Despite strong historical, cultural
and economic links with Myanmar, it did not, till recently occupy an important place in India's
national consciousness. Amitav Ghosh explains this in terms of a 26-year
long period of isolation imposed by General Ne Win, then Chief of
Army Staff, after he took over Burma in a coup in 1962: "Yet while other neighbouring countries -
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka - figured in our newspapers to the point of obsession, Burma was
scarcely mentioned. In defiance of the laws of proximity, General
Ne Win was able to render his country invisible to both its neighbours
and the world at large".
Swapan Dasgupta offers a centripetal
explanation: The evidence of rising unfamiliarity and disinterest
in our neighbourhood is overwhelming. Post-1947, India turned
its back on an institutionalised awareness of the region. We failed
to appreciate that the foreign policy of the British Raj was centred
not on Britain
but on India and Indian interests. Isolationism was egged on by a Fortress India
economic policy that led to civil society breaking off with age old
Like India, the
complexity of history, politics and ethnic composition of Myanmar
makes it the graveyard of all generalities. Professor
Josef Silverstein, a veteran Burma watcher, in a letter to Shelby Tucker, wrote I have been trying to follow and understand
the politics of Burma for
more than thirty years and fear that I still do not have a real grasp
of the intricacies of the players and the goals of some. This
complexity is daunting and therefore to many, is best ignored.
Despite all this, Myanmar
needs to be understood. It is a synapse between India and
South Asia. Its strategic location vis
a vis India and China is self -evident, particularly, since two
flanking strategic highways from China to Pakistan and Myanmar lead on to the
Indian Ocean. We also share many common problems, not the least being
shared insurgencies. Numerous other ties already mentioned also bind
us to Myanmar.
It is in this overall context that this paper seeks to address the
questions: What role does ethnicity play in a plural, multi-religious
country? How does the country manage its inevitable ethnic conflicts?
What lessons can be drawn from the experience of Myanmar?
National Borders and Ethnicity Borders
Myanmar shares its borders with India, China, Laos, Thailand
and Bangladesh. Being political borders they bear little relationship to the spread
of ethnic groups and divide them arbitrarily between neighbouring
countries. For instance: China has
the Kachin, Zaiwa, Bisu, Wa (also known as Parauk an official nationality in China),
and Akha populations while Bangladesh shares its Arakanese, Chak and Rohingya peoples with Myanmar.
The Indo-Burmese border, often redrawn by the British amongst themselves
for administrative purposes, divided the Zos (including Indian Mizos),
the Nagas, Kukis, Anals, Jingphos, Konyaks, and other minor tribes. However, free movement of indigenous
tribes living within a 20 km belt on either side of the Indo-Burma
border was (and is) permitted. Very few restrictions persist on cross
border movement with China and other bordering states.
The artificial delineation of the
borders was one of the major factors that led to the newly independent
states of India and
Burma reaping a harvest of insurgencies since 1947-48. There is still a
lack of stability in the location of tribal populations, particularly
on the Thai, Chinese and Indian borders due to refugee movement and
migration. For example, in the 1970s, 1,500 Kukis and Nagas of the
Sagaing Division were pushed across to India. A massive migration from China is
taking place in Lashio due to the factor of trade. Thus, the current
population in Lashio is 50 per cent Han, while in 1988 it was just
10 per cent. The population of Mandalay in 1999 was 30-40 per cent Chinese (1.2 million ethnic Chinese). The Indian population in Myanmar
is around one million.
If one erases the existing border
and then views the ethnic groups, the picture becomes much clearer.
The overall demographic picture of Myanmar is of the rich central plains and valleys occupied mainly by the Myanma
and Bamar ethnic groups and rimmed by outer mountainous regions occupied
by the ethnic minorities such as the Kachins, Shans, Karens and Nagas.
Although the central valleys and plains lead in population, the non-Burman
States occupy 55 per cent of the land. The Burman population has grown
more rapidly than the ethnic minorities.
Singhanetra points out that no comprehensive census has been conducted
since 1931. The 1941 census was interrupted by the Second World War.
Due to insurgencies in the hill areas, an incomplete census was carried
out in 1981 and March 1992. Nevertheless, according to the 1931 and
1992 census data, there were 28.25 million Burmans as against the
9.5 million in 1931 (+18.75 million), while the Shan population of
one million increased to 2.22 million (+1.22 million). Consequent
to a similar pattern emerging for the other ethnic minorities, there
has been a continued marginalisation rather than integration
of the minorities.
Ethnic data available in executive
summaries on Myanmar appear to convey a fairly coherent picture with
eight National races and 135 ethnic groups. This is far from the reality.
The very classification of tribes by the early British colonial
builder-cum-scholar-cum-adventurer is questionable and has led
to misconceptions and the growth of new ethnic identities. As Martin Smith comments in his seminal work, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity - "British rule, with its built-in distinctions
between ethnic races (particularly between the valley and hill peoples),
ossified many of these perceived differences and ensured that different
races remained on largely different roads to political and economic
The ethnic groups are varied in
language, culture and size. For example, the Chins have 51 ethnic
sub-groups while the Mons have one. Due to colonial ignorance and administrative convenience,
many of these tribes are referred to by names that are not their own.
The following extract from Ethnologue on the Kachins (who call themselves
Wunpawng but are variously
known by others as Jinghphaws
or Ka Khyens) is illustrative of the ethnic
complexity of just one tribe and explains why tribal and inter-tribal
unity is so difficult to achieve.
