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The Invisible Country
Ethnicity & Conflict Management in
Sushil K. Pillai*

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 - Pakistan, 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". [1]

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 links.” [2]

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, [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] . 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, [6] 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. [7] The population of Mandalay in 1999 was 30-40 per cent Chinese (1.2 million ethnic Chinese). [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] that no comprehensive census has been conducted in Myanmar 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 [11] 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. [12] 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 development." [13]

The ethnic groups are varied in language, culture and size. For example, the Chins have 51 ethnic sub-groups while the Mons have one. [14] 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, Chinngpaw’0 , 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. [15]

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 1940’s stated that the Indian Nagas numbered 2 lakhs (1991 Census – 1,215,573) while 4 lakh Nagas were in Burma [16] 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. [17] 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 [18] 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 [19] . There is also a haemorrhaging of Myanmar’s 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. [20] 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. [21]

The total number of languages (as distinct from the dialects) in Myanmar is 110 with one extinct language [22] (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. [23] This reflected not an identity crisis, but the complexities of Myanmar’s history.

In 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 [24] ) in 1989 renamed the country as Myanmar. [25] 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 and Tenasserim.

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.’ [26] 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. [27] 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, [28] 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.

The 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.

It is the merger of sub-tribes with others, as it happened with the Bamars and the Mons, [29] 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. [30] 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 [31] grew and trade flourished under great Burmese kings like Anawrahta (ruler of Bagan during 1044–1077), Kyansittha (1084-1112) who gave the Burmese their script, [32] Bagyidaw (of the well known 1826 Treaty of Yandabo fame, the repercussions of which are being felt even in present-day Manipur). [33] 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 [34] 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, [35] 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 districts.

Three forms of administration were introduced in Burma:

i.         Ministerial Burma which included central Burma, Karen Hills and Tenasserim;

ii.        Frontier Burma –the western region, including the Chin Hills; and

iii.      Excluded Areas – the eastern and northern regions – Karenni, Shan and Kachin hills.

This resulted, 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 India’s North Western Frontier Provinces and North Eastern frontiers. [36]

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; [37] 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 [38] 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 [39] 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. [40]

The ethnic factor can be thus be summarised:

i.         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. [41]

ii.        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’.

iii.      Ethnic politics is the obverse of the politics of national unity. [42]

iv.      Ethnicity and identity are not synonymous. [43] While the former is closely linked with politics, the latter is linked more with culture – the common beliefs, customs and institutions of a people.

v.       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.

vi.      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 [44] . 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. [45] Prior to the cease-fires of 1988, the ratio of army soldiers (16,500) to insurgents (approximately 75,000) [46] 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 [47] 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.

vii.    Ethnicity is all pervading, more so in the shadow trade. [48] Even the pursuit of autonomy is dependent on the drug traffic [49] 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. [50]

viii.   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. [51] 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, China.

F.S.V. Donnison [52] 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 author’s 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. [53] 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. [54] 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 [55] 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 San’s Anti-Fascist People’s 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 have emphasised. [56]

There has not been much comment on the effect that these developments in the 1930’s had on India’s 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. [57] 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 Phizo’s 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. [58] 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. [59] 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 Nu’s daughter, [60] 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. [61]

A change of Indian policy towards Myanmar took place around 1992, [62] 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 7–8, 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, Secretary–1, 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), [63] member ASEAN (Myanmar- July, 1997) and the well publicised Ganga-Mekong Project, [64] 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 for it.

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 Myanmar’s 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 $163.4 million. [65]

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 People’s Liberation Army [66] 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 [67] 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, [68] 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 [69] 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. [70] 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. [71]

These roads, when operative, albeit with teething problems, will have profound effects on the economy, insurgencies, ethnic societies and Indo-Myanmar-China relationships.


In-Between Myanmar


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 [72] and China (post 1988), the centre of gravity has been realigned to reassert equipoise. For instance, the Chinese tilt is being balanced by Myanmar’s positive response to India’s current 'working relationship' [73] 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.” [74]


The China Factor


In contrast to the Indians (kala) of the 1920’s, 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). [75] 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.

In the 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. [76] 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.

Chinese 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, Myanmar’s relations with China can be grouped into phases. Rough parallels can be established with the phases in Indo-Myanmar relations.

Phase 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.

Phase 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. [77] 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 Myanmar’s dismay.

