Confronting the Demons
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Saturday, December 03, 2022

Confronting the Demons

By DR ZARNI Saturday, October 17, 2009


Since independence we Bama have been living a collective lie that is both hegemonic and myopically nationalistic. The supposedly linear progression of Burma or Myanmar, save the colonial interlude of 120 years, from a Buddhist kingdom originating in Pagan to today's modern nation-state is a complete fallacy, devoid of any empirical evidence.

The "we" here refers to post-colonial ethnic Bama, civilian and military, exiles and in-country compatriots, who unquestioningly embrace and ritualistically recycle our popular nationalist historiography, according to which Myanmar, or Burma as we know it, has been in existence since time immemorial.

As a post-colonial society, we have been stuck in class and ethnicity-based political conflicts since independence from Britain. According to the reactive version of Bama-centered nationalist historiography on which our history curriculum rests, we are but a post-colonial mess left behind by the British Raj.

However, these nationalist discourses are not fully honest intellectually, although there is a tinge of truth to them. They are largely silent about our own troubled pre-colonial pasts. Our pre-colonial histories are marked by local imperialisms, brutal slave raids, rigidly enforced caste-like social stratification, institutionalized gender oppression, monopolistic economic exploitation of peasantries by ruling feudal houses, and wasteful and gigantic pagoda and palace building projects, be they of the Bama, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, etc.

Since the early days of what may be considered "the emergence of a modern Burmese nationalism" around the turn of the 20th century, members of our chattering classes—from U May Oung and Dr Ba Han, writing about their colonial Burma in the now defunct Journal of Burma Research Society, to the nationalist folklorist Maung Htin Aung, who authored, among many other books,“The Stricken Peacock: An Account of Anglo-Burmese Relations 1752-1948” (Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), from ex-Brigadier Maung Maung, Ne Win's deputy and author of “Burmese Nationalist Movements (1940-48)” (Kiscadale, 1994), to (Dr)Thant Myint-U of “The River of the Lost Footsteps: A Personal History” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)—have recycled this old Bama-centered and irredeemably elitist historiography.

Misinformed by the skewered readings of our past, the dominant Bamas imagine ourselves as a historically cohesive nation whose organizational integration with minority peripheries only needs to be completed either democratically or by force.

In fact, the history of post-colonial Burma centers on a pathological process of neo-colonization of non-dominant members of the Union at the hands of the dominant Bama elite, who subscribe to the deeply problematic ideological view of "Burma"—where the Bamas, urban elites and males, and now soldiers, are more equal than other ethnic communities, classes and females.

Following independence, Bama politicians and soldiers alike have resumed this old expansionist mission in the name of post-colonial nation-state building. During a lengthy tape-recorded interview in 1994, ex-Colonel Chit Myaing, a Revolutionary Council member and the well-known deputy-commander of the Burma Rifle No. 5, told me frankly that as early as 1952 Bama nationalist soldiers, with political support from leading nationalist politicians from the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), built Ba Htoo army-town as the first military base on Shan soil. It was a preemptive military move against the Shans, who the Bama nationalists feared might exercise their right of secession as guaranteed (to them and the Karenni) by modern Burma's founding Constitution of 1947.

Also the late U Chan Tun, the chief legal advisor to Aung San and subsequently the Chief Justice of independent Burma, reportedly confessed that even that Constitution was federal only in name, but unitary in both nature and substance.

While the dominant elite built the Bama-centered unitary state under the disguise of a federal union immediately after independence, the non-dominant groups, for their part, waged resistance against this Bama imperialist revival, igniting equally problematic

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pLan B Wrote:
Ko Okkar
The groups you described have succumbed to their own self-serving lies.
You and I have more in agreement with Ko Moe Aung and Ko Tom Tun more often than not in most instances.
All manage to maintain different perspectives for the benefit of seeing a better future for the land and the people.
Criticism of ideas is good. Let us not kick each other when down.