Jingpho (Kachin, Jingphaw, Chinngpaw0
, Marip, Singfo) 625,000 in Myanmar, 20,000 in China, 7,000
in India, 652,000 in all countries. Kachin State. Kachin refers to
the cultural rather than the linguistic group. Jingpho serves as the
lingua franca of Ashi, Lashi and Maru. Burman Jingpho differs from
Indian Jingpho. Called Aphu or Phu by the
Rawang people. Dzli may be a separate language or extinct . Hkaku
and Kauri only slightly different from Jingpo. 50% to 70% literate.
Pastoralists, agriculturists, polytheist, some Buddhist, Christian.
Even well researched documents like
the Ethnologue cited above, have omissions.
For example, mention in not made of the Heimei tribe (North Western
Myanmar) to which S.S. (Robert)
Khaplang, the leader of the second dominant Naga insurgent group,
the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), belongs.
Although accurate figures of the Naga tribes in Burma are not available,
the charismatic Naga leader A.Z. Phizo (1900-1990), in the 1940s
stated that the Indian Nagas numbered 2 lakhs (1991 Census 1,215,573) while 4 lakh
Nagas were in Burma mainly in the Sagaing and Kachin State. Given such
a distribution of the Naga population, no clear explanations are provided
on the focus of the Naga insurgency primarily in India. It could possibly
be the case that in the past, due to lack of infrastructure and roads
in the borderlands of Myanmar, counter-insurgency operations on all
fronts would have been too costly. Moreover, with increased pressure, the insurgents
could cross over into India. Hence, the need for cooperation between
the two countries on counter-insurgency (CI) operations. Apart from
reasons already stated, at a particular juncture, Myanmar was unwilling
to participate in joint CI operations for the fear of upsetting China.
Leaving the Myanmarese Nagas be, while the Tatmadaw attended to the more serious insurgencies in the
east the Karen, Kayin, Shan, Wa could be one explanation.
With the operational situation stabilising in the east, pressure of
the Tatmadaw on the Myanmarese Nagas has been gradually increasing
since October 1999.
The narcotics and arms smuggling
nexus between insurgents and Government authorities is reportedly
flourishing. The prevalence of forced adult labour and child labour
is widespread and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Reports
of 1998 and November 2000 in this context are damning. There is also a haemorrhaging of Myanmars
rich resources of jade, rubies, tin, wolfram and timber into the underground
world economy. Even in this context, the all-pervading effect of ethnicity
is apparent, with various ethnic groups specialising in certain commodities
found in their respective areas. Thus, the Shans deal with opium,
the Kachins with jade, the Karens with tin, wolfram and teak. The
ethnic insurgent groups also levy transit taxes on the movement of
these commodities through their areas from the States of their origin.
The Kachins also taxed both the National Socialist Council of Nagaland
factions for their safe passage, when they moved through the northern
portion of Kachin State en route
to China for training and obtaining arms between 1966 to 1969. The pattern of legal and illegal trade varies with
the crossing points. Due to the lack of adequate openings in the economy
and an overall under developed economy, narcotics smuggling underwrites
the economies of the insurgencies, a fact testified by
Khun Saw, a former insurgent- smuggler.
The total number of languages (as
distinct from the dialects) in Myanmar is 110 with one extinct language (Pali which in the 9th Century
AD had dominated Burmese Court life, similar to the French language
domination of 17th Century Europe).
The colonial name, Burma was derived
from the dominant plains and valley ethnic group Bama
or Bamar. The Chinese referred to it as Myan-Tin. In
the pre-1988 phase, the country used Burma as its external
name and Myanmar as its internal name. Even stamps and
coins carried Burma in English and Myanmar
in Myanmarese. This reflected not an identity crisis, but the
complexities of Myanmars history.
order to do away with a colonial name and inculcate a sense of national
unity, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC an
acronym often uncharitably compared to SMERSH) in 1989 renamed the country as Myanmar. Other names were also indigenised (Burmanised
according to the opponents of the Government). Thus Ayeyarwaddy, Yangon,
Bago, Kayah, Taninthyaryn, instead of Irrawaddy, Rangoon, Pegu, Karenni
Myanmar is as highly a politicised state as is
India. Thus, the introduction of a change in name has been received
by the various ethnic groups with outcries of protest as being hidden
Nationalism, a new method of colonialism. While it is easy to be critical of the SLORC
and its subsequent 15 November, 1997 avatar,
the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the fact is that the
Government faces a major task of forging a national spirit and establishing
a common Myanmarese identity in what was once a collection of diverse
States and ethnic groups. To this end, there is a constant harking
back to a glorious past. Thus, a name-change is not as insignificant
it may appear to be.
Overall, the ethnic situation in
Myanmar is highly complex because of its great diversity and the mingling
of various sub-groups, which has occurred over three or four 'Great
Migrations'. Although there are various migration theories, it is
generally accepted that the Mon-Khmer was the first wave into Burma
around the 3rd Century BC. The Mons of Southern Burma were part of this group.
Later around 250 BC, they were also the first to accept the Buddhist
monks from India, and later from Sri Lanka as well (a connection
often ignored by Indian writers). A northern migration branch of some
Naga sub-tribes (Noctes, Tangsa) is said to have extended into present
day Arunachal Pradesh and the Patkoi Hills around 300 BC.
next wave which occurred in the 1st century AD was of the Pyu people
of Tibeto-Burman stock into upper Burma, followed by the Karens and
Chins in the 8th century, and also of the Tibeto-Burman
stock from the Yunan area, which moved downwards to central Burma.
The Mizos were part of this group and branched off from the Chindwin
valley into India around 1730. The Bamars from the China-Tibet border
areas moved down the rich Ayeyarwady valley in the 9th
and 10th centuries AD. They were and continue to be the
most dominant ethnic group in Burma. The last migration, currently
in progress into Thailand, is of the Kachin, Lisu and Akha sub-groups.
is the merger of sub-tribes with others, as it happened with the Bamars
and the Mons, or with the change in name after an inter-tribal
marriage, for instance, between an Arakanese and a Bamar, that renders
the ethnic situation even more complex.
