Burma’s Fault Lines: Ethnic Federalism and the Road to Peace

Louisa Benson Craig, mother of the author, and a comrade, 1966 (courtesy of Charmaine Craig)

After more than half a century of war and broken ceasefire agreements, Burma is currently in the midst of landmark peace talks between its government and a coalition of ethnic resistance groups. In July, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—representing sixteen ethnic nationalities including the Karen, the Kachin, the Mon, the Arakanese, and the Shan—met in Kachin-held Laiza to discuss the terms of a proposed national ceasefire, under negotiation with the government since last November. The ethnic nationalities, of which all but the Kachin and the Ta’ang have already struck bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, are calling for greater administrative autonomy within a new federal Union of Burma, control over natural resources in their territories, and a guarantee that political dialogue with the government will take place within months of a national ceasefire accord.

The Burmans—historically the country’s most powerful ethnic group—control the central government, which has so far avoided addressing the constitutional impediments to federalizing itself and the military. Instead, the government has pushed to finalize a national ceasefire agreement in advance of Burma’s elections in 2015, maintaining that an agreement must be reached before real political dialogue can begin.

But even as the peace talks are underway, the Burma Army, which looms under the shadow of the government, has been using the opportunity of ceasefire to reinforce and expand its outposts in ethnic territories. In Karen-administered areas, the army has put in new roads for deeper access, built up its stores of weapons, and seized land for large-scale development and commercial projects, displacing tens of thousands of villagers. Although the Burma Army’s major offensive against the Kachin Independence Army—which began in 2011 and has displaced more than 100,000 people in Kachin and neighboring Shan states—officially simmered down with a preliminary ceasefire agreement in May 2013, clashes in these states have been on the rise. In April alone, 4,000 villagers were displaced due to attacks by the Burma Army on the China-Burma border, in areas strategically important to China-backed dam projects. Like the military incursions and land-grabs in Karen State, such attacks have led to forced labor, forced recruitment, torture, killings, and rape of women by members of the Burma Army.

These gross human rights and ceasefire violations against the country’s ethnic nationalities leave one to wonder how the current nationwide peace process can legitimately proceed. Just as disheartening is the Burma Army’s key role in this process. One of the weightiest subjects NCCT representatives must reckon with is the Burma Army’s demand that it accept the government’s current constitution, drafted primarily by the military in 2008. This constitution calls for an essentially unitary (rather than federal) state, places all armed forces under the Burma Army’s central command, designates the head of the army (not the president) as the country’s commander-in-chief during states of emergency, guarantees the army’s control over its own budget and grants officers immunity from civilian prosecution. It also puts members of the army in one-quarter of parliament seats while requiring that constitutional change be passed by a three-quarter parliamentary majority. Understandably, the ethnic nationalities have been left to wonder whether the Burma Army will ever relinquish its absolute authority, and what the government intends to offer—if anything—in the way of political change.


If Burma’s history is in the making, it is a history that—to some extent—has already been made. And it is a history that is personal to me: my maternal grandfather, Saw Benson, was a political prisoner in Burma for fifteen years; my mother, Louisa Benson Craig, led an “insurgent” brigade following her first husband’s assassination during peace talks, and went on to lead her own inter-ethnic negotiations, both in Burma and from the United States.

Burma’s history is not an easy one. Western scholarly treatments tend toward inaccessibility (and frequent inaccuracy) in part because the multiplicity of peoples in the country adds a certain complication, and in part because the record of those peoples has largely been effaced. The Karen, among the region’s first settlers some 3,000 years ago, tell of having their hands cut off by Burman leaders if writing implements or books were found on their person—an explanation for the loss of their alphabet, literacy, and written history. Yet their story is representative of that of other “minority” ethnic nationalities.

For centuries, the Karen were enslaved and persecuted by Burman rulers—a situation that, from the perspective of Karens, was resolved with the British conquest of the territories that formed modern Burma in the 1800s. Viewing the British as liberators, the Karen fought actively to help them gain and keep control of the region. The British embraced their loyalty and staffed two of the four battalions of the regional regiment of the British army exclusively with Karens. Understandably, this only redoubled Burman antagonism toward the Karen, despite British favoritism toward the Burmans when it came to staffing the local administration.

Perhaps as a consequence, the rising Burman call for independence was race-based, the predominant rallying cry being “Burma for the Burmans!” By 1920 the British were loosening their stronghold on the country, which was soon no longer a province of India but a “ministerial” government under Westminster’s ultimate authority, with a Burman prime minister, a Burman cabinet, and a legislature dominated by Burman nationalist parties.

