Last week around 800 youth representatives gathered at the site of the historic Panglong Agreement in Shan State to debate peace, federalism and equality for Myanmar’s ethnic peoples.

The event, which organisers said had been in the planning for four years, went ahead despite attempts by officials at the state and Union level to stop it – apparently due to concerns that it would interfere with the government’s plans for the forthcoming Panglong Conference later this month.

Despite the considerable achievement by organisers of the Ethnic Youth Conference in successfully bringing young people together from across the country to discuss sensitive and sometimes painful issues, the story that hit the headlines was one about young Muslims being “not welcome”.

The accuracy of elements of the report have since been called into question both by conference leaders and the Muslim delegate at the centre of the controversy, who told The Myanmar Times he had been misquoted possibly due to a translation error. He backed committee members and the head of the Bamar delegation he arrived with, saying his eligibility had been called into question not because of his religion, but because he was seen as not representing one of the country’s recognised ethnic groups.

Hlwan Moe Aung, the delegate at the centre of the story who said his ID card declares him to be Bamar/Muslim, said, “They [the committee] didn’t tell me to leave. I could have stayed as an observer. It’s about ethnic issues, not about religion.”

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Given the widespread discrimination against Muslims in this country, it is entirely understandable that suspicions arose about an element of religious prejudice afoot. People of ethnic minority backgrounds are certainly not immune to the religious bigotry that has infected much of mainstream Bamar society and it is not unlikely that some conference leaders held positions of religious intolerance.

Yet the article in question, and much of the media covering Myanmar, was too quick to leap to conclusions about religious bigotry in the country, while the equally prevalent and dangerous issue of racial prejudice and protectionism is often ignored.

The reality was that the people who were the subject of most ire at the conference were not Muslims but Bamar. According to organisers, the Bamar contingent had been invited to take part as a way of showing solidarity with the concept that the “ethnic” classification applies equally to the country’s majority group as well as its minorities.

Discussions about “Burmanisation” and ways to address the fact that many people from ethnic minorities make little or no distinction between the loathed, Bamar-dominated military and the ordinary Bamar people when it comes to hatred, proved profoundly distressing for some of the Bamar delegates.

By the second day of the conference, one of the leaders of the Bamar delegates was threatening to leave if such topics continued to be raised. What was remarkable was that with the support of experienced rights campaigners and those keen to promote peace and trauma-healing, he not only stayed and listened, but when it was the turn of the Bamar contingent to address the conference, he called the entire group to the stage. There they expressed their sorrow and regret for the violations and abuses perpetrated by the Myanmar military and sympathy for the ethnic minority victims, drawing applause and tears from their audience in a small but genuine and moving step toward national reconciliation.

Efforts to acknowledge past injuries and build greater understanding and trust between the Bamar and members of Myanmar’s officially recognised ethnic minority groups are crucial to the success of this country. Such overtures are to be welcomed.

But there are others living in Myanmar too, and ignoring their needs in discussions about how a new federal Myanmar might look could well undermine efforts to develop equality and peace. It is here that organisers found themselves in difficult and controversial territory when it came to delegates who hit the headlines.

It is a tough truth to acknowledge – particularly while hundreds of thousands of Kachin, Kayin and increasing numbers of Shan and Ta’ang people live in displacement, and villagers in northern Shan State face such brutal questioning at the hands of the Tatmadaw that they die – but concepts of racial hierarchy in Myanmar are not confined to the Bamar majority.

This country’s 1982 Citizenship Law – with its 135 recognised ethnic groups – has institutionalised racism in such a way that those who wish to defend their own ethnic rights fear, and with some good reason, that they risk damaging their own interests if they attempt to defend the rights of those who do not appear on the list and have fewer rights in both law and the wider public eye. That includes the rights of those of Indian and Chinese descent, who do not appear on the list of 135 despite members of those groups, as well as those whose ethnicity is categorised as Muslim, accounting for a significant section of the population and having considerable history in this country.

In relation to the controversy over the eligibility of some of the Bamar delegates, outspoken Kachin activist Khon Ja said the matter had not been due to religion, which she said would be Ma Ba Tha territory, or citizenship, or even simple ethnicity, but rather taing yin thar: a concept that could be translated as “native” and which she described as “meaning the type of ethnic originals who are invested in the land – owners of the nation”.

Unfortunately, in defending the rights of people from certain racial or ethnic groups as “native” over those of other racial or ethnic heritage, one of the questions that must arise is what happens to those who are of mixed race or ethnicity between officially recognised ethnic groups and other ones.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times, Khon Ja was clear she believed that those of “mixed blood” should not be eligible to represent the Bamar at the conference. The two delegates alleged to have faced discrimination were the man whose citizenship card declared him to be Bamar/Muslim and a woman whose card states she is Indian/Bamar.

Khon Ja emphasised that the people of northern Shan State of Chinese origin who have recently categorised under a new ethnic definition “Mone Wun/Bamar” were also not invited to attend the event.

“When we talk about ethnic affairs, we want them to represent Bamar. They weren’t real Bamar … We don’t want mixed blood at this [event].”

If religious prejudice was not the driving force behind the questions raised over some of the Bamar delegation’s inclusion, ethnic or racial prejudice surely played a part.

It should be noted that Khon Ja, while clearly an influential figure at the event, was there as a facilitator and not a member of the deciding committee. Talk by other facilitators at the tea-shop next to the event was that her language and tone was inappropriate.

Most people attending the event that The Myanmar Times spoke to about the incident simply said the fact that two people who didn’t have full ethnicity decided to go home rather than create potential controversy was “not important”.

As one Kaman attendee put it, “If I’d been the Indian girl, I’d have gone home too rather than maybe cause problems for everyone.”

There is no doubt tensions at the conference were running high, particularly in light of last-minute threats that it would not be allowed to go ahead. This was clearly an ethnic event for ethnic groups.

“If we allow the [mixed ethnicity] delegates to attend, the news will go around that the ethnic youth groups are giving them recognition as taing yin thar and then who will be under attack?” Khon Ja said.

And in a way organisers were damned if they did and damned if they did not. How the members of the Bamar delegation were chosen has not been ascertained, but the inclusion of people not regarded as one of the official 135 groups and of Muslim heritage in the official delegation would have sent out a political message, and one likely to draw condemnation from certain nationalist quarters.

So how best to tackle the issue of inclusion in a country where the rights of the recognised ethnic minorities revolve around land and territory as much as culture and language – and where the fight for those rights has come at such a price to many of the main ethnic groups?

Is it realistic to expect a Shan youth whose family has been displaced and who has witnessed first-hand horrible abuses of friends and relatives at the hands of the Tatmadaw in his people’s fight for basic rights to risk an important stake for the right of an urban Indian/Bamar – Muslim or otherwise – to attend a conference?

And the reality is that while some of the youth delegates at the conference, notably the Kachin and the Kayin, were very aware of their ethnic rights, many others were hearing their own basic rights for the first time, never mind getting to grips with the concept that they should defend those who have fewer rights under the law.

In an ideal world, those standing up for rights would stand up for everyone, but there is no question that many of those who fall into the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups category would be reluctant to give up the rights that come with that in order to allow other currently excluded groups to come on board.

Yet if this issue is not addressed, future problems lie in store and it is surely government and experienced civil activists who must lead the way.

Speaking informally on the sidelines of the event, one veteran generation ’88 leader said he hoped the new activists would learn from his generation’s mistakes. Asked if by mistake he meant not including more people of ethnic background in their democracy campaign, he said, “Yes.”

Asked if the exclusion of those of ethnic groups other than the 135 in campaigns for federalism would also be a mistake, he said, “Yes.”