The long and windy road of Myanmar
How long and windy the road to national reconciliation is, is perhaps most visible in Shan State. National reconciliation refers to the quest of finding a way for all the people within the borders of Myanmar to live together. Shan’s roads are windy. Travel takes a long time because of that. The Shan are also a proud people who are not giving up on their dream to again one day have a say over their own destiny.
Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Following independence from the British, the government recognized 135 ethnic groups. But thus far they are not living happily ever after. In the 1930s the British have started the process to separate Burma from India. The plan involved creating a nation-state out of Burma proper and the so-called Frontier Areas (where the non-Burmese ethnic peoples live).
And then World War II happened. The British could not execute their policy; and the people ‘discovered’ nationalism. Nationalism and related concepts as national unity and nation-states were unknown in SE Asia before the colonialists came. The system was a feudal one: one paid allegiance to the nearest lord, going ever higher up all the way to the king. Kings went to war with other kings for personal glory and personal glory only.
So when the Second World War ended and the British got ready to exit, Burmese nationalists saw themselves as heirs to the Burmese kings but with one major difference: they included the Frontier Areas in their picture, as restored lost possessions or colonies of some sort. Non-Burman leaders in the Frontier Areas, however, entered the post-colonial era with the idea to not be dominated by others again. The Frontier Areas had been left in relative isolation by the British; all this changed once the different parties to the World War started trampling all over their areas. The 1947 Panglong agreement held things together until the coup of 1962.
And we are still here today: the internal conflict(s) revolve around the question of power. Power of the center and the control of the center over the periphery. The Burmese see Myanmar as one country and thus the central government has the right to rule the periphery. The non-Burmese feel they’ve been thrown together in-the-mix and call for self-determination for the different peoples who make up the periphery. They want autonomy in a federal system.
This schism runs deep. Possibly deepest within the Shan (nationalists). Because of their powerful chiefs, ‘sabwahs’, the Shan were treated most harshly by the various governments. Furthermore, Shan is resource rich. For years, natural riches have been extracted and exported out of the state without any compensation. The Shan nationalists want equality: i.e., to be recognized as on equal footing with the Burman and that exploitation stops.
On the country’s pride and joy, the highway that links Naypyitaw to Yangon and Mandalay, a bronze Porsche had to hit the brakes because a WW2 model sky-blue Japanese pickup was overtaking a horse cart. A big group of buffalo slowly walking the other direction looked on. Somehow this coming together of eras and the yielding of the bigger-faster for the older-slower, there on the Mandalay-Naypyitaw highway, comforted me. The road will be long, the road will be windy.
I wanted to end with “But I’m sure they’ll get there!” Yet, as I’m typing this (25 March), rumors about heightened security in Yangon pop up. Is the Buddhist-Islam conflict, last year confined to Rakhine state, and flaring up in Meihktila on 20 March, spreading? Right now, my outlook is a bit more somber than when I was on the road to Mandalay.