By Eric Vandenbroeck

Following one night in Yangon, I boarded a train to Hpa-An, the capital of Karen (Kayin) State.

If the Kachin have suffered the most at the hands of the Burmans in recent years, it is the Karen who have fought them for the longest.

To be fair, Myanmar features many of the problems that face multicultural States and raises a basic question: how might societies with many disparate ethnic and linguistic groups achieve national integration without destroying local cultures – creating nations and not just states. Should there be a uniform state school curriculum in the national language, or can other local languages be taught (see Switzerland for example), and if so at what levels?

In today’s Myanmar, political change has been lagging badly behind the modest economic progress in the new Burma. There might have been some increase in democracy at the center, with what might come out of the November elections for instance, but the political and administrative architecture of central Burman control over the whole of this extremely diverse country has scarcely been touched.

Myanmar’s leading parties, however, don’t need to venture very far to find the answer to the country’s chronic poverty and creaking economy – they just have to look out the window onto the streets of downtown Yangon. Here is where today’s Myanmar could learn to pick up the threads of the country’s past. This is where globalization is visible, and despite successive attempts to smash those silken webs that bind these traders to the world, still enough survives. If they were all equal citizens in a new Myanmar, alike, that could be an extraordinarily rich and potent mix. Just as the plural society, with all its flaws, was born in these streets in its own time, so it is easy to imagine another society emerging from the detritus of the old, better, stronger and wealthier than before. But that would require enormous political courage from all of Burma’s rulers, to surmount the country’s history in the name of forging an entirely new nation.

One of the questions thus will be if the next government will be willing to have a dialogue about implementing autonomy for the states and the establishment of Myanmar as a federal union.

We should question how international and indigenous political legitimacy symbols and attitudes may differ and may be perceived, and what effect these views have on hot' internal and external state actors. What does it take in Myanmar for a government to be considered legitimate by its various peoples and the international community?

We need to know what kinds of foreign policies toward Myanmar have proven to be effective or ineffective" International organizations can learn valuable human rights lessons from the Burmese situation that will help the international community-individual states, international institutions such as the United Nations or ASEAN, and international nongovernmental organizations-improve conditions there. The Myanmar case may help us understand whether the international community can effectively promote democracy, pluralism, and better governance elsewhere, and if so, over what period and to what extent.

After several hours, the train nears the town of Bago, a bustling city of 200,000. It is not a top attraction for tourists (who mostly head for the golden rock), but it does bring in some day trippers from Yangon. As the track curves into Bago, a large golden pagoda is visible. I know from my reading that this is the Shwemawdaw Paya, which is the tallest one in Burma. At 375 feet, it is 53 feet taller than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Bago, formerly known as Pegu, was once an ancient capital of southern Burma when much of the country was ruled by the Mon-speaking people. Just about the same time as the fighting between the French and the English in the Hundred Years' War was winding down in Europe, Burma was engaged in the Forty Years' War – a similarly protracted conflict between two groups of people, the Burmans, and the Mon.

Today the 4.0% or so Mon-speaking people living in Myanmar constitute an ethnic minority, however, this has not always been the case. From early in the first millennium, for a period of more than a thousand years, Mon and Khmer kings ruled over much of mainland Southeast Asia. After the Mon moved westward into the Irrawaddy River delta of southern Myanmar, they acquired Theravāda Buddhism, their state religion, from Ceylon and South India, and they adopted the Indian Pāli script. By 825 they had firmly established themselves in southern and southeastern Myanmar and founded the cities of Pegu and Thaton.

About the same period, southward-migrating Burmans took over lands in central Myanmar and established the kingdom of Pagan.

Across northern and central Thailand until six or seven hundred years ago, and in central and lower Burma for another three hundred years, the bulk of the population were ethnic Mons. The Mon kingdoms in chronological order are the Thaton Kingdom (9th century–1057), the Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1287–1539), and the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1740–1757). The latter period of Mon history came to an end when the Burman warrior-king Alaungphaya defeated the Mon ruler of Pegu (currently Bago Thousands of his followers were driven into exile in Ayuthaiya (Thailand), where they settled in the border areas adjoining Burma.

Mon civilization was among the most influential in pre-colonial Southeast Asia. Significant aspects of the language, art and architecture, political and legal arrangements, and above all the religion of the Burman civilization was derived from the earlier Mon society, which acted as a vector in the transmission of Theravada Buddhism and Indianized political culture to the region. This civilizing role helps to explain the enduring prestige attached to the Mon heritage across mainland Southeast Asia. Mon nationalists have looked back to the classical era as a golden age - a source of inspiration and legitimacy. They have struggled to defend the historical Mon identity from assimilation into that of the Burman majority.