A Karen who moves to a valley and carries out cultivation of
irrigated rice fields instead of jhumming (slash and burn cultivation) often
becomes a Buddhist and identifies himself as a Shan. At the other end, the Karen and Asho, although
living alongside the Bamars and speaking Myanmarese, and to all appearances
assimilated into the Bamar culture, will not intermarry with them.
In 1989, the Karens were officially renamed by the SLORC as Kayins
despite objections by the nationalist Karens. Modern nationalist
ethnic minorities have been quick to politicise an ethnic problem,
which a century ago would have been of little consequence to them.
Perhaps the best explanation is by Singhanetra who points out that
the use of ethnic names is loose like the term Yankee
which to some is synonymous with an American while to others it refers
to an American from north eastern USA.
Three Burmese Empires (1044-1257,
1551-1752, 1752-1885) waxed and waned with the territories extending
into Assam, Manipur and surrounding areas, Thailand and Yunan. Brilliant
glittering cities like Bagan (Pagan), Thaton, Bago (Pegu), Ava, Pye
(Prome), and Dagon grew and trade flourished under great Burmese kings
like Anawrahta (ruler of Bagan during 10441077), Kyansittha
(1084-1112) who gave the Burmese their script, Bagyidaw (of the well known 1826 Treaty of Yandabo
fame, the repercussions of which are being felt even in present-day
Manipur). Some kings were less fortunate. Mindon (1853-78)
was forced by the British to grant independence to the Karenni States,
and the hapless King Theebaw handed over all of Burma to the British
Crown in an almost bloodless campaign in 1886, spending
his lonely days of exile in Ratnagiri (Maharashtra). Great Burma was
thus reduced to a province of British India after three Anglo-Burmese
wars, till 1937 when it became a separate British colony.
The inherent ethnic conflicts surfaced due to British colonial policies,
which have lead to the present situation in Myanmar.
One of the effects of colonial rule
was the politicisation of ethnicity. Earlier, during the days of kingship,
borders fluctuated. Firm and often despotic rulers kept diverse ethnic
groups in control through existing village organisations. The conflict
between the Hill and Valley peoples was one of overlapping zones of
influence and mutual interests rather than borders. There was no concept
of nation states. This developed through Western education and the
emphasis on grouping village republics into larger administrative
Three forms of administration were
introduced in Burma:
Ministerial Burma which included central Burma, Karen
Hills and Tenasserim;
Frontier Burma the western region, including
the Chin Hills; and
Excluded Areas the eastern and northern regions
Karenni, Shan and Kachin hills.
intentionally or otherwise, in isolating the frontier ethnic minorities
from the Burmans, whatever its justifications - whether protecting
the minorities from rapacious plainsmen or the economic pragmatism
of lightly administering remote, under-developed areas. One can see
here a situation similar to what was emerging in undivided Indias
North Western Frontier Provinces and North Eastern frontiers.
While in India, the martial
races theory was developed to restrict entry to the armed forces,
in Burma, the bulk of the army comprised Karens, Chins and Kachins,
while recruitment of Burmans (as distinct from the collective word
Burmese) was kept low. The problems of ethnic diversity were exacerbated
with large-scale immigration of Indians and Chinese, who filled junior
positions in Government, and cornered trade and commerce. By 1930,
Burma had become the fourth largest exporter of rice in the world
- an achievement in itself, as the earlier Kings did not permit the
export of rice. Yet the Burmese farmer sank into indebtedness due
to his inability to work in an unfamiliar monetised economy. As a
result, ancient fears and resentments against the Indians and the
Chinese who managed trade, surfaced from time to time. We often forget
this subliminal unease in our Myanmarese friends when at banquets
we raise toasts to Traditional Myanmar - Indian / Sino friendship.
The role played by ethnicity and
religion at the personal levels of Myanmarese leaders is no different
from that in India or in many other countries. A mixed marriage or
mixed blood can become a political embarrassment in the Burman dominated
leadership of Myanmar. Lt Gen. Khin Nyunt, Secretary 1 of SPDC (better
known as the head of the Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence)
though of Chinese descent, reportedly disowned his son who married
a lady from Singapore; the third President of Burma U Mahn Win Maung was
a Christian and converted to Buddhism before he became the President.
U Aung San, a Buddhist married a Christian, Daw Khyin Kyi (later Ambassador
to India). This marriage posed no political problem, but not so for
their daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose marriage to an Englishman
caused a political reaction that needs no elaboration. Vum Son, President
of the Chin Association notes that U Nu, the long-time Prime Minister of Burma,
was said to have a fraction of Chinese blood. U Kyaw Nyien had a fraction
of Indian blood. It was observed that their personal split as leaders
of the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League) in 1958 was started
by their children who quarrelled over their Chinese or Indian origin.
U Thant, former Secretary General of the United Nations was the descendent
of Indo-Burman Muslims. U Ne Win was a Sino-Burman. The foreign ancestry
of leading politicians caused problems because, usually, they acted
more nationalistic than others, so that they might be accepted as
pure or good Burmans, for example U Ne Win.
The ethnic factor can be thus be
Ethnicity is one of the key factors in the totality
of Myanmarese life. It is not a static entity but is constantly developing
and shaping the course of political evolution. During the pre-colonial
era, ethnicity was governed by ecological boundaries and by notions
of kinship, chief-ship, religion, marriage and techniques of agriculture.
