Holding Burma Together

The 14 states and regions of Burma

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Beyond Armed Resistance: Ethnonational Politics in Burma (Myanmar) by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung; Honolulu: East-West Center, 2011

Sitting as it does at the geographic crossroads between India, China, and Southeast Asia, Burma (Myanmar) plays a role in the stability of the region that goes overlooked outside of a small circle of Asia wonks. Most of us have forgotten that Burma broke the back of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, made up one corner of the infamous Golden Triangle in the opiate trade, and, as a relic of a colonial era, houses ethnic separatism that often erupts into violence. In some ways, Burma is the Iraq of Southeast Asia.

Most of us see the challenge of Burma as a a matter of easing the Military Junta from power and allowing free elections. It is, apparently, not that simple, and Beyond Armed Resistance gives us a glimpse into the complexities of Burma’s politics via a review of the aspirations of the Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan ethnic groups.

Deliberately setting aside armed ethnic uprising, including the Karen people‘s longstanding resistance to the Burmese government, Dr. Thawnghmung argues that the non-violent political activity of these groups is more important to the evolution of the Burmese state than civil conflict. Reading her book also offers an unintended insight into why the military feels obliged to keep such tight control over the country: dormant ethnic tensions could easily sunder the nation. What is more, we begin to see how  Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy would face formidable challenges simply holding the country together if they were to come to power. No doubt, this prospect troubles the leaders of India, China, and Thailand: it should trouble Americans as well.

The junta has become the entire focus of western policy toward Burma. That focus, however correct, has masked the deeper challenges and rifts that plague the country. It must be no longer. Instead, our focus must become the fundamental challenges the country faces on its path to stability and development. Dr. Thawnghmung has argued in other venues that the first focus must be on establishing a national identity under-girded by a shared ideology and vision.

As Asia’s nations begin to expand their influence beyond their borders, weak states will become political and diplomatic (if not military) battlegrounds among the region’s powers. If Burma is to avoid this fate, it must emerge from its current transitional phase as a united, independent, and prosperous country. The well-meaning people around the world campaigning for the NLD would do well to heed the warning implicit in Dr. Thawnghmung’s writings: think beyond liberation, and do so now.

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One thought on “Holding Burma Together

  1. Pingback: Diplomatic News: CSIS launches national security focus for USA's … | midnightnews.info

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