According to an interview survey conducted mainly in urban areas inside Burma (Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010), ethnic nationality members typically have a difficult relationship with the Burman people. Many ethnic nationalities seem to use the terms ‘Burman’, ‘the government’ and ‘soldiers’ interchangeably and rarely distinguish between the Burman civil society and the Burman authorities. Accordingly, many Burman feel that in the eyes of ethnic people, the military and Burman are one and the same. This perception seems largely accurate.
The Panglong agreement has served as a major source of dissatisfaction and tension between the Burman majority and some ethnic nationality groups. As the Panglong agreement was never honoured, many ethnic nationality groups felt cheated by the Burmese (mainly Burman) government. Strong stereotypes and much prejudice from the ethnic nationality peoples towards the Burman majority continue in the society. These perceptions are largely due to history of conflict and false promises as well as the practices of the (Burman) government and soldiers.
Unlike the ethnic nationalities who have been oppressed and persecuted by the government forces merely based on their ethnicity, the Burman who have fled the country have typically been active in politics or crossed the border in search of a better life. Nevertheless, many Burman have not been spared grievances. During the 1988 and 2007 uprisings for example, thousands of Burman fled to areas controlled by the KNU or to camps along the Thailand-Burma border. Too often, these exiles have found themselves to have fled for their lives to an inhospitable environment where they are discriminated against, often suspected of being government spies, and commonly perceived as being the same as their own persecutors. While the military government openly discriminates against ethnic nationalities, the latter also discriminate against the Burman civil society members.
Many Burman complain about a lack of objective information about their country, and incredibly, some are even unaware of the situation in Burma’s borderlands, including the ongoing ethnic conflict and the reasons behind it. Due to the government policy of Burmanisation and the Burman-centred curriculum at schools, many Burman know nothing about the ethnic diversity of their own country. Others have learned about the situation and sympathise with the ethnic nationalities:
“I hate the government. The more I understand, the more I hate them, because of the situation of my ethnic brothers and because Burma has not developed”. (Young Burman male NGO worker in Rangoon, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010, p. 337)
Many Burman are surprised by the intense prejudice they often face from ethnic nationality peoples:
“… I have heard the ethnic voice. If you are Burman, they have feelings of distrust about you. I thought, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, so why distrust me?’ I feel very sorry. For example, Karen don’t believe Burman because Burman soldiers killed Karen and Shan people. Ethnic people see soldiers and Burman as the same, so they hate us because they think we are soldiers. I was shocked by this because I did not do anything wrong!” (Middle-aged Burman male NGO staff, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010, p. 72)
Having been subject to decades of Burmanisation, many ethnic nationality members feel that marrying a Burman threatens their traditional culture. On the other side of the coin, some ethnic nationality members feel that the Burman are unwilling to marry ethnic nationalities as they are perceived as inferior people.
The Burman are often omitted when discussing the diverse peoples of Burma (for more information on the eight main ethnic groups and seven ethnic states, refer to Ethnic Groups). If we are to achieve national reconciliation, however, it is imperative that all groups, including the majority, are involved in the process. All groups in Burma should not only be treated as equals but also feel as though they are equal. In order to build relations and mutual trust, it is imperative that ethnic nationality peoples stop perceiving Burman civil society members as being an extension of the military, and that all groups perceive each other as equal members of the Burmese society. For the people of Burma to create a more peaceful and just society for all, much education and awareness training is needed in order to change existing attitudes and to create true unity through tolerance, forgiveness and trust.
Updated October 10, 2014
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