With colonialism, borders and regional boundaries became fixed and,
with a change in the political system, as Benedict Anderson explains
in his pathbreaking Imagined
Communities, political elites 'create' ethnicity, and such sentiments
and identities deepen.
The dividing lines between ethnic regions are blurred
at their edges. There has been considerable intermingling of the ethnic
groups primarily through marriage, proximity, and trade, particularly
in southern Myanmar, which received traders, travellers and diplomats
from various countries. Generalities about various ethnic groups,
of necessity, have consequently to be qualified with buts
and not always.
Ethnic politics is the obverse of the politics of national
Ethnicity and identity are not synonymous. While the former is closely linked with politics,
the latter is linked more with culture the common beliefs,
customs and institutions of a people.
An attempt was made at Panglong in February 1947 for all ethnic
groups to get together and work as equals for Burmese independence
with a provision that they could opt for self-determination after
10 years. This was riddled with suspicions and the absence of many
ethnic groups (including the Burmese Nagas), yet it was a start based
on a sound concept.
Ethnic groups and sub-groups exist in bewildering numbers
in Myanmar. This diversity is rooted in the remoteness and difficult
nature of the mountainous terrain which restrict movement and create
ethno-centric values and attitudes. These groups and sub-groups are
more concerned about fighting for their own interests and privileges
rather than submitting to the restraints of a larger cause. This lack
of unity, combined with the ethnic diversities and personal rivalries,
results in quick changes of alliances, as was the earlier case with
village-republic politics. Yet another factor that deepened the fissile impulse
was the deliberate neglect by the State or central governments of
certain areas. In the pre-independence days, the Muslim dominated
Arakan region was rich materially and had a high literacy rate. By
the 1960's it had become a backward state. Prior to the cease-fires of 1988, the ratio of
army soldiers (16,500) to insurgents (approximately 75,000) was roughly 1:4. By 1996, with the expansion of
the Tatmadaw, the strength of the army component rose to 300,000,
improving the ratio to 4:1 but remained well below the conventional benchmark
in counter-insurgency operations that mandate the superiority of the
army to insurgents in a ratio of roughly 10:1. This is one reason
for the use of forced labour and portage, which form part of the long
list of Human Rights abuses in Myanmar.
Ethnicity is all pervading, more so in the shadow trade. Even the pursuit of autonomy is dependent on the
drug traffic because of a lack of appropriate means of income-generation.
This will be reduced, though not eliminated, once the economic conditions
of the country improve. The ongoing Border Areas Development Programme
launched by the Government in 1989 is one of the measures being undertaken
to achieve this.
The Tatmadaw was born out of a union between ethnicity and
politics. This also explains its present role. The colonial Burmese
Army was largely composed of the highland ethnic groups Chins,
Kachins, Karens and Indians. The Shans and the Burmans were in a noticeable
minority. An upsurge of nationalism amongst the intelligentsia led
to the emergence of a group of 'Thirty Heroes', amongst whom were
Aung San, Ne Win and U Nu. Under Japanese influence, they formed a
Burmese Liberation Army (BLA) in 1941, largely comprised and officered
by the Burmans. In 1944, an anti-Japanese organisation was formed
- the Anti Fascist Peoples Freedom League (AFPFL). The BLA turned
against the Japanese in March 1945 and went underground. A new force
was built up under Gen. Ne Win, which was to later become the Tatmadaw.
The Tatmadaw has been politicised from its inception and it is, therefore,
not surprising that it has played, and will continue to play, a vital
role in the affairs of the country, even when democracy is restored.
The Indian Factor
India's links with Burma began from
the time it contributed Buddhism and a script to Burma. There was
also a flourishing trade since Indians started settling down in the
Irrawaddy Delta region from 2 BC onwards. India supplied arms to Burma
in 1949 and assisted it in turning the tide against the insurgencies
which swelled against the Burmese Government within four months of
its independence. Burma-born Indians have a great affinity for Burma.
Although the personal rapport and friendship that existed, first between
U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru and later between him and Indira Gandhi,
has played a significant role in fostering warm Indo-Burma ties, there
has been an undercurrent of wariness, as with the other common neighbour,
F.S.V. Donnison writes that, the 'attitudes of the Burman to the
Indian has always been one of contempt; contempt for one who prizes
only money, yet does not know how to enjoy it; contempt for the Hindu
who makes an unpleasant god of sex; contempt for one with an inferior
standard of living.' Even if one discounts the authors obvious
bias, the fact is that the Indian trader was disliked, and soon earned
the pejorative sobriquet of
'kala, which through usage is applied to foreigners in general. This anti-Indian feeling, as an aspect of emerging
Burmese nationalism, climaxed when 500,000 Indians were forced to
flee to India by the Burma Independence
Army, as the Japanese advanced into Burma in 1942. Thousands
died during this exodus.
The warm emotional relationship
with India began to sour in 1886, when Burma became a (British) Indian
province. This was more of a ricochet from what the Burmese felt about
the British. What was more serious was that, with the opening of the
Suez Canal in 1869, the potential for exploitation of the natural
wealth of the sub-continent caused the British to flood Burma with
Indian artisans and officials at a rate of 25,000 per year, peaking
to 48,000 in 1927. Convict labour was also brought in from India to
build roads. The Chettiars came in large numbers as middlemen,
money- lenders and financiers for shipbuilding. By 1930, they had
invested Rs. 750 million in the rice fields of the Delta region. It
led to an impoverishment of the central Burmese farmer and also created
ill will against the 14,650,000 strong Indian community in Burma.
Anti-Indian riots flared up during the depression of 1930, and again
in 1931 and 1938. But, the period 1948-62 was a period
of friendship and co-operation between the two Governments, ably piloted
by Nehru and U Nu. It was during this phase that the Treaty of Friendship
was signed in 1951. However, internally, the situation was different.
The Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and U Aung Sans Anti-Fascist
Peoples Freedom League (AFPL) were active militarily at two
ends of the political spectrum. Gripped by insurgencies and a Communist
uprising in the north, the Democratic Phase of independent Burma (1948-1962)
was a failure a point that four successive military governments
There has not been much comment
on the effect that these developments in the 1930s had on Indias
first insurgency. A.Z. Phizo, the architect of Naga nationalism, had
moved to Rangoon in December 1933. He worked in the Rangoon Port during
the 1930 strike by Indian dock workers. His interaction with other
Indian workers was unpleasant. He also saw the effects of Indian economic domination
in Burma. This convinced him that a similar fate would befall the
Nagas if and when India became free. He assisted the Japanese during
WW II, though he had no love for them. One report notes that he joined
the INA in 1943 and was with them till 1945. He did not think too
highly of the soldiers of the INA either. He had also established
contacts with the leaders of some of the ethnic minorities and Communists
in Burma. He returned to Kohima in 1946 and a year later, launched
a fledgling movement for Naga independence, with a threat that the
Nagas would join Burma or Pakistan if coerced to be a part of the
Indian Union. Thus, his dislike for Indians and the idea of a Naga
independence took firm root in Phizos mind consequent to his
Burma experience. The outbreak of Naga insurgency in 1953 was the
forerunner and an inspiration for the other insurgencies that developed
subsequently in India's North Eastern region.
The second phase of Indo-Myanmar
relations was from 1962 to 1988. General Ne Win took over the country on March 2,
1962. Relations with India plummeted, as more than 200,000 Indians
were forced to flee. Their case for compensation is yet to be settled,
though the problem of citizenship was resolved by the Citizenship
Law of 1982. A few stayed on at the border town of Moreh (a mafia
of four Tamil families reportedly controls the bulk of the illegal
and legal trade at this border outpost, which officially opened in
1995). But, despite strained relationships, a Border Agreement was
signed in 1967. Although this marks an important event of the ex-colonial
countries reserving the right to redefine their borders, it has gone
largely unnoticed. An Agreement on Maritime Boundary Delimitation
was also signed in March 1986.
The third phase, from 1988 to 1993,
marked the nadir of Indo-Myanmar relationships, following the massacre
of pro-democracy students in Yangon. India supported the democracy
movement and gave shelter to about 800 dissident students. Daw Than
Than, U Nus daughter, then working for All India Radio, compered highly
popular programmes for Myanmarese listeners, which were enormously
critical of Generals Ne Win and Saw Muang. India was accused of interfering
in the internal affairs of Myanmar.
A change of Indian policy towards
Myanmar took place around 1992, as there had been significant regional political
realignments in the intervening five years. This marked the fourth
and current phase of renewed good relations with Myanmar. The visit
of U Nye, a senior Myanmarese Foreign Office official in August 1992
followed by the visit of J.N Dixit, the then Foreign Secretary of
India to Yangon in March 1993, marked the start of a series of exchange
visits culminating in the visits of General Maung Aye, Vice Chairman
of SPDC and C-in-C Myanmar Army, to Shillong on January 78,
2000 and again to Delhi between November 17-24, 2000. The Shillong
visit was carefully nuanced with a visit on 4 July, 2000, to Pakistan
by Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, Secretary1, SPDC.
Though accorded full State Honours
and warmly welcomed, the significant November 2000 visit was underplayed
because of the strong pro-Myanmar democracy lobby in India, as also
not to manifest too sudden a volte
face in the Indian policy. Most Press reports, while commenting
on the need for cooperation in fighting insurgency and for balancing
the growing influence of China in Myanmar and the Indian Ocean, did
not give adequate attention to the significant potential of the growth
of a new economic co-operation zone in South and South Eastern Asia.
Numerous institutionalised measures for Indo-Myanmar and regional
cooperation have been put into place: the National and Sectoral level
Border Committees, BIMSTEC-EC (July 96), member ASEAN (Myanmar- July, 1997) and the well
publicised Ganga-Mekong Project, MOUs on Cooperation in Agriculture (April 1998),
Science and Technology (June 1999), and a Border Trade Agreement (1994).
Despite the problem of insurgency affecting both the countries, there
is no Extradition Treaty as yet. There is an obvious and urgent need
A rating of trading partners with
Myanmar in 1999 (Myanmar Customs figures) places in order of volume
of trade - Singapore, China / Japan / Thailand, India followed by
Hong Kong. However official Indian figures state that India
has emerged as the largest export market for Myanmar accounting for
one-fourth of Myanmars exports. Bilateral trade has grown from
US $87.4 million in 1990-91 to US $ 215.12 million in 1998-99, of
which Indian exports were worth US $51.72 million and imports worth
Although the importance of co-operation
with Myanmar in combating drug trafficking, smuggling and shared insurgencies
is obvious, it has been inhibited by certain political considerations.
Both countries allege that the other is dragging its feet on the issue.
India is said to have co-opted the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)
in its operations against the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah
(NSCN-IM), at a time when the Tatmadaw was fighting the KIA . Meanwhile,
in January 1990, the Tatmadaw had established contacts with the Manipuri
Peoples Liberation Army and arrived at a tacit non-interference agreement
with the NSCN-Khaplang. Such arrangements were, of course, tactical
and were soon transformed. What is undeniable, however, are the dramatic
results when the two countries co-ordinate their efforts. Operation
Golden Bird' an 'unintended' joint operation between the Indian and Myanmarese forces, captured
stores worth $250,000 and 50 insurgents of the NSCN-IM, ULFA and a
few other insurgent groups. In early March 2000, Myanmarese forces
raided and destroyed five NSCN-K camps, including their General HQ, in the vicinity of Lal Hal township, Sagaing. Soon
after, the NSCN-K made an offer for talks with the Indian Government.