Then came the Second World War and the emergence of a Burman leader who would turn the pressure of the wars at large into his people’s domestic opportunity. Father of Nobel laureate, democracy advocate, and presidential hopeful Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, General Aung San, originally a law student at Rangoon University, underwent military training in Japan along with a group of young Burmans who called themselves “lords” and were collectively known as the “Thirty Comrades.” He formed the notorious Burma Independence Army, which fought alongside the Japanese in Burma and often employed genocidal tactics, targeting Karen civilians and brutally massacring the inhabitants of hundreds of Karen villages, though not under Aung San’s purview. Meanwhile, the Karen fought on behalf of the British, staging what some have called the Second World War’s most successful guerilla operation against the Japanese forces. When it became clear that the Allies were winning the war, Aung San switched his army’s loyalties. And then, to the shock of most Karens, the British pinned their hopes on him.

Subsequent negotiations between the British and Aung San ended with the balance of power in the armed forces tipping from the Karen to the Burmans. The savvy Burman leader insisted that his restructured army be undiluted by minority troops; he surely understood that with his own solidly Burman battalions in the gross majority in the army, the military and political sway of ethnic groups like the Karens would be weakened.

Against a backdrop of mass protests and strikes, Aung San rose as a figurehead for “unity” and democracy. Meanwhile, Karen leaders reached out to London. They wrote a letter to the British secretary of state to remind him of how the Burmans had made them slaves in the past, and of the huge role the Karen had played in the British army and police forces all along. They worried that Aung San’s democracy would be one in which a majority race would be sanctioned to discriminate against “minorities.” Their perspective was that they weren’t “minorities”—they were a national group on a given territory that had been their homeland for millennia (long before it became home to the Burmans). They worried about the racially segregated army, many of whose Burman troops had targeted Karen civilians during the war. And they worried that Aung San’s desire for unity trumped his respect for diversity and federalism.

In 1946, my grandfather funded a Karen “goodwill mission” to London to plead the Karen case. Saw Benson wasn’t Karen by birth, but Sephardic; born in Rangoon, he had taken on a Karen identity after my grandmother’s people rescued him from capture by the Japanese during the war. He had every hope that the ministers in Clement Attlee’s Labour Party—which had won a landslide victory over Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in 1945—would respond favorably to a reminder of the Karens’ long loyalty and demand for statehood within the protectorship of the British Commonwealth. And he was devastated when the goodwill delegates were rebuffed with the injunction that the Karens should “throw in [their] lot with the Burmans.” The sting of betrayal only increased—for him and other ethnic leaders—when only Aung San was invited to meet with Attlee in London in January of 1947, prompting Churchill to comment: “I certainly did not expect to see U Aung San, whose hands were dyed with British blood and loyal Burmese blood”—in particular, Karen, Kachin and Chin blood—“marching up the steps of Buckingham Palace as the plenipotentiary of the Burmese Government.”

Perhaps to satisfy the British, Aung San made significant gestures toward federalism at a conference soon held at Panglong, in Shan State. But in July he was murdered—coldly gunned down, with a Burman rival taking the fall. His replacement was another “lord”—U Nu—who became Burma’s first Prime Minister when the country gained independence in 1948, and who went on to advance a program of discriminatory policies.

“Burmanization” refers to a centuries-old, ongoing effort by majority rulers to create a “unified”—or homogeneous—Burma through policies that reward assimilation and punish the expression of cultural, linguistic, and religious difference.

“Burmanization” refers to a centuries-old, ongoing effort by majority rulers to create a “unified”—or homogeneous—Burma through policies that reward assimilation and punish the expression of cultural, linguistic, and religious difference. (The government’s renaming of the country in 1989 can be seen as an aggressive act of Burmanization, as “Myanma[r]” has historically been the Burmans’ elevated, formal word for their own ethnic group and domain, whereas the Anglicized “Burmese” is an ethnically inclusive term, referring to all nationals.) Under U Nu’s helm, the nearly exclusively Burman ministries proselytized Buddhism in the countryside, promoted the teaching of history from a perspective of Burman nationalism, passed acts stripping “foreigners” of entitlements to their property, and mandated that only Burmese (the Burman language) be used in governmental affairs and taught in schools from the fourth standard onward. Yet even U Nu professed concern when a group of Burman veterans descended on Rangoon soon after his inauguration, chanting, “We want to eat Karen flesh.”

