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New things to learn about an old neighbor

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The Thais, like the Burmese do about them, have a cock-eyed view about its western neighbor. That is one of the reasons why non-Burmans who come to Thailand have always rejected designating themselves “Phama” (meaning Burma, Bamar, Burman, Burmese).
But now that the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is coming by the end of the year, cooperation is most crucial, which cannot happen until and unless old views are revised and new –and better- understanding is introduced.

The International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies: Burma/Myanmar in transition, 24-26 July, therefore is a welcoming experience. It may be the first of its kind, but I hope it isn’t the last.
Speaking for myself, the three day conference was a wonderful event, where I learned a lot of things I thought I knew but never did. Because,, like most of the learned people of my age, I’m like Churchill, who said: I’m always ready to learn although I do not always like to be taught. We are too proud to learn especially from the younger people.

The good thing about an academic conference is that since it is not a classroom there is no question of ‘losing face’ to learn about the things you scarcely know. One serious problem: time is so short and there are heaps and heaps of data for you to absorb, you’ll be lucky to get out of it with a few of its gems. The other is that some of the topics you want to listen to may be organized at the same time and you are faced with the agony of deciding which one you should choose.

Day One, Friday, 24 July 2015

Dr Ashley South
Dr Ashley South

Today I’m invited by Dr Ashley South to serve as a discussant at his Ethnic Politics and Citizenship panel which is divided in to two sessions, 90 minutes for each. My job is to review what I learn from them and to report my own reflections to the audience.

Attendance, to our satisfaction, is full, somewhere around 100-120.

The following are the points that I have taken from each and what I think about them; although only some of them, due to lack of time, are reported to the audience.

Martin Smith

Martin Smith
Martin Smith

According to him, “ethnic diversity, in itself, isn’t the cause of war or impediment to nation-building,” which I totally agree with. Just look at India, which had suffered under no less (likely even more) British policy of divide and rule. There is a vibrant federal democracy (though they don’t use the word) flourishing there for more than 100 years. Which suggests there must be something very, very wrong with the way things are being run in our country. And we are desperately in need to find out what it is. Or we are bound to repeat the some mistakes which will then return us to the vicious circle.


The other point I would like to discuss is on the Burmese military’s unabashed glorification of the three warrior kings: Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya, who are regarded as role models for today’s military leaders. But if one asks the  non-Burmans, it’s a different story, particularly with regards to Alaungpaya (whose name means the Buddha-Incarnate, or the Buddha-to-be in his future existence).
The reason is he had in 1757, after defeating the Mons, executed more than 3,000 Mon monks, many of them were trampled by elephants and others cremated alive together with the monasteries.

Hso Harn Fa
Hso Harn Fa

What seems funny here is that there was another king who had committed almost the same dastardly crime with the Burmese monks. He was Hso Harn Fa, known by the Burmese as Tho Han Bwa (1527-43). The only difference was with the number: he had killed “only” 300. And he is up to this day notorious as the most savage king in Burma’s history.

The inevitable question arises of course:
Why is one king a Buddha-to-be while the other is an out and out savage when both of them had put to death Buddhist monks considered untouchables in Burmese society?

The answer is that until and unless our school history curriculum is changed, it will further divide the country apart which is against what the military leaders want.

Matthew Watton (aka U Tha Noe)

With him, I think we are being treated to a sort of buffet dinner. There is a variety of dishes he has offered. It’s up to us to decide whether we can eat each and every one of them or not. But since I’m not a glutton, allow me to describe only what I have been able to bite, chew and swallow.

Matthew Watton (aka U Tha Noe)
Matthew Watton (aka U Tha Noe)

Citizenship, to most of us including myself, was just about he calls inclusion (or as the other panelist puts it, who’s in and who’s out): about having ID cards and household registers. But Ajarn Matt tells us it’s more than that, that it includes rights and duties too.

Also we are learning new words from him. The only kind of democracy we have learned from our country’s rulers is “discipline flourishing democracy.” But now Ajarn Matt is telling us that there are democracies other than that: communicative, deliberative, and so on, which we should learn and practice.

