Ethnic Conflict in Burma: Historical Formation, Cause of Conflict and Contemporary Politics

By Sai Wansai 

 Sai Wansai

To understand the ongoing ethnic conflict in Burma, one would need to look into the historical formation of the region, the basic cause of conflict and contemporary politics.

Historical Formation

Early history, before the British colonization in 1885, of the place we now called Burma was dotted with power struggle between the Mon, Burmese and the Shan. All these three major rivalries had been victors at one time or the other.

Modern day or real political intercourse between the non-Burmans and the Burman came lately only after the end of Second World War.

In the course of the national liberation movement, the Shan, Kachin and Chin signed the historic Panglong Agreement in 1947 with Burma, as separate political entities, and gained joint independence together with the Burman from the British in 1948.

Thus, it should be clear from the outset that the country we all know as Burma or Myanmar, as termed by the Burmese military regime, is quite a new political entity or a country made up of at least three countries, namely:

Burma Proper, Karenni State and Shan States. The Shan and the Karenni joined Burma in their struggle for self-determination from the British and jointly attained independence on January 4, 1948. During this formation period, the Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen and Mon were not yet assigned to the administrative status of states, even though they have lived at their respective states from time immemorial.

However, in 1962 the Burmese military sized state power in a coup and declared the Union Constitution abolished. In so doing, the Burmese terminated the only existing legal bond between them and the other ethnic nationalities. The declaration of the suspension of the Constitution was in effect a self-denunciation that Burma had overnight become an aggressor-nation instead of partner. Thus, in a legal-constitutional sense, the Union of Burma ceased to exist.

The Burmese military regime has been attempting to hold the defunct union together by sheer military force, whilst the real and only solution is political. The Shan and the Karenni on their part have been waging a war of resistance to free themselves from the Burmese oppression and domination. This is also true for all the other non-Burman ethnic groups,who are being subjected to the Burmese military's Burmanization and forced assimilation. The significant difference is that the Shan and Karenni conflict with the Burmese military could be argued as "international", due to the fact that the Shan and Karenni joined the Union of Burma on an equal political footing, whereby both nations were constitutionally granted or enjoyed the right to secede after a trial period of ten years following the attainment of joint-independence from the British.

The non-Burman ethnic nationalities occupy 57% of the land mass and have a population of 40% by conservative estimation.

Real Issues Behind the Conflict

To understand the ethnic conflict, it is essential to look into the issues of conceptual differences, constitutional crisis, national identity, majority-minority configuration and other pressing issues like human rights violations, drugs and environmental management.

Conceptual Differences

The successive military dominated regimes, including the ruling SPDC, see Burma as an existing unified nation since the reign of Anawratha thousands of years ago. As such, all other non-Burmans - Shan, Kachin, Chin,Arakanese, Mon, Karen and Karenni - are seen as minorities, which must be controlled and suppressed, lest they break up the country.

On the other hand, the non-Burmans maintain that the Union of Burma is a newly developed territorial entity, founded by a treaty, the Panglong Agreement, where independent territories merged together on equal basis.

Given such conceptual differences, the Burmese military goes about with its implementation of protecting "national sovereignty" and "national unity" at all cost. This, in turn, gives way to open conflict resulting in more suppression and gross human rights violations. The intolerance of the military and its inspiration to "racial supremacy" and to political domination and control has no limit and this could be seen by its refusal to hand over power to the winners of 1990 nation-wide election, the NLD,SNLD and other ethnic parties. The genuine federalism platform, which the NLD and ethnic nationalities embrace, is a threat to its racist mind-set and obsession with domination and control.

Constitutional Crisis

The woes of Burma today are deeply rooted in the inadequate constitutional drafting of 1947. The Union Constitution was rushed through to completion without reflecting the spirit of Panglong. The ethnic homelands were recognized as constituent states but all power was concentrated in the central government or the government of the Burma Mother state.

Almost all the non-Burmans and Burman democratic opposition groups are in agreement that the ethnic conflict and reform of social, political and economics cannot be separated from one another. And the only solution and answer is to amend the 1947 Constitution according to Panglong Agreement, where equality, voluntary participation and self-determination, of the constituent states, formed the basis for the Republic of the Union of Burma.

National Identity

The views of successive Burmese governments, including the present regime, SPDC, concerning national identity has never been clear. They have been at a loss even as to what sort of name they should adopt; that is the reason why they are still using "Bamar" and "Myanmar" interchangeably for what they would like to be termed a common collective identity, in other words,national identity. The reality is that when one mentions "Myanmar","Bamar", "Burmese" or "Burman", such words are usually identified with the lowl and majority "Bamar" and have never been accepted or understood by the non-Bamar ethnic nationals as a common collective identity to which they also belong.

