12 Feb The menace from abroad

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Myanmar soldiers stand guard in front of the three statues of former Kings who founded the Myanmar Kingdom during the 68th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, March 27, 2013. Photo: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA
Myanmar soldiers stand guard in front of the three statues of former Kings who founded the Myanmar Kingdom during the 68th Armed Forces Day in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, March 27, 2013. Photo: Nyein Chan Naing/EPA

Myanmar history is littered with stories about encroaching menaces from abroad. The three warrior Kings – Anawratha, Bayingnaung and Alaungpaya - who are honoured with gigantic statues in Nay Pyi Taw all saw their share of bloodshed.

In fact, Myanmar history has been shaped by wars with its neighbours. Armies from Manipur, Assam, Bengal, Yunnan, Laos and Siam fought numerous battles with the three dynasties. Within what is now Myanmar several Rakhine and Mon kingdoms aspired to be powerful as well.

The short lived kingdom of former mercenary De Brito was another threat to Bamar sovereignty, that was dealt with by impaling the unruly Portugese warlord.

In the nineteenth century the British annexed what was then called Burma in two stages. King Thibaw was deported to India, where he would die, and the country became economically subservient to the colonialists.

It was a major blow to the pride of the Myanmar and the integrity of its institutions.

The second World War wasn’t much better. Promising the Bamar nationalists independence the Japanese took over aided by the Burma National Army, but the new Asian masters never delivered and instead installed a harsh regime that was hated by the populace at large.

After the second World War large contingents of Kuomintang spilled over into Myanmar and went to battle from their hide-outs in the jungle while China was supporting the Communist Party of Burma, which wanted to overthrow the central government.

The Bamar majority was also under siege of countless militias and full fledged rebel armies in Shan State, Chin State, Kachin State, Mon State and Karen State. The United Wa State Army could rely on a steady supply of weapons and personnel from Yunnan, where a sizeable Wa population resides. It was a civil war the Tatmadaw could neither lose nor win.

The numerous assaults on its independence have left lasting scars in the Bamar psyche. The deep distrust of ethnic minorities, who in turn distrust the Bamar, and of foreign powers was reflected in the seemingly unending stream of articles in the state newspapers during the military era, in which the junta warned against ‘Killer broadcasters’ from abroad and those acting as ‘stooges’ for foreign powers.

It was hardly surprising that General Ne Win went into a isolationist trip shortly after taking over power in 1962, a move that ultimately helped ruin the economy.

Xenophobia was and is not a monopoly of the army. Recent outbursts of violence against the Rohingya Muslims and those who acknowledge their basic human rights has been disturbing but in a historical sense understandable.

In Rakhine State the Buddhists harbour a deep rooted fear of their land and resources being taken away, however improbable and unjustified this may seem. History has taught them reflexes that now prove to be counterproductive and, frankly, go against international humanitarian law.

It will take time and conscious effort to conquer distrust and foster harmony, a project that will only succeed with support from the government and the Myanmar communities.

But one wonders if this effort will ever be made when government party USDP has a lot to gain electorally from nourishing unsavoury sentiments, sentiments that the NLD can never act upon, for fear of losing its international backing.

The prospects for this election year are not promising. Will harmony be sacrificed for the sake of short-term electoral gains, even if it means playing into the dark underbelly of Myanmar?

This Article first appeared in the February 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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Last modified on Thursday, 12 February 2015 19:01