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The Past and Future of Myanmar

A conversation with Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya

It is a strange blindness of the Indian imagination that most of us tend to think of Myanmar, when we do think of it at all, as somehow remote and distant. It is neither. It is a country that we share a long and porous border of 1,468 km with. It is also a country that was, after its gradual conquest by the British starting from 1824, administered as a part of the British Indian Empire until 1937. A large Indian population lived and worked there and many of them fled as refugees, either when the Japanese Army invaded during World War II, or later, when, after Independence in 1948, Burma saw a rise in anti-Indian sentiments. The separation of Burma from India is thus seen by some scholars, controversially, as the first Partition of British India – a prelude to the Partition of 1947.

A new trickle of refugees has begun to flow into India from Burma, now called Myanmar, again in recent months. They are Burmese citizens fleeing a new conflict that has started in the country since the coup in which election results in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, were overturned by the military led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on February 1 this year citing electoral malpractices that independent observers say did not occur. The country, one that we are linked to by history and geography, has been descending into increasing chaos and bloodshed in the months since.

PSQ Executive Editor Samrat Choudhury spoke with former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhaya, to get his view on the past and future of that country. Excerpts from an interview:

The Attack of the Stockades at Pagoda Point, on the Rangoon River, by Sir Archibald Campbell, K.C.B. 8th July 1824 / Rangoon views, and combined operations in the Birman empire, Plate 18 (No 18 of Series 1) Hand-coloured aquatint with etching after Lt. Joseph Moore,1826. British Museum; Wikimedia Commons.

Samrat Choudhury: In Burma, the present situation is clearly very dire, but the question that comes to mind is that it seems to be in continuity with what has happened there since Independence from Britain in 1948, in the sense that Burma since 1948 has never had peace and unity. What is your comment on that?

Gautam Mukhopadhaya: It is absolutely true. There has been no decade in which there have not been serious upheavals in Myanmar. Right in the beginning, after independence, you had the Karens practically at Rangoon. At that time the big challenge was ethnic. In the North, you had an external problem, the Kuomintang, two divisions occupying a large part of Myanmar. Then you had the Burmese Communist Party challenging the central authority. Then you had 1958 and 1962…in 1958 the army was actually invited to take control, in 1962 they conducted a coup. In the 1970s there were serious disturbances and riots. In 1988, you know the student led agitations. In 1990, they called elections. The NLD won hands down. The results were annulled. After that you had the Saffron Revolution led by the monks, in 2007. You even had natural disasters like Cyclone Nargis which were really devastating.

But in between there have been periods of imposed stability and even negotiated peace. Imposed stability in the Bamar heartlands in some phases, but of course a very restricted kind of stability, a repressive stability. And with the ethnic armed organisations post 1990s they came to a number of individual ceasefire agreements which were mainly ‘live-and-let-live’ agreements in which they just marked out some boundaries. None of this was really stable. It was a kind of imposed order. So yes, it is absolutely true that there has been no peace, and the country has not known peace.

I would like to go back one step further. We need to go back a little. One of the impacts of the British takeover of Burma under the Konbaung dynasty in the 1880s was that a traditional social order from the Konbaung king downwards and outwards into the countryside suffered an absolute shock. You can call it feudal if you like, a Burmese version of feudalism, but there was a system in place in which a social order existed. In many ways the roots of instability particularly in the Bamar heartlands was that that order was completely shattered during the years of British rule. From the 1880s until the Saya San and other popular movements started growing, essentially the old order was demolished and there was really no new order in place.

In the ethnic areas it was a very different arrangement, particularly in Shan State between the principalities there and the British. There were different arrangements in all the ethnic areas…Chin, Kachin, Shan. From the 1880s Burma went through a period of profound shock and instability from which it has never really fully recovered.

One more point. Burma’s independence was very different from India’s independence. It was a military-led independence where the 30-odd ‘Comrades’ went to Japan, got trained by the Japanese, initially came on the backs of the Japanese to liberate Burma, formed their own Burmese Independence Army, had an uneasy relationship with the Imperial Japanese Army, and when the moment came, switched sides, to join the British and liberate Burma. Unlike India it was not a people-led or civil movement. I think that has also played a big role. It has enshrined the army in Myanmar in the middle of all the instability we have had subsequently. It has contributed to a narrative that the army salvaged Burma from breakdown. That narrative or mythology has in a way been used to cling to power, and monopolise power, so long.

SC: Sir, a lot of this seems to have roots in ethnic differences going back to before Burma existed as a modern country and it’s reminding me a little of this side of the border, particularly Manipur and Assam. So the question that arises is how this sort of ethnic tension has come down to the present, and this sort of ‘othering’ of communities which even Indians faced being called ‘kalas’, the Chinese faced, and every ethnic mentioned the Karens and a couple of others. And of course, the Rohingya are called Bengalis now and suffer greatly for it. How is it that this sort of attitude enjoys such a great deal of legitimacy?