Phase 3 (1978-88). Rapprochement with China took place during Deng Xiaoping’s 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. [78] 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. [79]

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 1920’s, has not been lost on the Myanmarese. But to the superficial observer, Burmese neutrality seemed to have ended.

Phase 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. [80] 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 India’s 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. [81] By this time, India’s ‘pro-Democracy’ stance had also evolved to the pragmatism of a ‘working relationship’.


Conflict Resolution


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. [82]

One 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 Myanmar’s 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. [83] 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 [84] that underlie conflict resolution in Myanmar are:-

i.         The Tatmadaw has “Three Historic Tasks of maintaining National Unity, National Security and National Sovereignty.” [85] At present the Tatmadaw is the only force in Myanmar that can carry out this task. [86]

ii.        Setting up a National Convention, which will work out the steps to achieve the tasks. This involves fashioning Myanmar’s fourth Constitution. [87]

iii.      To establish peace and reconciliation with ethnic groups in a phased manner.

iv.      Reorganise or set up new institutions to fulfil the Three Tasks. [88]

v.       Tackle insurgencies in four phases – 1. Negotiate Cease-fires [89] 2. Introduce Development Schemes. [90] 3. Build up trust and reconciliation. [91] 4. Introduce political reforms.

vi.      Progress in a phased manner towards a ‘directed Democracy’. Western models of democracy are not relevant in the context of Myanmar.

vii.    In foreign relations, maintain equal and friendly relations with neighbours. [92]

viii.   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 Myanmar’s 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


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… that long, sad litany of repression has been well documented. [93] Conflict management takes a serious toll on both sides.

Overall, the reigning Myanmarese concept appears to comprehend the following:

i.         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 Central Areas.

ii.        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.

iii.      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 [94] 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 Chanakya’s 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 1940’s to the 1950’s. It was also unsuccessfully used in Mizoram during 1967-70 and never employed thereafter as a tactic in India. [95] 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. [96]

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 country’s problems. A country which has withstood twenty-six years of self-imposed isolation can easily tackle the Western boycott." [97] . 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 hope.

* Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Sushil K. Pillai, PVSM, is a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Director General of Infantry. He was commissioned to the Assam Regiment in 1955. After retirement in 1991, he has written extensively on India's Northeast, and is currently writing a History of the Assam Regiment. He is also a Consulting Editor with Faultlines.

[1] Amitav Ghosh, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, Ravi Dayal: New Delhi, 1998, p. 6. General Ne Win 'imposed draconian laws which effectively isolated Burma' till he resigned on July 23, 1988. The country was taken over by the State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Its Chairman was the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Saw Maung, who was later replaced on grounds of ill health in April 1992 by the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Than Shwe, currently Chairman, 'State Peace and Development Council' (SPDC), C-in-C of Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) and Minister of Defence.

[2] Swapan Dasgupta, "Truncation of the Mind", India Today, New Delhi, September 11, 2000.

[3] Shelby Tucker, Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma, New Delhi: Penguin, 2000, p.33.

[4] The 1,284km, Karakoram Highway from Havelian (Abbotabad, Pakistan) to Kashgar (China) and the 1,154 km Burma Road (the Myanmarese prefer to call it as the Dragon Road) from Kunmimng (China) to Lashio (Burma).

[5] India (1331/1463 kms), China (2192/2185 kms), Laos (224/235 kms), Thailand (2096/1800 kms) and Bangladesh (256/193 kms). The figures taken from the Myanmar Home Page are followed by figures in italics from the CIA World Factbook 1999.

[6] The Indo-Burma border was drawn by the British in the late 1880s. See “All Quiet on the Western Front?”, < >

[7] Rory Maclean, Under The Dragon, Flamingo, 1999. In this travelogue, Maclean views the growing economic and military presence of China in Myanmar with alarm.

[8] Jane’s Intelligence Review, London, June 1999, p.40.

[9] Max and Bertha Ferrars, Burma History, compiled from Spearman’s Gazetteer.

[10] Anchalee Singhanetra-Renard, Indochina Subregional Highland Peoples Programme: Overview of Highland Minorities in Mainland South East Asia, Chingmai University, 1998, <>

[11] Bamar(68%), Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Mon(2%), Indian (2%), Others (5%). CIA World Factbook 1999.

[12] S.K. Pillai, "Anatomy of an Insurgency: Ethnicity & Identity in Nagaland", Faultlines, New Delhi, 3, November 1999, p.40.

