Myanmar’s national unity lost in translation

Asia Politics World

Author: Myo Min, Yangon School of Political Science

From the beginning of Myanmar’s political transition, the challenge has been transforming a country divided by language, culture, territory and religion into a socially cohesive state. International organisations and newly elected civilian governments have promoted social cohesion in an attempt to overcome the differences. Although programs have been implemented by the government and local communities since 2010, most emphasise an ‘integrationist’ approach that does not accommodate ethnic minorities.

Students wait for Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to arrive at a school in Kawhmu, Yangon, Myanmar, 18 July, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang).

Students wait for Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to arrive at a school in Kawhmu, Yangon, Myanmar, 18 July, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang).

The Myanmar government still fails to acknowledge the preference for language-based self-determination and greater communal rights among minority communities. And while there is ample coverage of Myanmar’s peace process, the importance of social cohesion policies is often overlooked. A closer look shows that reforming the government’s social cohesion policy is of paramount importance to Myanmar’s future.

The UN Development Program, in partnership with the NGO Search for Common Ground, initiated a country-wide social program titled ‘Social Cohesion for Stronger Communities’ (SC2) in 2015. The program promotes a common public identity which minimises ethnic cleavages without demanding ethno-cultural uniformity in the private sphere.

It stands for a single public identity to be promoted by individuals from all ethnic communities, social mixing in schools and workplaces, and promotion of tolerance of cultural diversity. It stresses the importance of integrating subgroup identities into the mainstream in order to achieve national unity.

But the ‘mainstream’ in Myanmar is construed to apply primarily to the dominant, majority group — the Bamar people speaking the Burmese language. Promoting a single identity is problematic for ethnic minority groups whose most important objective is the right to self-determination — defined by democratic self-rule within a federal system — and the exercise of cultural autonomy.

For ethnic minorities, the concept of self-determination should be minimally articulated so they ‘feel they equally co-own the country’, have the right to freely exercise their culture and can learn and use their own language in their own state. The right of minorities to freely exercise their cultural identity is one of the defining rifts in Myanmar politics.

The government, on the one hand, highlights the importance of social cohesion, while also vetoing provisions that would advance it in a meaningful way. The official government understanding of social cohesion — the assimilation of ethnic minorities to the dominant ethnic group — is also evident in the nationwide program to erect statues of General Aung San, considered an independent hero and the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

The move ignited protests by ethnic minority groups claiming that Aung San, a national hero for the Bamar, is little more than a representative of the ethnic majority.

Although the SC2 framework promotes tolerance and peaceful co-existence towards other minorities and religious communities, the common Burmese translation for the word tolerance has negative connotations and does not match the English meaning.

Tolerance (or to tolerate) is most often translated as thi kan hmu — a term that implies forbearance, or to bear patiently, which has a rather negative connotation. In Myanmar, ‘tolerance’ implies accepting things even though they are unpleasant.

Minority ethnic groups want the government to acknowledge and accommodate the values and norms that are linked to their identities rather than the mere tolerance of non-dominant groups through their ‘inclusion’ in the mainstream. This would minimally require the government to recognise more than one public identity.

Social cohesion is an important basis for a peaceful society. But the definition and conceptualisation of social cohesion must take into account the ethno-cultural divisions that exist in a society like Myanmar — and whether the benefits of social cohesion come at the expense of other social, religious or ethnic groups.

Myanmar’s political history teaches us that the imposition of specific national values as a means of integration has led the country into a perpetual state of conflict. For example, the promotion of a common language and education system ignites fears among many ethnic groups that there is no place for their own distinctive languages, threatening their cultures and ethnic identities.

Social cohesion has to go beyond securing the equal rights of individuals by guaranteeing unique social and cultural protections for all communities. Ethnic groups cannot survive if they lose their identity — just as the state cannot survive without sovereignty. National unity therefore depends on a state’s capacity to uphold the distinct identities of all citizens.

To avoid the risk of new conflict, the government must work collaboratively with minorities to assuage their concerns and secure their rights. The state must promote the identity of ethnic minorities in place of efforts to achieve cultural uniformity in the name of the so called ‘Union Sprit’ — a mantra of former military regimes that is now integrated into the Basic Principles of the 2008 Constitution.

Alongside these efforts, the international community needs to emphasise the empowerment of ethnic languages and the development of ethnic language-based education systems, both of which forge a path towards the right to self-determination.

Soon a new government will set the next milestones for Myanmar’s political development. A review of the country’s approach toward social cohesion should be a top priority.

Myo Min is a junior researcher at the Yangon School of Political Science.