Dr Zarni made some very thoughtful points that must be reckoned with in the near future.
Let's move on and let the self-serving entity die a quiet death without further fanfare by associating with each other.

Tom Tun Wrote:
Moe Aung,
We all have our own opinion. However, we have the same interest and common goals, which are peace, prosperity, liberty and justice. Here is one question for you. When I was born, nature or God had grant me absolute freedom and rights. When I grew up in society, I had to surrender some of my rights and freedom. Some of my rights demanded by society, in my opinion, I can not surrender. So, does society have rights to force me to take my rights away? I respect individual rights. I will only show them that the rights that we should surrender are only for our good and for the society. If we all can agree on this point we don't need to demand unity. I am not against your opinion but I see it differently.
I prefer Plato, Thoreau, Rousseau, Aristotle, Kant over Nietzsche. Mordern thinkers are based on old philosophers. I just like " Beyond Good and Evil" of Nietzsche. I have different views, hat's all.

Okkar Wrote:

What you are doing is playing harp next to buffalos. These so-called democracy supporters do not understand democratic values. Their "with us or against us" mentality is anything but dmocratic. Forcing their views upon others and accusing those who dont support their views as regime supporters - these are the tactics of apprachtiks in Stalinist Russia and SA of Hilter's Germany. These people do not want to see a democratic society prosper in Burma, but rather want to install their own dictators. As for Zar Ni, he is just a wannabie Nietzsche with his rumblings.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Tom Tun,

You got the wrong end of the stick.
Unity by force is exactly what the junta has been all about. Unity required to overthrow the regime is unity of force, not by force. So first things first, but based on a common vision and program of how we shape the future of the union.

The Bama will have to lay the imperial ghost for good. Even if we have yet to see the British achieve it - a former maritime and global empire, we can after all only boast three intermittent and contiguous land empires in the distant past, the last one contemporary to the union of Scotland with England, about 250 years ago. Education, not propaganda, is the answer.

Tom Tun Wrote:
Moe Aung,
I agree with you that we need unity to fight the regime. However, I want you to consider some ideas that I have in mind. The democracy system is based on freedom of individual belief, right? So, if we force someone to follow our way for unity, is it ethical? Do you think that can we find some other ways for unity than to demand it?

I have some ideas from my study and research for unity. If we demand unity, it will only last for a moment, but if someone comes and joins us because they like the opinion that we have it will last a long time. We can set an example by this. So far in our Burmese history, I still don't see the leader who put his or her ideas public so that people will join them instead of forcing them.

Let's start the new way of thinking and give the people an example instead of forcing. I know unity is necessary, but to achieving it is a different thing. The road we walk on is not an easy one. If it is easy, it is already solved.

Kachin Hillman Wrote:
Good self analysis! Bamars should admit their colonialism towards other minorities. Now is the time to stop that colonialism. Let us live peacefully in our own ancestral lands side by side.

English colonists showed their status by withdrawing their forces and administration. Bamars should show their status by returning all the lands they occupied to the rightful owners.

Free Man Wrote:
Tom Tun,

In her book titled "Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule" (2nd ed.), Christina Fink quotes Dr. Ba Maw who said that "most" Burmans have the "big-race mentality", etc. etc.

The Burmese political analyst Aung Naing Oo speculated in one of his books that there would probably be a rise in Burmese nationalism when we reached our desired political order because Burmans wouldn't be able to bear the sight of non-Burmans enjoying equality.

And a similar attitude and mentality can be found in some of the comments posted here. This is what I was talking about.

On the other hand, I am aware of the fact that there are also problems within non-Burman communities.

However, I still think that the "big-race mentality" held by some Burmans is one of the biggest and most difficult problems that we will have to deal with in our march towards a better society.

LuuSoeLay Wrote:
No doubt this regime is pathetically fascinated by the ancient brutal Bamar kingdom, culture, etc.
It heavily describes four icons in today's history text—Kyansitta, Bayinnaung, Alungbaya, Bandula. It never mentions their brutal acts, especially Alung who massacred a considerable part of the population. Over 3,000 Mon Buddish monks were excuted by various most cruel methods, including forced trampling by elephants.

