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Burma: From the Inside, Looking Out

Mick Stetson | Myanmar

Shwedagon Paya — The Shwedagon Temple, more than 2500 years old, is the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. In 2007, it became the site of violent clashes between military forces and protesting monks defying the junta's ban on public assembly as they tried to enter the temple to worship.

More than 160 ethnic groups live within the political borders of modern Myanmar. Since the British colonized the country in 1886, these diverse groups have been fighting for their independence. Although colonial rule gave birth to a collective nationalism for ethnic rights and the autonomous administration of frontier areas, it simultaneously dismantled traditional Burmese society — separating religious affairs from political ones and shifting the economic gains of the period from local to imperial.

The ethnic minorities consist of less than 30% of the current population. Collectively they are reluctant to give up their cultural identity for Burman sovereignty, thus thwarting the enclosure dogma of the junta. Both the Shan and Kachin have been fighting for more than 50 years to preserve their culture and reclaim their ancestral lands. As a result, several generations of their children have never had the opportunity to get an education, except for a para-military training and the lifestyle it promotes.

This project began in 2004 and continues to the present day. It mainly documents how the people of Myanmar live and what they need to do independently to survive.

Walking through these sun-drenched, gently rolling hills, it’s difficult to imagine that less than thirty years ago this area was extremely dangerous. It began with a newly constructed dam a few kilometers south of the Shan’s ruling city, Sam Ka. This dam, Myanmar’s first major hydroelectric project, was built to supply electricity to Yangon, exploiting the resources of the rural Shan state while providing little or no benefit for its ancestral residents. With the completion of the dam came flooding waters that submerged Sam Ka, creating a second, southern Inle lake. Coupled with General Ne Win’s coup d'état in 1961 and the flooding of the Shan’s capital in 1962, it became evident that the ruling junta had no intention of respecting the ethnic rights and sovereignty of the hill tribes.

More than 160 ethnic groups live within the political borders of modern Myanmar. Since the British colonized the country in 1886, these diverse groups have been fighting for their independence. Although colonial rule gave birth to a collective nationalism for ethnic rights and the autonomous administration of frontier areas, it simultaneously dismantled traditional Burmese society — separating religious affairs from political ones and shifting the economic gains of the period from local to imperial.

The ethnic minorities consist of less than 30% of the current population. Collectively they are reluctant to give up their cultural identity for Burman sovereignty, thus thwarting the enclosure dogma of the junta. Both the Shan and Kachin have been fighting for more than 50 years to preserve their culture and reclaim their ancestral lands. As a result, several generations of their children have never had the opportunity to get an education, except for a para-military training and the lifestyle it promotes.

Ironically, the Panglong Agreement of 1947 provided the political framework for resolving Myanmar’s ethnic dilemma. It was negotiated and signed by Ang San, a leader of the Burman ethnic group, as well as leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities. Soon after, Ang San and his cabinet were assassinated by opponents of the Agreement, suspending its implementation while various political and military factions vied for power, plunging the entire country into civil war. With the cadence of rebellion still resounding from the hills into the valleys, there appears to be no resolution for the creation of a unified Myanmar.

As the ratatat of the motorboat sluices us downriver, and behind us the Chin hills recede, I hear the echo of Myanmar’s diverse voices coalesced into one salient expression, “Myanmar is rich, but its people are poor.” While villages pass by, along with their scent of simmering rice and roasting wild boar, I recall The ‘Lady,’ Ang San Suu Kyi, and her resolve to bring to fruition the agreements her father had negotiated in Panglong. Like her father, she has won the trust of most Myanmar people, and they believe she can lead them into a new era — one that espouses “unity in diversity.” Arriving several hours later at the boat jetty near Mrauk-u and the end of my journey, I’m haunted by what one Kachin leader said, “The demands have not changed; we want the Burmese government to honor the agreements made in 1947.” — yet the stalemate persists, …the paradox continues. As the hollow tread of the bullock’s hoofs pulling our cart settles into an ancient rhythm, I wonder what it will take for the people of Myanmar to gain their sovereign rights and what are the artificial barriers that will continue to prevent this from happening?

Update: In November 2020, the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, record numbers of voters elected Ang San Suu Kyi the democratic leader of Myanmar. At the beginning of February, the first session of parliament since the election was scheduled to start, and if it had it would have endorsed the election results and thereby approve the next government. However, as we know that did not happen. The military forces carried out a coup d’etat on February 1, 2021, arresting Ms. Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NDL). Since President Myint is the only one authorized to enact a state of emergency, the entire country is in shambles with very little or no operating infrastructure, as well as a raging pandemic that disregards borders, religions, wealth and ethnicity. So again, I wonder what it will take for these gentle, perservering people of Myanmar to win their sovereign rights and when?

Mick Stetson

https://www.mickstetson.photography

mstetson@gmail.com

(81) 080.7003.4753 (Japan)

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