More than one third of Burma 's population, estimated at about fifty million, belongs to ethnic minorities or, more precisely, to non-Burman ethnic groups; at least 100 different languages and dialects are spoken in the country. Paradoxically, the armed forces (Tatmadaw) and its ruling body, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), regard political claims based on ethnicity as a major problem for the stability of the state; in contrast, the non-Burman ethnic groups, particularly their elites, consider the lack of ethnic rights and democracy to be the main problem. In this contradiction, then, there is a basic agreement that ethnicity matters. However, while the political conflict in Burma has ethnic dimensions it is not caused by it.
Hence, the ongoing national constitutional convention, organized and controlled by the SPDC, is designed to maintain a unitary nation-state with a so-called 'disciplined democracy' under absolute military rule. The Constitutional Drafting National Convention has 1,074 delegates of whom 633 are from the non-Burman ethnic groups and those ethnic organizations that have entered into a ceasefire with the regime. Delegates are not allowed to discuss proposals other than those approved by the regime. Whereas the Tatmadaw considers ethnic federalism to be a relict from the colonial past or even a neocolonialist ploy aimed at fragmenting the Union of Burma, the opposition in exile has agreed upon a federal constitution based on the present states and divisions in order to secure both democracy and ethnic rights. As a crucial part of this proposal, the opposition alliance has agreed that local secession should not be an option in any new constitution.
Recently, the SPCD has changed the basis of their much-heralded ceasefire agreement with about 17 armed ethnic organizations, probably in order to strengthen control of the border areas. In mid-2005 two battalions of the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army (DKBA) were escorted to their headquarters in the Myaing Gyi Ngu monastery. Here, the DKBA's founder, the monk U Thuzana, told them that they were no longer soldiers, hence could not continue their practice of demanding supplies from Karen villagers. Tatmadaw donated 90 million Kyats to the DKBA, probably as compensation, whilst Burmese army units replaced DKBA troops in the area. Interestingly, U Thuzana has announced that he is no longer the leader of the DKBA. It is not unlikely that some in the DKBA will now cooperate with the Christian-dominated Karen National Union (KNU) from which they split in 1994 - or stay neutral in the future. Much depends on the negotiations of a ceasefire between the SPDC and the KNU. But these negotiations seem to have halted after the removal of Khin Nyunt, the former Prime minister and head of military intelligence now under house arrest. He was the architect of the ceasefires.
Meanwhile, SPDC has moved to control a number of other ceasefire groups such as the New Mon State Party (NMSP) in southern Burma; its activities in Moulmein are now being investigated. The NMSP is discussing a withdrawal from the national convention, which could end their ceasefire.
In early 2005 the regime arrested ten prominent Shan leaders; among these was Hkhun Htun, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. These leaders are now serving long prison sentences in remote jails. In May 2005 the Shan State National Army broke the ceasefire and joined forces with the Shan State Army South in response to forcible disarmament. The situation in Kachin state is also precarious after a coup and counter-coup within one of the two armed Kachin organizations, they drew Democratic Army - Kachin (NDA-K). Members of the NDA-K have been ordered to disarm. Internal rifts caused by struggles to control the natural resources of Kachin State also mar the main Kachin organization, the Kachin Independence Organization. Likewise, the Kayah (Karenni) State has recently seen fights between groups supported by the SPDC and the still insurgent Kayan New Land Party, who were forced out of their territory. The oldest Kayah organization, the Karenni National Progressive Party, broke their ceasefire after a few months, while the third organization, the Karenni National Peoples Liberation Front has maintained its ceasefire and financed its activities from logging and tin mining. The political divisions and uneven control of resources within Kayah state illustrate the problems faced with implementation of any new constitution. All ceasefire groups seem more or less frustrated with the constitutional convention as well as with the increased control by the Tatmadaw. The SPDC will not allow other armed organizations than the Tatmadaw in the new constitution. This complex situation, very briefly outlined above, could develop into a renewed and serious armed conflict.