The regime picked the capital Naypyidaw near Tanungoo, which was once the super power of Bamar's kingdom belonging to Bayinnaung, who was famous for fighting against Mongolian and invading Ayuttaya.

The Regime has never favored to list Dammazedi of Mon's kingdom. His was a time of peace and he himself was a mild ruler, famous for his wisdom and he was a Buddhist ruler of the best type, deeply solicitous for the purification of religion. Shwedagon and Shew Mawday pogadas were built under his kingdom.

anti-fascist-nationalist Wrote:
The current ultra-nationalism is really the worst combination of fascism and feudalism. When growing up in Burma, I heard enough accusations of feudalism against the other non-Bama ethnic ruling families, but at least their power had checks and balances. Now the whole country is one big despotic feudal society.

As for the ultra nationalism, I always wonder why it is so prevalent among us Bama. Is it the education system? Or is it the culture? Why do so many of us think that we are superior?

This sometimes leads to rather strange and awkward moments. When the bird flu hit Asia two years ago, you had some minister proclaiming that Burma was immune because "it is enclosed by high mountains" (a Third Standard geography text knowledge). When a 40 million year old primate fossil was discovered, another 'wungyi' was quick to claim that "human culture had its origins in Myanmar" not realizing that was a primitive monkey! Until we acknowledge our own flaws, there's no hope

Dr. Samuel Lin Wrote:
Well said Dr. Zarni and I believe the numerous responses, probably the most this magazine has garnered on an article, are a testament to the scholarly and absolutely frank discourse.

It is extremely refreshing for us ethnic minorities that a Bamar would admit the racist policies of the majority Bamar towards the minorities.

Self examination is the first step towards reformation and how to bring about the change is a different matter. All the Burmese people, Bamas and the myriad ethnic minorities both at home and abroad will have to work together.

The biggest obstacle to change is the ruling military elitists. Dr. Maung Maung Nyo's view on the fear of Balkanisation is the fodder on which the Burmese army feeds.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Well done, Zarni, for putting the cat among the pigeons. About time all of us engaged in some useful and productive self-criticism along these lines.

Yes, they say if you point one finger at someone you have three pointing back at you. There's an inherent irony that not just the Bama but the major minorities have their own minority issues that need to be addressed just as urgently as the principal one.

More importantly however, unity must be forged if we are to succeed in fighting for all our freedoms. Falling out is as easy as blaming one another, and most likely to our mutual detriment.

Although lessons must be learnt from the distant as well as the recent past, we must move forward for our children's and grandchildren's future. We have a duty to leave our country in a better shape than we found it. UNITE!

Tom Tun Wrote:
Free Man,
I don't understand your point. What attitude are you talking about? Please describe clearly. We are doing serious discussion. Maybe you will learn a few things that you don't know and so will I.

Free Man Wrote:
It is sad that, after a 60 year long civil war, some people, be they academics or ordinary civilians, still haven't realized that the kind of attitude that they put on display here are one of the principal root causes of the problem of our country. This is the reason why the revered DASSK has called for revolution in our spirit and attitude.

KKK Wrote:
Did the Burmese people live together peacefully from the era of King Anaw-ra-hta to 'King' Than Shwe? We, Burmeses have been killing, fighting, bad mouthing, conniving, and scratching each other since the Burmese history began. How many years have we been doing this? We should not pass it onto the next generation of Burmese.

Greenland Wrote:
bama nationalist

Burma is not a country owned by Bama alone, therefore Bamas don't have the rights to impose their wishes upon the other ethnic people. Look at the geographical spread of the country; the Bamas stay only in the middle, surrounded by other traditional ethnic peoples.

Learning the Bama language (though I understand it is a useful common language)should not be mandatory for all non-Bama people, instead it should be voluntary, as respecting other people's feeling is a prerequisite for peaceful coexistence and other positive developments.

