After 50 years, will the Fighting Peacock rise again?
(Commentary) – Fifty years ago on July 7, 1962, Burma’s military took control of Rangoon University and dynamited the student union building, shattering a historic symbol of the Burmese struggle for freedom. Many students leaders went underground and became the staunchest opponents to the military dictatorship to this day.
It was in this dark shadow of authoritarianism that the next generation of student leaders was born, and grew up to lead the ’88 democracy uprising in Burma. This generation also gave Burma a second chance at independence, by inviting Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the democracy movement in 1988.
Today, as Suu Kyi prepares to enter the military-led Parliament, all eyes are on Burma. And there
is a glimmer of hope that the political differences in Burma might soon be settled through open and honest debate instead of guns.
But even before Suu Kyi begins her career as an elected leader, the cynicism of real Burmese politics is already heating up over the issue of the word “Burma,” the name by which the country has long been known in the English language, until recently. By changing Burma to Myanmar, the military government tried to rewrite Burmese history without the consent of the people.
That’s probably a factor in why the opposition communities have refused to use the military’s preferred word, Myanmar, so far. Now, it will depend on Aung San Suu Kyi, as a member of the Parliament and her partner, President Thein Sein, to decide on what to do next.
But another word “Rohingya” (people) – like Myanmar (country) – is also a recent English usage given to themselves by those who have lived on both sides of the border of Burma and Bangladesh. Now, after a few decades under a military government that has caused a great exodus of native Rakhine, and back and forth border crossing of Rohingya Refugees, the two communities have exploded in great violence. And a media firestorm followed the blunt rejection of the term and the people called Rohingha by a prominent ’88 generation student leader, Ko Ko Gyi, on June 8.
The term ‘Rohingya’ was still quite new even when Martin Smith first wrote in 1986 that “500 heavily armed Rohingya Mujahid guerrillas surrendered to the government in, 1961.” In 1986, Rakhine along the Naaf River, and the former President of the Rohingya Patriotic Front, told him that there was a real danger of community strife the like of which Burma had never seen.
It is a fact that not only Burma, but also most Asian nations, are prejudiced against the Rohingya. At a time when a much greater number of other Burmese nationals themselves are suffering like the Rohingya as stateless aliens and are exploited and unwelcomed in foreign countries, Ko Ko Gyi’s position has unsettled many supporters of his political cause.
This only seems to reveal the superficiality of the international media that is more interested in a sound bite than the truth behind it all. For, in reality, the army still remains the sole power in Burma and has complete control of the local authorities in Rakhine, where violence, forced displacement, and a lack of security has greatly increased the resentment against the new comers, the Rohingha, whom the locals view as foreigners and a threat to their well-being.
In Rakhine, all levels – state, districts, townships, and line Ministries – are controlled by the Police and Special Branch units under the Ministry of Home Affairs, along with the Frontier Forces (Na Sa Ka) of the Tatmadaw, and Immigration and Custom officials. Additionally, government agencies such as Military Affairs Security (Sa Ya Hpa), under the Ministry of Defense, with military reserve units, village militias, and a web of police informers, still maintain a tight grip on inhabitants, by using arbitrary detention and various methods of harassment.
With massive growth of the army garrisons, usually on land confiscated from farmers or local businesses, Rakhine State today, unfortunately, is home to many anti-democratic forces and civil conflicts.
Meanwhile, an extraordinary level of natural resources are being extracted by external investors and trading partners, while politics are immersed in issues of ethnic and kinship-based cleavages and loyalties. Additionally, large concentrations of economic resources such as oil, gas and coastal access, especially in the contexts of attempted market reforms and the weak rule of law, create powerful forces with strong interests in influencing and controlling the political process.
This leads such actors to invest in politics of oppression with or without violence. In such a climate, political parties in Rakhine and throughout Burma, are at risk of becoming pawns of these oligarchic actors.
According to a study, “Political Authority in Burma’s Ethnic Minority States,” most of the populations of northern Rakhine are disenfranchised, as the powers that oppress and exploit are working directly for the government. The networks of government agencies that constitute Nasaka regulate all aspects of the economy, while deeply penetrating most of the informal economy as well. Throughout the border states, regional commanders wield vast power with impunity. In northern Rakhine State, and in parts of Shan, Kayah, Karen and Kachin states, the SPDC, the Tatmadaw, and other state agencies constitute dominant and oppressive occupying authorities that give very limited access to the humanitarian agencies.
In northern Rakhine State, as well as in areas with ongoing, active combat in Kachin State, populations live under the thumbs of rulers unchecked by any alternative sources of authority.
Even Suu Kyi, while on the whirlwind tour in Europe, was asked to justify her reticence on the subject of the war in Kachin State. But the truth behind the war and peace, or even the initiation of large projects such as gas pipelines, microwave stations, universities, and hydroelectric dams, is that citizens are neither invited nor have any say at the bargaining table.
In searching for peace, it is also important to realize that no one, including the omnipresent and all-powerful military, is yet able to get the upper hand and achieve national supremacy in Burma. In this situation, nothing that Aung San Suu Kyi could say, without inflaming the already explosive conditions on the ground, would comfort the Kachins who are obviously fighting for their lives. At the end, it will all depend on whether her position as an elected member of the parliament can help change Burma for the better.
Today, by example, Suu Kyi has inspired hope and peace for ethnic people, and the ’88 students have taught the next generation of leaders to never give up the struggle for freedom. The ’88 generation student leaders including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Htay Kywe, and Ko Mya Aye, like the Peacock generation before them, have proven that they will remain a bulwark against the inhumanity and injustice in Burma.
After 50 years in captivity, there is no longer any doubt that, like before, the peacock of the Students’ Union, a symbol of freedom, will soon rise again.
The only hope is that this time it will rise for all of Burma, not only for those who speak the same language, or share the same appearance.
May Ng frequently writes commentary articles on Burmese issues for Mizzima. She was born in Shan State.