Abstract

A concern with unity has been a consistent theme in modern Burmese politics. This article examines a particularly problematic conception of unity that I argue draws strength from its resonance with Buddhist moral notions of the self and overcoming self-centeredness. As a moral concept, this narrative of unity is idealized in devotion to a common purpose and loyalty to a group or community; it requires subsuming one’s own interests for the benefit of the whole, something that encapsulates the Buddhist practice of rejecting atta (ego). Disunity, then, is the result of a group of individuals committed only to their own benefit; it is evidence of moral failure. This discourse of unity has been an effectively anti-democratic disciplining tool (deployed by both governments and opposition groups) for suppressing internal dissent. Despite General Aung San’s oft-quoted slogan of “unity in diversity,” political movements in Myanmar have been more commonly characterized by hegemonic attempts at imposing a top-down unity that labels deviation from or criticism of dominant positions as disloyalty. This article examines the perpetuation of a rigid, unitary understanding of unity and argues that developing a more flexible and accommodating notion of unity will be a necessary step in the process of national reconciliation.

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