You give the example of all ethnic groups learning the Thai language in Thailand. That's their choice and no one is forcing them. Even if they learn their own language using their own means, the government is not stopping them and not persecuting them for doing so. This is the difference with bama dominated government in Burma.

People don't want to forced. They want to be given a free choice. People know what's best for themselves.

tocharian Wrote:
Even Sein Win, cousin of ASSK, the NCGUB guy has a Ph.D., so let's stop "intimidating" each other with Dr. titles. Facts become distorted once you have a social system based on oligarchy and power. Burma needs a "French Revolution" before we can even talk about politics, democracy, human rights, etc.

Tom Tun Wrote:
Dr. Zarni,

I agree with most parts of your article. However, I don't see the similarity of history between the other countries and Burma. For instance, Australia, Canada, the USA and even the UK all have ethnic diversity. The question is, why are some countries peaceful and some are not?

I agree with one thing: the federation of our ancestors is a lie. If we introduced true federalism, do you think there would be serious problems such as the ones we are facing today?

I like the US and Canadian government system. There are federal level government and state level government.

You are asking how we will share national wealth. It will be shared according to the population density of the region.

I believe citizens are the basis of the country and economy, not the territory. Citizens must be free to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If so many countries in this world with diverse cultures and beliefs can have peace and prosperity, why not Burma?

hkunnawng Wrote:
I agree with Dr. Zarni. He bravely dares to touch and reveal the sensitive fundamental problems of our multi-ethnic country. Shame on some so-called Burman academics who want to down play the role of ethnic groups and aim to build a Burman-dominated, homogeneous nation-state without attempting to look at the problems underneath.

It is sad to see some readers' Burman chauvinistic comments on this article. To have sustainable peace in our country, we, especially Burmans, have to change our attitudes first and do some soul-searching.

George Than Setkyar Heine Wrote:
Hail to Tocharian and Dr. Maung Maung Nyo.
Right on all counts.
Burma would not be Burma, a sovereign state or a country today, if not for King Anaw-ra-hta (1044) and lastly our late Gen Aung San (1948).
Likewise England or the United Kingdom would not stand like today, much less colonize half the world later, if not for that Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) from France who claimed the crown from Harold the First on Christmas Day 1066 as his.
Somebody has to do something to build a nation or country.
There is nothing wrong in that, is there?
Even Zarni, Thant Myint U and their ilk are making names, though as outcasts and renegades today.
And Ne Win and Than Shwe have earned their respective places in history, though as nation breakers only.
It needs integrity, intellect, time and temerity amongst others in nation building. As they say, Rome was not built in a day.
And most importantly, we need every native of Burma for that purpose, irrespective of ethnicity, creed or breed.

Free Man Wrote:
I take my hat off to Ko Zarni for his intellectual honesty and bravery. No doubt this piece of writing serves as a grain of sand and a block of brick in our struggle for a democratic federal union.

I don't deny that anti-Bama ethno-nationalism does exist in the Karen community although it may not be a dominat strand of Karen natinalism. However, as Ko Aung Moe Zaw of the NCUB and DPNS pointed out in one of his writings a month or so ago on this website, the KNU will contine working towards peace and harmony among the Karen and the Bama. In so doing, we invite the indispensable cooperation of our fellow Bamas.

Towards a harmonious, democratic, federal union.

