Ques­tions over reli­gion, eth­nic­ity hit youth meet

A re­cent eth­nic youth sum­mit struggled with con­tro­versy over al­leged re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion, which was ac­tu­ally a va­ri­ety of prej­u­dices that will con­tinue to pose chal­lenges to na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

LAST week around 800 youth rep­re­sen­ta­tives gath­ered at the site of the his­toric Pan­g­long Agree­ment in Shan State to de­bate peace, fed­er­al­ism and equal­ity for Myan­mar’s eth­nic peo­ples.

The event, which or­gan­is­ers said had been in the plan­ning for four years, went ahead de­spite at­tempts by of­fi­cials at the state and Union level to stop it – ap­par­ently due to con­cerns that it would in­ter­fere with the gov­ern­ment’s plans for the forth­com­ing Pan­g­long Con­fer­ence later this month.

De­spite the con­sid­er­able achieve­ment by or­gan­is­ers of the Eth­nic Youth Con­fer­ence in suc­cess­fully bring­ing young peo­ple to­gether from across the coun­try to dis­cuss sen­si­tive and some­times painful is­sues, the story that hit the head­lines was one about young Mus­lims be­ing “not wel­come”.

The ac­cu­racy of el­e­ments of the re­port have since been called into ques­tion both by con­fer­ence lead­ers and the Mus­lim del­e­gate at the cen­tre of the con­tro­versy, who told The Myan­mar Times he had been mis­quoted pos­si­bly due to a trans­la­tion er­ror. He backed com­mit­tee mem­bers and the head of the Ba­mar del­e­ga­tion he ar­rived with, say­ing his el­i­gi­bil­ity had been called into ques­tion not be­cause of his reli­gion, but be­cause he was seen as not rep­re­sent­ing one of the coun­try’s recog­nised eth­nic groups.

Hl­wan Moe Aung, the del­e­gate at the cen­tre of the story who said his ID card de­clares him to be Ba­mar/ Mus­lim, said, “They [the com­mit­tee] didn’t tell me to leave. I could have stayed as an ob­server. It’s about eth­nic is­sues, not about reli­gion.”

The pub­lish­ers of the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle stand by their story.

Given the wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion against Mus­lims in this coun­try, it is en­tirely un­der­stand­able that sus­pi­cions arose about an el­e­ment of re­li­gious prej­u­dice afoot. Peo­ple of eth­nic mi­nor­ity back­grounds are cer­tainly not im­mune to the re­li­gious big­otry that has in­fected much of main­stream Ba­mar so­ci­ety and it is not un­likely that some con­fer­ence lead­ers held po­si­tions of re­li­gious in­tol­er­ance.

Yet the ar­ti­cle in ques­tion, and much of the me­dia cov­er­ing Myan­mar, was too quick to leap to con­clu­sions about re­li­gious big­otry in the coun­try, while the equally preva­lent and dan­ger­ous is­sue of ra­cial prej­u­dice and pro­tec­tion­ism is of­ten ig­nored.

The real­ity was that the peo­ple who were the sub­ject of most ire at the con­fer­ence were not Mus­lims but Ba­mar. Ac­cord­ing to or­gan­is­ers, the Ba­mar con­tin­gent had been in­vited to take part as a way of show­ing sol­i­dar­ity with the con­cept that the “eth­nic” clas­si­fi­ca­tion ap­plies equally to the coun­try’s ma­jor­ity group as well as its mi­nori­ties.

Dis­cus­sions about “Bur­man­i­sa­tion” and ways to ad­dress the fact that many peo­ple from eth­nic mi­nori­ties make lit­tle or no dis­tinc­tion be­tween the loathed, Ba­mar­dom­i­nated military and the or­di­nary Ba­mar peo­ple when it comes to ha­tred, proved pro­foundly dis­tress­ing for some of the Ba­mar del­e­gates.

