A lesson or two from Myanmar


The Naga people are mostly found in the Kachin State, in the hill country of Sagang and in the Valley of Kabaw. — AFP photo

IF there is any lesson to learn from a military government dominated by a number of generals who moonlight in lucrative trade in drugs and precious stones, get a clue from Myanmar.

The armed forces of the Junta, who had toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government in 2021, have been battling with the ethnic groups fighting for political autonomy and economic independence.

In early October last year, a well-organised military campaign was launched by the various ethnic communities who had pooled their resources to form a strong military alliance called ‘The Three Brotherhood’.

They managed to capture a number of towns under the control of armed groups allied to the Junta. One source said several thousand Junta soldiers had surrendered or fled across the border into India and China.

The combined armies from Shan state, the Rakhine and other groups are commanded by experienced soldiers. They are much better equipped now including the use of drones for dropping bombs, but they have no combat helicopters and the bomber jets.

The houses and farms of the villagers have been destroyed; the displaced villagers are refugees in their own land. And yet no country has accused Myanmar of committing the crime of genocide under the terms of the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention against the Shan, the Mon, the Wa, the Karen, the Karenni, the Naga, the Kachin, the Chin, and the Arakanese.

Many of their ancestors had been fighting the British and the Japanese since 1940-48. They are the descendants of those people who were neglected by the colonial (British) after the Anglo-British War of 1824-26.

The Government of the Republic of Burma, which came into being in 1948 under U Nu, ignored them and they continued to be marginalised by the military regime of General Ne Win (1962-1988).

By 1988, the conditions were ripe for a revolution by the democrats, many of whom were educated in the West, but among the army men there were no strong officers to stage an internal coup d’état. The democrats thought that an alternative form of government would have to be in place if Burma wished to be politically-free like other former colonies of the British Commonwealth such as India, Pakistan, Ghana and Malaya.

The choice was a parliamentary form of government.

Enter Aung San Suu Kyi, well-educated with the blessings of many democratically elected governments, members of the UN.

High hopes were placed on her ability to govern, being the daughter of a famous nationalist and war hero, General Aung San, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Into this void plus confusion in terms of ideology, Suu Kyi was reluctantly dragged.

Politics has not been kind to her: her family life was destroyed; she had endless trouble with the generals who prefer military rule for Myanmar to a parliamentary system of government at all costs.

The icon of democracy is in jail for 33 years. No one else has the charisma to provide leadership in terms of restoring a semblance of democratic rule to Myanmar now.

All the democratic institutions that she had built have been dismantled by the Junta and most of her colleagues have either been killed and imprisoned, or have gone underground to run a parallel government.

But very little is heard of them lately. Are they building tunnels?

Hopes for new deal for indigenous tribes dashed

During Suu Kyi’s administration, there was an attempt to bring on board the various tribes in the north to the mainstream of economic development and political alignment with the central government, but sadly, Suu Kyi was not able to implement plans of physical infrastructure and economic integration to the region because of the military takeover mid-term of her tenure of office.

From my recent conversation with a Church worker whom I met at Kuala Lumpur airport, I had a glimpse of the situation of the tribal people.

I was interested in the Naga in particular.

According to her, it is a long story of benign neglect. She related: “Small people do not matter because they do not contribute to the economic wellbeing of the nation, because they do not pay taxes and their number in the population is negligible.

“Since the time after Burma had gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, the northern tribes have been marginalised in terms of planned physical infrastructure development; they had little or no political clout in local governments.

“The dominant ethnic group is the Burman (about 68 per cent out of the total population of about 50 million, based on 2009 estimates). They dominate membership of the armed forces; they restrict recruitment of other ethnic groups into the civil service.

“When Burma was part of British India, the civil service was dominated by Indians, but after Indians had left after 1948, it was the men from Rangoon who took over the administration of the northern states, leaving the locals to do other jobs.

“The government allocated business opportunities to the Burmese firms based in Rangoon or Mandalay. Now the soldiers monopolise the trading in drugs and precious stones.”

I could not believe my ears.

Why are the local history buffs intrigued by what’s happening in a place so far away from Borneo?

It is because of the striking similarities of situations in which many indigenous peoples in Malaysia, particularly in Sarawak and Sabah, have found themselves.

The composition of Myanmar’s population made up of people of various racial, cultural and religious backgrounds competing for scarce resources is similar; the policy of inequitable distribution of wealth and civil services is remarkably identical to ours.

My friend, a chatter-box, continued: “The members of the business fraternity, mostly generals, assume that the minority do not know how to make use of their lands, forests, rivers, mountains to make money.

“It is the army boys who know or think that they know what to do and make money out of the natural resources.

“They have the expertise or know-how and the financial resources to move mountains, flatten hills and collect the stone for the quarries for paving the roads; they know how to extract the sand from the riverbeds and mix it with cement to make cement for buildings in cities and towns.

“So they might as well develop the land for plantations and housing estates, dam the rivers for electricity, cut down the trees for sale and pay taxes to the Department of Inland Revenue, go out for holidays and keep extra money in the banks overseas.

“Come election time, they give money to the political parties which are likely to win the elections and form the government. And they have the guns with which to enforce military laws!”

I surrendered and I told her that “They are announcing your flight …”

But shaking hands, one more topic, side topic – the Naga.

This ethnic group is of special interest to the Iban of Sarawak and Kalimantan.

According to her, the Naga have similar rituals as observed by the Iban in the days of headhunting – ‘miring’ (Sandauari, Bebaik ka Bala) – before going on the warpath.

She continued: “The Naga were marginalised by the Burmese government of U Nu; were ignored by the military regime of General Ne Win because they could not supply recruits for the armed forces.

“When Aung San Suu Kyi was in power, an effort was made to establish rapport with them and to bring them on board the central government in terms of political involvement and the sharing of the economic pie.

“The Naga are mostly found in the Kachin State, in the hill country of Sagang and in the Valley of Kabaw. They had been living out there in the wilderness in order to protect their forests from land grabs.”

Sounds familiar?