Ethnic Struggles Face Harsh Reality on Union Day
As another Union Day passes in Myanmar, ethnic people in all corners of the country continue to face serious struggles as they seek ethnic equality and self-determination. Bamar Buddhist ultranationalism is on the rise, supported by the Myanmar military, while the peace process between the central government and ethnic armed organizations has stalled. Dozens of Karenni youth have been arrested for protesting the forced imposition of General Aung San statue in their state capital, ten thousand Kachin people demonstrated against the huge Myitsone Dam that would have severe impacts on the environment and culture of Kachin people, while thousands of Rakhine and Chin villagers have fled the armed conflict as the Myanmar military seeks to overcome the Arakan Army.
In Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, over ten thousand people marched to demand the termination of the Myitsone Dam – a 6,000 megawatt hydropower project located at the confluence of the two rivers that form the start of the Irrawaddy River. While the Chinese-backed project has been suspended since 2011, momentum has been building for its resumption, which the Kachin people categorically reject. The detrimental impacts, including displacement and cultural and environmental destruction, would be huge, while most of the electricity generated would go to China. Slogans such as ‘No dam on the Irrawaddy River, the lifeblood of Myanmar,’ and ‘No Myitsone Dam’ were displayed and in a typically insensitive response by the authorities, one of the protest leaders, Ja Hkawn, faced a lawsuit filed by the police for violations of the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law, one of the favourite tools of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to charge peaceful protesters. She has since paid her fine. Her crime was that protesters used loudspeakers rather than megaphones, as the police said was agreed. The Myitsone Dam is symbolic of the exploitation of ethnic people’s ancestral lands for the benefit of Naypyidaw and the military. It shows a lack of respect for the wishes of ethnic people and an arrogance that Bamar leaders can do what they like in ethnic areas. It is not just in Kachin State that this is happening, as planned dam projects in Shan and Karen States are also facing local opposition, such as a planned dam in Hsipaw Township, Shan State.
In Karenni State, protests against the installation of a statue of General Aung San started in July 2018 and succeeded temporarily due to the initial public opposition despite 23 protesters being charged under Article 505(b) and 505(c) of the Penal Code and articles 19 and 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. However, the statue appeared overnight in January 2019, and Karenni youth have set up a protest camp outside the NLD’s office, with dozens arrested for their participation last week. Furthermore, police have fired rubber bullets at protesters, injuring 21 people. Such opposition is not simply against General Aung San – an ethnic Burman who founded what is now the Myanmar military and led the negotiations with the British for independence – but it is about ethnic people being long deprived of their rights for equality and self-determination as promised by General Aung San, leading to their ancestors agreeing to join the union. As Kyaw Htin Aung of the Union of Karenni State Youth pointed out, “Young people have respect for General Aung San [but] it’s time now to implement General Aung San’s promises. Opposition to building the statue has emerged because we think the [government’s] focus should be on equal rights for ethnic minorities rather than statues.”
Meanwhile, in western Myanmar, the military’s clearance operations against the Arakan Army since border guard police posts were attacked in January have continued to force people to flee their homes. Furthermore, the same human rights violations experienced by Karen, Mon, Shan, Kachin and Karenni villagers for decades are now being inflicted on local population in Rakhine and Chin States.
As Union Day passes, what is supposed to commemorate the signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947 in which General Aung San and ethnic Shan, Chin, and Kachin leaders agreed on the basic principles of autonomy and self-determination for ethnic people, the promises of Panglong remain far from realization. Instead, ethnic nationalities throughout Myanmar are still struggling to assert their rights in the face of an even further entrenchment of Burmanization and militarized centralization. Over seventy years later, it is time for the the current NLD Government, under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, to reflect on what they are doing differently to the decades of military dictatorship, to recognize ethnic grievances, and to build a federal, democratic Myanmar based on the spirit that stemmed from the Panglong Agreement, as promised by General Aung San all those years ago.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Fortify Rights
By Hsaileng residents
By Joint Strategy Team
By United Nationalities Alliance
By Free Burma Rangers
By Free Burma Rangers
By MACDO & Mads Barbesgaard/ Transnational Institute
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”