Farther down the line, our train crosses the Sittang River, which was the site of the first major battle of the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, and by May 1942 they had driven the colonial administration out of Burma. It has been argued that the Japanese invasion of Burma was the main cause of the Bengal Famine of 1943 since it cut off all food supplies from the region (although no doubt equally important was the epidemic of brown spot disease that attacked the rice crop in Bengal in 1942).

With the help of a group of young nationalists led by Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi), the Japanese established a puppet Burmese government under Dr. Ba Maw, as Naingngandaw Adipati (or Head of State). It was overwhelmingly ethnic Burman in character, a factor underlined by the harsh treatment it accorded some Karen communities.

In 1941 gangs on the fringes of Aung San's Burmese Independence Army had massacred several hundred Karens in the delta. Isolated Japanese and Burmese atrocities against them and other minorities continued throughout the war.

On the borders of Chinese Yunnan Karen, Shan and Chin fought a long guerrilla campaign against the Japanese invaders, not so much out of love for the British but because the Japanese were invading their sacred territory alongside ethnic Burmese to whom they were deeply antagonistic.

In an important sense, all Burma’s post-colonial governments, but especially those since the instigation of the dictatorial military rule in 1962, have taken their cue from Ba Maw’s political program for the revitalisation of the Burmese people. There was no room, of course, for the colonial plural society, but more importantly, for post-war Burma this also excluded the possibility of allowing any authentic expression of the culture and religion of the many other indigenous ethnic groups that were supposed to share the territory of Burma with the majority Burmans in the newly independent country. As one scholar had recently written, “Even before they gained political power, Burman leaders declared their superiority over the other ethnic groups and claimed that they were the rightful rulers of the country.” (Matthew Walton, “The ‘wages of Burmanness’: Ethnicity and Burman privilege in contemporary Myanmar”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2012, p. 8.)

Thus, when Ba Maw proclaimed that “tribal accounts are settled”, what he meant was that the nation should be united under Burman hegemony. The Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Shan and others of the so-called “hill tribes” were accepted as were accepted as indigenous in the state’s prescribed list of 135 ethnic groups, and so were supposed to have more rights than the immigrants of the plural society, even full citizenship. But in reality, from the 1960s onwards the military regime tried to construct a highly centralized, culturally homogenous Burman state, thus pitting them for decades against the Karen, Shan and more who saw themselves as having to refight older, pre-colonial wars against aggressive Burman revanchism – wars that are, essentially, still continuing. Kachin were fighting on the side of the British and the Allies against the Burmans who, as we have seen, largely sided with the Japanese. Thus, the war in Burma came to be fought partly along racial lines, with the Japanese-trained BIA, composed mostly of Burmans, pitched against the Karen, Kachin, and Chin, trained and supported by the British. This basic racial division fundamentally shaped Ba Maw’s political convictions, as well as those of his Burman successors such as Ne Win and Than Shwe, most of whom had served with the BIA in the war. The two sides, the Burmans, and the hill peoples, thus retain very different narratives of the war and its place in the development of an independent country.

When the British returned, the Karens received them with enthusiasm, inviting British soldiers into their churches and homes. For their part, the British applauded the formation of the Karen National Organization in 1945 and put substantial amounts of money into the hill and minority areas. The Seagrim Hospital was founded as a memorial to the heroic special operations officer who had led them. At this stage, only a few Karen, Kachin, Shan or Chin radicals were talking about political separation from Burma, but with a partition in the air all around in India, Palestine, Ireland and Poland - expectations had been raised to a dangerously high level.