GM: It’s useful to go back. The Chinese and Burmese are linguistically considered to descend from the Tibeto-Burman family group. Racially, they are descendants of successive waves of migration from the Yunnan area although there is no doubt that there was racial admixture with other peoples through history.

Over a period of time, the Bamar in particular who populated the riverine heartland of the Irrawaddy and other valleys acquired rather Sinic characteristics of ethno-centrism. They were a very proud empire. Until the Konbaung they had dominated the Thais, ransacked Ayutthya, invaded Manipur, and held back the Chinese.

There were several attempts by the Chinese right up to the Qing dynasty in the 18th century to impose suzerainty over them, but although they elevated the level of their military campaigns into Burma, they failed and were pushed back – with the help of a combination of natural as well as geographical and other factors. The Chinese were never able to dominate Burma.

So they have a very strong sense of an imperial history and pride which you see reflected in the Tatmadaw today, and also a strong sense of ethno-centrism by virtue of having a strong culture – Buddhism played a large role – essentially a kind of linguistic and racial unity.

I think this was compounded in the colonial period by two cognitive developments. One was this British ethnography. As you know in India also, the British classified India’s peoples into various types for ethnographic as well as governance purposes. Also in the 20th Century, as communism expanded to include Russia and China’s many ethnicities, they introduced the notion of ‘national races’. It didn’t start in Burma. It started actually with the Soviet Union and the Chinese…this whole notion that a nation consisted of races, and you had to unite the races. It was built on ethnographic classifications. First you created the ‘races’ and then they brought them together under a larger multinational entity. But that relationship among the races was never equal. That is particularly so in Burma. The Bamar heartland always thought of itself as the heartland and mainland. There was a sense of superiority, partly on account of their refined courtly culture, which survives to this day.

One of the primary demands of the ethnics all over Burma is just the principle of equality, before you even come to issues like federalism, sharing of power, sharing of resources, what kind of political system you have, the kind of representation, whether you have an elected or nominated chief minister…even before all that, the principle that they have been demanding is equality. They have never felt they have had this equality.

New Territories added after the War, Northeast India in an 1855 Colton Map, Wikimedia Commons.

New Territories added after the War, Northeast India in an 1855 Colton Map, Wikimedia Commons.

SC: So, they are not considered equal even to the present?

GM: In their imagination of what constitutes a Burmese identity, effectively the cut-off point is 1824. People who came after the British, and people who were there before. The fact of the matter is that there are different ethnic communities in different parts within the map of Burma that they inherited from the British. They are accommodated as national ‘races’. There are 135 such national ‘races’. Some are merely clans and sub-clans such as amongst the Kuki-Chin-Zomi group. This is the problem.

The word ‘Kalar’ did not start off as a pejorative term. It only referred to people from the west, from outside Burma. Gradually over a period of time it came to mean Indians. It was not originally Indians, it applied to a much broader lot. Again, I think we should factor in the very large untrammelled migration that took place under British rule during that period. Migration also meant occupation of land. Along with the migration came money-lenders. There were also cases of dispossession of lands. Over a period of time, a kind of anti-foreigner, particularly anti-Indian sentiment built up because in due course they also managed to control all the business.

There was a feeling that the Indians and Chinese between them had a stranglehold…They had achieved independence but economically ‘foreigners’ had a stranglehold. This is the sentiment that General Ne Win tapped when he conducted his 1962 coup and launched a much more, not just ethnocentric but nationalistic, chauvinistic ideology, from which Indians, Chinese and Rohingya – Rohingya just happens to be one of them, Rohingya is a special category among them – were simply excluded because they were not part of the original composition of races in 1824, even though historically it is probably very true that there was quite a lot of racial admixture in the Arakan. In places like Rakhine it was much more, in the coastal areas it was much more, because they were always open to trade. You had traders coming in from the Arab world. Later on Portuguese and others settled in Myanmar. They are not at all a pure race, but they tend to think of it like that.

Colonial migration and their stranglehold over the economy contributed to the antipathy towards the “kalar”. After 1962 and the Burmese ‘Road to Socialism’, most of the well to do Indians were driven out. The people who were left were the poorest, who did not have the means to go back. So then there came to be an additional class element.

The Rohingya have a special problem because they suffer a kind of triple jeopardy. Firstly, they were considered racially Indian. Second, they are also Muslims. There was also a kind of exclusion of Muslims from the national races of Myanmar. By this time, a sense of Buddhism coming under a state of siege from Islam, had also started growing.

