December 5, 2008 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung and David Steinberg

(Click to enlarge) From left, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, David Steinberg and Satu Limaye discuss ethno-national groups in Burma/Myanmar at the East-West Center in Washington on December 5, 2008.

Beyond Militant Resistance: The Non-Armed Members of Ethno-National Groups in Burma/Myanmar


(Washington D.C.) December 5– Though most analyses of minority groups in Burma/Myanmar concentrate on violent resistance movements, there is a segment of the minority population that is trying to pursue its private and collective interests in non-violent ways within the boundaries set by the state. In this East-West Center in Washington seminar, Dr. Ardeth Thawnghmung, an East-West Center in Washington visiting fellow funded by the Luce Foundation, detailed the activities of non-violent members of the ethno-national minority groups Karen, Shan, Mon, and Kachin, and described how their activities are affecting their communities, their co-ethnic members in the armed movement, and the Burmese military state.


Dr. Thawnghmung argued that it is important to recognize that each of these four ethnic groups are not homogeneous but are composed of diverse populations with differing ideological, linguistic, geographical, and religious backgrounds. Conventional studies tend to lump all members of these minority groups in the same category as their counterparts in armed resistance movements, but this ignores the greater complexity of ethnic politics in Burma/Myanmar.


For example, some non-violent members of these groups are active in local government and the civil service, engage in the promotion of their own culture in peaceful ways, and operate humanitarian and educational activities within their own communities. Their activities provide legitimacy to the Burmese military state in the sense that they fail to provide support to their co-ethnic members in the armed movement and actively participate in institutions supporting the existing state structure. At the same time, however, their activities achieve some of the same goals as the armed resistance movements by helping to preserve their identity and address the social, humanitarian, and educational needs of their respective communities. Religious groups offer education in private schools where ethnic languages and cultural studies are an important part of the curriculum. And ethnically-run clinics provide health care and instruction in minority communities.


Because the activities of the non-violent members of minority groups operate within the boundaries set by the government, their activities have been permitted to continue as long as they do not pose a threat to the military’s security and institutional order. Dr Thawnghmung showed examples of how the younger members of the minority groups, particularly nationally renowned singers and musicians, have expressed their ethnic identity while simultaneously attempting to cater to the tastes of a modern audience.


Dr. David Steinberg pointed out that minority issues are the most important policy problems facing the government of Burma/Myanmar today. He noted that what constitutes a minority group is often a political designation rather than an ethnic one, and agreed with Dr. Thawnghmung that these designations often overlook important cultural diversities within same ethnic groups. Dr. Steinberg reitierated the point that though the non-violent members of the ethnic groups were engaging in promotion of their cultures, it is only to the extent permitted by the state. He worried that this could lead not to an increase, but to a dilution of ethnic identities by assimilating the characteristics of these groups into the majority culture.


Both Dr. Thawnghmung and Dr. Steinberg agreed that the discussion about ethnic minority activity in Burma/Myanmar should be altered. Instead of focusing on the minority group as a whole, the diversity within these ethnic groups suggests that emphasis should be placed on the rights of the individual rather than on the group. In this way, a more nuanced understanding can be developed of ethnic politics in Burma/Myanmar.


Ardeth Maung Thawnghmungis a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Thawnghmung’s research focuses on Burmese politics, Southeast Asian politics, political economy, and identity politics. She has published numerous works on Burma, including Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma/Myanmar (Kegan Paul, 2004).


David Steinbergis a specialist on Burma/Myanmar, North Korea and South Korea, Southeast Asia, and U.S. policy in Asia. He is distinguished professor and director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He was previously a representative of the Asia Foundation in Korea; distinguished professor of Korea Studies at Georgetown University; and president of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. As a member of the Senior Foreign Service, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), at the Department of State, he was director for technical assistance in Asia and the Middle East, and director for Philippines, Thailand, and Burma Affairs. Dr. Steinberg is the author of thirteen books and monographs, including: Turmoil in Burma: Contested Legitimacies in Myanmar (2006), Burma: The State of Myanmar (2001), Stone Mirror: Reflections on Contemporary Korea (2002), and The Republic of Korea, Economic Transformation and Social Change (1989).