Like Crabs in a Basket, Part Two

Nandar from Burma continues her view of Burmese society and the impact of conflict has had on her people. Will change come?

Did you miss yesterday’s article, Like Crabs in a Basket? Click here to read.

Two Layers of Burmese Society

Burmese society has been thus divided into two layers. The larger layer includes the masses of the poor, the uneducated or poorly educated, all of whom are voiceless and considered meaningless other than for the menial labor they may offer. This is the oppressed layer. There is a socio-psychology of such oppression.

Humans are social animals, and ill-equipped to live on their own. Tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may fray. This keeps individuals from wandering off or joining other groups. It also leads to bullying when a tribal member is unwilling to conform to the politics of the collective. (Steiner)

Young Monks in Kalaw
Young Monks in Kalaw

As a result this huge layer of oppressed people develop a preoccupation with their own inner conflicts and cohesion rather than rallying their strength of numbers against their oppressors.

The people who make up the other layer — members of the Junta or those who are connected with or serve the Junta such as Chinese immigrants who traffic drugs and gems on its behalf — are well fed. Their life is safe, sound and secure from the violent and oppressive agents of the state. Human beings can find the attraction and perks of power irresistible. Over time, they start to see themselves as gods and overlords. This sense of superiority and entitlement spreads like virus among the particular group that has assumed power. These people provide little resistance to this virus. It causes them to do just about anything to fight against any effort to diminish their power and the riches which come with it.

The privileged will stick together with other privileged to protect their position. The resulting class system divides human societies. Instead of defending the greater society’s interests, the privileged defeat any effort by the less privileged or minorities to rise above their station. Thus power has shifted from its original motivations to mass bullying. Leaders of the elite forget the primary oath that they swore to defend and protect the country and its peoples. Instead, corruption and acting with self-interest become sources of pride.

Continued Inequality in Burma

There are other forms of inequality in Burma, some of which were encouraged during the long years of colonialism and are perpetuated by the military. The British employed the tried and proven strategy of divide and conquer (i.e. tribe again tribe). The majority ethnicity of the country is Burman which represents close to 60% of the population. The 40% balance is made up of 136 ethnic minorities, all of which are less privileged than the Burman majority. This exclusion from privilege and power has led to hatred, bitterness, and insecurity throughout the country. Some ethnic groups have been in an armed struggle against the military for 65 years, longer than anywhere else in the world. Even more complex and tribal is the myriad of conflicts between the many ethnic groups, a reality that the government spares no effort to encourage.

These dynamics are examples of in group, out group tribalism. The inter-ethnic conflicts represent the extreme end of tribalism — racialism. The unity of the conflicting groups is often built around a common purpose – a harmony of interests or values that create a shared identity, in this case race. When people are united by shared values and goals and identity, they can live and move together, achieving things that none could do alone.

One of the most significant reasons that this social condition has been allowed to fester is that the country has been closed to the world for almost 60 years. Very little information about the state of the country got out and very little information about the state of the world got in. The strict sanctions imposed by Western governments following the brutal suppression of the 1988 pro-democracy student uprising heavily punished all facets of Burma, further ruining the feeble economy of the country. Even basic infrastructure such as electricity or transportation systems and roads still barely exist. As there was no freedom of speech, no independent media and no transparency in the government sectors, it was impossible to know what was really going on inside the country.

Temples in the Ancient City of Bagan
Temples in the Ancient City of Bagan

Anyone considered an activist as well as his/her family was closely watched through a massive system of spies and informers. Prison sentences for dissenters got longer and prison conditions more severe. For instance Zarganar, a well-known comedian, was imprisoned for 65 years simply because he attempted to assist the victims of Cyclone Nargis. Other comedians were given lengthy prison terms merely for telling jokes (e.g. “If you come to Burma, please don’t steal anything because the military doesn’t like the competition.”). A youngster with a camera was arrested and imprisoned for 10 years because he was suspected as a spy. A young woman was imprisoned for 35 years because she spoke out loud in public about the difficulties of people’s daily lives. They became just a few of the examples of the military tactic of waving a headless chicken to scare the monkeys so that no one will ever dare to even think about speaking out again.

The lengthy sentences were imposed by a judiciary which was a puppet of the military. The more ruthless and unforgiving judges acted, the more praise and perks they received from the military. The written law was of no relevance. Anyone under suspicion and who was without connections or influence was transferred to a very remote area of the country or simply fired from their job. Therefore truthfulness was locked in a box. Honesty meant silence.

Following the student uprising, most universities were closed, some only opening in the past year. Hundreds of small alcohol drinking places, drug dealer houses and brothels appeared like mushrooms in villages and in every corner of city streets. Clearly it was considered useful to keep the population drunk or drugged with the objective of weakening their morality and ethics so as to undermine their integrity. Educational or other intellectual seminars were not permitted as gatherings of more than 5 people were banned, except in the drinking spots. I recall one military leader stating, “We need two types of citizens to rule the country. The one who knows how to nod their head and the one who won’t talk.”

