If you walk the streets of this city at the end of the work day, you’ll hear a distinctive sound: the clicks and taps synonymous with Myanmar’s traditional sport, known as chinlone. Sharing certain roots with soccer, chinlone dates back 1,500 years, when it was played for the country’s royalty. While the objective is simple—kick the small woven ball around a six-player circle without letting it touch the ground—the game is difficult. Players leap and dive, executing complex footwork with a combination of dance and martial arts moves. Their athleticism is all the more remarkable given the competition: there is none. The groups of men and women who play nightly do so without any incentive to “win.” Victory comes in the artistry of the moves and the cohesion of the players. In chinlone, collaboration is the name of the game – which is deeply ironic when you consider the source.
The harmony of the sport stands in sharp contrast to the sectarian conflicts that have torn Myanmar apart, but it also provides a model for the nation’s best hope: to move forward in unity. Until recently, that wasn’t remotely possible. Myanmar (formerly called Burma) emerged from British Colonial rule in 1948, only to slide into nearly seven decades of civil war as the country’s ethnic nationalities battled the ruling Burmese military regime, and each other. The conflict is far from over, but has reached a critical inflection point. In December, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a sweeping victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in a quarter century, wresting power from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). With new leadership, this government is promising a new direction, but it has yet to engage with the entrenched problem of ethnic nationals.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, the question is basic: will Myanmar move forward as a nation that offers full citizenship to the ethnic nationals that occupy 60 percent of the country’s land or will it continue to enforce a brand of Asian apartheid that disenfranchises non-Burman ethnics at every turn? For Western governments and businesses swarming into this nascent market today, the message must be clear: it is time to make the empowerment of all ethnic nationals – and a federal system that recognizes their autonomy – priority number one.
The roots of the problem go back centuries. Ethnic Burman kings once ruled over Myanmar’s central Irrawaddy Valley, ringed by independent kingdoms in the surrounding hills. Today, these early divisions are reflected in the ethnic and religious groups that still occupy the horseshoe of mountainous territory that rings the country’s urban and political center. In addition to ethnic Burmans, who make up the country’s largest single nationality, Myanmar’s government recognizes 135 ethnic groups living within its borders.
They have never truly, voluntarily, been united. After centuries of turf wars, Burma was first knit together in the 19th century—under a foreign flag. Britain colonized the country, but lost it to Japanese invasion in 1942. Post-war, Burmese statesman-general Aung San negotiated for the independence of a unified Burma. In 1947, he convened Chin, Shan, and Kachin tribal leaders in the town of Panglong, laying out a blueprint for peace that established mechanisms of self-governance in the ethnic national regions while extending to their citizens the “rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries.” But the dream died five months later, before Panglong was enacted, with the assassination of Aung San, kicking off violence that continues to this day.
A 1962 coup by the Burman army produced “a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within,” as Burmese-American historian, Thant Myint-U, has written. Demonstrations against the oppressive ruling regime in 1988 resulted in the deaths of 3,000 protesters. In 1990, Myanmar held its first free elections in 30 years, and voted overwhelmingly to elect the pro-democracy party led by Aung San’s daughter. The military, in response, refused to cede power and restricted her under house arrest for 15 years.
That daughter, of course, is Aung San Suu Kyi. “The Lady,” as she is called, took the reins of government from some of her former captors in January, after her party won 80 percent of contested parliamentary seats last December. Although constitutionally prohibited from holding presidential office by a clause barring anyone with a foreign spouse or child (a provision drafted specifically for Suu Kyi, whose late husband and children are British), she has vowed to be “above” the position, ruling the country via proxy. The democratic changes begun in 2011 marked the start of the most sustained political reform in decades. The Lady’s international acclaim, her party’s electoral victory, and her personal family history have raised hopes that she will shepherd Myanmar in a new direction.
Lost in this narrative is the country’s ongoing battle with ethnic nationals. The divisions are so deep-seated here that population numbers are hard to come by. While it’s long been thought that ethnic minorities comprise about 40 percent of the country’s total population, long-time Myanmar watcher and founder of Dictator Watch, Roland Watson, recently suggested in a speech to an Asia Democracy Alliance Seminar in the U.S. Congress that the number is closer to 72 percent.
A 2014 census by the United Nations, the first in 30 years, was meant to settle the matter, despite the fact that millions of ethnics reportedly couldn’t be reached. But the previous government refused to release the findings, blocking what was called “sensitive data on religious and ethnic minorities” for fear, as one high-ranking official put it, that its release might “shatter the state’s peace and stability.” While some speculate that the caution might reflect concerns that this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation has more Muslims than previously thought, potentially stoking violence, others took this as a sign that non-Burmans might rebel if they realized they had more than 70 percent of the population while holding barely 10 percent of the seats in parliament.
The fate of ethnic minorities overall is an issue on which the Lady has been frustratingly silent, leading some to offer that her silence was a smart political calculation until she held real power and could do something, while others wondered if it reflected a more troubling dismissal of ethnic rights more common among her fellow Burman Buddhists. Regardless of the motivations behind her previous quiet, she no longer has any excuses for inaction. The true test of her leadership will be whether Myanmar’s new leader can finish what her father started in 1947.
That means federalism. Talk of “democracy” is meaningless to ethnic nationals, who have been disenfranchised because of their ethnicity, told what languages they can and cannot speak, which customs they can and cannot follow, who they can and cannot marry and how many children they can have because of their religion. To truly have a voice, ethnic states must be governed by their own leaders – just as states are empowered under the United States’ federal system. They must have a say in the development of their resource-rich lands and a share of the profits from that development. And in order for these changes to even be a possibility, they must be brought to the table in good faith to end current hostilities with the military.
Eight of the 15 major ethnic militias have signed a cease fire with the outgoing USDP, but the holdouts downgrade the deal’s legitimacy. Suu Kyi claimed during the campaign that federalism would be her top objective. But the remaining groups won’t sign until they’re confident the military won’t turn on them.
A U.S. Special Forces veteran currently advising ethnic groups on the ground tells me, “This is the most dangerous time in ethnics’ history, because the international community is generally behind the central government.” But a high-level peace negotiator tells me that “the reason the military was against federalism is because they were concerned that if power was decentralized, groups would use their power and secede. The military now understands it is about reintegration. They’ve changed their stance, and the ethnic groups have changed, too – but groups outside the process haven’t changed much. They need to be part of the process and the talks.”
If Western nations want to promote real progress, they must act – now.
For the United States, that means reinstating International Military Education and Training (IMET) for Myanmar’s military—with the stipulation that all young, ethnic officers train alongside the Burmese. This is an unparalleled opportunity to teach the next generation of leaders respect for human rights and to model for them the success of America’s integrated military and federal system.
Not since the height of apartheid in South Africa have people that represent the overwhelming majority of a country’s total population been so disenfranchised. The truth is, if all ethnic nationalities, whether 40 percent or 72 percent of the population, aren’t soon made full citizens of Myanmar, it won’t be a nation. Aung San, master of the political version of chinlone, knew that. We’ll soon see if his daughter understands the same.