As Union Day approaches, ethnic minorities still long for equality

10 February 2016
As Union Day approaches, ethnic minorities still long for equality
Children wear Myanmar traditional dress as they take part during the National League for Democracy (NLD) party's Union Day ceremony in Yangon, Myanmar, 12 February 2015. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

When an ethnic minority in Myanmar says minorities suffered a lot under the oppressive rule of the former military junta, some Bamar people, the dominant ethnic group in the country, reply Bamar people also suffered under the former junta too. Of course, what they said is right, but the degree of oppression against ethnic minorities and the degree of oppression against Bamar are different. So those replies given by some Bamar people do recognize the intense suffering of the ethnic minorities in Myanmar. In essence they are saying, “Bamar suffered oppression, so it is not odd that ethnic minorities were also oppressed.”
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar were treated as second-class citizens. Ethnic women were gang-raped by junta soldiers and ethnic men were forced to work as porters carrying food and ammunition to the frontlines. When I was 12 years old, in 1990, I visited Kayah State, men in some of the villages dared not sleep in their homes because they did not want to serve as porters for the army. So they had to hide and sleep on their farmlands. The army gathered porters even in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State. During that period, in downtown Loikaw, my elder sister witnessed men travelling by bicycles on a road who were unlawfully taken away to serve as porters. The bicycles were just abandoned on the road. When my father's friend in Loikaw gave birth to her first daughter, she claimed, “My child will never be a porter” because her child was female. But at that time, I thought she should worry about the numerous unpunished gang-rape cases committed by soldiers because her child is a female.
Regardless, Myanmar will have its first civilian-led government soon. Authorities and leaders seem to be trying to establish peace. The Union Peace Conference was held from January 12 to 16 in order to seek a solution to national reconciliation and ending armed conflict. Last October, eight ethnic armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. But the agreement was not inclusive, and fighting still broke out in ethnic areas. Some have criticized the peace efforts of the government led by President Thein Sein for being cosmetic and they say they will not solve the root causes of the problem. 
One of these root causes is “lack of equality”. It is a serious obstacle to the reconciliation process in Myanmar. Regarding the inequality in budget allocation, Salai Mang, an ethnic Chin and the CEO of Chin World Media, said, “The central government needs to allocate budget in accordance with the needs of the area. It is not appropriate [ethnic] states can only spend the little amount the central government gives. The central government should give the amount that an ethnic state has demanded in accordance with the need.”
Another issue is that ethnic minorities in Myanmar are not the beneficiaries of revenue from natural resources in their areas. Saing Khan Tun, an ethnic Shan and an electoral candidate of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, said, “Distribution of income gained from natural resources is still unfair. We can say that ethnic people have lost more and more of their natural resources.” He added that non-residents, in cooperation with authorities, monopolize natural resources in ethnic areas.
For every ethnic group, the rights to speak their languages and cultivate their own traditions are also important. But the languages of ethnic minorities have been downgraded in Myanmar. Regarding that problem, Salai Mang said not only ethnic languages should be taught as a language but also used to teach other subjects such as mathematics and science. 
Inequality is also evident in some history textbooks used in government schools in Myanmar. Saing Khan Tun, who said his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of his party, pointed out, “History lessons are unfair. The textbooks portray ethnic minorities as Bamar subordinates and portray history as just the events of the great Bamar empires. In fact, it is not sure even whether King Anawrahta [who founded Bagan Empire] spoke Bamar language or not.”
“The history book pages that insult the existence and histories of the national ethnic races need to be removed. Only if students can learn from fair history lessons, will they love the Union and be united,” said Saing Khan Tun. He pointed out that flattering ancient Bamar Kings in history textbooks is similar to flattering the British Empire during the British colonial era in Myanmar. Those history lessons promote Bamar-chauvinism and can make ethnic minorities feel inferior, he added.
Ethnic people and some observers think that Myanmar needs to favour equality over Bamar-chauvinism. Saing Khan Tun has pointed out that Bamar-chauvinism is rooted in the hearts of so many Bamar people including some politicians and writers. “Only if chauvinism is removed and equality achieved, will everything be OK,” he said.
Another issue Myanmar needs to handle is related to what ethnic minorities suffered in the past. Regarding the issue, Salai Mang said, “The former junta should officially apologize for their oppression in the past against ethnic minorities. And there should be a special program to take care of the ethnic minorities who suffered. Moreover, the events in which ethnic minorities were oppressed should be included in history textbooks.”
Saing Khan Tun also expressed his views on that issue. “Even if legal action cannot be taken against those who committed wrongdoing in the past, they need to apologize. Only if they do that, will justice survive and be strong,” he said.
Some leaders in Myanmar have been trying to seek full reconciliation between Bamar and ethnic groups, albeit without success. In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi called for a multi-ethnic conference called the“Second Panglong” to build national reconciliation, but that dream has not come true so far.
On 12th February 1947, Bamar leader General Aung San, Suu Kyi's father, signed the Panglong agreement with ethnic leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin to grant ethnic states autonomy, and the ethnic leaders decided to join the “Union of Burma”. The agreement was an outcome of the first Panglong Conference held in February 1947. But General Aung San was assassinated on 19 July 1947, and the Panglong Agreement was never honoured. Since then, the day they signed the agreement, 12thFebruary, has been marked as Union Day in Myanmar.
Regarding the reality, Salai Mang said the circumstance related to any possible multi-ethnic conference will be different to those of the first Panglong Conference. “In the past [when the first Panglong conference was held], we could discuss [matters] on an equal footing. Now, they've got the upper hand.”
Now, the 69th anniversary of Union Day is just around the corner. But the essence of Union Day has been lost and equality has yet to be established. Many Bamar people have said the current map of Myanmar is beautiful and they don't want the Union of Myanmar to break up. On the other hand, wanting their lands but not giving them equal rights is totally unfair. If we want ethnic States to be included in the country, we must also respect the ethnic people and their rights. Otherwise full national reconciliation will not be achieved; peace will not be established, and consequently, we will be in the danger of the break-up of the Union.