Will Change Come?

Children in Bagan
Children in Bagan

It is only in the past two years or so that things have begun to change in Burma. Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest, an event that has often been compared to the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. This was the first sign of change and hope.

There are differing views as to why this change suddenly happened. One view is that after the Arab spring, political trends changed. The military reluctantly concluded that they had to open up the country, not because of pressure from the west or to reduce the frictions among the people, but to avoid the fate of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Another view is that the economic pie had become too small in Burma and that there was more profit to be had by opening the country up to the world.

Either way, the country began to open up two years ago. A new constitution was promulgated which instituted a weak form of democracy in which the military was guaranteed a critical mass of seats. All sanctions have been gradually lifted by Western governments. Almost overnight, Burma has become one of the most popular travel destinations for both Asian and Western tourists. Businesses and investments are also coming in to Burma from both Asian and Western countries.

Yet our people’s daily life is the same as ever. The opening up of the country is like attracting flies around an infected wound, a wound that is far from having healed following decades of abuse, trauma, betrayal, distrust, and lies. The cries of political prisoners who scarified their lives, the bitterness of the minorities, the villages burned and the families raped and killed will not suddenly vanish with the appearance of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The inequality and abusive power of the privileged are still the dominant reality in our society. There is every chance that this new economic environment will strengthen their hold.

Understandably, there is no clean slate on which to start over again. This transition period will not result in a fairy tale’s “happily ever after.” Early on in this reconciliation period, Prime Minister Thein Sein, who was a former senior member of the military junta, was interviewed by BBC radio. In the interview he said, “I will not apologize for the actions in the past that military took over violations of human rights or abusive behavior as we did what we believed in.”


School in Mrauk
School in Mrauk U

Despite promises of the leading political party and Prime Minister Thein Sein to set an agenda that we will unite the country and seek common ground, no power has shifted, only the mask has changed. Given the track record and mindset of these military leaders who have suddenly changed into civilian clothes, this so-called common ground will represent their expanded economic interests. Already there have been massive seizures of land from the poor by the elites to make way for new foreign-funded extractive projects.  Tribal ethnic groups will be brought into the fold so that the powerful can exploit the incredible riches of teak and gemstones and opium, etc. that they haven’t been able to access due to the many civil wars. Again, people who do not belong to this new common ground, who do not have the privilege and power, will be out of the domain. The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal. (Aristotle) Every creature in the world has unique differences. These differences are seen as a source of strength.

Being honest and hardworking are considered signs of a meaningless loser. As an individual trying to navigate this divided corrupted society over the past decades, it has been a source of great misery for me to reach any coherent definition of what it right and what is wrong. What is moral and what is immoral? What is ethical and what is unethical? The signals that I’ve received in my daily life have been contradictory and confusing. I found it harder and harder to justify the identity of being honest, hard-working and well educated when these ideals are not useful in our day-to-day survival. This is how much we have been manipulated by the corrupt social system.

So many questions are quietly raised by the oppressed but are subsequently suppressed. Are we going to let this system ruin us by causing us to assume this same corrupt attitude? Are we ever going to experience human freedom again? Do we have the courage to fight back against the system or to target the people who control it? Are we prepared to die in this fight?

Evolutionary biology provides the broad framework for understanding how creatures evolved from their primate predecessors; how their genes, belief systems and cultural perspectives are relayed from one generation to another. Concepts of unity are a major influence on human beings and how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. We were not born with this desire for unity, it is nurtured. John Locke, a leading British philosopher, suggests that the mind begins as a blank slate called Empiricism. Empiricism, along with

Improvised Transportation
Improvised Transportation

rationalism, idealism, and historicism, is the source of human knowledge.

From birth, an overwhelming majority of individuals are taught to become familists and nationalists, both as a means to be in a group. At the beginning of human evolution, although unity was for survival, the trend has evolved into being a means to obtain and retain power, resulting in increased bullying and ruthlessness to out groupers.

If the reconciliation does not start out right, I don’t see a positive future. Like building a house, if the foundation is not strong enough, it will be a waste of time and effort as the house will not last long. If the Thein Sein Government is not prepared at least to offer condolences or to admit the mistakes that they have made in the past and punish at least some of those responsible, I don’t see how our country can truly move forward. I therefore hope that the government and other political leaders will act for the sake of people, with sincerity on human rights, the promotion of equality and a fair and just economic foundation while strengthening the education and health sectors, providing security for citizens and a strong legal system, especially honest law enforcement. Otherwise, Burmese will remain like crabs fruitlessly trying to crawl out of a bamboo basket.

Article written by Mya Yee Nandar 

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