In February 1948 the Karens staged a peaceful nationwide demonstration of over 400,000 people, expressing their desire to avoid civil war and calling for an end to violence, equity among all ethnic groups, and the immediate creation of a Karen state. Within weeks, a communist party in the country launched a rebellion, aiming to overthrow the government. Around the same time, the government called for the disarmament of minority irregulars, and even allegedly issued a decree, “Operation Aung San,” calling for “the elimination of the Karens first and then other hill people.”

Acting in solidarity with the ethnic Mon, Karen leadership approached U Nu, demanding a separate Karen-Mon state. The government responded by supplying Burman irregulars with weapons (some 480,000 rounds of ammunition in just a month). Those irregulars proceeded to fire on Karen neighborhoods unprovoked. Then, on Christmas Eve in 1948, while the congregated inhabitants of two Karen villages were singing carols at midnight, the Burman policemen who had disarmed them launched hand grenades into their church, fired on the survivors, and torched every last structure.

Hundreds more Karens were murdered during the first weeks of 1949. Had the time come for armed revolt? Karen leaders requested a peacemaking meeting with Prime Minister Nu, and a date was set for January 31, 1949. But on January 30, U Nu named Burma’s future military dictator Ne Win “Supreme Commander of All Defense Forces and Police Forces.” That same night shots were fired across my family’s property, where by this point Karens were stockpiling arms.

With those shots in 1949, the Karen Revolution—the longest running civil war in recorded history—began. Soon Burma was in the grips of multiple ongoing revolutions. In May, my grandfather was thrown into a rat-infested cell, while U Nu met with Karen elders in Thaton and allegedly told them that he would “personally see that all the Karens in Burma [were] killed.” Some ten years would pass before U Nu—again serving as prime minister, and seemingly worn down by the state of affairs—came close to capitulating to the ethnic demands for federalism.

The irony is that this call for federalism represented—and continues to represent—a concession for many of the ethnic nationalities. Though none of the major ethnic groups are actively pursuing independence today and most support a policy of ethnic federalism—politically autonomous ethnic states within the Union of Burma—many would prefer to secede if given a choice. But the government and its army have long viewed even federalism as undesirable, equating it with the “disintegration” of the resource-rich nation.

Blaming the deteriorating state of the country, Commander of the Burma Army General Ne Win overthrew U Nu’s government in May 1962 in what is often described as a swift and bloodless coup d’état. Under military rule, Burma was now a one-party state, a ship steered by Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party, wherein even dissent by Burmans had no place. U Nu and his cabinet members were arrested. Then, over a hundred peacefully protesting students were gunned down at Rangoon University before others were killed with the dynamiting of the Student Union Building. Subsequently, opposition politicians were arrested en masse. Yet, for mysterious reasons, Ne Win’s government soon invited leaders of various armed resistance groups to engage in peace talks.

My late mother met her first husband, a Karen brigadier general named Lin Htin, when he was pursuing peace negotiations with Ne Win’s government in 1963. Talks had already failed for other groups, and with disastrous results. Ne Win had made a preposterous condition that the “insurgents” surrender unconditionally, then reneged on the terms of the agreed-upon ceasefire, according to which the resistance parties were to be allowed three days to retreat after the failure of the talks before fighting resumed. In 1965 Lin Htin was assassinated during his own struggling talks with Ne Win’s people, prompting my mother to reinvent herself as a soldier. She assumed leadership of Lin Htin’s brigade and spent the rest of her days in Burma both liaising with leaders of other ethnic nationalities and convincing Karen leadership to look for support from the West.


The problem was that the West—namely the United States and Britain—was covertly supportive of Ne Win’s military counterinsurgency program. According to recently declassified CIA documents, members of the U.S. State Department were reassured by Ne Win’s coup. They had feared that U Nu was “losing his grip on the affairs of the nation.” The United States reasoned (as it likely does now) that a Burma divided by ethnic interests would be more apt to fall under China’s influence. If Burma were to be pulled into the “communist orbit” all of Southeast Asia could do the same, followed by the Middle East, if not Japan and Europe. What was preferable was a country held tightly together in the dictatorial fist of a man who declared himself to be nonaligned in the Cold War. (One declassified report mentions Lin Htin and “attempts to get armed insurgents to join in promoting the Burmese Way to Socialism,” leaving me to wonder whether the United States wasn’t behind—if not the coup—Ne Win’s early negotiations that left Lin Htin dead.) For some of these State Department dignitaries, the peace talks under Ne Win—and their swift failure—clearly legitimized the dictator’s bloody military measures.

