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Rodney's Ramblings: The Burma Misnomer - For The Chin And Shan Peoples

Today we welcome a new contributor to Open Writing - Rodney Gascoyne.

Writing about Burma, a land still ruled by an oppressive military regime, Rodney reports "Constitutional changes two years ago, continue to ensure the Burman Army retains control of the Government.''

Back over the centuries, the Chin and the Shan peoples were two ethnic groupings that occupied certain areas within the region of SE Asia, populations that migrated and changed over time as dynastic dominance and warfare changed ethnic influences, as well as invasions from further afield. In the case of the Shan, they expanded into the Burma and Indian region when accompanying the Mongols in their incursions into new territories, but many then remained. The Chin people themselves are thought of as part of the Tibeto-Burma group. Both peoples were always a notable group within the areas but were still in a minority position.

Their situation became more of a problem as British interests in the region grew during the 19th Century. The Chin in the West were affected first, as their territories were on the Eastern borders of Indian lands, a place mostly covered by wide ranges of interwoven hills, reaching up to and over 3000 feet, making travel and communications initially a difficult proposition. Being also tribal areas, with unruly residents, forces were sent in to set up posts and to impose control as part of British India in the East. Borders were established that finally determined the extent of India, most often using rivers and other features such as ridges and water divides. As a result, traditional Chin areas were divided between lands now part of India and those undefined to the East.

This is still apparent as Mizoram State particularly, in NE India, contains a majority of Chin peoples, as well as other neighbouring States, while across the border in Burma, to the East, is the Chin State with a very similar ethnic dominance - a people divided arbitrarily by a past European colonizer.

The Shan areas further East in Burma were also affected in this manner, known as a Frontier Area, and containing many unruly hill peoples. Under late dynastic ambitions, their ruler arranged incursions into neighbouring areas of India, eventually needing attention from the British administration.

There followed a series of three Anglo-Burmese wars for much of the 19th Century, resulting in annexation of progressive parts of the lands, formed into a new Province of India, ruled under the Viceroy from New Delhi. The last two extended annexations were also prompted by British knowledge of resources and other economic advantages available.

Although some hill country opposition continued for a while, the country settled down to relative peace, as British rule also prevented much internal fighting between ethnic groups, and restrained the largest Burman group from oppressing all others. From 1895, Burma was divided into four main divisions plus the Scheduled (Frontier) areas of Shan States, Chin Hills and the Kachin tracts, also known as the "Excluded Areas". This then defined finally the remaining borders of Burma, further dividing ethnic peoples across national borders.
In 1937, Burma was reorganized and set up as a separate colony from India, but this did not go down well and protest and strikes caused much disruption, before the onset of World War II and Japanese occupation. After the war, talks started to arrange independence, eventually granted in 1948. Those talks were mainly led by General Aung San and obtained wide acceptance from many ethnic peoples, in the PangLong Agreement, aimed at achieving national unity for the first time, but then he and other cabinet ministers were assassinated by more conservative Burman followers in 1947.

By 1962, this powerful and well armed inner group of Burmans, the largest ethnic, but still a minority, group in the country, who had also wrested control of the army, took over the Government in a coup d’état. Without past constraints, they slowly set about diminishing the rights and participation of the other ethnic groups, also alienating more moderate, democratically inclined members of their own people. This military rule has continued ever since, and has been marked by worldwide condemnation of the lack of human rights and almost genocidal treatment of the ethnic minorities.

For further discussion purposes, I will refer to these as the “Burman Government and Army”, not Burmese, as they are not national forces in the normal sense. In fact Burma has always been a misnomer ‘collection’ of ethnic groups, parceled together by outsiders.

In resistance to Burman Army oppression, many of the Frontier Area States set up their own armed groups to protect their own peoples from the Burman Army, although then labeled Terrorists by the Burman Government. This internal fighting has continued on and off for the last 50 years, with selective concentration as it suited the Burmans, together with ceasefire agreements regionally at times. Currently this has resulted in standoffs in part of the land, but with certain areas still under conflict.

The Burman Government is very corrupt with all commercial interests in the country being controlled and monopolized by the Army leadership, with a hand in all finances for themselves. One often repeat accusation refers to business plans with the Chinese and some other non-concerned Nations or Companies. Much of this involves mining or other resource operations.

The modus operandi of the Burman Army is to first clear the land of any inconvenient ethnic minorities, by fear and threat, causing them to flee the area immediately, abandoning their homes and land. Any that remain could be shot or abused, with beatings, rape, capture or kidnapping of the youth and boys, and their homes burned to the ground. The numbers of Burman child soldiers are said to be the largest in the world. Women are forced into being slaves and porters for the Army too. The deserted land then becomes easily available to the commercial partners of the top Burman generals, on mutually agreeable terms. With their veto in the UN, China can then protect the Rangoon Government from the worst of any sanctions.

Recent visits by World leaders and even the US President, has not really changed this, except to perhaps allow their corporations to join in the exploitation of resources with the assistance and protection of Rangoon. Constitutional changes two years ago, continue to ensure the Burman Army retains control of the Government. Not a surprise really, the game continues afoot. Ethnic areas with valuable resources, still of foreign interest, continue to be in conflict with Rangoon, while others out of the picture are currently left in peace and their ceasefires are holding.

The Chin and the Shan are used to oppression and mistreatment, as evidenced by the vast numbers of their peoples who have fled across the border to neighbouring states, for safety, or live close to the border under the protection of their own ethnic Army. This does not look likely to change in the near future.

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