Conflict management with these various ethnic insurgent groups through
cooperation between Myanmar, Bangladesh and India in counter-insurgency
operations will pay handsome dividends in bringing
insurgents to the negotiating table or, at least, in getting
them to sue for a cease fire.
Three important roads connect India
with Myanmar. The 1,725 kilometre-long
Ledo-Kunming Road completed on May 20, 1945 during World War II,
is in disrepair on either side of the border, but the Lashio-Kunming
portion has been repaired by the Chinese. Its alignment, though more
direct, and through then virgin forests, roughly follows the Southern
Silk route from Yunan to Assam. The road crosses the Patkai Range
and goes down to Bhamo and thence joins the Dragon (Burma) Road where
it loops up to Kunming. There was enthusiastic support to revitalise
this road during the August 17, 1999, Conference on Regional Cooperation
between China, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh (the Kunming Initiative).
There was also a healthy scepticism from the security (insurgency,
drug trafficking), ecological, ethnic (socio-economic effect on local
population) and financial angles. The infrastructure for an international road, which
will join National Highway 37 & 38, would have to be put in place
first. Although the potential of this road is considerable, it will
take at least a decade before it is realised. A fortress mentality
among planners will first have to be overcome.
The second 165 kilometre-long road
from Tamu to Kalemyo, being constructed by the Indian Border Roads
Organisation (BRO) is expected to be operational by January 2001 and
it will link Imphal to Mandalay. The third under construction, again
by the BRO, is the Aizawl-Champhai-Rih road, which will link with
the existing Falam- Mandalay road network.
There is also an ambitious 90,000-kilometre
Asian Highway project between Istanbul and Beijing. In the sub continent
it is expected to run from Atari (Pakistan), Delhi, Banbasa to Nepal
and at Barhi to Bangladesh thence onto Imphal-Mandalay.
These roads, when operative, albeit
with teething problems, will have profound effects
on the economy, insurgencies, ethnic societies and Indo-Myanmar-China relationships.
Myanmar is acutely conscious of
its geo-political location. Those who talk of
tilts lack the historical perspective that Myanmar
has striven for a balanced, non-aligned stance in international relationships.
This was demonstrated right from the start by its independent stand
on Korea (1950 condemned N Korea),
China (1951 voted in UN against US motion condemning
China as aggressor in Korea), Suez (1956 supported UN), Hungary
(1956 abstained). Whenever there have been tilts,
as towards Indonesia in the late 1960s and China (post 1988), the centre of gravity has
been realigned to reassert equipoise. For instance, the Chinese tilt
is being balanced by Myanmars positive response to Indias
current 'working relationship' overtures. As Senior Gen. Than Shwe, Chairman of
the SPDC, said in an interview Because of the geographical and
geo-political fate of being located between India and China, two very
big neighbours, we try to maintain good relations with both these
countries. It would not help us if either China or India had unfavourable
views towards us.
The China Factor
to the Indians (kala) of
the 1920s, the Chinese have traditionally been referred to as
toyok (cousins). Chinese influence in Myanmar existed well before
the 1287 invasion by the Mongol army of Kublai Khan, which looted
and burnt Bagan (Pagan). The southern Silk Route linking Szechwan and Yunan
to Lashio in Burma was in existence long before the Christian era.
Its Western branch linked Manipur and Assam, while a Southern branch
extended to the Irrawaddy Delta ports linking them to Orissa and Southeast
Asia. Chinese is a commonly spoken language with ethnic groups that
straddle the Sino-Myanmar border in the northern portions of the Kachin
State and in the Shan State.
early colonial period, the British considered and rejected a Chinese
proposal for a trade-off between the area up to Bhamo and the territory
east of the Irrawaddy, to be handed over to the British in return
for their non-interference in Tibet. Later, north Burma became the
refuge of a large number of Koumintang (KMT) units, which continued
their war against Communist China. In this, they were supported by
America who also supported the KMT in growing poppy to finance their
operations. Conversely, Communist China supported the
BCP ( White Flag faction)
in the upper Shan State and in central Burma. The Red Flag faction
of the BCP was supported by the USSR. It was a tangled situation,
highlighting the strategic location of Myanmar. By mid-1967, the Communist
rebels posed a grave threat to the Burmese Government.
traders also flourished, like their Indian counterparts, at the expense
of the Burmans. As a result there were anti-Chinese riots in 1930
and again in 1940.
As with India, Myanmars relations
with China can be grouped into phases. Rough parallels can be established
with the phases in Indo-Myanmar relations.
1 (1949-62) was a low-key period with
restricted Chinese support to the BCP. Burma was the first non-Communist
country to recognise China in 1949. The Chinese, at this stage, were
mainly concerned with eliminating the remnants of the KMT in north
Burma. KMT forces made five attempts between 1951-53 to invade China
from the Kachin-Shan areas, inviting cross border retaliation by China.
This was worrying for the Burmese Government, despite the Sino-Burma
Border Agreement and The Treaty of Friendship, both of 1960. China
has always cast a long shadow in Myanmar.
2 (1962-78) was marked with distrust and
wariness. In 1962, about 10,000 Chinese traders were forced out of
northern Burma. Anti-Chinese riots broke out in Rangoon in June 1967.
China declared the Ne Win government to be a fascist military
dictatorship. However, China made no effort to topple the Burmese
Government through Chinese residents, as they had in Indonesia in
1955. Chinese support for the Burmese White Flag
communists and for Kachin and Karen insurgencies continued. The CPB
received the most favoured treatment from China, much
to Myanmars dismay.