[13] Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, London: Zed Books, 1991.

[14] Bamar (9 sub-groups), Chin (51), Kachin (12), Kayah (12), Kayin(12), Mon (1), Rakhine (6) Shan (34).

[15] Ethnalogue Data Base, University of Texas, Austin.

[16] Murkot Ramunny, The World of Nagas, Northern Book Centre, 1988, The 1992 Myanmar census, however, places the number as only 70,000. This may be due to limitations in recording data. Phizo’s figures are exaggerated.

[17] Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, p.119. In 1951, just four years after Independence, U Nu calculated the cost of fighting the insurgencies as Rs 32.2 million (Pound sterling 250 million). The human cost was inestimable.

[18] Myanmar Armed Forces.

[19] <> <>

[20] Andre Boucard, and Louis Boucaud, Burma’s Golden Triangle, Paris: L'Harmattan, 1985. Also P. Sharan, Government and Politics in Burma, Delhi: Metropolitan Books. Jade & gems are taxed at 5% of their market value, One ton of tin ore is taxed at $58.50, the tax on antiquities could be upto 17% of the retail value.

[21] Boucard and Boucaud, Burma’s Golden Triangle, p. 210. Khun Saw has said that it cost him 12 million baht per month to maintain his army of 7,000. A large part of his annual income of 200 million baht came from drug business, with the rest coming from taxes levied on contraband gems, cattle and teak.

[22] Ethnalogue Database.

[23] Singhanetra-Renard, Indochina Subregional Highland Peoples Programme <>.

[24] SMERSH, created in 1943 was a Soviet military counter-intelligence operation during the later part of the Second World War. SMERSH is derived from the Russian words, smert shpionam or "Death to Spies".

[25] Myanmar means –‘the first inhabitants of the world. B G Verghese, India’s North East Resurgent, New Delhi: Konark, 1996, p.371. The ancient names of Myanmar are Pyidawtha (The Happy Land) and the well known Suvarnabhoomi (The Golden Land). The indigenisation of names took place in 1989 under the “Adaptation of Expressions Law’. In the pre-Christian era, India was variously known as Purvadesa, Madhyadesa or Brahmadesh. Ibid., p. 368.

[26] Arakan Independence Organisation (AIO), Hidden Colony, Advanced Arakanese Comrade Publishing, September 1,1985. Aung San Suu Kyi in an interview with an author said that the change to Myanmar may be due to yedea – a propitiatory rite to prevent bad fortune, as the authorities believe a great deal in astrology. Ghosh, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma.

[27] Data computed by the author from various sources.

[28] Two Buddhist missionary monks, Sona and Uttara were sent by Emperor Ashoka around 250 BC to Suvarnabhumi (The Golden Land), to spread the message of Theravada Buddhism. They arrived at the Irrawaddy delta and possibly started their work near Thaton (Suddhamavati). By 5 AD, Theravada Buddhism had taken strong roots in Burma. Pali soon became the language of the elite. The Burmese script with its 33 consonants and 12 vowels, developed from Pali and Telegu as can be derived from the archaeological remains at Hmawza, 8 kms from Pye (Prome - about 250 kms north of Yangon). The contribution of Madhyadesa (one of the names by which India was known in ancient Burma) and of Sri Lanka to the evolution of Theravada Buddhism in Burma is very significant. The Sri Lankan connection is recorded in the 18th Century Glass Palace Chronicles written during the reign of King Bodawpaya (1781). Ethnalogue Database.

[29] This is a common phenomenon. 12 sub-tribes like the Fanai and Colney merged in the 1850's with the dominant Lushais (Mizos). A similar situation exists in Nagaland, where for instance, three tribes merged to form the Zeliangrong.

[30] Edmund R. Leach, "The Frontiers of Burma", Comparative Studies in Society and History, 3(1), October 1960.

[31] Dagon (site of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda), a Mon city was renamed Yangon (meaning ‘end of strife’) by King Alaungpaya [1710(?)-1760] who captured it. The British called it Rangoon. SLORC has restored its original name.

[32] An inscription of this period in Pali, Pyu, Mon and Burmese exists. The American University, Area Handbook for Burma, Washington, 1971.