Another problem is the drug trade, which has become an important part of Burma 's declining economy. Burma produces and estimated 2,000 tons opium per annum and is a major producer of amphetamines as well. Money earned from the trade in heroin and amphetamines is laundered in hotels and businesses run by the military and their relatives. In 1989, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) lost it support from China and after an internal conflict the movement fragmented into four ethnic armies. About 80 per cent of the CPB soldiers were from the Wa ethnic group and formed The United Wa State Army of the Wa ethnic group, the largest ceasefire army, is deeply involved in the drug trade of amphetamines and heroin.
As we shall see next, religion also represents an important dimension. According to the journal Irrawaddy (12 September 2005), the SPDC has closed several Christian churches after they had received many Buddhist converts; Burmese troops continue to demolish Christian crosses in Chin State. Muslims also encounter widespread discrimination and violence. Mosques have been attacked and burned by mobs led by bogus monks and Muslims are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State are not recognized as an ethnic group by the SPDC and but rather are labeled as 'illegal immigrants'. Muslims who have been living in Karen State classify themselves as 'Karen Muslims' - many speak Karen - in order to delineate an ethnic boundary that signifies an alliance and asserts a non-Burman identity.
Karen nationalism became very complex when the diversity and local segmentation within the ethnic unity entered the process, where religious dividisions plaid a decisive yet partly concealed role. The British thus pointed to poor Karen leadership, no sense of community and the old Karen weakness of following prophetic types of leaders. The Karen leaders replied that it suited the British well to act confused, thus avoiding clarification of their position and thus contributing to the confusion. The White Paper of 1945 mentioned a Karen State - a reward for loyalty - but the problem ill the proposal was that representation of the Karen nation was based on I he 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.
If the bifocal Pakistan that had emerged a few months earlier was a geographer's nightmare, the idea of Karenistan was a mapmaker's hell. Only in the forested Salween tract of the south were the Karens a majority of the population. This rather backward area could hardly form the basis of a separate unit within Burma , let alone a proud new member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, as some dreamers hoped. Elsewhere in the delta the Karens were simply too scattered to constitute a political unit, even if overall they comprised 20 per cent of the local population. The decisive point was that, unlike Karachi and Dacca in the two wings of Pakistan , Karenistan would have had no big town to act as a gateway to the world. Sleepy Moulmein was the nearest the Karens got to a capital and here they were nowhere near a majority of the population.
Political dreamers, however, are not overmuch influenced by the study of geography. Besides, there were good reasons, both long and short term, that the Karen issue should come to the boil again in the early summer of 1948. In the first place, the Karens were now acutely aware of how dependent the Burmese government was on the Karen element of the old colonial Burma Army, and in particular on Smith Dun. They saw with mounting alarm the drift of all the other elements in the army either to the communists or to mutiny. But while the government was actually militarily dependent on the Karens and other minorities, the direction of its policy belied this basic fact. Karen leaders were suspicious of Nu's oft-stated desire to compromise with the communists. They scanned the government's economic programme with dismay. It was following a slow, centralizing drift that they believed would eventually render the Panglong agreement irrelevant. Christian Karens, in particular, were opposed on principle to 'godless communism' and believed that once Nu felt free to escape to a monastery, whatever government came to rule Burma would be hostile to them.
It was Burmese thugs, not the Japanese, who had massacred the Karens when the BIA ripped into the delta in 1942 and the raw memory of the hundreds of men, women and children slaughtered fed a much older sense of difference and alienation. Karen fears became sharper in September and October, when leftist army officers decided to raise yet another irregular force, the Sitwundan. A politically moderate Burmese officer, on the point of resignation, identified the leaders of this organization as 'dacoits or ex-dacoits or people familiar in police records. Some of them are either known criminals or political chameleons.'
