Burma’s Ethnic Jigsaw Puzzle
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Burma’s Ethnic Jigsaw Puzzle



A new study on ethnic politics in Burma surveys a bewildering field and points the way forward

Ethnic Politics in Burma: States of Conflict by Ashley South. Routledge, 2008, P 277
WRITERS looking to clarify the complexity of Burma’s ethnic political conundrum had better steel themselves for failure. The subject matter defies even the most insightful, experienced and balanced researcher. How does one research an estimated 135 ethnic nationalities—Shan, Karen, Kachin and many others—with their bewildering array of armed groups, political parties and development initiatives, particularly against the backdrop of decades of war, poverty, drugs and Burmese military state-building with its attendant human rights violations?

Since the colonial era, only two Western authors have done the subject justice. Martin Smith’s encyclopedic Burma-Insurgency and the
Politics of Ethnicity
, and Bertil Lintner’s Burma in Revolt are landmark studies in cataloguing the confusion of the ethnic puzzle inside Burma.

Whereas Smith’s book was about conflict and ethnic identity, and Lintner’s about conflict, state building and narcotics, Ashley South explores all these topics and then looks at contemporary debates on development and forced displacement, with a more academic discussion of shifting “identities” in Burma. Given the sheer range and depth of all these issues, South overviews them skillfully.

The purpose of the book is to inject greater complexity and detail into the debates over ethnic politics: the role of resurgent civil society in ethnic ceasefire areas and the cities of Burma; the ethnic groups’ constrained participation in the military government’s national convention; and the uneven performance of local development projects.

With a timely epilogue taking into account the effects of Cyclone Nargis, South suggests there are now opportunities in Burma for meaningful participation in national politics for Burma’s long-suffering and splintered ethnic nationalities if they pursue a considerable strategic rethink—what South calls “review, reform and re-engage.”

The author sketches case studies of the Kachin and Mon ceasefires, and examines the development dilemmas within the Wa and Kokang special regions and their struggles with opium eradication. The section on the Karen ceasefire process is well explained, despite omitting mention of late Gen Bo Mya’s breakthrough visit to Rangoon in early 2004.

The sections on the gradually flourishing civil society movement are encouraging and urgent; there are hundreds of health, education and development initiatives inside Burma that South describes without compromising the security of those involved. The international community must start finding ways to strengthen and support these networks, South says, as a process of outflanking the military power structure and its tightly controlled raft of civil society groups like the Union Solidarity and Development Association.

The final chapter, on “re-imagining communities,” outlines pathways for the ethnic groups to engage with the central state and the international community in peace-building and development initiatives. South argues that civil society has a crucial role to play in this—one which the military government and the international community should be aware of—as a vehicle for gradual peace-building and political initiatives. “Cooperation in the humanitarian sector might later be expanded … to include more explicitly political discussions of state-society and center-periphery relations… What is required is more—and better quality—engagement between international and state agencies and local communities.”

To those who have followed South’s prodigious output of reports and articles in the past few years, much of the writing is familiar, but for the lay reader this is a valuable collection of issues, even if all the details occasionally become confusing and disjointed. Some well-designed diagrams show the polarization of arguments and contrasting outcomes of ceasefires and development initiatives, and they demonstrate the author’s grasp of a mountain of complexity.

Where the book stumbles is in South’s over-correction in trying to balance debates over the role of Western development agencies and international advocacy.

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