English to Burmese: Burmese Politics and the Pathology of Unity General field: Social Sciences
Source text - English Myanmar is reaching a point in its current political transition where people inside and outside of the country have begun to express fears about reforms moving too quickly. These fears are often directed at demands for recognition (if not increased political autonomy) from various marginalized groups; most commonly in Myanmar these are the ethnic minorities that have been seeking political recognition of their disadvantaged position in Burmese society for decades.
The common response from many (mostly Burman) political leaders (and more than a few foreign observers) is that expressing these types of grievances too loudly during this fragile transition could jeopardize the entire process by damaging national unity at a critical moment. Thus, these grievances should be deferred until a point where the country is more politically and economically stable. Whereas General Aung San hoped for “unity in diversity,” I would argue that in Myanmar the discourse has been more akin to “unity through hegemony” and this construction of unity will continue to ignore and alienate non-dominant groups in the country.
Unity has been a consistent theme among Burmese political figures, from the colonial period, through military rule, to the present period of transition. Of course, some calls for unity have been for strategic or psychological reasons but in this paper I am interested in the way the Burmese Buddhist conception of unity functions an indicator of correct moral practice or orientation. I argue that this conception of unity is actually an anti-democratic impulse that inhibits the incorporation of diverse voices and perspectives into the Burmese political sphere and is an impediment to national reconciliation. Furthermore, it isn't merely a disciplining tool of former military governments, it's also been effectively used by members of opposition parties and groups supposedly committed to justice, equality, and democratic development.
As a moral concept, unity represents 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 the self-centered ego. In a late 19th century treatise of advice for a king, the minister U Hpo Hlaing clearly explained the moral dimension of unity, drawn from the Buddha's advice to a group of princes. He claimed that, in an effort to achieve unanimity on an important matter, the discussion must leave out individual preferences. Disunity, then, is the result of a group of individuals committed only to their own benefit; it is a result of moral failure.
Later in the text, he warned about the four agatis (biases). The failure of a political body to act in a unified way would indicate that some or all of its members are under the influence of these biases and, as a result, acting according to their own narrow interests. A unified assembly, on the other hand, has overcome divisions precisely because its members had developed their moral practice to overcome the agatis and act according to the ideal of selflessness. Unity then depends on individual moral development and the ability to move beyond self-interest in making political decisions.
Contemporary uses of the idea of unity also stress its nature as a moral concept. In an article in an underground journal circulated in Myanmar in the months prior to the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” a monk connected unity to correct moral practice and control of one’s actions. “In a united people we can see that the conduct of their body and mind is honest, their moral conduct is good, and the strength of their mental qualities is great.” He went on to state that, “unity needs control/restraint through proper moral conduct and an even mind.” Note the implication that if a country is not unified it is because its people are morally deficient, unable to control their self-centered impulses.
The military conception of disciplined democracy arises from the fear of political disorder, which intensified during the parliamentary period and provided members of the military with their view of themselves as the only institution capable of holding the country together. The potential divisiveness of democracy must be mediated by a group capable of transcending potential disunity (the military) that can also impose discipline on the citizenry.
The military’s narrative of how to develop a lasting democracy is also consistent with the general Burmese perspective on popular political participation that is skeptical of the ability of the average person (pu htu zin) to participate in politics and wary of the results when it occurs. That is, most citizens do not yet have the moral grounding to move beyond their own selfish interests and participate in a potentially divisive democratic process in a unified way that would benefit the country as a whole.
A 2008 editorial from the gov't run New Light of Myanmar warned readers of the dangers of not practicing democracy “correctly.” The failures of the parliamentary period were “not because of democracy, but because of those who implemented democracy, and those who were desperate to come to power with egotism, attachment to the party concerned, and selfishness.” Another editorial reinforced the idea that only the military was morally capable of rising above this egotism and working for the benefit of the country. The importance of “disciplined” participation implies that most citizens were not and are still not morally equipped to take part in the correct manner without continued guidance. The strongest indicator of this moral immaturity from the military’s perspective was continued political opposition to the state.