Dave Wrote:
What an excellent piece - clearly written, academically rigourous, and asking politicians and activists to genuinely think rather than continue to produce polemics. Possibly the best thing I've seen on The Irrawaddy for years

Eric Johnston Wrote:
"It has often been objected to the Burmese, that they are given to pilfering, lying, and dissimulation, as well as insolent and overbearing to strangers; but the remark may be, in a great measure, confined to the numerous government functionaries...they are indeed a vile race, who exist by fraud and oppression, and who, upon numerous pretences...are always ready to rob and plunder all who come within the influence of their authority. The poor people, on the contrary, by far the best part of the nation, are frank and hospitable, and by no means deficient in qualities...They...are acute, intelligent, and observing; and, although frequently impressed with high notions of their own sovereign and country, show no illiberality to strangers or foreigners who reside among them. In a word, to sum up their character, their virtues are their own, and their faults and vices those of education, and the pernicious influence of a cruel and despotic government."
[Maj. Snodgrass, 1827]

True today?

bama nationalist Wrote:
I like the idea of mandatory teaching of Burmese to all Burmans.

Texts and training teachers cost money and for a poor country like Burma to have parallel systems for Burmese, Shans and
Mons languages would sink the country deeper into an economic hole.

I prefer all texts to be taught should remained in Burmese. They cannot complain about this in Thailand, which uses Thai to teach the minorities, so why do they make fuss of it in Burma. Double standards?

I think it is time to measure those
so called rights (to learn in one's own language, advance one's own culture)
against practical cost of doing so.

bama nationalist Wrote:
I read in old newspaper archives from the 50s and 60s (when I was 13)that under U Nu's rule there was a feasibility study whether or not self-rule rights should be given to the Shans led by their feudal rulers.

It was thought they should not be allowed to tax themselves or manage their own budget because in those days, the Shan highlands were not able to sustain themselves, being landlocked, and that the federal government
(tax payers in Burman lowlands) would bear the budget of Shans.

If the Shans were not thought able to look after themselves, nor would any other group be able to do so.

Time have changed. Nowadays the Shan State may be able to raise their own funds to self manage, especially with the rise of China and their proximity (geography, ethnic and economic) to Thailand.

It would still be hard for the Shans to manage their own affairs, however.

Myo Chit Wrote:
Dr. Zarni,

You have touched on a wide range of topics that deserve deeper treatment than a typical internet based article would warrant. Why don't you write a book and follow that up with lectures, debates, interviews in the channels that reach the people back home. While a few scholars in the west, who are natives of what is now called Burma/Myanmar, can appreciate what you are saying, the vast majority of intellectuals and activists back home have not grown out of the what the ethno-nationalists (Bama,Karen, MOn, Shan, etc.) have been preaching for last several decades. We must overcome ethno-nationlism and gender and class-based discrimination (I am sure you have more precise terms for these) to put our country back on its feet.

myo nyunt Wrote:
Dr Zarni has the right as a Burmese intellectual to question whether Burma and or Myanmar was really constituted as a independent Nation and a sovereign state as the Union of Burma in 1948.

To me a person of Burmese origin and the history of a people, bamar or non-bamar, has been scripted by intellectual elites either from the vantage perspective of "blood and belonging" and or by acts of territorial conquest and domination by a power elite--- status class/caste/clan/tribe.

Burma or Myanmar is still a country in the making and its history is still unfolding. The democratic spirit of the Burmese people is still alive. The people will win through.

pLan B Wrote:
Ahh, Dr Zarni looking beyond the present quagmire and preparing the world for reality?
But wait, you are getting too far ahead in your back-to-the-future approach.
Let us start with this 'elephant in the room' represented by these facts:
1) How does a head of some Western underwear company get to decide to do away with "made in Burma" under the most fraudulent guise of "do the right thing" as here;
2) How does an organization whose motto and attitude is absolutely not beyond 'Corporate Ambulance Chasing' get to claim to represent saving the world and "the people of Myanmar" without even any evidence of material support?
Continue to profit off 50-plus millions just as SPDC is doing?
3) Worst of all, how has an ordinary economist form the West, from a previously not very well known institution, get to make a name for himself through telling others about how bad Myanmar is due to the SPDC, without ever have to set foot in the country?