Their experience during the war is mentioned in all documents as decisive for the relative unity in 1945-47. The Burma Independent Army (BIA) and the Japanese Army attacked the Karen in and around Myaungmya, in the Irrawaddy Delta and around Papun. Many Karen had kept their weapons, and three British officers stayed in the eastern hills after the British retreat. The tensions turned ugly when Christian Karen where murdered in churches where they had sought sanctuary. An estimated 1,800 Karen lost their lives. In Papun, ten elders were executed, women were raped and Karen taken as hostages to capture Major Seagrim, who stayed behind the Japanese lines. The Karen blamed the BIA and took the cruelty displayed as a clear sign that the two groups could never exist peacefully together. Thus, xenophobia was produced and later reproduced on both sides. The remedy was a separate state and the criteria used in the mapping were geographical as well as mental/cultural and published in so-called memorials from the KNA. The first publication - the Humble Memorial of the Karens of Burma - was written in September 1945 by Saw Tha Din. This memorial was one of many papers circulated during the negotiations for independence and before a Karen delegation arrived - like the first - in London 1946

Thus, in 1946, the expectations among the Karen had reached their highest point. They were convinced that the British would reward their loyalty and sufferings during the Second World War with an autonomous state. Although they were utterly disappointed and perplexed when the state did not materialize, their expectations and the British support seemed to converge into a common conjuncture of expectations. 

There was a British White Paper in May 1945 that formally articulated a “two Burma” solution, an idea that had long been assumed administratively during the high colonial period. And Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, the incumbent Governor at the time of the Japanese invasion, in his war memos from exile in Simla (India), envisioned two postwar Burma – an Upper Burma made up of Karens, Indians, and Anglo-Burmans; and a British Burma, with a capital in Rangoon, of the peripheral peoples who would in due time declare their allegiance.

The British White Paper mentioned a Karen State - a reward for loyalty - but the problem in the proposal was that representation of the Karen nation was based on the assumption of a culturally homogeneous entity in contradiction to the realities. During the negotiations, the imagination of a Karen nation had become too blurred and the boundaries to fuzzy to all parties. However, this is not to say that the Karen nation was and is an illusory construction but was an entity with huge inner contradictions.

The confused military settlement between Aung San and the British had made matters worse. At the negotiations at Kandy in September 1945 little attempt had been made to merge the armed minorities with the armed Burmese. Instead, there was to be a two-wing army, one wing consisting mainly of Kachins, Karens, and Chins officered by British regulars, the other mainly of Burmese elements in the British army and 6,too-odd Burmese Army men. The officer corps of this second wing was to be “Burmanized”.

In agreement with the retreating British authorities, the new Burmese (Tatmadaw) army incorporated a flimsy alliance of historical antagonists. The head of the new Army was a famous Karen fighter, General Smith Dun. Smith Dun, however, was frustrated by the unwillingness of these force commanders to recognize or carry out War Office orders.

Finally, in December 1948, the violence escalated to outright massacres. On Christmas Eve 1948, Burmese irregulars threw hand grenades into a Karen church where people were celebrating the festival. The fleeing congregation was shot down or bayoneted. The insurgent Karen forces now went on the offensive, digging in at Insein, close to the capital, even after they failed to take Rangoon itself. Rangoon civilians took day trips out to the front where the army allowed them to take pot shots at the Karen fighters for one rupee a bullet.

Violence in the delta escalated and inevitably landed in the suburbs of Rangoon, where Karens and Burmans lived in adjacent quarters. Sitwundan units, reinforced by university students and hooligans from Rangoon, moved into Insein and surrounded the Karen quarters there. From time to time, the Sitwundan and other irregulars fired shots toward Karen quarters in Insein, Ahlone, Kyimendine, and Sanchaung (the latter three located inside Rangoon city limits). The Karen, in turn, rebelled against the new Burmese-dominated government and three Burmese battalions deserted to join a powerful communist insurgency.

The 1947 Constitution was received as the root cause of problems that Myanmar encountered in the past fifty years and remains a major issue to be solved. Referring to the defects in the constitution, the leaders of the hill peoples said that the Union Constitution is not a genuine federal system. In the set up of the Union, they said though the minorities are constituted as constituent states, Myanmar proper was incorporated within the central government and enjoyed the monopoly of Union power whereas the status of the remaining states are lowered to that of tributary states to Myanmar.

The imposition of military rule in 1962 next led to the heartbreaking ruination of the country.And with the 1974 Constitution, the practice of absolute authority was written into law.

Simultaneously, the national map was redrawn to accommodate seven divisions (inhabited by the majority of the population) and seven ethnic states (in underpopulated border areas). Geographically, the principal ‘national races’ were extended recognition, but in reality, the states’ role has been merely to enforce policy radiating from the capital.

As racism drove out diversity and creativity, so commerce dried up and Rangoon, in particular, began to fall into a state of miserable disrepair. With no attempt to maintain the buildings, much of the city has fallen prey to the invasive tropical climate. More recently there was a change of heart, when the generals, recognizing the failure of their socialist policies, adopted a version of crony capitalism instead, but by then most of the damage had been done.

