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  • The Problem of Democracy in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar:Neither Nation-State Nor State-Nation?
  • David I. Steinberg (bio)

The issue of the resolution of the ethnic problems of a quintessential multicultural state like Myanmar is the most important, continuing, and contentious issue facing the "Union" of the Republic of Myanmar — a "union" more in name than actuality since independence.1 Over the past two decades, however, international attention has generally concentrated on negative political issues and human rights abuses. Continuation of authoritarian direct and indirect military rule has been evident since 1962, causing considerable international indignation since the suppression of the people's revolution and the subsequent coup of 1988, the junta's neglect of the results of the 1990 elections, the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's entourage at Depayin in 2003, the "Saffron Revolution" of 2007, and government procrastination on Cyclone Nargis relief efforts in 2008. The political incarnation of that state under an elected government in 2011, based upon the constitution of 2008 that was approved through a manipulated referendum, ensures that essential power still remains in military hands in what the Burmese leadership has called a "discipline-flourishing democracy".

Although political rights are obviously important and human rights abuses abhorrent, the more basic issue concerns questions of the distribution of power and authority in a highly culturally diverse state in which the minority groups are generally on, or close to, the frontiers of the state — frontiers that are unrelated to ethnicity or cultural homogeneity. These ethnically arbitrary borders fragment [End Page 220] peoples with shared ethno-linguistic traditions but ostensible loyalties to other states. As a consequence, even cultural diversity, let alone an absence of quiescence or ethnic oriented or fomented rebellions at home, have international repercussions within the region and beyond. If violence is its ultimate form, smuggling, illegal migration, trafficking, unauthorized investments, and the narcotics trade are possible or actual implications. Irredentism in western Myanmar on the Indian frontier among the Naga has been evident. If Western states are more concerned about human and political rights, Myanmar's neighbours (China, India, Thailand, and Bangladesh) are preoccupied with border tranquility and the adverse potential for refugees into their states — the potential external effects of internal Myanmar ethnic nationalism, rancour, rebellion, or disputed identity.

Clifford Geertz summed up the situation in 1963 that continues through several political and constitutional incarnations and that still prevails today. It is likely to be evident at least into the near future:

...the minorities, some of whom helped to keep the country in a multisided civil war for the first few years after independence, are catered to by a rather intricate and highly peculiar constitutional system that protects them in theory against the Burman domination that the party system tends to produce in fact. Here the government itself is to a very great extent the obvious agency of a central, primordial group, and it is faced, therefore, with a very serious problem of maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of peripheral groups — more than one-third of the population who are naturally inclined to see it as alien, a problem it has attempted to solve largely by a combination of elaborate legal gestures of reassurance and a good deal of aggressive assimilationism.2

Ethnicity and Legitimacy

At least one-third of the total population of Myanmar of over 50 million (the figure is disputed) is composed of a multitude of minority peoples, sometimes referred to in Myanmar as "races". The government has recognized 135 such ethnic groups, although this number is suspect and reflects linguistic and dialect cleavages based on an early colonial survey, the methodology of which is obscure.3 Some portion of each of the major ethnic groups has been in revolt against the central government at some time. In an earlier period, some fought for independence, later they struggled for some type of autonomy under differing and proposed, but rejected, types of federal systems. The oldest rebellion in the modern world continues in Myanmar; some of the Karen minority have fought the majority Burmans since 1949.4 There have been seventeen official ceasefires since [End Page 221] 1989 with a number of minorities who...


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