Dennis Wrote:
The article reminds me of a passage from an article by Chris Baker, "The colonialists created the modern states of Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam and began the task of writing their histories, with the modern borders projected back into the past. Nationalist history grasped this torch and kept on running. It is time to revise this history and reconstruct the political and social maps of the past without the biases overlaid on them by nineteenth-century empire-builders and their twentieth-century nation-state successors." (Recalling Local Pasts: Autonomous History in Southeast Asia, 2002).

Ko Chin Wrote:
Mr. Zarni, check and recheck how a country where you are in now has grown fat at the expense of the weak countries and minority ethnic groups in the world. However, there is still so called democracy in Britain, the US—you name it.

Myanmar will be either the same or better than those countries sooner or later but without colonizing a single country.

republic of myanmar Wrote:
What an interesting perspective.
Perhaps most of us have a superiority complex, especially in the intellectual community, as much as in the military junta.

M.M.Myint Wrote:
I agree with Dr.Zarni on his description on our history, the nature of autocracy and monarchy administration.

In fact it happened in Asia, England and all over the world before the 18th century. In the time of what they called great King Bayin Naun, all people of the country suffered a lot. For self glorification, he took the whole male population/farmers of Burma as a conscript army to invade Chiang Mai, Ayyudaya, Lao, South Yunnan, Assam etc, creating famines as farm land had to be worked by women folks. There is no gain in his adventures, yet we make him number one hero. But as we had been brainwashed by the the whole institution starting from our school days, only a few analatical minded people will accept the real truth.

Throughout my life, I had found this attitude ingrained in our people and used as an ultra-crazy Nationalism tool for political purpose by every oppressor. I don't see normal Burmese accepting your good views as they have been brought up in the old ways.

Eric Johnston Wrote:
This article focuses attention on one of Burma's fundamental problems, a problem that contributed to bringing the military to power in the first place.

Kyi May Kaung Wrote:
I could not agree with Dr. Zarni more.

Anyone who has read Dr. Victor Lieberman's Burmese Administrative Cycles

knows there is nothing romantic or even high flown about the Burman or Bama monarchies.

Essentially dynastic founder kings unified by force, then as the dynasty progressed to the brain cracked end products (due to royal intermarriage) at the end of dynasties, the same cycle started again.

Gen Ne Win and Sr Gen Than Shwe imagining themselves Bama kings are very dangerous.

Though the colonial period had problems (it also was centralized as a bureaucracy), at least it had a semblance of peace and law and order.

But during the independence struggle the "romance" of nationalism, like the Irish struggle, was revived again.

Everyone knows that Dr Htin Aung was stranded in the UK in old age and wanting to come home and wrote "Stricken Peacock" to curry favor with U Ne Win and get to go home.
And he did.

loyd Wrote:
Excellent article, truly—and spot on time.

Self-critism and self-assessment are all part of a true democracy.

Thank you Dr Zarni for a critical yet positive and useful piece.

I hope these points will be understood and accepted by Bama people who already know these faults.

I must add that I believe this leaves no factual fault to the democracy movement but historical truth which they might be better recognising rather than forgetting.

tocharian Wrote:
Most problems in Burma are rooted in corruption, patronage and hypocrisy, not just of the ruling class, but it has spread to the level of the soldiers, the merchants, ethnic drug dealers, etc., way down to the level of the police and the the pimps in the brothels and the casinos! Bribery is rampant and honesty is almost non-existent. In Burma to be honest is equated with being dumb
(Yo: de = A de)

I do agree with a number of things you say in your article, Mr. Zarni, but why do you have to put a Dr. in front of your name? Do you want to be treated as an intellectual "well above" the simple folk? (that's your main criticism about the ruling class in Burma) Ph.D's are a dime a dozen nowadays. Big deal!

Dr Maung Maung Nyo Wrote:

I'm not clear what Dr Zarni wants. Does he want the continued existence of Burma or Myanmar as a viable state or does he want it to crumnle like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia? In a multi-ethnic state, a dominant ethnic group will have to take more responsibility in managing the state's affairs. Look at China with Han Chinese dominating or Thailand where the Thai (Old Siamese or Tai) dominate.

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