But the generals wanted to go much further. A new body called the National Language Commission ordered that the English language is dropped altogether from school curriculums as a language of instruction. It would only be taught as a second language. Much more importantly, the generals ordered that Burmese was to be the sole language used and taught throughout the entire country's school system, effectively denying all the ethnic groups in the Union of Burma the right to use, teach or learn their language. 8 This, more than anything, made language the central battleground of Burmanisation, the insistence that in this country of at least one hundred different languages, including at least three distinct language families (Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer, and Tal), everyone had to use only Burmese. It was a tongue that would have been as foreign to many of the Chin and Karen as Spanish or Russian.

Another, Adaptation of Expressions Law, ordered the change of the English translation of Burmese place names, but only to reflect the translation of these place names from the language of the majority Burman group - Burmese - and not from the local language in which the places were geographically situated. These new names were thus far less inclusive as toponyms to the citizens of the whole of Burma than many of the spellings they replaced, as the British colonialists had usually taken great care to record the local names as they heard them, and then to render them as closely as possible in English. This had meant that the original English names were broadly reflective of the local ethnic ones, but these were now unceremoniously abandoned without any consultation with the local people who used them the most. Thus, the Burman ethnic group was renamed Bamar, and eight of the fourteen administrative state and division name spellings were altered as well, sowing confusion always. Thus, Arakan became Rakhine; Karen was changed to Kayin; Magwe to Magway; Pego to Bago; Rangoon to Yangon, and so on. lt was a huge politicization of place names and a Burmese linguistic land-grab in somebody else's language. In general, linguistics as a subject was gradually dropped from Burma's universities. Even if a Burman had wanted to learn anyone of the many minority ethnic languages that were used in his country (rather than a Karen, say, having to learn Burman), it was now almost impossible to do so as there were so few competent teachers left.

It was also in this context that the change in the country's official name, from Burma to Myanmar took place. Myanmar. Moreover, so the argument went, as the name Burma reflected the existence only of the majority Burman ethnic group, so Myanmar better represented all the peoples of the country. In fact, as many have pointed out since, Myanmar and Burma were used pretty much interchangeably before the British arrived. The name change thus further disenfranchised the non-Burman ethnic groups who had become used to forms of "Burma" to describe the whole country.

Just as language became an instrument of Burmanisation, so did education. What happened in the classroom increasingly became more about the maintenance of military control than equipping children with knowledge and skills. The result has been a disastrous decline in the country's educational standards over the past fifty years.

The United Nations Development Program estimated that public spending on education in Burma constituted less than 2 per cent of the country's GDP in 2009, a tiny amount by international standards. (Harvard University Kennedy School, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, David Dapice, Anthony Saich and Thomas Vallely, Appraising the Post-Sanctions Prospects for Myanmar's Economy: Choosing the Right Path, January 2012, p. 20.)

Spending on health was also minuscule, only about 0.5 per cent of GDP. In 2000, the World Health Report said that Burma had the world's worst health system bar only the desperately poor and war-ravaged West African state of Sierra Leone. (Ian Holliday, Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar, Columbia University Press, 2011, p.77.)

By way of contrast, spending on the military amounted to about 40 per cent of the national budget.

Despite its dominance of Burma's national affairs for decades, the Burmese armed forces, the Tatmadaw, remain in many respects a closed book.

It is clear, however, that since 2011 Commander-in Chief Min Aung Hlaing has implemented wide-ranging plans to improve its order of battle.

The latter includes an ambitious arms acquisition program that some have compared with the dramatic expansion and modernisation of Burma's armed forces during the 1990s. As seen at recent Armed Forces Day parades, it has new surface-to-air missile systems such as the Chinese HQ-12/KS-1A and the Russian Pechora-2M. It has also shown an interest in obtaining more heavy artillery and unmanned ground vehicles.

In 2014 an unspecified number of CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder multi-role combat aircraft was ordered. It has also received new transport aircraft and air-to-air missiles. several of these acquisition and construction programs were initiated before the handover of power to a hybrid civilian-military government in 2011.

This suggests the then ruling military council wanted to ensure that the Tatmadaw had the revenue and hardware necessary to handle any challenges that arose after that time.

The Burmese generals also knows that, regardless of who is in power, Myanmar's internal stability, and sovereignty will remain important factors in any consideration of the country's military capabilities, and its annual defense expenditure.