Those strong military measures were eventually formalized in a policy called “Four Cuts,” which aimed to eliminate the ethnic opposition by cutting off their access to food, funds, manpower, and information. In real terms, Four Cuts meant that ethnic villages were constantly assaulted, ethnic people repeatedly displaced, ethnic women raped by Burma soldiers, and ethnic children forced to serve as human porters. Four Cuts—which arguably continues today even in areas under ceasefire—is synonymous with torture, interrogation, extortion, forced military recruitment, murder, and other human rights violations. Yet American support of Ne Win’s military program persisted until the widely covered 1988 military crackdown, in which some 10,000 of Burma’s demonstrating civilians were murdered. It was at this moment that Aung San’s daughter, then living in England and visiting her ailing mother in Rangoon, began vocally and boldly calling for democracy.

For the next two decades, while the military regime’s Four Cuts policy destroyed the lives of millions of villagers across the country, Aung San Suu Kyi lived primarily under house arrest. She also remained mostly silent about the crucial issue of ethnic subjugation, disenfranchisement, and discontent.

Her relative silence in this regard has been at once worrisome and understandable: worrisome because it implicitly endorses the same “Burma for the Burmans!” orientation that defined her father’s claim to political authority, and denies the existence and plight of the “minority” ethnic nationalities; understandable because it panders to the racism of Burmans, whose political support she needs. But some argue that Burma’s “minorities” constitute nearly 50 percent of the country’s population. (The still undisclosed results of a controversial census taken last spring have many in the country worried that final tallies will be grossly skewed.) Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to engage with the ethnic question also suggests an unwillingness to recognize a common interest with the ethnic nationalities: their claim to a place in the political landscape relies on an inclusive, democratic vision of Burma’s future, one in which everyone can enjoy equal rights.

My mother emigrated to the United States in the 1960s, and as an expatriate began pushing for inter-ethnic dialogue in Burma as early as 1988. She organized an ethnic unity seminar in 1997 on the Thailand-Burma border, where the historic inter-ethnic Mae Tha Raw Hta Agreement was signed by leaders of fifteen armed and unarmed ethnic groups. With the agreement, the representatives pledged to strive mutually to “dismantle the military dictatorship and establish peace in the country,” “practice the democratic political system,” “achieve the rights of equality and self-determination for each and every nationality,” and “establish a federal union.”

Yet the repeated efforts of ethnic groups individually and collectively between 1995 and 2005 to negotiate ceasefires were met with the government’s refusal to negotiate with more than one nationality at a time (because, the state argued, each nationality wanted “different” things). In later talks with the Karen, the government explicitly stipulated that a condition of peace was the refutation of the inter-ethnic Mae Tha Raw Hta Agreement. Unsurprisingly, these talks went nowhere.

These divisive policies toward the ethnic nationalities persisted even after Thein Sein’s assumption of Burma’s presidency in 2011. Thein Sein, a former Burma Army commander, is responsible for the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the institution of reforms such as the loosening of media censorship. But dozens of political prisoners are reportedly still being detained, with more than a hundred on or awaiting trial for their political activities. In July the head of a local newspaper and four Burmese journalists were sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labor for alleging that a government factory is producing chemical weapons. Only recently, after negotiating bilateral ceasefire agreements with most major ethnic nationalities, has the “post-junta” government been willing to work with the inter-ethnic ceasefire consortium.

All of these reforms have been met with praise by the international media and rewarded by the Obama administration, which has lifted sanctions, renewed diplomatic engagement with the government, and reportedly recommenced a defense outreach program (the British Ministry of Defense is already training members of the Burma Army).


The hitch, of course, is that the bilateral ceasefire agreements in place are bogus.

As part of its preliminary ceasefire agreement with the Karen in 2012, for example, the government’s Peace Negotiation Team signed a five-point document agreeing to cease carrying arms except in designated territories, and an eleven-point document agreeing to address at the union level, among other things: the cessation of forced labor and military operations in ethnic areas, the full participation and support of local villagers in development projects, and peaceful solutions to land rights issues. But instead of withdrawing, the Burma Army continues to rotate and resupply its troops, refortify military outposts, and even increase its now estimated 300 outposts in Karen-administered areas. In May the organization Karen Human Rights Group reported that since the 2012 ceasefire agreement, abuse of villagers by members of the Burma Army has continued. In some Karen areas, there have been killings and gang rapes, and forced labor, arbitrary taxation, internal displacement and confiscation of land for government and commercial projects are common. Clashes in June between Karen soldiers and invasive Burma Army troops have only intensified villagers’ distrust of the peace process. Very recently, Thai and Burma Army officials agreed to orchestrate the repatriation of around 130,000 largely Karen refugees who have been living in camps along the Thai-Burma border for over twenty years. Whether these refugees will be safely returned to their villages, and whether they will have adequate access to food, healthcare, education or economic sustenance remains an open question. Human Rights Watch has reported that residual landmines also threaten the safety of repatriated refugees. “We feel the noose closing around our necks,” one Karen leader recently told me.