In a 2005 speech, former Senior General Than Shwe stated that “Under a democratic system, only high education standards can ensure discipline and a clear perception of right from wrong.” He also warned of the dangers of a return to the disorder and chaos that characterized the parliamentary period and then drew on the four agatis (biases) that U Hpo Hlaing used to argue for collective decision-making and that Aung San Suu Kyi also used to criticize military rule. “Genuine democracy can flourish only when each and every citizen possesses reasoning power and is able to vote for delegates without [the] four forms of partiality.” The military instituted “disciplined democracy” as a form of moral and political guardianship and military leaders' claims regarding the legitimacy of their guardian role refer to the purity of their intentions (non-disintegration of the Union, as opposed to personal gain) and position themselves as the only group capable of making selfless decisions with the interest of the entire nation in mind.
This skepticism is also not just limited to past political figures or the military. In an interview just after his release, the 88 Generation activist Min Ko Naing stated “It is very important to have discipline and unity. We have to show that we deserve democracy.” This conception of unity reinforces an anti-democratic discourse that questions the ability of individual citizens to (ever) have the moral capacity (ability to think beyond their own interests) to effectively participate in self-governance.
There has also been a persistent concern for the collective political action of the party system. The proliferation of political parties and events like the 1958 split in the ruling AFPFL was seen as evidence of disunity and of the moral deterioration of the government and the citizens. Seeing political parties as evidence of factionalism continued throughout the period of military rule, especially after the ill-fated 1990 elections. A 1998 article in the New Light of Myanmar stated, “As to freedom of organizational activity and expression, it can be a big danger, as long as there are political parties that still cannot renounce the way of confrontation, defiance of authority and anarchy, so there will be only such freedom within the bounds of rules and regulations.” Here, “the way of confrontation” implies that any disagreement is unacceptable and is just a first step toward fragmentation and the dissolution of the country. Whereas the phrase “defiance of authority” implies that the authorities know what's best; they are the (only) ones (capable of) working for the benefit of all, while any opposition could only be selfish and misguided.
Finally, a discussion of unity as a moral concept cannot ignore the ways in which groups across the political spectrum have used the rhetoric of unity to quash dissent within their own organizations. In this way, the unity discourse has functioned as a disciplining tool, deployed in order to win an internal argument or move a group past a contentious disagreement. Multiple scholars have noted instances where “moralized” concepts like unity have been used to repress dissenting or minority views, by implicitly or explicitly questioning the moral conduct of those who disagreed with their policies.
While I would argue that the Burman-dominated discourse on national unity presents the greatest impediment to national reconciliation, a concern with unity has stifled difference and generated conflict within non-Burman and other minority groups in the country as well. For example, even though Christians are not the majority among Karens, Christians have dominated the leadership of the KNU and Karen ethnic oppositional identity is broadly conceived as Christian. This has resulted in discrimination against Buddhists and lack of recognition of Buddhist Karen within the movement. The split between the DKBA and the KNU is an example of the destructive effects that an over-riding and homogenizing concern for unity can have on a diverse political community.
This brief examination of unity as a moral notion also demonstrates the ways in which political concepts acquire additional dimensions of significance when interpreted within a Burmese Buddhist worldview. In this narrative, unity is an indicator of correct moral practice, of the ability of individuals in a group to overcome the natural human inclination towards self-interest; it functions as an evaluative moral concept. Those who threaten unity do so because they are enslaved to selfish and individualistic desires and unable to see or work for the benefit of the community. Those who control the discourse on unity position themselves as morally superior; they see themselves as capable of overcoming their desires, even sacrificing individual interests, to realize a goal that will benefit all.
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Innovative visionary young social scientist and activist with drive and initiative, currently doing PhD in Asian Studies at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Extensive firsthand experience in politics and societies in Burma and other Southeast Asian countries. Technically proficient with Microsoft Windows, Office applications, Endnote, Adobe Acrobat, Photoshop, computer security, and maintenance.
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English to Burmese
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Keywords: Burmese, Myanmar, Social Science, History, Art, Film, Anthropology, Southeast Asian Studies, Areal Studies