Phase 3 (1978-88). Rapprochement with
China took place during Deng Xiaopings visit to Yangon in January
1978. Chinese support to the CPB was withdrawn, leading to its collapse
through internal factionalism in April-May 1988.
The world-wide condemnation of the
massacre of students in Yangon on the Day of the Four Eights (8.8.1988)
and at Tianamen Square on 4.5.1989, drove the two countries closer.
Chinese military aid worth US $ 1.2 billion poured into Myanmar. A
$84 million interest-free loan for development was provided. Developments
like the setting up of radar installations and upgradation of naval
bases with Chinese help alarmed India. With China lifting movement
restrictions into Myanmar, the growth of the border trade between
China and Myanmar on the Dragon Road was phenomenal. Official trade started innocently enough with milk,
soap and toothpaste, but it was enough to alarm Thailand into trying
to win back the economic initiative. They could not regain it.
New roads from three Chinese districts
to Myanmarese towns were commissioned in 1993: Yinchaing Taihone,
Lianghe Bhamo, Mangmin Myitkyina.
Demographic changes occurred with
the traders from Yunan and Szechwan pouring in. A possibility of a
repetition of history, when the British brought in Indian traders
to Burma in the 1920s, has not been lost on the Myanmarese.
But to the superficial observer, Burmese neutrality seemed to have
4 (Post -1988). The relationship with
China continues to be warm, but tinged with an element of caution
and with a desire to diversify its trade partners. This is an extremely
important point for the sanctions on Myanmar lobby to
understand. Sanctions should not drive Myanmar into a satellite relationship
with China. Myanmar and all the South Asian countries are conscious
of this. Consequently, there is an increased cooperation with many
nations. Not all of this was good news to India. Unconfirmed reports
mention a Pakistani offer to develop an airfield at Haka. Pakistan sold $ 2.5 million of military hardware
to Myanmar. In 1993, Gen. Zhao Nanqui, Director of the Chinese Academy
of Military Sciences, said China will check Indian attempts
to dominate the Indian Ocean. India seeks to develop its Navy to rival
large global powers. This is something we cannot accept. We are not
prepared to let the Indian Ocean become Indias Ocean.
Myanmar has, however, sought to
restore a balance. Alarmed by the uncontrolled border trade with China
and its related demographic changes, the SPDC has banned the export
of certain goods. Trade with China has plummeted from $ 749 million
in 1997 to $ 400mn in 1998. Massive Chinese military aid has reduced.
Some major projects, like the development of the Kyaukphyu
deep-sea port, have slowed down. By this time, Indias pro-Democracy
stance had also evolved to the pragmatism of a working relationship.
Conflict resolution is a long-term
process, and is often overtaken by the immediate requirements of conflict
management, which may in the short term impede the resolution of conflicts.
The major blocks to conflict resolution are human rights abuses (forced
labour, child labour, relocation of populations, denial of rights,
et al), inadequate anti-drug enforcement, and suppression of ethnic
minorities. These blocks flow directly from the manner in which Myanmar
is managing its conflicts. Nevertheless, the SPDC does have a long
-term view, which is often obscured by the international media, which
either stereotypes or demonises it. The main direction of conflict
resolution in Myanmar is a two-phase linear progression:
Phase 1 Restore law and order, initiate
transformation to a multi-party democracy with a market oriented economy,
from the earlier Socialist one-party system and centralised economy.
Phase 2 Reinforce and maintain peace
and stability and reinvigorate all-round development. Bring about
reconciliation and re-consolidation among the national races.
may view this copybook solution
with a humph reaction. Some cynicism may also be justified
by what appears to be self-serving Myanmarese explanations about forced
labour and a tradition of ethnic rebellion as an aspect of Myanmars
historical and cultural burden. What is undeniable, however, is that,
gradually, law and order is being restored, the SPDC is stable and
will be around for quite some time. One of the strongest indicators
of this was the reopening of Universities in June 2000. A majority
of Universities had been closed since 1996. Intelligence, diplomatic
and economic inputs available to all countries have led the European
Union and USA to seek a dialogue with Myanmar, though sanctions still
remain. It is, consequently, necessary to assess the Myanmarese
concept of conflict resolution in seriousness and with
hard-nosed realism. Nor can the fact be ignored that Human
Rights violations in Tibet, Bosnia, Korea and many other countries,
have not come in the way of development of international relations
with these countries.
The macro concepts that underlie conflict resolution in Myanmar are:-
The Tatmadaw has Three Historic Tasks of maintaining
National Unity, National Security and National Sovereignty. At present the Tatmadaw is the only force in Myanmar
that can carry out this task.
Setting up a National Convention, which will work
out the steps
to achieve the tasks. This involves fashioning Myanmars
To establish peace and reconciliation with ethnic
groups in a phased manner.
Reorganise or set up new institutions to fulfil the
Tackle insurgencies in four phases 1. Negotiate
Cease-fires 2. Introduce Development Schemes. 3. Build up trust and reconciliation. 4. Introduce political reforms.
Progress in a phased manner towards a directed
Democracy. Western models of democracy are not relevant in the
context of Myanmar.
In foreign relations, maintain equal and friendly
relations with neighbours.
Irrespective of the future form of government, the
Tamadaw is expected to hold on to its strong position in the affairs
of the State.
The restoration of democracy in
Myanmar cannot be an end in itself, nor will Myanmars problems
cease thereafter. In all probability, an initial increase in insurgencies
can be expected as the harsh controls of the present regime is relaxed.
There are lessons to be learnt from perestroika
and its subsequent and unexpected fallout. The processes of reconciliation,
federalism and reform that have been initiated, will continue with
the understanding that there is an equal role to be played by the
SPDC and ethnic minorities.
