The question of what it means to be a Myanmar is more relevant than ever.
When a country is at its core diverse, patriotism is the best means of holding the strings together to create a notion of ‘one people and one nation.’ The United States is a point in case. The USA is a country with a relatively short history and a shallow culture that is a mixture of diverse immigrant influences. As a result Americans frantically cherish their stars and stripes and feel it is their patriotic duty to foster American ideals in far flung countries, some of which might already have a deeper sense of national identity.
Myanmar is a country of great diversity as well. The country has always been a hodge podge of peoples and cultures. The area that is now called Myanmar was fiercely contested by kingdoms in what are now Thailand and China. Mon and Rakhine rulers wreaked havoc in Bamar dominated areas, during historic wars that are still remembered by school children and grand fathers alike.
The borderlands in Shan, Chin and Kachin – ‘frontier areas’, as the British colonialists called these separately administered areas – only really became part of mainland Myanmar after the country regained its independence in 1948.
Then again, it took until 1962 for the largely autonomous Shan saophas to be dethroned, when General Ne Win took over power under the guise that an ethnic conference on federalism might lead to the disintegration of the country. His subsequent agenda of Burmanisation only served to fuel the civil wars and pushed back peace for several decades.
Never in all the centuries past has a true sense of what it means to be Myanmar emerged. The only recipe the Bamar majority knew was to steamroll the minorities.
Yet the question of what it means to be a Myanmar is more relevant than ever. A nationwide ceasefire has been signed, and now the participants are obliged to start a political dialogue before mid-January, 2016. At that time all the important questions will be put on the table for for the first time.
For the Bamar one of the main questions is about resource sharing. The fact that most of Myanmar’s riches are hidden underground in the ethnic States (the seven regions are comparatively barren) has been one of the main drivers for the Bamar to stubbornly cling to control over the country and dominate it. Army commanders and the top brass of the USDP have made a fortune out of that dominance in the process, a recent report of Global Witness suggested, but unless the Bamar are able to let go, there will never be peace.
Few people would consider the United States to be an example to follow, as its energy consumption, climate change denials, sliding education standards, lack of social services and bullying foreign policies leave much to be desired.
But for Myanmar there are some lessons to be learned.
One is that federalism, a coming together of different peoples who retain their identity and autonomy, is the only true solution for a country that is not really a country. The second is that a true national identity, a sense of what it means to be Myanmar, is needed to make Project Myanmar a success. Such an identity cannot be imposed, and it can not be suggested from quarters that many in Myanmar distrust. Efforts of the Tatdamaw and the U Nu government in the past to do so have failed miserably.
Peace and federalism cannot be achieved quickly. Foreign funders, government officials, and political parties should prepare for the long haul. After the initial distrust is overcome and all stakeholders are convened around the table, it might take another ten years of talking and thinking before the dust finally settles and Myanmar emerges as a federal state that is at ease with itself.