In the hillsides that emanate across Myanmar from this shrine have occurred some of the most heinous atrocities of the past century — carried out by people who purport to follow the teachings carved inside.
That a country that is 85 percent Buddhist — the religion of peace — is known for non-stop war is a cruel historical irony. That the Burman majority that makes up 60 percent of Myanmar’s population — and staffs its army — has been engaged for six decades in a violent campaign against the other ethnic minorities here is a modern tragedy. That the campaign continues in some villages to this day — even while Myanmar is praised by foreign leaders, most recently US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address — is an ongoing outrage that the world must bring to an end.
“This is a pre-democracy society and the predominate thinking is everyone is against each other,” a Western ambassador tells me. “People meet with each other but then foul mouth each other. There’s a lack of identity. Alliances shift and there is fighting in every region.”
All told, ethnic minority populations cover half of Myanmar’s total land area and make up nearly half of its total population — while housing all of Myanmar’s international trade routes, most of its borders and nearly all of its natural resources. That’s where the trouble begins.
“What ails Burma is not just about politics and human rights per se, but control of the land and the fruits of the land,” says a retired American military adviser to the ethnic groups. “It is about controlling ethnic ancestral lands rich in natural resources, and not being able to jointly explore and share prosperity.”
A high-profile Myanmar businessman adds, “In the end, it’s about economic rights. Ethnics never feel like they have [any] and the government needs to give them some.”
While ethnic conflict here goes back to the Middle Ages, the modern chapter begins with the collapse of British rule after World War II. When the war ended, Britain gave power to the Burmans while disempowering rural ethnics. Most ethnic groups declared war, and fighting has continued ever since.
Even while Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar last November, the Burmese army was engaged in vicious fighting with Kachin rebels in the far north. While Kachin troops kill Burmese troops at a rate of 100:1, the escalated military campaign, as journalist Bertil Lintner writes, “has also sent a stark signal to other ethnic armies which have entered ceasefire agreements with the government ... who say they feel threatened.”
While “it might be reasonable,” as a United Nations official tells me, “ to say that you could have a democracy with eight civil wars going at the same time,” President Thein Sein “knows that he must make peace with the ethnics,” a Western ambassador says. With the international spotlight increasingly on Myanmar in the run-up to its ascension to chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014, ongoing civil war it a distraction Myanmar doesn’t need.
But there are two roadblocks to peace.
First, the constitution rammed through in 2008 is anathema to ethnic minorities, since it mandates central control over ethnic lands. It’s also hard to alter, as any change requires a 75 percent vote plus one, while the army controls 25 percent of parliament. One Karen official tells me, “If the Constitution isn’t changed, the Karen won’t join the 2015 [presidential] election—all [ethnic minorities] agree on this.”
While some minority groups like the Kachin want outright independence, most want a federal system like the United States, or better yet, Switzerland — where ethnic cantons have autonomy within a federal structure. Burmans fear the issue of control could unite minorities — which “petrifies Burmans,” says the military adviser, “who do all they can to prevent unity, because they realize that the power of ethnic leaders lies in collective action.”
The second issue is the army. As an Asian ambassador puts it, “the president tells the military to stop fighting, but the army keeps fighting.” By law, the military still answers to the National Security Council, not the president. Or, as a local editor tells me, “the army still runs Myanmar.” But military officials also realize that true democracy is the safest retirement policy.
What can the US do to help? A lot.
America should offer to broker peace between the Kachin, the army and the government — tying future aid to successful negotiations. It should work with the UN to educate minority groups and government officials about the meaning of federalism — to go slow and begin to build trust. It should offer to train young government and ethnic army officers through the military-to-military International Military Education and Training Program, where exposure to US civil society was credited by some with Indonesia’s army returning to the barracks in its transition to democracy a decade ago.
The US should also encourage the private sector to focus all sides on economic development as a common interest, helping Myanmar become the economic powerhouse it has the potential to be if ethnic violence ever stops.
If the two sides do find a path to peace, it may be said of Myanmar what the author Somerset Maugham wrote when seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time: “[it] rose superb, glistening with its gold like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”
Stanley Weiss is founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security (a non-partisan organization of senior executives who contribute their expertise in the best practices of business to strengthening national security).