How being a Burman is more equal than being a Shan

The "Wages of Burman-ness": Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar
Journal of Contemporary Asia
By Matthew J. Walton, Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington D.C, USA

Most Burman activists are apt to think that they share a similar experience of suffering with non-Burmans at the hands of the military government and therefore are not different from them. They also feel that, like themselves, the non-Burmans want democracy – regarded as the panacea for every ill in the society.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, according to the writer, had in the past “spoken about ethnic differences in (unintentional yet) subtly dismissive ways. In a speech in 1989 she stated:

At this time there is a very great need for all our ethnic groups to be joined together. We cannot have the attitude of ‘‘I’m Kachin,’’ ‘‘I’m Burman,’’ ‘‘I’m Shan.’’ We must have the attitude that we are all comrades in the struggle for democratic rights. We must all work closely together like brothers and sisters. Only then will we succeed. If we divide ourselves ethnically, we shall not achieve democracy for a long time.

The writer argues that just as the Whites in the USA think Whiteness is normal, the Burmans, who form the majority in Burma, are suffering from “blindness” to their own privilege. Therefore, just as “racism cannot be overcome without white recognition of their privilege, the inability of Burmans to recognize this privilege and to actively work against it inhibits efforts to forge ethnic unity in Myanmar.”
They may speak about the 1988 nationwide uprisings and the 2007 Saffron Revolution to prove their point. But there are many disadvantages that they have been spared for being Burman:

  • Burmanization, also labeled “Myanmafication”, the process of promoting the dominant Burman culture in non-Burman regions
  • Educational institutions designed to educate minority youth in Burman ways
  • Cultural assimilation through religious missions that seek to spread Buddhism to other ethnic groups
  • Outlawing instruction in many ethnic languages
  • Renaming a number of cities, streets, geographical landmarks and even the country itself in June 1989
  • Exhaustively documented abuses in non-Burman states, including the indiscriminate use of landmines and the use of non-Burman civilians as human minesweepers; forced appropriation of local food and resources; extrajudicial detention and torture; military attacks on civilians and denial of humanitarian aid; sexual violence; forced portering; forced migration and many more offenses

All these have come by because successive Burman governments have equated being non-Burman as “a badge of resistance” and “disloyalty”. Mr Walton, also known as U Tha Noe, quoted an excerpt from a speech given by the late leader U Ne Win in 1979:

Karen, Kachin and so forth… (W) e must consider whether these people are completely for our race, our Burmese people: and our country, our Burma.

So, does it mean reform and reconciliation spearheaded by former general Thein Sein are hopeless? The writer doesn’t think so. “I would argue that space still exists for challenging Burman privilege and opposing the dominance of Burman-ness… Just as with Whiteness, Burman dominance and privilege can be overcome only through active struggle and repudiation by Burmans.” Such as Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist who lives in Thailand, and Dr Zarni, a Burman scholar and activist.

For more information, we seriously request the readers to read this fascinating article. It is only 23 pages together with notes.


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