Conflict management has to cope
with the harsher realities of the here and now. Grim stories of displaced
populations, child labour, forced portage, religious persecution,
imprisonment, torture, detention of political opponents
long, sad litany of repression has
been well documented. Conflict management takes a serious toll on both
Overall, the reigning Myanmarese
concept appears to comprehend the following:
To clear the insurgency-ridden
regions gradually, beginning with the eastern borderlands of the Kachins,
Shans, Kayah (Karenni), Karens and Rohingyas.
The western borderlands with India come third in priority, after the
The priority areas are further
divided into areas around 65 square kilometres. Within these, villages
are regrouped into strategic hamlets. The villagers are organised
into Peoples Militias and are responsible for village security and
providing porterage to the Tatmadaw. Issue of food and grains is controlled.
Only when the matrix of such strategic villages is established, can
the offensive against the insurgents be launched, often using large
force levels of up to two light divisions supported by field artillery
and air strikes.
Amnesty offers to be extended
without any requirement of surrender of arms. Once the insurgents
surrender, rehabilitation work would commence. As this action enlarges,
over a period of time, the insurgent group may sue for a cease-fire
and then return to the legal fold. A blind eye is turned on smuggling
by local rebel leaders. Villagers are given medical care to the extent
possible. In the case of the two infamous drug barons, Khun Sa and Lo Hsin Han, they were permitted to be
absorbed into civil life on surrendering, and are now running successful business enterprises.
Other techniques used are splitting
the rebel groups, setting one group against the other, wearing down
the insurgents through attrition, offers of cease-fire and building
up an efficient intelligence network in the affected areas. Development
work, building of roads and hospitals, laying of railway lines and
the like, have now commenced. Such techniques would meet with Machiavelli's
or Chanakyas approval and are being followed with local variations
wherever there are insurgencies
All these operations are based on
the 1968 Myanmar concept of the Four Cuts: cut off food
supply, finances, intelligence and recruits from the insurgents and
their safety-net of families and co-villagers. The concept and its
variants are not new and were earlier employed successfully by Sir
Robert Thompson in Malaysia against the Communists, in the late 1940s
to the 1950s. It was also unsuccessfully used in Mizoram during
1967-70 and never employed thereafter as a tactic in India. The US Strategic Hamlets programme
in Vietnam was based on the same principle of gathering villages into
fortified groups, thus cutting them off from the insurgents. Such
measures inevitably create serious problems, including the issue of
land ownership, and break apart local community life, so vital for
a rural ethnic minority. These tactics can only be used if one is
prepared for costly socio-economic consequences, which may take decades
to overcome. This form of conflict management has secured limited
successes at a great cost to the villagers, to the soldiers of the
Tatmadaw and to Myanmar.
The most difficult final phase lies
ahead: that of building a sense of nationalism, of confidence in the
Government, of economic prosperity, and of reconciliation between
all the warring factions and the five power centres.
The insurgencies, barring a few,
are under control. As a result, the integrity of Myanmar is no longer
a military issue.
Sanctions do not help if there is no unity in their
application by all nations. Going through the statements of various
Western pro-democracy groups, one is struck by their inability to
relate to the realities of Myanmar. As Ma Thanegi expresses it, "there
is a Burmese fairy tale attitude to the countrys problems. A
country which has withstood twenty-six years of self-imposed isolation
can easily tackle the Western boycott.". The time for engagement with Myanmar has come.
With skeletons in all national cupboards, there is no one who can
claim to be a defender of noble political values. The touchstone is
the question how much will the people of the country benefit by the
resumption of normal relationships?.'
Isolationism acts both ways. 26 years of isolation
did more harm to Myanmar than 12 years of sanctions. This was also
the experience in India's Northeast, where the Inner Line, though
fulfilling a purpose, created a mould which is now cracking up.
Relations between countries operate at various
levels, ranging from government-to-government down to people-to-people.
As far as Indo-Myanmar relations are concerned, the former has developed
satisfactorily, particularly in security related aspects. But, the
latter is yet to develop. There are very few Indian Burma watchers,
most of whom figure in these pages. There is a need to create a greater
awareness in India of what has long been an invisible country, through
increased people-to-people contact by visits of Parliamentarians,
NGOs, individuals, cultural organisations. The Mekong-Ganga Project
plan augurs well.
The SPDC has initiated various schemes for the mobilisation
of people to achieve the national goals of prosperity, reconciliation
and unity. An attempt is being made to change the historical style
of centralised, personality-driven policies through organisations
such as the National Convention and the Academy for the Development
of National Groups located at Ywathitgyi, Sagaing Division, which
imparts training on the implementation of ethnic policies. The success
of such efforts is yet to be ascertained. One of the lessons to be
drawn from our collective world experience is that, in multi-ethnic,
multi-religious societies, all groups have to realise that it is through
dialogue and involvement that they can overcome differences which
have the potential to tear their country apart.
Independence (of ethnic minority states) or the establishment
of democracy are not ends in themselves and have to be considered
afresh. What would for example be the viability of an independent
Wa State? When democracy returns
to Myanmar either through the phased programme of the Tatmadaw or
through a prolonged period of widespread discontent, how will it reconcile
to the centrifugal demands of multi-ethnicity? In the ultimate analysis,
it comes down to the familiar conclusion that it is finally the people
who have to decide to live in harmony in a Golden Land. Moving words,
but one knows only too well the struggle for power, the vested interests,
the warlords and opium kings, the suspicions of minorities, all of
which can make the task truly daunting. Yet, in India, though in a
different context, it was the people of Punjab and Mizoram who in
the end ensured that peace returned to their States. There is always