By the sec­ond day of the con­fer­ence, one of the lead­ers of the Ba­mar del­e­gates was threat­en­ing to leave if such top­ics con­tin­ued to be raised. What was re­mark­able was that with the sup­port of ex­pe­ri­enced rights cam­paign­ers and those keen to pro­mote peace and trauma-heal­ing, he not only stayed and lis­tened, but when it was the turn of the Ba­mar con­tin­gent to ad­dress the con­fer­ence, he called the en­tire group to the stage. There they ex­pressed their sor­row and re­gret for the vi­o­la­tions and abuses per­pe­trated by the Myan­mar military and sym­pa­thy for the eth­nic mi­nor­ity vic­tims, draw­ing ap­plause and tears from their au­di­ence in a small but gen­uine and mov­ing step to­ward na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Ef­forts to ac­knowl­edge past in­juries and build greater un­der­stand­ing and trust be­tween the Ba­mar and mem­bers of Myan­mar’s of­fi­cially recog­nised eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups are cru­cial to the suc­cess of this coun­try. Such over­tures are to be wel­comed.

But there are oth­ers liv­ing in Myan­mar too, and ig­nor­ing their needs in dis­cus­sions about how a new fed­eral Myan­mar might look could well un­der­mine ef­forts to de­velop equal­ity and peace. It is here that or­gan­is­ers found them­selves in dif­fi­cult and con­tro­ver­sial ter­ri­tory when it came to del­e­gates who hit the head­lines.

It is a tough truth to ac­knowl­edge – par­tic­u­larly while hun­dreds of thou­sands of Kachin, Kayin and in­creas­ing num­bers of Shan and Ta’ang peo­ple live in dis­place­ment, and vil­lagers in north­ern Shan State face such bru­tal ques­tion­ing at the hands of the Tat­madaw that they die – but con­cepts of ra­cial hi­er­ar­chy in Myan­mar are not con­fined to the Ba­mar ma­jor­ity.

This coun­try’s 1982 Ci­ti­zen­ship Law – with its 135 recog­nised eth­nic groups – has in­sti­tu­tion­alised racism in such a way that those who wish to de­fend their own eth­nic rights fear, and with some good rea­son, that they risk dam­ag­ing their own in­ter­ests if they at­tempt to de­fend the rights of those who do not ap­pear on the list and have fewer rights in both law and the wider pub­lic eye. That in­cludes the rights of those of In­dian and Chi­nese de­scent, who do not ap­pear on the list of 135 de­spite mem­bers of those groups, as well as those whose eth­nic­ity is cat­e­gorised as Mus­lim, ac­count­ing for a sig­nif­i­cant sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and hav­ing con­sid­er­able his­tory in this coun­try.

In re­la­tion to the con­tro­versy over the el­i­gi­bil­ity of some of the Ba­mar del­e­gates, out­spo­ken Kachin ac­tivist Khon Ja said the mat­ter had not been due to reli­gion, which she said would be Ma Ba Tha ter­ri­tory, or ci­ti­zen­ship, or even sim­ple eth­nic­ity, but rather taing yin thar: a con­cept that could be trans­lated as “na­tive” and which she de­scribed as “mean­ing the type of eth­nic orig­i­nals who are in­vested in the land – own­ers of the na­tion”.

Un­for­tu­nately, in de­fend­ing the rights of peo­ple from cer­tain ra­cial or eth­nic groups as “na­tive” over those of other ra­cial or eth­nic her­itage, one of the ques­tions that must arise is what hap­pens to those who are of mixed race or eth­nic­ity be­tween of­fi­cially recog­nised eth­nic groups and other ones.

Speak­ing to The Myan­mar Times, Khon Ja was clear she be­lieved that those of “mixed blood” should not be el­i­gi­ble to rep­re­sent the Ba­mar at the con­fer­ence. The two del­e­gates al­leged to have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion were the man whose ci­ti­zen­ship card de­clared him to be Ba­mar/Mus­lim and a wo­man whose card states she is In­dian/Ba­mar.

Khon Ja em­pha­sised that the peo­ple of north­ern Shan State of Chi­nese ori­gin who have re­cently cat­e­gorised un­der a new eth­nic def­i­ni­tion “Mone Wun/Ba­mar” were also not in­vited to at­tend the event.

