By Roland Watson
January 16, 2011

In Burma, there is now a lot of talk about "national reconciliation." An underlying question is: What does this mean?

There has been terrible conflict and tragedy in the country since the military took over. But, this has not been standard interracial or interethnic violence, where one group engages in widespread, grassroots subjugation of another, such as the slavery and racism of blacks by whites that has dogged the U.S. In the U.S., many whites are still racists, and they speak and act with bigotry against African Americans again and again across the country.

It's different in Burma. One cannot say that large numbers of the country's different ethnicities hate each other. There may be some mistrust, but it is not open hate. Instead, Burma is characterized by centralized, command driven subjugation, by the military junta. But, while the SPDC's repression extends to all the people of the country (excluding its cronies), it is disproportionately imposed on the ethnic minorities, in particular the Karen people.

The reason for this is clearly racist. The current dictator of Burma, Than Shwe, a member of the largest group in the country, the Burmans, hates the other ethnic groups, starting with the Karen. He is pursuing a program of ethnic cleansing targeted against these groups, with all manner of associated war crimes and crimes against humanity.

What this means is that national reconciliation for Burma is not just a matter of the SPDC relenting in its overall repression of the general public: Allowing the people the freedom to speak their minds and to develop their communities such that they can escape poverty. Instead, the most pressing element of national reconciliation is that the SPDC must end its tyranny of the ethnic minorities, and that these groups receive justice and peace.

The core issue in Burma therefore is racial politics. National reconciliation for the country must begin with ethnic reconciliation. In the present day, we must end the SPDC's institutionalized racism. If and when Burma becomes free, the challenge will then shift to finding ways for the many different peoples of the country to cooperate together in a democratic society.

How to achieve national reconciliation in Burma

This understanding of national reconciliation implies certain conditions for how it can be accomplished. Foremost, Than Shwe and his fellow racist Burman generals must be removed from power. Only then can there be any real hope of reconciliation. Further, this means that any "solution" that proposes power-sharing with the generals is not in fact a solution. If they remain in power, they will continue their racist crimes.

In addition, the majority of the Burmans, who are not racist, must speak out against the minority that are; and similarly, the majorities in the other ethnic groups must oppose their own members who are racist against Burmans.

Looking at the U.S. again, most whites are not racist against blacks (or blacks against whites), and oppose and seek to educate those who are.

To ordinary Americans, negotiating with Than Shwe would be like talking to a slave owner - completely unacceptable.

The evidence

In December, two ethnic teenage women were killed in Karen State. They had been raped and murdered by Burma Army soldiers. One was beheaded.

This continues a long-standing and well-documented pattern of the SPDC using rape as a weapon of war, which also includes the element of racism, since the rapes are inevitably perpetrated by Burman soldiers against ethnic minority women.

There was no outrage expressed about these latest atrocities. In fact, other than by the women's relatives and friends, they were quickly forgotten. The Burma pro-democracy community as a whole continues to ignore the underlying and highest priority issue in the country: The SPDC's violence against the ethnic groups. There may be attention to the news aspect of this subject, such as the current status of the SPDC's conflict with Brigade 5 of the DKBA. But there is no outrage, no: "Burma Army attacks against the ethnic groups have to end! Tatmadaw units must withdraw from the ethnic areas and let the villagers and townspeople live in peace!"

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is now out of house arrest, and acting as a leader of Burma. She is developing a record of statements, which can be analyzed, to try to determine what she intends. For example, she is the principal promoter of national reconciliation.

Unfortunately, from the many interviews that she has conducted, it appears her definition of the term is limited to having the SPDC relent in its overall repression. While she has supported the call for a second Panglong conference, she has not made any specific mention of the ongoing conflict in the country, nor of the Tatmadaw's war crimes. She further has said that while she also supports a United Nations Commission of Inquiry, she does not want the generals to feel fear. Many ethnic people responded to this statement with the question: What about our fear? How much are you willing to forgive in your desire to initiate a dialogue? And, she restated her belief that the only solution for Burma is through non-violent action, no matter how long it takes. Again, her patience is not matched by the ethnics, who in the face of Tatmadaw attacks have been compelled to self-defense, and who would like Burma to be free as soon as possible.

(One is reminded of the Dalai Lama saying that climate change is more important than freedom for Tibet.)