But the real thing that divides say the Rohingya problem from the rest of the ‘Kalars’ – by the way there was always a respectable term for Indians also, the respectable term was ‘Babu’ – was that in addition to being racially distinct and Muslim they actually claimed to be indigenous, unlike the Indians who could not make that claim. Here, what aggravated the status of Rohingyas was their claim that they were always indigenous. Initially this was not so contested. The idea that they are not indigenous has hardened in the period from 1948 onwards. Historical factors played a role…the fact that Muslims of Rakhine sided with the British against the Japanese when the Rakhine were with the Japanese, the fact that the Rohingya at that time wanted to join East Pakistan rather than Burma. Their leadership has had a big role to play. The large majority of Rohingya are too poor to care. They are barely eking out a living. Their problem is the triple jeopardy and the biggest factor in that is their claim to being indigenous.

Actually, there is some basis for that but it’s very difficult to disentangle. Before 1824, the Muslims who were there, were they all Chittagonian speaking? There were many traders, many people in the Arakan courts, who came from Mughal areas of undivided India, or the Arab and Persian world. These people probably spoke a language closer to the kind of Urdu Bengali that may have been spoken in the courts of the Mughal nawabs of Bengal. In many ways it was the last outpost of Islam in the east. There are complex factors.

Many of the Rohingya advocates try to deny that there was any migration from present-day Bangladesh at all. I don’t think that is historically sustainable. There were migrations from 1824 onwards, like there were migrations from the rest of India, for cultivation of rice, sugarcane, etc. This would have gone on. At different points of time it may have been less. Maybe in the post-1970s period it was less, but that’s when the problem actually became much bigger.

SC: Colonial migration being such a big factor, the fact of the matter is that when it did happen, Burma was considered a part of British India, so it was migration within the same country or the same empire. This brings me to Partition, a topic of interest to our journal. I was wondering, would you consider the separation of Burma from India was a Partition? And did it also leave behind similar divisions?

GM: I really don’t think so. Burma came under India only under British rule and was only administratively a part of British India. It was never part of any pre-British Indian empire. Even the Mughals were stopped at Assam. Yes, in some historical sense it was part of the Indic sphere but politically in historic times Burma was never part of any pre-British Indian empire. It only came, so to say, to be part of India as part of imperial British India. We have to be very clear of that. It was an administrative arrangement of the British. I don’t think we can claim as Indians that Burma was part of India.

It’s true that during the British rule there was a very large migration from India. The administrative apparatus came out of India. For a lot of the administrative and security apparatus, the British used Indians. The railways, the Posts, the labour in the ports…people were settled there. Entire villages were settled.

In the context of the War, Gurkhas and in an earlier phase, Sikhs, were also settled in Burma. Most of them would have happily naturalised had there not been a reaction in 1962. There were periods of exodus, of expulsion…in the 1930s there were riots against Indians. Some people left. The real exodus came because of the (Second World) War. As the Japanese came in, very large numbers of Indians left by foot. They were helped by the British to some extent to flee. Priority was given to the British but when they had space they took some boxwallahs and oil company executives. The third big wave was after the 1960s, the Burmese Road to Socialism.

SC: And 1937?

GM: That was a demand from the Burmese not to be ruled from India, to be ruled directly by the Crown. The Hindu-Muslim issue that drove the Partition in South Asia…was not driving factor there. But there was a feeling of being distinct and not part of India. I don’t think they are at all comparable. I don’t think Burma can be brought in as part of a ‘partition’ of India both because of antecedent history as well as because of the driving factors behind movements. As I said, in the 1940s it was because of the Japanese, in the 1960s it was because of nationalisation of business and industry. The settlements were largely on the backs of the British. This was not some traditional migration. There was traditional migration as part of the Bay of Bengal trade, migrants who would have naturalised, just got mixed into that population.

SC: Sir, although it may not be proper to consider it Partition, the drawing of these new borders in 1937 and their subsequent hardening after 1948 did separate communities. For instance, we have the case of the Chins who are finding support in Mizoram from their brethren on this side of the border. Isn’t it true that there are a large number of communities in northern Burma and Northeast India who are divided by this line?

GM: That is true. Wherever you have had borders demarcated – after all that was not the historical pattern at that time – people will be separated on both sides. This has a much longer history. Even in those areas, you will have to go back into colonial history. Those Chin areas were administered, to whatever extent they were administered, from the Burma side. On this side, essentially it was British administrators from Silchar or Manipur who so to say administered – because it was a very loose administration – who were reporting (to higher authorities of the British Indian government) from this side, and those administrators were reporting from that side.

