Professor Steinberg, as always, made a balanced assessment and a critical insight on contemporary politics on Burma, or should we say Myanmar to do the military a favor, that promotes the term as being all embracing for all ethnic groups in the country, but rejected by the non-Bamar ethnic groups.
But, if one has to be particular, Steinberg usage of minorities to address the non-Bamar ethnic groups is highly inappropriate, as they are neither minority or majority, but just equal partners in a country called Union of Burma that came into existence only in 1948, by the virtue of Panglong Agreement of 1947. And as it is, the only legal bond between the Bamar State, then known as Ministerial Burma or Burma Proper, and the non-Bamar ethnic states. Burma Proper embraced all areas outside Chin Hills, Kachin Hills, Federated Shan States, and Karenni State.
Thus, Burma is a country made up of at least four countries, namely: Chin Hills, Kachin Hills, Federated Shan States, and Ministerial Burma. It should also be noted that the Karenni State was forcibly incorporated into Burma, without its people’s consent which its leadership maintains until today. The Karenni was an independent state as accepted by the British and as well, the Burmese center in those days.
That is why the non-Bamar ethnic nationalities, which are Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon and Arakan are neither minorities or majorities as the western scholars like to term them. They are equal partners to the Bamar State, which the Bamar military under General Ne Win in 1974 Burma Socialist Programme Party Constitution had diversified into 7 Divisions and now renamed 7 Regions on par with the 7 ethnic states. Thus, a supposed to be Bamar State has now equal voice to the 7 ethnic states, instead of just one voice in 8 ethnic states.
Therefore, the least populated Karenni or Kayah State to most populated Shan State are all equal partners; and also supposed to be equal partners to the most populated Bamar State, which still has to be formed as a Bamar State demanded by all the 7 non-Bamar ethnic states.
It will do justice to all non-Bamar ethnic nationalities if the “minorities” label is not used, as a fully fledged nations, which the non-Bamar considered themselves to be; and it is a far cry from being minorities in every sense of the words.
True, Burma needs a common national identity which will embrace all the ethnic groups within the country. But it is still in the making, even after more than 70 years of independence from the British, as the rights and political settlement to live together in harmony are still not achieved. The decades-long ethnic armed resistance movements in all ethnic states are the stark reminder of this unresolved problem, or should we say, the constitutional crisis.
For now, we can only only say we have many ethnic identities, or ethno-national identities, but no common national identity that all could accept. And thus, labeling the non-Bamar ethnic groups as minorities is uncalled for and another appropriate term should be considered, if then western scholars do not prefer to use the term “ethnic nationalities,” preferred by the non-Bamar for themselves.