OPINION: The Bamar Republic

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) -  Paranoia is central to the idea of ethnonationalism and Myanmar was not spared by it.

Nay Pyi Taw--the artificiality of the city is the most striking feature of the capital of Myanmar. The spanking new airport is often empty. There is little traffic on the six-lane highway even during rush hour. Bonsai-like trees planted along the road so as not to obstruct the view of the countryside appear forlorn. The lampposts at junctions where rural roads fearfully meet the haughty highway seems to be waiting for dogs that aren’t to be seen anywhere.

The name of the city--pronounced Naypyidaw in Myanmarese—means ‘the abode of the king’ and the royal character shows in its carefully zoned areas. Unlike the hustle and bustle of organically emerged Yangon, there is no graffiti, no roadside stalls and no posters. The meticulously planned and properly constructed township lacks the colour, sound and general untidiness of everyday life. Little wonder, it empties out on weekends when every official who can afford a second home goes back to Yangon to be with his or her family and friends.

Unlike most other capital cities, there are few diplomatic vehicles plying around. Eager to please whichever regime is in power, the Chinese were the first to move their embassy to the new capital. It took some convincing to persuade a few other internationals to leave the old capital. Some diplomatic agencies that have to maintain close links with the host government keep ‘liaison offices’—the USA is erecting its outpost within the sprawling premises of the local Hilton—but most missions and international organisations prefer to commute from their Yangon base as and when necessary.

Luxury hotels built in time to accommodate dignitaries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summits offer attractive rates to lure organisers of seminars and conferences. Somewhat like Nepal of the early-noughties, every ‘tourist’ one meets in hotel corridors turns out to be a participant of one of those events. It’s normal to overhear INGO-buzzwords such as ‘multi-stakeholder partnerships’ or developmental catchphrases like ‘cost recovery mechanism for long-term sustainability’ in restaurants and lobbies.

Insecure majority

Myanmar, or Burma as it was known before acquiring its new official name in 1989, was a part of British India for almost a century. For a brief while during the Second World War, it fell to the Japanese. Vestiges of British Indian tradition survive in the colonial architecture with cast iron grills and deep verandahs, the practice of drinking endless cups of thickly sweetened milk tea at almost any hour of the day and signs in toilets that prohibit spitting after chewing betel nut. The figure of ten lakhs still comes more naturally to Myanmarese than a million. Faces lighten up in a smile when you compliment a person for her good English.

 In the early-1960s, a junta took over power in Myanmar (Burma back then) and expelled hundreds of thousands of Indians in order to protect the purity and superiority of the Bamar state. Of 135 officially recognised ethnicities, Bamar is the dominant one and constitutes slightly over two-thirds of the total population and most of its ruling elite. Like insecure ethnic majorities everywhere, Bamars consider themselves to be superior to other nationalities and use their monopoly over resources of the state to keep every other minority in ‘proper’ place. Little wonder, multiple ethnic conflicts have been endemic to Burma; Tatmadaw--the security establishment of the country--uses the pretext to further entrench itself in power.

Scores of ‘Indians’ expelled from Burma were actually ‘Gawrakhas’, which is Myanmarese for Gorkhalis. Some Gawrakhas at that time tried to prove in vain that they were not ‘Kalas’, the pejorative term used for people of the Indian subcontinent. Gawrakhas connection with the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) that had fought for the freedom of Burma went in vain. Even forced Burmanisation that entailed adopting Burmese norms, language, religion and culture couldn’t save them from the wrath of an ethnocentric military regime.

Thousands of Gawrakhas crossed over to Thailand to escape ethnic prosecution. An ethnonationalist himself, King Mahendra welcomed several thousands of them back ‘home’ and resettled them in community and private land appropriated from Madhesis. Barmeli Toles have begun to disappear from conversations now, but till the early-1980s, many of these rastrabadis were ardent supporters ‘Male, Mandale and Masale’ ethnonationalism.

Paranoid politics

Paranoia is central to the idea of ethnonationalism. The fear of the ‘other’ outnumbering the ‘self’ of the dominant ethnicity prompts its self-declared guardians to build strict barriers to entry. Israelis have a wall to keep Palestinians out; Trumpards want to erect a very strong one all along the US-Mexico border. Even after expelling ‘outsiders’ and virtually closing the country for over half-a-century, the Bamar elite weren’t sure of being able to protect its purity.

While almost all of the former British colonies drive along the left side of the road, the Burmese junta decided that the right side was more auspicious. A few dissidents allege in private that the move was intended for the convenience of the Chinese driving towards ports in the Bay of Bengal, but such fears have proved to be groundless so far.

The name of the country was changed, reportedly at the advice of astrologers. A new capital was built in the middle of nowhere, purportedly for security reasons. Emergency relief from the international community in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis was refused. Confident of its power to do whatever it wanted, the Tatmadaw granted Myanmarese what it calls ‘Disciplined Democracy’ which is claimed to be duty rather than rights based. Like all forms of democracies with qualifying adjectives, Myanmar has ended up with a regime that privileges the dominant ethnicity while prosecutes many others.

 In the Myanmarese scheme of things, there is full freedom before expression; however, it can’t be guaranteed afterwards. The ‘R’ word is taboo and Rohingyas, described by the United Nations as ‘the most persecuted minority in the world’ are merely Bangladeshi refugees if not worse. In polite conversations, descendants of Aung San’s colleague in the AFPFL prefer to introduce themselves as ‘from a minority community’ rather than proclaim publicly that they are Muslims.

 When the international community blames that Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t do enough for ethnic minorities and heaps scorn over Rohingyas, they forget inherent compulsions of ‘ethnocracy’ within which the successor and the daughter of the founding father of modern Myanmar have to operate. It’s not easy to confront the military for sure, but fighting prejudices of militant monks is a no-win battle. And when monk as well as the military stand alongside masses, no politician would dare stare them down.

Along with Myanmar, Sri Lanka is another example where ‘government or rule by an ethnic group’, the classic definition of ethnocracy, enjoys overwhelming social, cultural, economic and military support. There is little that a politician, howsoever popular, can do to counter ethnic prejudices built around the belief that the state and nation have to be coterminous in order to protect and promote the interests of the dominant majority.

Caveat emptor for conscientious readers: Any similarity between Bamar and Khas-Arya republics are purely coincidental. Nepal is yet to acquire its own version of Naypyidaw!


  • Opinion: The Bamar Republic


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