[33] Incensed by the absence of the Raja of Manipur at his coronation, King Bagyidaw recaptured Manipur and parts of Cachar. The East India Company retaliated and defeated him in 1826 and made him cede his claims to Assam, Arakan and Tenasserim. This is the basis of one of the claims for independence made by the Manipuri and Naga insurgents today.

[34] The East India Company surrendered its possessions to the British Crown after the Indian Uprising of 1857. A poignant account of Theebaw is found in Ghosh, The Glass Palace.

[35] The Three Anglo-Burmese Wars: 1824-1826, 1852, 1886.

[36] There is an underlying unity of British colonial policy in all the colonies, which needs much more holistic attention than it has received, primarily to assess the long-term effects that these policies had on each of the colonies after Independence. Interestingly, the British started a school for the sons of Shan Princes as they did for Indian Princes at the Daly and Mayo colleges in India.

[37] Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, p. 433.

[38] Ladies names are prefixed by the honorific ‘Daw’ or ‘Ma’. A woman retains her name even after marriage. Myanmarese names follow a convention generally accepted by all the ethnic groups. Hence, it is difficult to identify the ethnic group from their name. Names are based on the astrological position of the stars. There is no surname, family name or married name. Names of male elders and those of superior status are prefixed by the honorific "U” (as Mizos prefix “Pu” for men and ‘Pi’ for ladies), though the individual will modestly refer to himself as “Muang’. Mothers also prefix ‘Muang’ for their sons. Equals address each other with the prefix ‘Ko’ and boys with ‘Maing’.

[39] Vum Son Suantak, Towards National Unity in Burma. < Unity.htm>

[40] Shades of Gen. Pervez Musharraf – a Mohajir? Perhaps it’s stretching things too far to draw a link to the change in the spelling of his first name from Pervaiz to the more phonetically Punjabi spelling of ‘Pervez.’ See the caption to the photograph in The Week, Kochi, October 24, 1999, p.40.

[41] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso: London, 1983.

[42] RH Taylor, Perceptions of Ethnicity in the Politics of Burma. Quoted in Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, p.34.

[43] See Pillai, "Anatomy of an Insurgency: Ethnicity & Identity in Nagaland".

[44] For a vivid account of this aspect, see Aye Saung, Burman in the Back Row, Hong Kong: Asia 2000,1989. Saung was a student activist who joined the Communist Party, then the Shan State Army, tried his hand at raising his own guerrilla force and finally joined the Democratic Alliance of Burma.

[45] One finds this strange feature of big and little fish, of the oppressed in turn oppressing others, even in India where there are some areas which suffer from the same malaise, even though the State governments concerned know what it is like to be neglected themselves

[46] Computed from figures in Desmond Ball, Jane's Intelligence Review, “SIGINT Strengths”, March 1998, p. 39.

[47] Ibid., p.36.

[48] Kalyani Bandyopadhyaya, Burma and Indonesia, New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1983. The author places the 'shadow trade' at $300 million, which was half the value of Burma’s foreign trade (1983 figures), The situation would have had an exponential expansion since then.

[49] Maclean, Under The Dragon.

[50] For details of impressive achievement, see Lt Gen. Khin Nyunt’s Report to the Central Committee for Development of Border Areas & National Races (1989 to 1999), Ministry of Defence, March 31, 1999.

[51] Burma was declared independent twice. The first was by the Japanese in August 1943. But Burma’s real tryst with destiny took place not at midnight, January 4, 1948, but at the astrologically auspicious hour of 4:20am. Considering how important astrology has been in defining political decisions in India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, one would have thought that, by now, astrology would be thoroughly discredited. This is far from the case.

[52] Taylor, Public Administration in Burma, cited in Maclean, Under The Dragon.

[53] Similar to the Mizo term ‘vai used for Indian plainsmen with the same pejorative nuance, though it is a neutral word meaning ‘outsider’.

[54] Bandyopadhyaya, Burma and Indonesia.

[55] The Saya San rebellion. A millennialist, he believed that he was a ‘Galon’ (Garuda?) who could destroy the British and their workers who were like serpents (Nag). He convinced his followers (many being landless farmers who had lost their holdings to the Chettiars and Chinese) that his charms and amulets would save them from bullets. The Indian equivalents were Haipou Jadonang and his disciple-successor, Ms. Gaidinlui. He established the Heraka cult – a mixture of Hinduism and the indigenous religion. The cult members fought against the British in the Tamenglong-Ukhrul area in the 1930’s. The movement was quelled. Jadonang was hanged at Imphal by the British on August 29, 1931, while Rani (a sobriquet given later by Nehru) Gaidinliu was released after 14 years of imprisonment, a nationalist heroine after India gained Independence. Compiled from various sources – Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. Also see, Verghese, India’s North East Resurgent and the NSCN-IM web site Nagalim,

[56] The Revolutionary Council of General Ne Win (1962 –74), the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) (1974-1988), SLORC (1988-97) and now the SPDC (1997 onwards).

