military coup on Sept. 18, 1988, my brother and three friends, university students, came to my mother for help and somewhere to hide. They were all university students in their junior and senior years.
My mother helped smuggle them out to safety, and we subsequently heard they had reached a Karen National Union base.

Two months later, we also left, traveling through the mountains to the Salween River and a village called Kawmoorah, where students from all over Burma were gathering and where the All Burma Students' Democratic Front began to take shape. For many, it was their first encounter with Karen people.

As more students arrived, the nature of these first encounters changed. It quickly became apparent just how ill prepared both sides were for what we were heading into.

For centuries, Karen had lived in the region the students were now fleeing to and the strength of the KNU offered them a sort of safe-haven. once safe, however, we soon learned about the apparent differences in our goals and ways of life.

The Karen had farmed, established logging and other business practices in order to support a society. For the Karen, the KNU territories were not a temporary safe zone, but rather an integral part of life, history and culture.

Many Burmese students found the experience unfamiliar, challenging, and in some cases unbearable. Rural life was a far cry from a familiar routine of university study.

For these students, the KNU and the shelter they offered were temporary, stop-gap measures necessary only to regroup and work for political change back "home."

The KNU, for its part, was caught off guard. There were differing views on how to receive these fleeing students. And there were practical as well as political and psychological concerns.

The students expected to be received with honor, for they were “fighting for a just cause.” They failed to recognize that the KNU and the Karen people had been fighting for “a just cause” for 40 years.

In time, the divergence between these goals created friction and sometimes conflict.

I recall well the case of one of my brother’s friends, Ko Win Myint, who broke off his final year of study at the Government Technical Institute and took up a new life in the jungles of Karen State.

Like many of his friends, Ko Win Myint earned pocket money working in the lucrative logging business, which was controlled by the 20th battalion of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Life in the jungle proved too difficult for Ko Win Myint, who told friends that when he had saved enough money he would return home.

News of his intentions reached the KNLA battalion leadership, which looked with concern at student movements that could compromise security.

Ko Win Myint disappeared and it has never been established what happened to him. While the mystery may never be cleared up, the issue of most concern is the manner in which we all reacted to it.

Did we hope for the best in each other? Did we acknowledge the trials and tribulations we all faced? I think perhaps at times, we let the stress, our fears and panic get the better of us. We doubted each other and mistrusted those we called "friends."

For many students fleeing to KNU territory, the jungle and the Karen way of life was a challenge.

Expectations, often unshared ideals and a lack of preparation combined to make it especially difficult.

The contrast between the Karen villagers and the fleeing Burmese students was vast and striking. As unprepared as the Karens were at that time, the Burmese students, mostly city-dwellers, were equally unprepared to meet their native brothers who looked different and who did not even speak Burmese.

The government preached a united Burma, a Pyidaungsu, or “Union.” Yet, in reality, life was vastly different from the image painted by the regime.

Naïve stereotypes persisted on both sides. Burmese students thought the Karen were savages who did not understand the customs of hospitality and fled before them.

They did not realize that the only previous people who spoke the Burmese language loudly and entered these villages had always been members of the Burmese armed forces, the Tatmadaw. And every time the Burmese soldiers came, they destroyed villages, killing and pillaging. Little wonder that the Karen fled whenever Burmese visitors called.

In one essay in The Irrawaddy, the author—one of the highest ranking members of the ABSDF leadership—recalled the failure of the judiciary system within the KNU, which he termed “Karen style justice.”

Never in my student days in Burma, nor from my parents who were both educated in Burma, have I heard of or used the term “Burmese/Burman style justice.” We did not understand many things about the persecution of ethnic groups in Burma, but we understood that it was not “Burmese/Burman style justice.”

The ABSDF, in many regards, holds a unique position as a grass-roots organization that could potentially ease the tension between the Burmese/Burman and the Karen villagers.

If anybody should be sympathetic to the plight of Karen villagers, it is the ABSDF. If anybody should understand the ethnic tension a little better than city-based political parties, it is the ABSDF.

The time spent by ABSDF members among Karen villagers has created the opportunity for this organization to become an agent of peace and reconciliation—between the Karen and Burmans, but also perhaps within the country as a whole.

Mitigating the concerns of the Karens and the Burmans, reconciliation and co-existence are precisely the elusive goal and vision for a united Burma, which has hitherto existed only as a dream.

The military regime has opted for the imposition of a fantasy, unrelated to the reality of life and perpetuated through hatred, mistrust and fear.

As I look back at our movement, at the trials and joys that we have shared, I must ask myself: what course will be adopted by the ABSDF—or, for that matter, any Burmese political organization?

Will the organizations recognize the accomplishments, camaraderie and many successes we have shared? Will they commit themselves unconditionally to the dream of a united Burma? Will they work for this dream, despite the fears, challenges and hurts we all have encountered? Or, will they continue to operate merely as a network of hatred?

When some former ABSDF members despondently complained that the ethnic minorities “were not fighting for democracy,” I wondered what the Burmese/Burman political leadership means when it talks about democracy.

If wanting to elect leaders to represent you, if demanding equality and fair representation is not democracy, then what is?

My Burmese/Burman counterparts like to portray ethnic minorities as “narrow-minded nationalists.” However, more often than not, they demonstrate their limited view of democracy, which is narrowly defined to fit Burmese understanding.

The Burmese/Burman political leadership has long been preaching national unity and coexistence, but it has not been sufficiently putting these concepts into practice.

The people of Burma, especially my generation, grew up in a bogus Union that emerged from the 1947 Constitution. Looking now at the 2008 Constitution, the Union we dream of does not appear in the slightest form.

For a country as divided as Burma, a peaceful coexistence must be voluntary. For this to happen, every single citizen at every level plays an important role.

With this in mind, I respectfully call for a more political sensitivity on the part of all my Burmese/Burman counterparts who are active in a movement for change. Accepting and embracing this challenging task will be a significant first step toward the genuine reconciliation and reunification we all dream of. That hold the promise of an exciting future, one that I am committed to working for.

Naw May Oo is a doctoral student at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, writing her dissertation on constitutional design and federalism for post conflict states with a concentration on Burma.