Whereby the main task of the huge army so far has not been to defend the country from foreign invasion but to fight the government's internal enemies. The Burmese armed forces, so far, it appaers focused almost entirely on counter-insurgency, and the various ethnic rebel groups.

Pondering this through part of this 5-hour train segment, we arrived at Kyaikto near the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda over the Golden Rock.

According to legend, the Golden Rock itself is precariously perched on a strand of the Buddha's hair. Thus the hair relics of the Buddha believed to be inside the granite boulder are the objects of devotion, but the rock’s sanctity owes as much to its rich legacy. How this granite boulder balancing on a cliff side in a remote mountain range came to achieve national veneration is testimony to not only the tenacious continuity of old legends but also their remarkable elasticity. A believe in the Buddha giving a strand of his hair to Taik Tha, a hermit who gave it to the King (other legends talk about six strands to six hermits) probably arose in Burma during the fifteenth century. The theme survived in Lower Burma and gave rise to numerous separate traditions following the Mon defeat in the sixteenth century.

One has to be careful navigating the area due to the similarity of the place names: Kyaikto (the town) versus Kyaiktiyo (the name of the mountain and the pagoda on top, also sometimes spelled as Kyaik-htiyo).

It is accepted that the foundation of the current ceasefire between the KNU and the Burmese government was grounded more on economic and business interests than on any grand strategy to find a solution to political problems. True, since the end of 2013 there is some economic development here. And like most of the hotels on my trip this year, the new United Hpa An Hotel features free WiFi throughout the property.

But if the Karen civil war fatally wounded the early post-independence Burmese state, it eventually did far more damage to the Karen themselves. Kayin State was turned into a war zone, with the seven-brigade-strong KNLA, the armed wing of the KNU, at times exerting military control over much of the south of the state, especially in the most remote hills pressed up against the Thai border. From bases in Thailand, principally around Three Pagodas Pass, they received supplies and support from their fellow Karen and were joined by well-wishers and soldiers of fortune, motivated by religion, anti-communism or just a simple love of adventure. The war ravaged the once-thriving Karen hill economy, as the Burmese army clearly intended. There was massive depopulation as hundreds of thousands fled the fighting, many of them braving the arduous journey through the jungle to scores of refugee camps around Mae Sot in Thailand. These camps contained about 145,000 people by 2010. And it is estimated that a total of around one million five hundred Karen’s, live outside Myanmar.

Many who fled were the young and better educated, as there were no more jobs available in Kayin State. Much of the land became off limits due to landmines, laid by both sides, rendering it impossible to cultivate. As normal administration broke down completely in the state, so over the decades it became one of the poorest in Burma, itself the second-poorest country in Asia. Increasing malnutrition, disease, displacement and the stress of war contributed to a steady and marked decline in the Karen peoples’ health, so much so that they now have some of the worst such statistics in the world.

By 2010, they and other such groups had found that 41.2 per cent of children under five were acutely malnourished in the hills of eastern Burma and that 60 per cent of deaths in children under five were from preventable and treatable diseases. Child mortality rates were nearly twice as high as in the rest of Burma, and the maternal mortality figure three times the national average. (For details see and also see.)

The terrible consequences of all these decades of conflict, military, political and cultural, are all much in evidence in the city of Hpa-An. Road access to it is rigorously controlled by Burmese army checkpoints. And like in Myitkyina, the central Burman authorities are confined to a small enclave, where they occupy the choicest buildings leading down to a lake that gives on to some memorable views of the local limestone outcrops. It is the only part of town that could vaguely be described as picturesque. For the rest, Hpa-An is mainly a depressing collection of shabby concrete and corrugated iron houses, sagging electricity wires and crumbling masonry.

Most new investments in Kayin state today have been negotiated by Burmans over the heads of the Karen. It seems that, for all its ceasefires, Myanmar’s government has yet to learn anything very new politically.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed on 15 Oct was the government’s chance to add some much-needed credence to the elections in November. Unfortunately not everyone is convinced it will bring stability to the country. On the eve of the ceasefire signing, the Karen National Liberation Army issued a statement making their position clear: They would never give up their cause. The Karen’s are also weary the government might be using the situation to renew hostilities.

In fact, there has been more violence under the semi-civilian reformist government than under the previous military junta.

The nature outside of Hpa-An does not disappoint however, following a beautifully located monastery outside Hpa-An:


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