Thu 4 Oct 2012
Filed under: Opinion
The debate over a new national identify is further complicated by the existence of 135 recognized ethnic groups, as well as the relationship between the Burmese majority and minority groups.
On a recent afternoon at Junction Square, a gleaming new shopping mall that looks like nothing else in this dilapidated and mold-covered city, women jostled at racks of Western clothing — the more revealing the better, and a sharp departure from traditional sarongs, still ubiquitous in most of the country.
“I feel the changes,” said Phyu Phyu Aye, a 20-year-old clothing vendor in a matching black skirt and top, an outfit that she said gave her a sense of freedom. “People like freedom and want to live freely.”
The changes that have swept Myanmar over the past year are often described in political terms, starting with the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners.
But the military had such a pervasive influence over everyday life that citizens are now discussing — or living — changes well beyond the realm of politics.
There are debates about what Yangon and other cities should look like, which buildings to preserve and which to tear down. There are discussions about the future of language and heated arguments about who should be considered a citizen.
Myanmar, in short, has begun to search for a national identity defined by its people, not the cloistered vision imposed by military governments that took power in 1962 and relinquished control only last year.
The demise of dictatorship has uncorked five decades of bottled-up opinions — lots of opinions.
A group of lawyers working out of a car garage in central Yangon recently started a campaign to block a British colonial court building from being transformed into a hotel by its new Chinese owners.
“We never dreamed that our magnificent buildings would become hotels — or brothels or whatever they plan on building,” said U Than Thin, the leader of the group. “They belong to the people. That’s why it’s called national heritage.”
A half-hour drive away, in a high-rise apartment building, one of the country’s best-known translators and linguists railed against the word Myanmar, the official name that the former military government bestowed on the country and forced its citizens to use.
“I live in Burma, not Myanmar,” said Maung Tha Noe, the linguist. “It’s my democratic right.”
The chorus of discussions across the country could be called the search for a National Identity 2.0 — an effort to redefine questions suppressed or papered over during military rule.
At the heart of the matter, in a country with 135 recognized ethnic groups, is a more free and freewheeling debate about the relationship between the Burmese majority and minority groups.
At a recent conference in Yangon called “National Identity and Citizenship in 21st Century Myanmar,” the elephant in the room (in a country where wild elephants still roam) was the hegemony of the Burmese majority, sometimes called the Burman.
Yin Yin Nwe, a panelist from the Shan minority group, denounced a society where the Burman majority received more benefits and entitlements and better infrastructure and services. Andrew Ngun Cung Lian, a panelist from the Chin minority, which includes many Christians, said past governments had failed to understand the differences among its people. The current government and the current Constitution gave preferential treatment to one religion — Buddhism — he said.
The overriding question at the conference was whether Myanmar would become a melting pot like the United States or a “salad bowl” of ethnicities, to use a term once applied to neighboring India.
U Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a Burmese academic educated at Cornell University in New York State who has assisted President Thein Sein in peace talks with minority groups, said the president was solidly in the melting pot camp.
“He is inspired by the American identity,” Mr. Kyaw Yin Hlaing said.
Judging by the divided opinions at the conference, the question of ethnic identity is likely to remain unanswered for years. Especially contentious is the issue of the Muslim Rohingya, who do not have citizenship and are now segregated from the Buddhist community after deadly sectarian violence in June.
Yet speakers at the conference said it was a measure of the changes in the country that such a meeting was being held at all.
Mr. Thein Sein’s administration has allowed debates to flourish; in some cases action has already been taken toward redefining identity. The Parliament recently lifted a ban on ethnic minorities teaching their own languages in government schools.
Yet on some issues like the basic question of what the country should be called, old authoritarian ways die hard.
In June, the country’s election commission warned Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to stop referring to the country as Burma.
The commission noted that the country’s Constitution says, “The state shall be known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” Thus “no one has the right” to call the country Burma, the commission said. (The military officially changed the country’s name in 1989, soon after quashing a popular revolt against its rule.)
While many people, especially younger Burmese, shrug at the question of the country’s name, Mr. Tha Noe and other linguists say they feel strongly about it because of the way the military went about changing it.
Military governments and their censors sought to shape the Burmese language to their advantage. They banned references to the “military coup” of 1962.
For them it was a “takeover” by the Tatmadaw, the formal term for the armed forces that translates as “great defense force.”
It is unclear why the military banned the name Burma. It was the name used by the British colonizers to describe the country but was also used by the Burmese independence movement fighting against the British.
With the country now on a path toward a more open, democratic society, Mr. Tha Noe said he hoped that language would evolve in a more “natural process” rather than by the dictates of a self-serving military.
So, too, with architecture.
A decade ago, the military secretly began building a new capital, Naypyidaw, putting its indelible imprint on a city it built from scratch. Today, the grandiose government offices, huge military museum and wide but empty avenues give the city the feel of a totalitarian Disneyland.
After the move, government offices in Yangon were abandoned and left to rot in the tropical heat. As one of the last major acts of the military government, the junta auctioned off some of the oldest buildings in Yangon through a secret bidding process.
But details of those auctions are now being called into question. And civic groups, like the lawyers who meet in the parking garage, are becoming more vocal about preserving what they call national treasures. To outsiders, Yangon is often seen as one of the last cities in Asia not transformed by the globalized urban architecture of glass, concrete and steel.
Mr. Than Tin, 91, remembers visiting what was the small-claims court in the 1930s, when he was in his teens, and being so impressed with the teak paneling and tidiness and efficiency of the place.
“The buildings symbolize the rule of law,” Mr. Than Tin said. “Just by looking at them, you have a feeling of justice.”
While the preservation of colonial buildings in Yangon is largely a matter of aesthetics, it also seems inseparable from questions of identity.
Within a few blocks there is a Buddhist pagoda, a Hindu temple, a mosque, a church and, in a country with very few Jews, even a synagogue. Yangon, or Rangoon as it was once called, is more salad bowl than melting pot.
Mr. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who studied at Cornell University under Benedict Anderson, a scholar known for his work on how “imagined communities” become nations, said pinning down a national identity might prove impossible. The country has so many ethnic groups and languages, so many different types of food and traditions.
“Sometimes we will have to leave it undefined,” he said of the country’s national identity. “It’s going to be a mosaic of many different things.”
He offered a more cosmic definition of the country’s identity. The new, postmilitary nation of Myanmar, he said, might be a place where citizens “close their eyes and feel that they belong there.”