Jesuit reflection on Burma

Earlier this week we published an interview with Fr Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy, SJ on the situation in Burma.  See: (Burma could become another Balkans, Jesuit warns

 Fr Bernard has now sent us the following reflection he wrote earlier which is a more in-depth analysis of the situation.

“…I have suffered for over 20 years…but I do not give up hope…,” declared a refugee during our conversation in a camp.

To an outsider impatience grows by the minute while to them whose lives are directly affected, resilience and hope is the only way forward. Some from the international community, namely the West, continue to clamour for imposed sanctions including economic and trade sanctions, visa restrictions, etc. There is relentless demand for the military regime to end its present course (rightly so!), release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and establish democracy (on what/whose model?). Would these measures automatically bring about peace and prosperity—promised by “democracy” advocates—to a people suffering for over 40 years and solve the present Burma stalemate?

An aspect of pre-/post-independent Burma needs consideration. Burma has deeply rooted historical baggage of ethnic struggles/grievances, albeit legitimately, against the ruling Burman majority. Internal strive among political, social and ethnic communities continued and escalated in 1962 military coup. The rest is history--a sad and painful common knowledge since the dawn of the ruling military regime. This has been further exacerbated when splinter groups from the same ethnic community broke ranks and formed other alliances of interests. A further fragmentation, sometimes includes responding to violence with violence.  

The struggle goes on with some minority groups explicitly demanding their own independent state or country, urging others to fight for this cause. There are still other minorities in exile desirous of working on and hoping for a union of ‘federated states’ with some degree of autonomy for each--without breaking the Union. In a perverse sense, the present regime is maintaining the “Union” of Burma albeit superficial and certainly brutal. That the regime needs to change is not a question. But how? Again, would the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and imposing democracy (what/whose model?) re-establish a new Union of Burma and solve the present stalemate?

Given the history, it is feared that the abrupt collapse of the present regime will ignite an overt warfare which will involve the different ethnic communities and its splinter groups. With the fall of this perverse centre, the door is open for a free for all--communities fighting to rest power for themselves, for their own state or interests. The violence is imminent. It will be a chaos that we do not need and thrusts us further into a refugee/displacement crisis. (Remember Iraq? The ‘regime-change experts’ with true ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and falsified evidence vigorously asserted that they will be welcomed with flowers as liberators! The result—hundreds of thousands killed and over 4 million Iraqi refugees. The ensuing civil war was a diabolical intention of the ‘experts’, contrary to biased media propaganda, to destabilize the country in order to impose a rule—old imperial strategy of divide and rule).

It appears that little thought is given to this scenario as a probability in Burma. A business man engaged in Burma was sharp enough to recognize that in the event of an abrupt collapse of the present regime, the outcome will be colossal chaos. Historical evidence gives credence to this probability, shared by a scholar from this region. Those from afar seem to rant and rave the ideological rhetoric of “democracy” and “freedom.” It betrays a clear lack of in-depth understanding of the complexities involved and proves counterproductive.

In one of my many visits to refugee communities, it was learnt that a man from one sub-ethnic community did not offer assistance to another in need and belongs to a different sub-ethnic community. Both are of the same ethnic community. When the former was questioned why he did not assist the latter, the candid reply was, “…he is not of my [ethnic] community…”

What then is needed? Some way of constructive engagement with the regime at one level while initiating creative and concrete conciliatory measures between/within the diverse ethnic communities. The latter is a level close to the ground, a level where the close encounters of people of different ethnic communities, cultures and faiths take place everyday but is burdened with pre- and post-independence ethnic rifts. Could the coming together of people affected by the cyclone Nargis be the strength of weak links towards reconciliation? It needs to be strategically thought through with people who are willing to exert every effort—disinterestedly. Meanwhile, every attempt should be made to avoid an abrupt regime collapse with a strategy for transition towards a democracy. How the manner of reconciliation is shaped--into a union of federated states or some other model (or a separation into several independent states!)--is something for the various parties to struggle together.

It is important to raise these questions hitherto not widely raised. It is born out of concrete encounters and engagement with refugees from/in Burma and others at various levels. This is not meant to make claims for the solution to this seemingly never-ending impasse. Reconciliation among the diverse ethnic communities and at different levels towards a solution may seem a Himalayan task. It is worthy of serious consideration for at least one person who has “…suffered for over 20 years…but [does] not give up hope… ”

© 2008 Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy, SJ

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