“When we talk about eth­nic af­fairs, we want them to rep­re­sent Ba­mar. They weren’t real Ba­mar … We don’t want mixed blood at this [event].”

If re­li­gious prej­u­dice was not the driv­ing force be­hind the ques­tions raised over some of the Ba­mar del­e­ga­tion’s in­clu­sion, eth­nic or ra­cial prej­u­dice surely played a part.

It should be noted that Khon Ja, while clearly an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure at the event, was there as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor and not a mem­ber of the de­cid­ing com­mit­tee. Talk by other fa­cil­i­ta­tors at the tea-shop next to the event was that her lan­guage and tone was in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

Most peo­ple at­tend­ing the event that The Myan­mar Times spoke to about the in­ci­dent sim­ply said the fact that two peo­ple who didn’t have full eth­nic­ity de­cided to go home rather than cre­ate po­ten­tial con­tro­versy was “not im­por­tant”.

As one Ka­man at­tendee put it, “If I’d been the In­dian girl, I’d have gone home too rather than maybe cause prob­lems for ev­ery­one.”

There is no doubt ten­sions at the con­fer­ence were run­ning high, par­tic­u­larly in light of last-minute threats that it would not be al­lowed to go ahead. This was clearly an eth­nic event for eth­nic groups.

“If we al­low the [mixed eth­nic­ity] del­e­gates to at­tend, the news will go around that the eth­nic youth groups are giv­ing them recog­ni­tion as taing yin thar and then who will be un­der at­tack?” Khon Ja said.

And in a way or­gan­is­ers were damned if they did and damned if they did not. How the mem­bers of the Ba­mar del­e­ga­tion were cho­sen has not been as­cer­tained, but the in­clu­sion of peo­ple not re­garded as one of the of­fi­cial 135 groups and of Mus­lim her­itage in the of­fi­cial del­e­ga­tion would have sent out a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage, and one likely to draw con­dem­na­tion from cer­tain na­tion­al­ist quar­ters.

So how best to tackle the is­sue of in­clu­sion in a coun­try where the rights of the recog­nised eth­nic mi­nori­ties re­volve around land and ter­ri­tory as much as cul­ture and lan­guage – and where the fight for those rights has come at such a price to many of the main eth­nic groups?

Is it re­al­is­tic to ex­pect a Shan youth whose fam­ily has been dis­placed and who has wit­nessed first-hand hor­ri­ble abuses of friends and rel­a­tives at the hands of the Tat­madaw in his peo­ple’s fight for ba­sic rights to risk an im­por­tant stake for the right of an ur­ban In­dian/Ba­mar – Mus­lim or oth­er­wise – to at­tend a con­fer­ence?

And the real­ity is that while some of the youth del­e­gates at the con­fer­ence, notably the Kachin and the Kayin, were very aware of their eth­nic rights, many oth­ers were hear­ing their own ba­sic rights for the first time, never mind get­ting to grips with the con­cept that they should de­fend those who have fewer rights un­der the law.

In an ideal world, those stand­ing up for rights would stand up for ev­ery­one, but there is no ques­tion that many of those who fall into the 135 of­fi­cially recog­nised eth­nic groups cat­e­gory would be re­luc­tant to give up the rights that come with that in order to al­low other cur­rently ex­cluded groups to come on board.

Yet if this is­sue is not ad­dressed, fu­ture prob­lems lie in store and it is surely gov­ern­ment and ex­pe­ri­enced civil ac­tivists who must lead the way.

Speak­ing in­for­mally on the side­lines of the event, one vet­eran gen­er­a­tion ’88 leader said he hoped the new ac­tivists would learn from his gen­er­a­tion’s mis­takes. Asked if by mis­take he meant not in­clud­ing more peo­ple of eth­nic back­ground in their democ­racy cam­paign, he said, “Yes.”

Asked if the ex­clu­sion of those of eth­nic groups other than the 135 in cam­paigns for fed­er­al­ism would also be a mis­take, he said, “Yes.”

Photo: Fiona MacGre­gor

Ka­man del­e­gates stand in front of the Pan­g­long Mon­u­ment in the Shan State town of Pan­g­long on July 28.

FIONA MACGRE­GOR

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