But what is most interesting to me is that there’s a need not only for creating spaces to express our grievances, but also the need to train citizens how to express, “skillfully” according to him. More than that, our leaders need to be trained how to listen, “effectively” as he puts it, to these presentations of grievances. I agree. But how are we going to train them? For children, we can do that in schools. But for adults, how do we do it?

Matt also discussed how a citizen should be defined: just being a Burman/Bamar and a Buddhist are not enough, but we may need to be a military man/woman or ex-military man/woman too. I therefore hope they include this topic in the planned political dialogue.

Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung

She talks about affirmative action, or as we call it here positive discrimination policy, being pursued by the present government with regards to the national race ministers of state/region governments. I don’t think I have anything to add much. Indeed,, I’m grateful to her for sharing with us what she’s learned both in other countries and ours about minority rights. I just hope her warning that half hearted reforms will merely serve to exacerbate existing tensions will be heeded both by the present and next governments.

Marie Lall

Ajarn Marie, when speaking about citizenship, tells us not just about rights and duties, but also what it has to do with a person’s status in society. Just imagine being a foreigner in Burma where you were born and lived for most of your lifetime, and you’ll understand what she says.

Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Marie Lall and Helene Maria Kyed
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Marie Lall and Helene Maria Kyed

The most striking point to me from her presentation is about this “growing sense of Buddhism as part of the national identity that seems to be discriminating and dividing its people” rather than unite them.

She has told us that during her survey among the youth (mind you, not the elderly), the respondents were Not asked about religion but a large number of them had equated citizenship with religion, or to be more exact, with Buddhism.

One of the telling answers to her questionnaire was: I’m Buddhist, so I’m Myanmar. Does it mean that everyone in the world who is Buddhist is qualified to become a Burmese citizen? Maybe that’s an idea to put into practice.

One of her recommendations is that there is a need to redefine the national identity through education. That I agree wholeheartedly but the question is who’s going to decide what should be taught? I think this should be another topic in the planned political dialogue.

Helene Maria Kyed
Here is a topic that touches my heart, especially about the DDR (Disarmament, demobilization, and Reintegration). Because I’ve been living outside what is known among the likes of us as occupied Burma for 46 years, 27 of them in the armed struggle against successive Burmese governments.

There are a lot of questions for us who are going to be asked to resign ourselves to the DDR, if there is going to be one. The main one will be:

How am I going to blend myself among my own countrymen, for whom I have fought for so long, but with whom I’ve been physically separated for equally so long?

I remember one of my colleagues who, after making his peace with the government, who refused to return to his hometown (except for short visits) but continues to live in the village (which is inside Burma) that he had helped established during this armed struggle years. The reason: he felt more at home there now than the place he was born and raised, which has now become unrecognizably strange land to him.

What I mean to say here is that reintegration therefore is inseparable from establishing a feeling of homeness.

There must also be a period for adjustments. After I was released by the resistance in 1996, I came to Thailand and handed over my pistol to a friend who had always helped me in the past as a present. At first I thought I was going to become a politician. But as time went by, I feel more and more at home being a writer (though not a good one as yet). I was given this opportunity by friends whose names I’m not going to mention for fear of embarrassing them. Since then up to this day I have remained a writer and shall be for the rest of my life, whatever else I do.

My experience suggests that DDR is not going to be an easy job for those who are going to be landed with the job.

Also, SSR (Security Sector Reform) must come before DDR. Without prior agreement as to how the nation’s security apparatus is going to be formed, I don’t think the armed resistance movements are going to accept any DDR. Nobody wants to live in a house he does not like. Similarly, no armed organizations is to accept the DDR without accepting the SSR in the first place.

All in all, it’s a good day, I just hope I don’t forget what I’ve learned.

But as I said earlier, I miss a panel being held right next door, where one of the panelists is Qingsi Li, a Chinese scholar, whose paper had accused the “US’s Asia pivot strategy to contain China” as the cause of current conflicts in northern Burma, “not only making China the victim of Myanmar’s domestic conflicts but also seriously deteriorating China-Myanmar relations.”

I wonder if anyone who attends his panel challenged his allegation and how he has responded to it. Why can’t I be at two places at the same time?

N.B    I learned later his presentation did not take place, as he arrived too late.

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