Newly Elected NLD-led Government Must Work to End Burmanization

November 26th, 2020  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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“Building Myanmar in the image of the Buddhist, Bamar, no matter what level of violence is needed, has been the modus operandi of the military rulers, and indeed civilian rulers before and after the decades of military junta rule.”

With the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a clear mandate from the voters, the next five years is an opportunity to alter its current Burmanizing trajectory and work towards genuine national reconciliation, overturn the structural and institutional policies and laws that work in favour of the majority Bamar ethnic group over minorities, and lay the foundations for a shift in attitude regarding ethnicity, identity, and nation.

Since Myanmar’s independence, the idea of a Burma, or Myanmar nation has been a contested, bitterly fought over, uneven and exclusionary notion. Ethnic identity and strict classifications of race – a legacy of the British – have been at the forefront of these discourses.  Dominated by the Bamar – or Burman – majority military, the modern history of Myanmar has been one of violent statebuilding, forced assimilation of ethnic minorities, and the systematic suppression, marginalization, and exclusion of ethnic minority culture, expression, religion, and language. Building Myanmar in the image of the Buddhist, Bamar, no matter what level of violence is needed, has been the modus operandi of the military rulers, and indeed civilian rulers before and after the decades of military junta rule.

Yet the ethnic-based exclusions and marginalizations are not only a feature of military rule. The liberal democracy-lite NLD-government of 2015-2020, despite its limitations in exercising its  power due to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, has continued to embody the Burmanization agenda. Building statues of Bamar heroes in ethnic minority towns and cities at the expense of local figures and martyrs, or naming a major new bridge in Mon State after Burman independence hero, General Aung San rather than a local ethnic Mon figure, as would have been more appropriate and in the spirit of building a federal democratic union. These are just two high profile manifestations of wilful ignorance and disrespect to ethnic people. In fact, the lionization of General Aung San as a hero of the Myanmar nation is a telling example and has parallels with how Britain cannot come to terms with the contradictions and legacy of colonial violence of its own war hero, Winston Churchill. The violence and massacres inflicted on ethnic Karen villagers by the General Aung San-led Burma Independence Army during World War II as it advanced on Rangoon have not been reconciled in the dominant narrative of hero worship.

A new report published by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) on 18 November, 2020, details the impacts on peoples’ everyday lives that Burmanization policies have and the challenges faced in terms of ethnic identity. For example, the process to gain an ID card, which is linked to proving one’s ethnic identity, is a discriminatory and complicated, difficult process for ethnic minorities, which involves collating a series of documents to prove one is ‘indigenous’ to Myanmar. Such documents, especially in rural areas where the issuance of birth certificates has historically not been systematized, or in conflict-affected areas, where documents are often lost, can be almost impossible. Moreover, there are populations of ethnic people who live in areas governed and administered by ethnic armed organizations, and as such Myanmar State issued documents are irrelevant.

Furthermore, dealing with Myanmar state authorities, who are primarily ethnic Bamar,  are often discriminatory towards non-Bamar people can be a degrading experience. Thus, KHRG have documented how many rural, Karen villagers simply do not have this ID and therefore cannot prove their citizenship in the eyes of the Myanmar State. This impacts their ability to register land, to vote, to move freely, and attaining education beyond primary level. Moreover, if all the relevant paperwork and bureaucratic processes are followed, which is far from straightforward, the names of ethnic minorities are Burmanized. For example, the honorific for a Karen male in S’gaw Karen language is ‘Saw,’ but is changed to the Burman ‘U’ in legal documentation, which is the honorific for the ethnic Bamar. This is just one tiny example of Burmanization that continues today, and there are many other instances of day-to-day experience that serve to deny an expression of Karen, Shan, Mon, Kachin, or any other ethnic identity, such as the name of your place, the language you are taught in school, the celebration of ethnic national days or the flag that represents your ethnic group. It is, of course, worse for the Rohingya, as they are even further excluded through even more punishing laws that regulate marriages, births, movement and as well as the genocidal violence that caused most to flee to Bangladesh.

The issues around ethnic identity and Burmanization are deeply rooted in terms of policy, laws, maps, institutions, discriminatory attitudes, and behaviours at all levels of Myanmar society. The NLD government is certainly not going to solve these challenges in just five years. However, with the overwhelming majority and the unwavering support it has from the electorate, it has the ability to lead in an overhaul of the various institutionalized structures, policies and laws of political and social life that marginalise the identity of ethnic minorities. Reaching out to ethnic political parties and EAOs as well as ethnic civil society and community-based organizations with respect and recognition of their equal belonging in this Union is a symbolic first step. Legal amendments, policy changes, and a genuine will to work together as equals – not junior partners – with ethnic political and community leaders, would build a base, or foundation, to overturn decades of Burman dominated rule – the root causes of the 70-years long civil war. While it may not have the control of the military, the NLD-led government does have the mandate from the people, and it has control over tools such as the legislature, and ministerial positions to begin a process of true national reconciliation. All it needs is the political will.


[1] 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

Military Products Boycott List Updated

By Burma Campaign UK

BHRN Outraged by Prosecution of Students for Peaceful Protests

By Burma Human Rights Network

BHRN Recommends Action from Burma’s New NLD Government

By Burma Human Rights Network

Myanmar’s Military Still Using Children in Fighting

By Human Rights Watch

Minorities under Threat, Diversity in Danger: Patterns of Systemic Discrimination in Southeast Myanmar

By Karen Human Rights Group

ခြိမ်းခြောက်မှုအောက်မှ လူနည်းစုများ၊ အန္တရာယ်ကျရောက်နေသော မတူကွဲပြားမှုများ – မြန်မာပြည်အရှေ့တောင်ပိုင်းရှိ အမြစ်တွယ်နေသော ခွဲခြားဆက်ဆံမှုပုံသဏ္ဍာန်များ

By Karen Human Rights Group

On World Children’s Day, a new hope for children in Myanmar: The Democratic Karen Benevolent Army signs a Joint Action Plan to End & Prevent the Recruitment and Use of Children

By Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

General Statement on the Human Rights Situation in Burma

By U.S. Mission to the United Nations



ပြည်သူ့ရေးရာနှင့် နိုင်ငံရေး အခွင့်အရေး ချိုးဖောက်ခံရသည့် အခြေအနေများ – Violation of Civil and Political Rights

By Generation Wave

Minorities under Threat, Diversity in Danger: Patterns of Systemic Discrimination in Southeast Myanmar

By Karen Human Rights Group

ခြိမ်းခြောက်မှုအောက်မှ လူနည်းစုများ၊ အန္တရာယ်ကျရောက်နေသော မတူကွဲပြားမှုများ၊ မြန်မာပြည်အရှေ့တောင်ပိုင်းရှိ အမြစ်တွယ်နေသော ခွဲခြားဆက်ဆံမှုပုံသဏ္ဍန်များ

By Karen Human Rights Group

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.”