The Four “Sons” of Myanmar United in Anti-Military Nationalism

By: Chosein Yamahata

March 15, 2021

Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

A half-century of military rule has stagnated political, economic, and social development in Myanmar, turning what was once the “Rice Bowl of Asia” into a battleground of the world’s longest-running civil war, stuck in a cycle of violence and poverty. The coup d’état on February 1, 2021, was especially destructive, setting back the significant democratic progress made under the civilian government since 2016. However, decades of military rule and the recent coup have also been transformative in the production of anti-military nationalism shared by the four thas or “sons” of Myanmar: taiyin-tha (ethnic minorities), phaya-tha (sangha), kyaung-tha (students), and pyithupyi-tha (the general public). The collective pain experienced among the four “sons” of Myanmar has solidified an unprecedented united front against the perpetrators of violence: the military, composed of sit-tha (soldiers). This show of unity, compromise, and reconciliation between the “sons” of Myanmar is central to the discussions of building a federal state, democracy, and peace in the future.

The collective pain experienced among the four 'sons' of Myanmar has solidified an unprecedented united front against the perpetrators of violence: the military.

Although the recent coup and the bloodshed that followed shocked the world, Myanmar and its people are no strangers to such experiences. In 1958, the military led a caretaker government in the aftermath of the breakdown of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League Party. After a short interval of parliamentary democracy reinstalled in 1960, General Ne Win led a coup in 1962. This ended the promise of a federal democracy enshrined in the Panglong Agreement and declared the creation of a single-party state under the “Burmese Way to Socialism” that led the nation to become one of the least-developed countries in 1987. Another coup in 1988 by the State Law and Order Restoration Council brought a halt to the 8888 Revolution led by students or kyaung-tha against the dictatorship. As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerged as a national icon during the struggle for democracy, was detained under house arrest. In 2007, the Saffron Revolution led by the sangha, also known as phaya-tha, was brutally suppressed, repeating the violence experienced in 1988. The “sons” of Myanmar are thus no strangers to political repression, economic downturn, and a multitude of social problems that came with military rule. 

The recent coup has been especially devastating for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities or taiyin-tha, who make up a third of the population. Located in the resource-rich peripheries of the nation, ethnic minorities have disproportionately suffered from conflict, dispossession, appropriation of resources, forced displacement, political marginalization, ethno-cultural suppression, brutal violations of human rights, and discrimination at the hands of the junta. 

For example, the military pushed for Burmanization, a campaign designed to assimilate ethnic minorities into the majority-Bamar population through various tactics that involved the banning of ethnic languages and the coercion of Burmese-language education. While the military reaped economic benefits from appropriating ethnic lands and resources, the taiyin-tha’s goals of equality, autonomy, and self-determination promised in the Panglong Agreement have not only been denied, but also completely crushed. As a result, ethnic armies have been prompted to fight against the military—and even sometimes each other—to protect their land, rights, and principles. 

The military pushed for Burmanization, a campaign designed to assimilate ethnic minorities into the majority-Bamar population.

Although there have been on-and-off ceasefires, ethnic grievances were never addressed and inequalities continued to ensue. Among several atrocities against Karen, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and others, the military’s ethnic cleansing operation against the Rohingyas has caught global attention as the brutality amounts to a genocidal crime. According to reports, more than 742,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017. Under military rule, the taiyin-tha have been disproportionately marginalized against the ethnic Bamar that make up the majority of the ordinary population, also known as pyithupyi-tha. During the years of military rule, the junta defined and reinforced the notion that to be nationalist is to be Burmese.

Similarly, the military planted and perpetuated the ideology that to be nationalist is to be Buddhist. Non-Buddhist members of the population, mostly belonging to taiyin-tha, were made enemies of the militant segment of the sangha or phaya-tha, who misled the certain portion of the general Buddhist population known as pyithupyi-tha. The military successfully used the polarizing “us vs. them” rhetoric in portraying non-Buddhists as threats to the state and in capitalizing Buddhists as protectors of the Burmese race and effective guardians of Buddhism. The Depeyin and Meiktila massacre, as well as the systematic killing of Rohingyas, were led by the military and supported by Ma Ba Tha, an ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist organization. Moreover, the military has been driving Buddhization as a vehicle to promote the junta’s agenda to discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities and to quell democratic forces. 

The military successfully used the polarizing 'us vs. them' rhetoric in portraying non-Buddhists as threats to the state and in capitalizing Buddhists as protectors of the Burmese race.

The creation and widespread dissemination of the military’s discourse, in which the prerequisite to be a nationalist is to be Burmese and Buddhist, cannot be ignored in making sense of military influence in Myanmar. However, the nationwide reaction to the recent coup has proved otherwise, marking a turning point in Myanmar’s history. Now more than ever, its people or pyithupyi-tha are united in their determination to establish a fully civilian government founded on the principles of a truly diverse and inclusive federal democracy. Systematically marginalized taiyin-tha, including the Rohingyas, have expressed their solidarity with the majority Bamar ethnic group, while the Bamar have expressed remorse and apologies for not siding with ethnic minorities prior to the coup. 

General strikes across the nation are led by kyaung-tha that make up Generation Z, while phaya-tha joins them in support on the streets as they did in 1988 and 2007. Therefore, the four “sons” of Myanmar are united in mobilizing the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and in drawing the protection of ethnic armed organizations in some regions. The coup—despite posing as a severe stagnation and destruction to democratic progress, as well as an escalation in crimes against humanity on unarmed peaceful protesters—has also been transformative in forging a new nationalism that is anti-military and anti-extremist. As a result, nationalism has been reclaimed and redefined as a fight for justice for all “sons” of Myanmar. 

The remarkable unity, compromise, and reconciliation among the 'sons' of Myanmar can accelerate both the process and progress of Myanmar’s democratization.

The remarkable unity, compromise, and reconciliation among the “sons” of Myanmar can accelerate both the process and progress of Myanmar’s democratization, in which the military’s polarizing tactics of Burmanization, Buddhization, and securitization can be countered. Myanmar’s war-making and peacebuilding processes are thus two sides of the same coin: Both processes are a constant tug-of-war between the military and the four “sons” of Myanmar. From banging pots to participating in the CDM, an overwhelming national resistance against dictatorship reveals that the hearts of all people in Myanmar beat as one, ready to heal and rebuild a future without the military and the violence it has brought for decades.

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