By 1 September Karen paramilitary forces were in charge of the port of Moulmein, a powerful statement of their aim of political separatism. They were joined in this insurrection by another delta people, the Mons. The Mon population was abut 300,000. They were the remaining descendants of the once dominant people of southern Burma who had been defeated, or assimilated, by the Burmese after 1760. This uprising, however, was unlike either the communist insurgency or the military mutinies. At first there was little actual fighting between the Burmese forces and the Karens and Mons.
Rather than redeploying its scarce troops, let alone putting at issue the loyalty of the Karen battalion, the government had to bargain for time politically. It reopened talks on the question of Karen and pacified the Karens by persuading them that their home villages were not likely to come under immediate assault. In fact, most of the Burmese were inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt and were much more hostile to the communists than to the socialist government. As the year drew to its end the situation in Burma still seemed so grave that the Americans, acutely alert to the threat of communism, were now seriously worried. Later in the year the government attempted to disband the remaining 'loyal' Karen battalions of the army, fearing they too would mutiny. 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. (Jonathan Falla, True Love and Bartholomew: rebels on the Burmese border Cambridge, 1991, p. 26). The only hope, as Furnivall put it, was that 'it is Ilot that the rebels are strong, but the Government is weak'. (Furnivall to Dunn, 24 December 1948, Furnivall Papers, PPIMS 23, vol. I, SOAS).
The greatest suffering hit all those Karen, Buddhists, Animists, or Christian, to whom no neutral position was, or has been, available in this long conflict, not even in the refugee camps in Thailand.
Minor Karen groups who have entered an agreement with the regime, such as the Karen Peace Army, control some areas. In 2000 a small KNU faction called God's Army attracted the media with its mixture of Christianity and supernatural beliefs. The zone of peace and Buddhist merit is probably still a model, that can attract Karen across denominations and inter-ethnic boundaries. Although not a totally neutral position, it is a model, that at least promotes the idea of non-violence, which is so badly needed if peace and reconciliation are going to succeed. In this conjuncture the KNU has maintained its position towards the military regime and is reluctant to enter an agreement forcing the Karen National Liberation Army to give up its weapons. However, the KNU now supports a federal constitution and is not going to demand an independent state. The problem, though, is how to base a new constitution on ethnic criteria, which are often disputed internally as well as externally by the various groups and categories. The KNU still has to address the internal diversity among the Karen, including the generation gap. The Karen National League (KNL), founded in 1997 by relatively young, educated Karen in diasporas seems to support the present KNU political line. Even more Chrisitan however the Chin, on the other side of Burma.
Stone inscriptions are the strongest evidence indicating, that the name Chin was in use before the eleventh century AD. It comes from the myth that the Chin people emerged into this world from the bowels of the earth or a cave or a rock called root word 'Chin-lung'. In fact they were expelled from their original homeland, the Kale Valley in Upper Chindwin , by a flood as oral traditions recount it - or conquered by the Shan as modern scholars have suggested. One of the early Western writers to note the existence of the hill tribes of Chin in the western mountains of Burma was Father Sangermano, who lived in Burma as a Catholic missionary from 1783 to 1796. In his now classic book The Burmes Empire - published one hundred years after his death in1833 - he spelled the name Chin as 'Chie' and the Chin Hills as the 'Chein Mountains'.In Assam and Bengal, the Chin tribes - particularly the Zomi tribe who live close to that area - were known as 'Kuki'. The Bengali word for Kuki means 'hill-people or highlanders'.
For people who had no writing system of their own, a rich oral tradition consisting of folksong and folklore was the most reliable means of transmitting past events and collective memories through time. The songs were sung repeatedly during all kinds of feasts and festivals, and the tales that made up Chin folklore were told and retold over the generations. In this way, such collective memories as the myth of origin and the myth of common ancestors were handed down from one generation to the next. Different tribes and groups of Chin kept the tradition of 'Chin-lung' in several versions; so for example the Ralte clan/group of the Milo tribe, also known as the Lushai, who are now living in the Mizoram State in India .
According to the Linguistic Survey of India in 1904, the Chin dialects are linguistically divided into four major groups as the northern, the central, Lhe old Kuki, and the southern.
