In Myanmar’s waves of racial and religious violence, how many promising individuals have been killed, maimed or otherwise destroyed?
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s defence services, is currently on a goodwill visit to India at the invitation of navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, visiting places of military interest, meeting with Myanmar military officers enrolled in post-graduate programs at Purnea, and learning about the capacity and hardware used by the Indian Armed Forces at Ahmednagar.
The Burmese general would do well to soak in the teachings of Gautam Buddha, Ashoka, Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhiji, who propagated ideals of reconciliation, peace and universal loving kindness, while touring the military facilities and meeting with India’s modern warriors.
After all, despite it being home to one of the world’s longest civil wars and political strife, the Burmese general’s society still has the potential for reconciliation and peace among the warring parties. Hlaing knows this in his heart.
On June 30 in Yangon, something extraordinary happened that lifted the spirit of Myanmar’s people – the generals, National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters, political exiles, journalists and the multi-ethnic population at large.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Aung La Nsang made history by becoming the Myanmar’s first-ever world champion in any sport. Three judges unanimously declared him the winner in the nationally televised match against the defending middleweight champion Vitaly Bigdash from Russia.
Following Nsang’s victory at Thuwunna stadium, another extraordinary thing happened. Hlaing issued an official statement of congratulations, saying the ethnic Kachin fighter embodied the indomitable spirit of Myanmar and was the pride of the nation.
Nsang was invited to the defence ministry and presented with a cash award as a token of appreciation and recognition by representatives of all three branches of Myanmar’s armed forces.
As an ethnic Burmese on the other end of the political spectrum from the Tatmadaw’s leaders, I uncharacteristically welcomed the military’s gesture towards Nsang as symbolically and psychologically significant. I celebrated what I saw as a son of Myanmar making the entire nation proud. A nation that has for so long been fractured along ethnic and religious lines.
While the country’s Aung San Suu Kyi-led, military-backed peace process is running aground, and the UN Human Rights Council bangs on the country’s door to allow a fact-finding mission to visit its conflict zones, the emergence of a world champion is an very rare moment of jubilation. But as a son of Myanmar myself, I can’t help but ask a painful question: in our long-running civil wars and waves of racial and religious violence, how many Nsangs have we killed, maimed or otherwise destroyed?
Nsang is no ordinary fighter. In earlier wins outside of Myanmar, Nsang wrapped himself in the flag of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and publicly expressed his desire for peace in his war-torn birthplace, Kachin State.
On Saturday, the South China Morning Post quoted the new champion as saying, “I hope to be an inspiration to the people of Myanmar. This is for them…. It feels like I am very blessed and hopefully I can bring blessings to other people as well.”
I am inspired by this to suspend the scepticism of my intellect, born out of nearly 30 years of political involvement in Burmese affairs as a grassroots activist, hoping that such a nationwide moment of pride may awaken our own better selves, along with a realisation that we are bound as those who “drink the same water and live on the same land”. This bond may have been damaged by decades of war and political strife, but it certainly is not dead.
War, danger and strife
Almost 250 years after the founding – on ethnic Mon land, no less – of Myanmar’s former capital of Yangon, whose name means “end of war, danger and strife,” the country’s conflicts have multiplied, expanded and deepened. This is largely thanks to misguided political decisions that, in turn, compound the violence and suffering we have inherited.
The result is the ongoing displacement of communities, so much so that Myanmar is now ranked eighth in the world in its outflow of refugees. The number of forced migrants, according to the recently released UN Global Trends report, topped 490,000 at the end of 2016.
This increase is mainly due to the large numbers of Muslim Rohingya refugees fleeing the western region of Rakhine or Arakan to Bangladesh. Here, a 50-year-old strategy aimed at controlling and managing cross-border migration among Rohingya Muslims of Northern Rakhine, has degenerated into one of widespread concern for sustained atrocities.
In the Shan and Kachin highlands, the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the KIO and Myanmar’s former government led by Thein Sein has had a devastating impact on the country’s commercial and political transformation, as well as on the many different ethnic communities that live in the strategic Sino-Burmese borderlands.