Meanwhile, just a few years back, the present Burmese military regime changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. Its aim is to create a national identity for every ethnic group residing within the boundary of the so-called Union of Myanmar. But since the name Myanmar has always been identified with the lowland "Bamar", the SPDC's effort in trying to establish a common national identity among the non-Bamar ethnic nationals is only doomed to fail. On top of that, this national identity was not chosen with the consent of the non-Bamar ethnic groups, but coercively thrust down their throats by the hated Burmese military dictatorship.

This writer has never heard anyone mentioning that he or she is a Bamar Myanmar, Shan Myanmar, Kachin Myanmar, Karen Myanmar and so on. In the
United States, by contrast, it is normal that one considers or accepts oneself as an American; such as, the use of Chinese American, Japanese American, Afro-American and so on are common and widespread.

Another crucial point that most tend to overlook is that the maintenance of the former European colonial boundaries as irreversible and sacrosanct national state boundaries. This, in reality, only creates unending ethnic conflicts the world over affecting international stability. Burma is such a case, infested with ethnic and social conflicts.

The point to note here is that the successive Burmese governments'nation-building process has totally shattered, failing even to take root after all these years, not to mention the forging of common national identity. It would be more pragmatic to accept the existing diversified "national identities" of all ethnic nationalities as a fact and work for a new common identity in the future federal union with the consent and participation of all ethnic groups, Burman included.

Majority-Minority Configuration

The misconception of majority-minority configuration has been so entrenched; at least in medias and academic studies, it needs some clarification. The Burman are majority in Burma Proper and in numerical sense, but become a minority in the Shan States, Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, and
the Mon states, where respective ethnic groups are in majority within their own territories.

Besides, Burma was formed in 1947 by virtue of the Panglong Agreement, one year prior to independence. This agreement was signed between the interim
government of Ministerial Burma, headed by Aung San, and leaders of the Federated Shan States, the Chin Hill Tract, and the Kachin Hill Tract. It
could be said that this agreement is the genesis of the post-colonial, current Burma.

Thus, the indigenous groups of Burma -- Shan, Arakanese, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and including the Burman -- are not minorities or majorities but equal partners in a union of territories, the Union of Burma.

Other Pressing Issues

It goes without saying, addressing of the pressing issues can never be completed without drugs and gross human rights violations in Shan States.
The planned Salween dam project by the Thai and SPDC regimes and the blasting of Mekong River are also looming ecology disasters, which need to
be addressed.


Shan Herald Agency for News recently released a report titled "Show Business: Rangoon's War on Drugs in Shan State", where the investigative findings provides evidence that the drug industry is integral to the regime's political strategy to pacify and control Shan States, and concludes that only political reform can solve Burma's drug problems.

In order to maintain control of Shan States without reaching a political settlement with the ethnic peoples, the regime is allowing numerous local ethnic militia and ceasefire organisations to produce drugs in exchange for cooperation with the state. At the same time, it condones involvement of its own personnel in the drug business as a means of subsidizing its army costs at the field level, as well as providing personal financial incentives.

Given the regime's use of the drug trade within its political strategy to control Shan States, it is clear that no amount of international aid will succeed in solving the drug problem unless there is political reform. As Shan analysts have reiterated for decades, this can only be achieved through the restoration of genuine peace, democracy and the rule of law in Burma.

Human Rights Violations

In the absence of firm data, most estimates of Burma's internally displaced population remained at about 600,000 to 1 million. The most recent estimate of displacement in Karen State alone was 200,000."(Global IDP Data Base estimation for internally displaced population of Shan States as 300,000. - Source: UN Commission on Human Rights, 10 January 2002, para100)

A report from Shan Human Rights Foundation titled "Charting the Exodus from Shan State" covering the period 1997-2002 writes:

"In April 1996, large numbers of Shan refugees from the areas of forced relocation started arriving in Thailand. By May 1996, already an estimated 20,000 refugees had fled to Thailand. The flow of refugees continued, until by March 1998, it was estimated that about 80,000 refugees had fled to Thailand Dispossessed, SHRF, 1998). In June 2002, SHRF and SWAN estimated the total of Shan refugees in Thailand to have reached over 150,000 since 1996 ".


The international community, Burman democratic forces and the non-Burman ethnic nationalities have been trying to achieve reconciliation and democratisation for years, without success. It seems the military regime is also immune to the sanctions imposed by the EU and United States. The recent Thai initiative or its engagement policy with Burma has lessened the sanction's impact and the military is not about to budge. With the ongoing problems and hardship in Afghanistan and Iraq the United States is not about to launch a humanitarian intervention or opt for a regime change push in Burma. It seems the United Nations' efforts to push for speedy democratisation process through tripartite dialogue is also getting us nowhere.

To sum up, there are three main strategic options at hand for the ethnic nationalities and the Burman opposition groups to consider. They are:

1. To lobby for regime change
2. To attend the forth-coming National Convention
3. To lobby for "power mediation"

The regime change option seems to be quite a hard strategy to sell, let alone implementing it in a practical term, given the United States' and United Kingdom's problematic situation - at home and abroad - in relation to the Iraq and Afghanistan occupation and nation-building process.