In the Burma struggle, there are two goals: Freedom and Democracy. Freedom must be achieved first, after which the objective will be to establish a well-functioning federal democracy. From Daw Suu's statements, it appears that she is relenting on the goal of freedom. Her perspective on national reconciliation goes beyond power sharing, to allowing the generals to stay in charge, with pressure for them to reform. The idea is no longer to force Than Shwe to allow democracy, such as by implementing the results of the 1990 election. It is simply to get him to ease up in his overall repression.

The end of the Burma Pro-Democracy Movement?

The big unknown is if Daw Suu is censoring herself, to avoid renewed house arrest, or if her goals really have changed. It the answer is the latter, this is a disaster. The Burma pro-democracy movement is over. All of the different pressure mechanisms that the movement works to organize, including economic, financial and arms embargo sanctions, legal culpability for war crimes, Security Council action, expulsion from the General Assembly, etc., are dead in the water. If Daw Suu doesn't lead on this, no one will act.

This underlines the importance of her role. Daw Suu appears to view herself as one of Burma's many pro-democracy leaders, which is in a sense true. The movement comprises at least one hundred different groups, and many of these have valiant and determined leaders.

But in another sense, Daw Suu is the pro-democracy leader. This is especially the case with people living outside of the country, including the leaders of many of the aforementioned groups. These groups are paralyzed now. They have been pressing for change for years and now their leader, finally released, appears to want to end the pressure. What should they do?

Even if Daw Suu is undeterred, and is simply speaking softly to avoid arrest, she should understand the consequences of this. If the pressure stops, there is no chance that Burma will ever be free - Than Shwe will start a North Korean-style family dynasty. No amount of non-violent activism will ever be enough.

Daw Suu and Bogyoke Aung San

A revealing analysis, which other commentators are making as well, is to compare Daw Suu to her father, Bogyoke Aung San. While this is not a value judgment, certain differences are evident.

Aung San was absolutely committed to freedom from colonial rule for Burma, to the extent that he struck an alliance with the fascist Imperial Japanese Army. He no doubt found this relationship distasteful, but accepted it as a necessary step to achieve his goal.

Daw Suu, though, has had minimal relations with the ethnic resistance forces of Burma, even though their armed struggle is in the cause of self-defense (not aggression like the Japanese), and they view themselves as her partners in the struggle for freedom and democracy. One imagines the reason for this lack of contact is twofold. Open support for the armed groups would give the junta a justification to arrest her, and, she apparently believes it would undermine her commitment to nonviolence.

One similarity between Daw Suu and her father is their willingness to accept any personal cost. This unlimited courage is the source of their inspiration and strength. But Aung San, as a military commander, understood that sometimes you must order your followers into situations where they may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. The justification for such orders is the knowledge that they openly accept the risk.

One suspects that Daw Suu lacks this readiness, and that her devotion to non-violence is linked to her unwillingness to accept the deaths of her followers. She is, in effect, a reluctant commander. At any time during the last twenty years, she could have called upon the people of Burma to rise up, and for the soldiers of the Tatmadaw to turn against the generals. She could do this from within the country, or leave and do it from outside. But, she hasn't. She has even said that she thought the Saffron Revolution in 2007 was a mistake.

A final difference is that, at least during his life, Aung San was not an idol. Daw Suu, though, definitely is. Her followers express blind obedience. She is above reproach. Further, everything she says instantly becomes policy. If her statements suggest a relaxation in pressure on the SPDC, this restricts such followers' freedom of action.


People have noted that there is a lack of unity within the Burma pro-democracy movement. This is an understatement. The movement has two components, which are separated by a huge chasm. On the one hand are the "democracy" groups, starting with the NLD, which profess non-violence; which express little concern for the problems of the ethnic minorities; which act like an opposition party that lost a election, not one that boycotted it and rejects any and all of its outcomes out of hand; and which, amazingly, is unwilling even to criticize the ruling generals. On the other hand are the ethnic groups, who are fighting for their lives, and who so want the junta gone that they would kill the generals in an instant given the opportunity.

This split appears irreconcilable. Until Daw Suu becomes more forceful in her approach, and addresses Burma's underlying ethnic issues, including by sending envoys to those groups that she cannot be seen to contact publicly, Than Shwe's release of her is a master stroke. Burma's pro-democracy movement is finished. There will never be freedom, or democracy, or national reconciliation.

The ethnic groups believe that Daw Suu is the only Burman leader who can hold the country together, once it is free. The paradox is that unless she changes her goals and style, Burma never will be free.