Myanmar’s Myths of Ethnic Unity

Matthew J Walton muses on the effects of misleading narratives of the independence era.

The myths of ethnic unity are alive and well in contemporary Myanmar. While we might expect misleading historical claims from previous military-led governments or even the current NLD government, incorrect and problematic statements about the country’s ethnic past even come from those attempting to paint a more complex, even sympathetic picture. A recent op-ed from Myanmar political analyst Sithu Aung Myint is a good example of this. Considering the dispute over including a “non-secession” clause as part of the agreements to come from the 21st Century Panglong meetings, Sithu Aung Myint writes in support of the position adopted by most of the non-Bamar ethnic representatives, that the clause is unnecessary and insulting, given their stated commitments to being a part of Myanmar.

However, in making this argument, he also perpetuates one of the most problematic and a-historical perspectives on the independence period, which is that “The Bamar and the other ethnic groups fought together against the British for independence.” This simply is not true. While the Bamar-dominated Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) included members from non-Bamar ethnic groups as well as allied groups among the other ethnicities, responses to the end of British colonial rule were much more varied among the wider non-Bamar ethnic communities.

First, it wasn’t actually the case that anyone “fought…against the British for independence.” Independence was a struggle for Burma but didn’t involve actual fighting against the British after WWII. And even during that political struggle, opinions were often divided along ethnic lines. Shan saophas (hereditary leaders) were castigated as oppressive feudalists by Bamar nationalists but those supporting the saopha system saw more benefits to the British system of allowing local forms of rule to exist than to the political centralisation proposed by the AFPFL. This included not just those who materially benefited from the system, but also those who believed in its broader cosmological legitimacy. Accounts of the 1947 Panglong Conference also make clear that most non-Bamar ethnic representatives were convinced more by the instrumental arguments in favour of joining with the Bamar, rather than an emergent “nationalist” spirit or even anti-British sentiment.

The Karen were perhaps the most sceptical of the Bamar-led independence movement, in part owing to the strong ties between some Karen leaders and British colonial soldiers and administrators, fostered by Christian missionary zeal among the converted Karen. Karen desires for a separate (independent) state at the time were encouraged by sympathetic writings and public statements by prominent British figures. While views among the Karen overall varied widely, some of the most influential Karen leaders of the late 1940s advocated for a hypothetical “Karen Country” to remain under British dominion, as part of the Commonwealth. Many of them justifiably feared a Bamar-dominated independent Burma, given past violence perpetrated against Karen communities by Bamar-led militias.

Also left unaddressed in this claim of ethnic unity in the independence struggle is the fact that, because the group of Bamar leaders that would become the core of the AFPFL initially allied themselves with the Japanese in World War II, that conflict in Myanmar played out largely as battles between the Japanese and the Bamar on one side, and the British and most other ethnic groups on the other. Fierce combat during the war meant that Aung San’s defectors, once they finally grew disillusioned with Japanese rule, were met with scepticism and suspicion when they declared their willingness to join with the British Allied Forces. Even after the Japanese had been ousted, inter-ethnic conflict persisted across parts of Burma, putting the lie to any overarching claims of ethnic unity, either before or after the historic conference at Panglong.

Why is this minor mis-statement important in an article that is ultimately advocating for something on the side of the ethnic armed groups? I would argue that this myth of unity against the British is a damaging and intentional misremembering of the complex dynamics of a key foundational moment in Myanmar’s past that continues to have delegitimizing effects on non-Bamar ethnic communities and their political aspirations in the present.

There are many reasons to be critical of British colonial policies, whether they were intentionally designed to divide and weaken Burmese groups or simply misguided and based on ignorance of the multifaceted nature of identity in Burma at the time. However, persistently positing the British as the enemy in the independence struggle has the effect of painting any groups that supported or were friendly with the British as insufficiently committed to the Burmese national project, of suspect patriotism and motivated by self-centred interests, rather than collective good.

Inaccurate claims of pre-independence ethnic unity also undercut contemporary grievances of ethnic armed groups and representatives of non-Bamar ethnic groups. As I argued in my 2008 article on “The Myths of Panglong,” the predominant version of the NLD’s narrative of Panglong is that it has been prolonged military rule that has denied the promise of equality that was generated from the 1947 conference. This narrative relies on accepting the myth that the entire Burmese nation was united at the time of independence, but that military aggression through the 1950s and military rule from 1962 undermined this dream. The logical extension of this argument is that, with civilian (NLD-led) rule at least partly established, the country can now return to its independence-era condition of ethnic unity. Any continuation of an ethnic-oriented struggle would then be seen as illegitimate and narrowly focused on the interests of one’s own group, rather than the country as a whole.

I had this point brought home to me several years ago when I was invited to speak to a multi-ethnic gathering of young people in Yangon, about my work on Panglong and their own perspectives on the event and its mythos. The most consequential part of the discussion wasn’t about my own work, but was rather a heartfelt statement to the group from a young Bamar scholar who was assisting me with some research. He spoke openly about how, until he had begun reading independently, what he had been taught from textbooks, teachers and family was that contemporary ethnic struggles were based on selfish material concerns, not on legitimate political grievances. His apology, and recognition of the validity of these struggles, was a powerful moment, but one that suggests that many Bamar people likely still hold at least partially biased and misinformed views on Myanmar’s ethnic history, even if they hold some sympathy toward the groups that have borne the brunt of military abuses over the past five decades.

The national reconciliation process in Myanmar should not be looking back to some constructed historical moment of fictional ethnic unity but rather recognising Panglong as aspirational. At best, Bamar political leaders in 1947 made promises that were never fully kept, not even in the 1947 Constitution. But the original Panglong conference was even less inclusive than today’s elite-dominated discussions and the provisional nature of the agreement made there is an essential part of the narrative that underlies every continuing struggle for ethnic equality in Myanmar today.

I am sure that many from non-Bamar ethnic groups appreciated Sithu Aung Myint’s support for their position on a “non-secession” clause. However, their broader cause would be better supported by a more concerted effort from Bamar elites to accurately represent Myanmar’s complicated ethnic past and in doing so, lay the groundwork for a national dialogue based on honesty, inclusion and recognition.

Author: matthewjwalton

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.