(1) The northern group: Thado, Kamhau, Sokte (Sukte), Siyin (Sizang), Ralte, and Paite.
(2) The central group: Tashon (Tlaisun), Lai, Lakher (Mara), Lushai (Mizo), Bangjogi (Bawmzo), and Pankhu.
(3) The old-Kuki group: Rangkhol, Kolren, Kom, Purum, Hmar, Cha (Chakma).
(4) The southern group: Chin-me, Chin-bok, Chin-pun, Khyang (Asho), M'ro (Khuami), Shendus (Yindu), and Welaung.Scholars generally agree that there are six major tribal groups of the Chin, namely the (1) Asho, (2) Ch6 or Sho, (3) Khuami or M'ro, (4) Laimi, (5) Mizo (Lushai) and (6) Zomi.
Prior to British annexation in 1896, the Chins were independent people ruled by their own traditional tribal and local chiefs called 'Ram-uk' and 'Jhua-bawi', respectively. Surrounding kingdoms like Burman or Myanmar , Bengal and Assam (India) never conquered the Chin people and their land, Chinram, As a result, Buddhism, Muslim and Hinduism never reached the Chin. The Chin traditional religion was the only social manifestation of people's faith, which bound the community together. Although all the tribes and villages followed the same pattern of belief systems, the ritual practices in traditional Chin religion - called 'Jhua-hrum' worship - were very much mutually exclusive, and could not serve to unite the entire Chin people under a single religious institution. Thus, until the British occupation, the Chin society remained a tribal society and the people's identification with each other was tribally exclusive; the formation of a common national identity remained to be researched.
By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Chin society was abruptly transformed by powerful outside force of change. The British conquered Chinram, and the Christian missionaries followed the colonial powers and converted the people. Within this process of change, the Chin people found themselves in the midst of multi-ethnic and multi-religious environments, which they did not welcome. They also realized that their country was not the central of the universe but a very small part of a very big British Empire. After the colonial period, they found themselves again being separated into three different countries - India , Burma, and Bangladesh - without their consent. While west Chinram of present Mizoram State became part of India , east Chinram of present Chin State joined the Union of Burma according to Uw Panglong Agreement signed in 1947. The smaller part of Chinram became part of what was then called East Pakistan. Thus when centuries-old isolationism in Chinram was broken up, the traditional way of maintaining the tribal group's identity was no longer effective, and the process of de-tribalization had begun. When the Chin converted to Christianity, missionaries encouraged them to abandon their traditional ways of life.
Thus for example , most of the Christian houses are not in the traditional long-house style, but resemble the house Dr East built in Haka. They also usually shifted away from their old house sites when they became Christians for they knew that the sites themselves were associated too much with what they called the spirit of the land. When a whole village became Christian, they even moved off their old village site, which was inseparably linked with the village guardian god, Tual Jhua-hrum. In the new village, the church was at the heart of the community instead of the Tual or Tlenlai Lung that had been the communal sacrificial stone or altar.
From the traditionalist point of view, this new phenomenon of the inn-thianh ritual was a painful memory of the destruction of centuries old institutions of Chin society. The views of the first missionary couple, Arthur and Laura Carson, on traditional Chin religion, culture, and custom were completely negative. Thus, Arthur Carson would write bluntly that 'the Chin had no word for God, grace, mercy, forgiveness', or even 'love'. Mrs Carson also wrote that 'sacrificing to evil spirits' was 'their only religion and system of medicine'. They passed, as Johnson points out, 'this attitude along to young Dr East' and other missionaries. The reason, according to Johnson, is that 'when Laura and Arthur Carson first came to the Chin Hills , they were so struck by the backwardness of the people that they overreacted'. (Carson, Pioneer Trails, Trails and Triumph , New York, 1927, p. 161.)