Attending the SPDC initiated National Convention could turn out to be the same old game, where the military could decide, set agenda, lay down constitutional drafting principle and even vested with power to select participants. The whole show could be only a replay to keep the military in power, perhaps with a slight semblance of democratic trappings. But it could also be an arena, where the ethnic groups and oppositions could assert some change from within, gradually making it possible to level the playing field and widen the political space.

Lobbying for "power mediation" could also be a hard nut to crack, given that the sympathetic countries are reluctant and undecided to commit wholeheartedly on practical terms like the Thai government. Its recent initiative of hosting an international meeting in December 2003, in Bangkok, known as "Bangkok process", among twelve like-minded countries to back up the SPDC's seven steps roadmap plan, is a substantial and practical commitment from the part of the Thaksin headed Thai government.Like wise, the sympathetic Western governments could act, if they really wanted to, to back up the democratic and ethnic forces.

The term "power mediation" is advanced by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in its book titled "Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflict: Options for Negotiators"-where the mediator has the power to persuade the parties to obey. It could use incentives and punishments to persuade the parties to yield from their inflexible positions to reach a compromise.

In such a situation, it looks like the SPDC's roadmap initiative or convening the National Convention to produce a constitution is the only game in town. There has been speculation of the SPDC's sidelining of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, with the help of ethnic ceasefire armies.

Under the prevailing circumstances, the best bet would be probably to apply a multi-prong approach. The adversaries of the SPDC should go on doing the best within their limit and capacity, with a sole view of widening the political space, which might eventually lead to a political settlement. Some points below might be in line with an integrated grand strategy designed to work for the pro-change outcome, under the motto of "common goal, diverse actions" among the opposition groups.

- Since the ethnic ceasefire armies would not be in a position to reject the SPDC's overtures, they should be encouraged and given support to participate in forth-coming national convention.

- The armed resistance groups should be open for ceasefire talks and eventual participation in the national convention, if crucial amendments are made on its 104 constitutional drafting guiding principles.

- The NLD should go on to position itself as one of the major stakeholders possessing undisputed legitimacy and as such, entitled to decision-making power to serve the country and the people. Protest, political mobilization and defiance should also continue, whenever and wherever possible.

- The SNLD and UNA should continue to call for reconciliation through tripartite dialogue and more inclusiveness as a basis for their participation in the national convention.

- The exiled opposition groups should continue to lobby the EU, United States and Japan for more effective sanctions and pressures and if possible, pushed for a "power mediation" process in cooperation with the United Nations.

The suggestion stated above is in no way an exhausted list. Many more could be added but the aim of all opposition camps should be fixed on "levelling the playing field" and "widening the political space", where all could participate in a fair and equal manner.

This would seem a tall order, vague strategy and even could be taken as aimlessly muddling through. But social science, being a soft science, is not something that can be steered to reach a desired goal or precise outcome. It has never worked that way and experience teaches us that each individual case is unique and has a process of its own.

The former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and even Georgia recently have surprised us with speedy and astonishing outcomes. Many oppressed non-state nations, minorities and democratic elements have benefited from these abrupt and, at times, violent changes. Let the struggle for democratisation and self-determination in Burma also surprises us; hopefully, with the kind of "velvet divorce" or "rose revolution" outcome as had happened in the former Czechoslovakia and Georgia.

- Abbreviations -

JAC: Joint Action Committee
NCGUB: National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma
NCUB: National Coalition Council of Burma
NDF: National Democratic Front
NLD: National League for Democracy
RCSS: Restoration Council of Shan State
SDU: Shan Democratic Union
SNLD: Shan Nationalities League for Democracy
SSA: Shan State Army
SSA -S: Shan State Army - South
SHAN: Shan Herald Agency for News
SHAN-EU: Shan - European Union
SSNA: Shan State National Army
SHRF: Shan Human Rights Foundation
SPDC: State Peace and Development Council
SSPC: Shan State Peace Committee
SWAN: Shan Women Action Network
UNA: United Nationalities Alliance
UNLD (LA): United Nationalities League for Democracy (Liberated Area)

Sai Wansai is the General Secretary of Shan Democratic Union (SDU). In addition, currently, he is also representative of the Shan States in Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), based in The Hague, The Netherlands.

In the 90s, Sai Wansai was responsible for Overseas Information of the Shan State People's Representative Committee. He served as Vice President
of SDU from 1996 -2000.

The SDU is the umbrella organization of Shan expatriate groups and works closely with all Shan political organizations - the Shan National League for Democracy, the Restoration Council of the Shan State, and the Shan State Organization.

He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Geography) from the Mandalay Arts & Science University in Burma and has studied Political Science at Hamburg University, Germany.