[57] A personal conversation at Kohima in October, 1993, between the author and a relative of Phizo who prefers to remain anonymous. Some of the information has been drawn from Murkot Ramunny, The World of Nagas, p. 32.

[58] Dipankar Banerjee, Myanmar & North East India, Delhi Policy Group Monograph, 1997.

[59] The only area not covered in the agreement is around the Tri-Junction at Rima (Arunachal Pradesh) pending a border agreement with China.

[60] Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, p.404.

[61] General Than Shwe, the then C-in-C of the Army (currently Chairman of the SPDC) angrily said, “India is a country which encourages and supports internal insurgents and interferes in internal affairs (of Myanmar)” . Banerjee, Myanmar and North East India, p.30,

[62] Former Prime Minister (1991- 1996) PV Narasimha Rao’s ‘Look East Policy’.

[63] BIMSTEC-EC: Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation. Its earlier avatar was the BIST-EC .

[64] Signatories to the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation initiative signed at Vientiane on November 10, 2000 are India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam & Laos. They are to cooperate in the fields of Transport, Travel & Cultural-Religious Tourism, and Protection of Heritage sites.

[65] India, Ministry of External Affairs data.

[66] Bertil Lintner, "The Indo-Burmese Frontier," Jane's Intelligence Review, January 1994.

[67] Jaideep Saikia, "Anatomy of a Conspiracy", Faultlines, 6, p. 71.

[68] Assam Tribune, Guwahati, March 7, 2000.

[69] Named from the township in north Assam from where it originates, it runs 490 kilometres to Myitkyina and then via Bhamo joins the existing Burma Road at Wanting and thence to Kunming. It is also known as the Stilwell Road after the then Lt. Gen. Joseph (Vinegar Joe) W. Stilwell, who oversaw the project of establishing an overland supply line to China, outflanking the Japanese forces in Burma, during World War II. It cost the Americans $1,37,000,000 and ironically was operational (May 20, 1945) just three months before the surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945. Stilwell was promoted to the rank of a General. Compiled from various sources including Frank Owen, The Campaign in Burma, New Delhi: Natraj Publishers, 1974.

[70] Sanjoy Hazarika, "Stilwell Road", Assam Tribune, September, 1999, <http:/> .

[71] Sudha Mahalingam, "Roadblocks in Asia", Frontline, Madras, November 5, 1999.

[72] Military regimes took over in Burma and Indonesia in 1962 and 1965 respectively and were drawn closer to each other by shared problems, such as establishing national identity, stability and solidarity. Some common features developed like creating mass organisations. E.g., The Golkar Party (Indonesia) and the SLORC initiated in 1993 the USDA (Union Solidarity and Development Association). They shared a common approach on the need for ‘guided democracies’, ‘dwi fungsi’ the Indonesian concept of ‘twin functions’ (security & governance) of the military, and anti-communism. Various sources including Bandyopadhyaya, Burma and Indonesia, p. 73.

[73] A fine distinction from the ‘constructive engagement ’ of the ASEAN countries.

[74] Leaders Speak, 21(2).

[75] As retaliation for the execution of the Mongol envoy by the King of Pagan for refusing to remove his shoes in the royal presence. The American University, Area Handbook for Burma p. 28.

[76] Udai Bhanu Singh, “Political Violence and Instability in Myanmar”, Aakrosh, New Delhi, 2, January 1999, p. 89. UK too encouraged the KMT in the 1950’s to grow poppy. Later, in the 1980’s, the US provided Myanmar the ‘Herbicide 2, 4-D’ used in Agent Orange, which had such devastating ecological effects earlier, during the War in Vietnam. In an ironic twist, the Tatmadaw used the US supplied herbicide in areas in the Shan State which were selected more for their counter-insurgency value than for their poppy fields. Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, p. 314.

[77] Sharan, Government and Politics in Burma.