It is difficult not to see a correlation between this lack of media attention and the U.S. government’s efforts to regain its foothold in the region politically and economically—vital, according to some experts, to maintaining a balance of power with China.

Yet there has been precious little in the American media about either the ceasefire violations or the continued abuses of the Burma Army. It is difficult not to see a correlation between this lack of media attention and the U.S. government’s efforts to regain its foothold in the region politically and economically—vital, according to some experts, to maintaining a balance of power with China. While the plight of the Rohingya (a stateless and persecuted Muslim ethnic nationality of Burma whose citizenship the government denies) has been covered widely, American media outlets have failed to make the meaningful link between the discrimination suffered by the Rohingya and the discrimination against the ethnic nationalities upon which the political and military structures in Burma are based. Currently, 125,000 Rohingya have been internally displaced. What is happening to them (and has been happening over decades) unquestionably deserves to be covered with care—but not to the exclusion of reports about the millions of other disenfranchised people across the country (as of 2012, there were an estimated 650,000 internally displaced people across Burma). The focus on this ethnic group by the American media suggests an unawareness of the depth, reach, and history of the problem of racism in Burma, and of the shared suffering of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and their inclusive efforts toward peace.

If anything, American coverage of news in Burma has sometimes inadvertently sabotaged the efforts of the ethnic nationalities to defend themselves against the government and the encroachment of the Burma Army. A 2012 New York Times article by Thomas Fuller, for example, called the Karen’s attitude following the preliminary ceasefire agreement with Thein Sein’s government “defiant,” the Karen government “a cash-strapped organization with a ragtag army,” and their position following the reported ceasefire “backpedaling.” Primitivizing rhetoric aside, Fuller’s argument misunderstood what was actually happening on the ground for the Karen, whose leaders had at that point signed an agreement merely to discuss a ceasefire (not an actual ceasefire agreement, as Thein Sein’s government reported) and were already facing a violation of those terms. The charges of backpedaling, along with the West’s praise of Thein Sein and glee over Burma’s “opening up” to foreign investment and democracy, has all but kept groups like the Karen from standing up to the Army’s bullying. It has certainly left them feeling disenchanted with the West’s commitment to upholding democratic values.

There is a widespread sense that the Burmese government’s recent willingness to work with an inter-ethnic body may merely be a tactic intended to legitimize the regime and encourage foreign commercial investment. Many fear that the West, wittingly or not, is being blinded by the “good news” of the national peace talks that so far promise nothing for the ethnic nationalities and nothing for federalism. It could easily be argued that this process—which has delayed real political dialogue and is being funded by seemingly well-meaning international parties—is a hindrance to political solutions in Burma that would deprive the military of its 25 percent of parliamentary seats and make other sweeping constitutional changes a reality.

At the very moment the West is hailing the opening up of Burma, tourism is blooming in Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is poised to sweep the 2015 parliamentary elections, and landmark peace negotiations are taking place, those who have been fighting for Burma’s ethnic peoples are more despondent than ever. “There will be a time when we can no longer ignore the atrocities, when our suffering is so great, we must break the terms of our ceasefires, too—when we must resume fighting, much as the military is now everywhere in our territory,” I was told by one young woman, whose family was on the run and in hiding in the jungle for decades.

The involvement of Western powers and their narrative about Burma are as dangerous to the people of the country as dictatorship has been, because both can serve as a cover for the continued persecution of ethnic groups by the Burma Army. The West needs to exert diplomatic pressure on the Burmese government and insist that violence against ethnic groups is immediately addressed, that constitutional reforms allowing federalism are implemented, and that political dialogue with the various armed and unarmed ethnic groups be a precondition of nationwide ceasefire and broader diplomatic and economic engagement. The West also needs to understand that ceasefire agreements in Burma have yet to produce peace. Not even a visionary president working with an inter-ethnic body can make peace if she doesn’t have authority over the Burma Army. Peace can only emerge from a willingness to share power, revenue, and resources, and out of respect for Burma’s rich and diverse cultural heritage—by all of Burma’s peoples, and by the rest of the world.


Charmaine Craig is a novelist who studied literature at Harvard and received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. She is on the faculty in the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, and is finishing her second novel, which is inspired by the life of her mother, once Miss Burma and leader of a Karen army brigade.

© Charmaine Craig

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