In society at large, Islamophobia, dating back to the colonial era, and violent anti-Rohingya racism have poisoned the minds of a generally acquiescing and decent public.
In addition to this, the military’s arrest of Burmese journalists from the Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma, and the NLD government’s dismissal of the outrage over media freedom as “low priority”, marks a re-emergence of hostilities between the country’s ruling institutions and the press – a crucial pillar of civil society.
While blame and responsibilities may be apportioned, Myanmar now needs to take a deep, collective breath as a multi-ethnic nation so that we may regain our common moral sense of what is in the nation’s long-term best interests.
A cathartic moment
While our shared sentiments of jubilation over Nsang’s supreme victory are still fresh, people from Myanmar who care about the well-being and future of our birthplace must honestly and critically reflect on the futility of continuing conflicts over claims and counter-claims of our contributions, histories, territories, revenues, resources and entitlements.
Myanmar is blessed with trillions of dollars worth of natural resources, both above and below ground, tapped and untapped. But more importantly, Myanmar’s people are its greatest asset, its most potent creative energy. Our strength in unity as an incredibly diverse ethnic community has been damaged, and even destroyed, with each passing year of unresolved conflict.
Having worked intimately and transparently with Burmese military leaders, I know that there are members of the Tatmadaw who are keen to push for a more representative government in Myanmar. Despite differences of opinion on how to go about instituting such a government, we share a common desire for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Union of Myanmar.
A young colonel, who is now a four-star general in the commander-in-chief’s office, asked me ten years ago: “Do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the only person among us who can bring about democratisation in our country?” He didn’t mean it rhetorically and was keen to know my honest answer.
My response then was “no”. And it remains unequivocally so.
But neither the military nor NLD leaders can expect to succeed in their one-year-old joint effort at facilitating a democratic transition without the inspired participation of the public. Nor can these powerful military figures and popular political parties accomplish their stated objectives of defending and developing a multi-ethnic Myanmar until and unless there is a fundamental shift in their mindsets.
Sometimes a national tragedy or a moment of collective jubilation can serve as a cathartic moment, from which springs a nation’s revival, renewal and reconciliation. Again as a Burmese whose family has over three generations had organic ties with the military, I hope that Nsang’s world championship may turn out to be one such moment for our country.
Nurture, rather than destroy
Leaders from both the NLD and the military must see in every person who calls Myanmar their birthplace a potential Nsang, an embodiment of pride for our multi-ethnic nation, an asset to our national defence and a building block for our development.
Myanmar are blessed with many Nsangs in various fields such as journalism, civil society development, human rights promotion, minority rights protection, as well as in the creative domains of art and literature, science and technology, medicine and engineering, agriculture and forestry, interfaith harmony and peace-building, environmental protection and scholarship.
Internationally, many of Myanmar’s distinguished sons and daughters have – as refugees, expatriates, and exiles – worked in “world class” institutions or independently.
Myanmar does not need to wait for a new generation of citizens to emerge. The country’s leaders need to realise and appreciate the potentially invaluable contributions that the yet-to-be recognised Nsangs could make towards peace, security, development and harmony.
Militaries, political parties, religious organisations and virtually all communities have made mistakes – some grave and consequential. No nation or national institution is complete, finished or beyond redemption. Therefore, it is not too late for the Myanmar community to turn the land we love into one that nurtures rather than destroys future Nsangs, irrespective of differences in migratory histories, faiths or opinions.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all Burmese citizens could be brought together into a national programme in which they were encouraged to share their opinions and expertise, publicly and privately, towards the shared goal of building a true democratic Union of Myanmar?
As evidenced in Britain’s Brexit and Trump’s America, racism and prejudice divides and weakens nations. Myanmar must overcome the weight of its past, and embrace a reality where every one – soldier and civilian, majority and minority, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim – sees our individual achievements celebrated as those of one nation.
Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist and scholar who has been involved in his country’s affairs for nearly 30 years. He blogs at www.maungzarni.net