[78] J.L. Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1955, “ In 2 minutes I counted 57 large trucks carrying logs to China at the Shweli river border crossing on the Lashio- Kunming road”. With a sq. m. of teak costing US$200, a teak tree costing $30,000 in the open world market ($600 in Thailand / China), the income being generated can well be imagined. But with trade restrictions being imposed by Myanmar in 1997, the estimated 250-300 trucks passing through Muse daily enroute to Lashio shrank to 10 –50. The rapacious timber trade to Thailand presents an even more dismal picture, Jane's Intelligence Review, June 1999.

[79] Singh, “Political Violence and Instability in Myanmar”.

[80] Hindu, Madras, October 27,1999. The Pakistan bogey should be related to the plight of the 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who were displaced to Bangladesh. If anything, Muslim fundamentalists would be working against the Myanmar Government very much in the manner of Col. Amin, the Bangladesh Military Attache who was expelled in 1977 for, amongst other things, plotting the murder of Gen. Ne Win, p.142, and Sharan, Government and Politics in Burma.

[81] Jane's Intelligence Review, June 1999.

[82] Interviews with Senior General Than Shwe and Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt. Leaders Speak.

[83] <>, Chris Patten, July 26, 2000, visit to Yangoon of Thomas Hubbard, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia in October 1994.

[84] To the best of my knowledge, these have not been presented in any publication in the form given here, and may not be the official Myanmarese line. This is derived from published material and information available on the Net. India has a valuable asset of keeping a finger on Myanmar’s pulse from the large resident Myanmarese population in Delhi and Calcutta.

[85] Gen. Than Shwe cited in Ministry of Defence, The Role of The Armed Forces, Yangon, 1998.

[86] The other power centres viz. ethnic minorities, students, monks or the National League for Democracy (NLD) are at present not capable to take on this role.

[87] The first Constitution was in 1943, under Japanese occupation, the second in 1947 and the third in 1974. The Convention was tasked in 1993 to draft an ‘enduring constitution’. It is expected to complete its task by 2004. Bannerjee, Myanmar and the Northeast.

[88] The Tatmadaw has been expanded from 1,70,000 soldiers (1988) to 3,21,000 (1996). The tasks need more strength but an increase at present cannot be economically sustained. This, along with poor infrastructure, has led to a forcible seizure of local resources and forced labour. The Intelligence system has been revamped. An effective and efficient Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI) has been set up under the National Intelligence Bureau. An Office of Strategic Studies has been established to fill the Think Tank vacuum. A People’s Militia (Pyi Thu Sit) was set up in the early 1960's to provide protection at the village level. Light Divisions were organised for CI Operations Sources: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australia and Jane's Intelligence Review.

[89] 17 out of 18 (not 15 out of 16 as is commonly mentioned) insurgent groups have accepted a cease-fire since 1989. According to Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt , Leaders Speak,21(2). Apart from the Karen National Union which has not joined the legal fold, there are about 7 small insurgent groups which are still active, including certain Chin and Muslim groups

[90] For example, the Border Areas Development Programme (1989). There is also a new Ministry for Progress of Border Areas and National Races and Development, which was established in 1992.

[91] One of the methods is through autonomy and decentralisation. There are six Self-Administrated Areas: Naga, Kokang, Wa, Danu, Pa-O and Palang. The Naga Self Administered area in the Sagaing Division comprises three townships: Namyun, Lahe and Layshi, all situated to the west of Hakamti.

[92] Myanmar has grown out of its earlier inspiration from Indonesia or Singapore. It is however not in China’s interest for Myanmar to revert to democracy as it has the potential of a resurgence of ethnic instability, if the SPDC does not tackle proposed Federalism skilfully. China's thrust for access to the Indian Ocean as an outlet for its yet underdeveloped south-western regions may also receive a set back.

[93] As an example, see All Quiet on the Western Front? or the strong but gentler voice of Daw Syu Kyi in Aung San Syu Kyi, Freedom From Fear or Aung San Syu Kyi, Letters from Burma.

[94] Aka., Lord (Khun) Sa (the name of his step-father, a Shan prince). His real name is Chan Shee Fu.

[95] V.S. Jafa, "Counter-insurgency Warfare: The Use & Abuse of Military Force," Faultlines, 3, November 1999, esp. pp. 100-127.

[96] The Tatmadaw, ethnic minorities, NLD, Buddhist monks and students – not necessarily in this order.

[97] Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, February 19,1998.





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