Open Briefing to President Barack Obama

By: Sai Wansai
Thursday, 15 November 2012

It seems a lot of people are getting excited with the news that President Barack Obama is going to set foot on Burmese soil, this coming weekend. Almost everyone, who thinks that he or she is involved, has a stake in it, or just plain urge to influence the President’s actions regarding Burma in anyway during and after his visit, is voicing his or her concern in everyway possible.

Sai Wansai
This ranges from media people, opinion-makers, domestic and international stakeholders, and to even those, who just want some exposure or visibility, one way or the other. But the reality is only a trickle or fraction of the gigantic collection of information will reach the President’s ear or attention. As it is, his aides will sift through all the recent information available prior to his visit, plus all reports from intelligence gathering networks, and summarized areas of concern and important, relevant issues, most likely in a few page briefing.

And such being the case, there is a very slim chance that my inputs would even be read or attract the President’s attention. But I am willing to try my bid and take the gamble, so that I won’t be left out in this briefing season, to brief the President, the real big picture of Burma on the ground in a precise and factual manner.

As it is, there are only four core problem areas, to grasp, understand and tackle the ongoing, man made disasters in Burma.

The Making of Burma

The Union of Burma, now renamed Republic of the Union of Myanmar by the military regime, formed in 1948, is a relatively new political and territorial entity, made up of all ethnic groups voluntarily on equal footing, which have achieved a joint-independence together from the British. In other words, the country we called Burma/Myanmar today is made up of at least four countries, namely: Ministerial Burma or Burma Proper, Federated Shan States, Karenni State, Chin and Kachin Hills – before they became known as Chin State and Kachin State after independence. The non-Burman ethnic nationalities have all along strived to wrestle back their rights of self-determination, democracy and equality, which were hijacked from them since 1962 by the Burmese military, up to these days.

Common or National Identity

Because of the denial of rights to self-determination, the successive, ethnocentric, military regime from Revolutionary Council (RC), Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to the present military-backed, quasi-civilian Thein Sein regime have failed to forge a common, national identity, although lately the label “Myanmar” has been forced on the non-Burman ethnic nationalities to be accepted as national identity, which were met with rejection. In other words, the successive military governments’ nation-building and instilling a common, national identity have reached nowhere and in effect have even shattered.

The more than half a century of ethnic armed resistance and political defiance are living proof of the said failures.

Political Stakeholders or Actors

When it comes to Burma people use to think that there are only two stakeholders – the military-backed Thein Sein government and Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the third force, the non-Burman ethnic nationalities, who occupy almost 60 per cent of the territory and constitute at least 40 per cent of the population count, cannot be left out of the political equation. It is only logical that any political settlement excluding them would never work.

The UN endorsement of a tripartite dialogue in 1994 clearly called for a conference to be participated by equal number of representatives from the government, democratic forces and ethnic forces, also underpinned the fact that the ethnic nationalities are a force to be reckoned with.

In a legal constitutional sense, the Union of Burma ceased to exist when the Burmese military, following a coup d’├ętat in 1962, declared the suspension of the constitution and terminated the only existing legal bond, the Panglong Agreement of 1947,  between them and the non-Burman ethnic nationalities.

War on Drugs
No one is innocent in the war on drugs in Burma:
  • The people because of their desperate need for survival
  • The rebels to buy arms for the struggle against a tyrannical government
  • The government and its armed forces for encouraging allies to be involved in the drug trade to fight against the resistance and for allowing their units to be involved so they can feed clothe and equip themselves.
The circle becomes complete when greedy financiers take advantage of the state of affairs to invest, produce and trade in drugs. (Source: Shan Drug Watch, Issue 5, June 2012)

Numerous People’s Militia Forces (PMF), set up by the Burma Army to assist in their operations against rebel forces, have become key players in the drug trade, both heroin and ATS. Yet government complicity in the tangled drug problem is being conveniently ignored by the international community as it embraces Burma’s new administration.

Federalism the Possible Solution
The solution to ethnic conflict and democratisation process is a head and tail of the same coin and has to be solved together and not separately. The legal bond, before the British finally left in 1948, was, in effect, the political contract to form a country on federal principle, which was carried out through the 1947 Union Constitution. However, the Constitution was federal only in theory but unitary in practice. The Shan Government, to correct the flawed Constitution, try to amend it with the endorsement of all non-Burman ethnic nationalities. They tabled “Federal Reform Proposal” in 1962 and was about to achieve a political settlement, when the Burmese military headed by General Ne Win sized power through the military coup. He nullified the Panglong Agreement and as well the 1947 Union Constitution. From that time onwards until today, the ethnic rights for self-determination and equality struggle have plagued the country, without a slightest hint of ever ending the conflict.

And thus, the solution to all the woes in Burma is to go back and implement the original, political contract of building a genuine federalism, as agreed upon from the outset in 1947. The hijacked ethnic rights to self-determination have to be reinstalled. There can be no other solution.

Hopefully, the President will assess all the issues surrounding Burma in the light of the above mentioned, man made disasters perspective and help to right the wrong. But if he would weigh in heavily on his strategic partnership calculation and choose to prop up and endorse Thein Sein government, with the intention of containing and encircling China at all cost, resolving ethnic conflict and earnest democratisation process would have to take a back seat, and we could all kiss good bye to the struggle.

The contributor is the General Secretary of Shan Democratic Union (SDU) - Editor


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