From the Chin's point of view, apparently, they agreed to a common ground and common knowledge between their own traditional religion and Christianity consisted not only of stories such as the ones about the Towel' of Babel, the Flood, the Virgin Mary and Pa Lo. This included the theological similarity between the traditional Chin religious teaching of life after death in Mithi-khua and the biblical teaching of heaven or paradise. In the Chin traditional religious concept, there was no problem in reaching heaven after death, for their religion taught them that one must surely reach heaven if one died an ordinary death. The problems concerning heaven, which bothered the Chin most, were: 'Are we going to be rich or poor? What kind of house are we are going to live in?' According to traditional Chin religious teaching, the house they built here on earth was the image of the house in their future life in Mithi-khua. If one could build a very big and good house here on earth, then one would surely have a very big and good house in the future life. But now the Chins were told by Christian missionaries that if they became Christians they would have a very big and good house glittering with silver and gold. The most attractive Christian teaching for the Chin however was the substitute death of Christ. According to traditional Chin religious teaching, if one died an accidental or violent death, their soul must go to Sarthi-khua. No soul can be redeemed from Sarthi-khua except with a substitute violent death, that is, revenge for his or her death.When they became Christians however , the Chin concept of communion as sharing the 'source of life' (zing-dangh) was gradually tr ansformed into the concept of communion with the 'giver of life' (Khua-zing), that is, the Supreme God.
Although there was a transition from the Chin traditional ways of life to the new community of faith, the conversion to Christianity did not break down the ties of family, clan, and tribe in Chin society overnight. The only difference between the two - the old and the new - was that in the old culture, feasts and festivals were centered upon family, clan and tribe, emphasizing the difference between one family and another, one clan and another, one tribe and another, and so on. Hence, it reinforced clan and tribal identities, which in the long run resulted in deep separation between different tribes of the same people. In the new Christian society, however, feasts and festivals were centered upon a love that transcended the boundary of family, clan, and tribe; they emphasized the love of God. The most illusive of the Burmese ethnic groups are the Shans elsewhere called Thai as in Thailand, for this we turn to the final part of today’s article.
When one study’s the inter-ethnic relationship of the 'Ko Shan Pyi' (Nine Shan States) one finds the legendary records of nine chiefdoms, or mong.
Tai-speaking people began to migrate to the mainland of Southeast Asia before the eighth century as an anchor. Most historians say that the last big wave of immigration was in the thirteenth century and their living area can be called a Shan (Tai) cultural area. They have kept their cultural similarity and communicate more easily among each other than those whose mother tongue belongs to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family or others. The 1983 population census of Burma said that the number of the Shan population was about 2.8 million and 90.6 per cent of them were Buddhists. Their cultural area extends across the borders with Thailand, Laos, the Assam region of India and the Yunnan Province of China.
In a sense, European colonial elites recognized 'racial' or ethnic minorities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during the period of colonial conquest as recorded in Gazetteers of Upper Burma and Shan States (GUBSS) published in 1900-1901. Many Shan sub-groups were 'scientifically' discovered in that period where Shan saopha (Sawbwa on the BarnaI' side) were recognized as lords by the British colonial government. The Burmese make a distinction between Burmese Shans (Shan B'mah), Chinese Shans (Shan Tayok) and Hkamti Shans. Roughly Speaking, Burmese Shans comprise the Shans of the Burmese Shan states, where Buddhism is more or less of the Burmese type and where the princes (saopha) have long been nominally subordinate to the Burmese King. Chinese Shans are the Shans of the Shan states in Yunnan , the most important of which lie in the area south of Tengyueh and west of Salween. Many of the Shans now resident in Burma in the Bhamo and Myitkyina districts are recent immigrants from Yunnan and are classed by the Burmese as Chinese Shans.
Today in general however, issues of ethnicity and ethnic identity are of global concern. This is especially so with regard to the nation-state, which in recent years has come under increased pressure - both from globalizing and from localizing processes. In Burma as in other countries there has been discussion about the role of ethnicity either as a source of conflicts (and constituting a threat to the nation-state) or as an essential element in democratic development.