So, the administrative arrangements that finally determined partition were actually prior to partition. Their roots lie in colonialism. Most of those areas, to what extent were they ever ruled by any central authority even in the Northeast? How many of let’s say the Chins in Myanmar came under the administrative control of Manipur? Let’s resist the temptation of using contemporary categories going back. This is just the kind of thing that creates hard lines that we are seeing, not just in Myanmar. We are beginning to see it in Assam. Even currently, there is a lot of inter-marriage between the Burmese and ethnic groups. But because the Bamar dominate so much, very often when it comes to the census, and they are asked, “what are you”, it just becomes more convenient for people to declare themselves as Bamar. Being Bamar gives you more entitlements. Sometimes even the census authorities would kind of press them to call themselves Bamar. So there is a lot of fluidity.

Even after 1948, how hard were those frontiers? They were never really hard. Until 1947 there was no India-Pakistan border, let alone being hard. There were no borders between Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan. There were no borders between Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan. Those hard frontiers only came with imperialism, communism in the Soviet Union and communism in China, partition, and in this case, with military rule in Burma.

Indo-Myanmar border, along the Harhva (or Tio) River.

Indo-Myanmar border, along the Harhva (or Tio) River. Rikhawdar, next to Khawmawi, is a busy trading border town in Falam District, Chin State, Myanmar. It lies opposite Zokhawthar village of the Champhai district of Mizoram, India. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

SC: Coming back to Northeast India, we’ve seen two very different kinds of reactions to the few refugees who have come in. In the case of Manipur there was an attempt to sort of keep people out and it went to court and they’ve now been told by the court to let a few people come to Imphal. In the case of Mizoram, the government very happily said we are going to welcome these people and look after them. What should be the role of state governments there?

GM: Again, let’s go back to the beginning. Did the Manipur government issue that circular suo moto, or did it do so under instructions from the centre? And was the government in Manipur actually executing that order? What was the case in Mizoram? The same circular applied to Mizoram. The Chief Minister of Mizoram took a different stand. Even in Manipur, they had to withdraw that circular very quickly.

Sentiment in the Northeast is very sympathetic to these refugees, at least for giving them shelter. No doubt some of it is linked to ethnic kinship but some of it is also linked to suppression of democracy and basic rights. So, I would say whether in Manipur or Mizoram or elsewhere, people’s sentiment in the North East has been sympathetic to the refugees. This spirit should be applauded.

The reason for that Manipur order and the difference between Mizoram and Manipur is really how the state governments have decided to react to the circular that came from the Ministry of Home Affairs. In Mizoram, they took a proactive pro-refugee stand ipso facto. In Manipur, they had to withdraw and soft pedal it under pressure from local sentiment. The fact is that not many refugees have been sent back. They have not encouraged camps but large and growing numbers continue to come in. You have the associations in Mizoram and citizen’s committees in Manipur that have grown in order to handle this.

The centre also has a legitimate concern. If you open your doors, everybody will be tempted to come in. As Pradip Phanjoubam pointed out in some cases, not all of them are necessarily politically persecuted refugees. People may just take advantage of an opportunity to leave bad living conditions.

I don’t think it can be the case that the government should just open its doors, or that it should have no controls, but the orders that were issued were issued essentially I would say from a reflex reaction which was to prevent migrants from coming in. The lack of kinship with those migrants may have played a part. What if those migrants had been Hindu? Would they have done the same thing? I think it is a legitimate question to ask if there was a majoritarian bias behind that directive.

The situation is not unique. In the initial stages of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, India welcomed any number of refugees. But later, in the context of the crackdown on the Tamil Tigers in the last phase of the Tamil problem, India hardened its position even on those refugees who had much closer ethnic ties with a so-called mainstream part of India. So there’s no black and white in this. There are lots of greys.

What should be our policy towards refugees? I personally feel that when people are being persecuted, when refugees are fleeing repression, when conscientious objectors seek temporary asylum, when you have journalists who are also fleeing repression, you should have a policy of refuge, and a kind of sympathetic and accommodating policy of refuge. There has to be burden-sharing in this. I think in this case now the people of the Northeast are accepting the burden happily to whatever extent they can but if the numbers were to increase there would have to be some system of burden-sharing. In my view it should not be based on ethnicity or religion, it should be based on the level of persecution.

Incidentally, while we say this, Myanmar all this while has been hosting Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) on their soil, and if you ask them why, they say it is out of ‘humanitarian’ concern. Similarly, Myanmar insurgent groups have been taking shelter in Thailand, and Myanmar accepts it. Myanmar refugees in Thailand have not become a bilateral ‘issue’ between Myanmar and Thailand.

Except in the case of the NSCN-K after the June 2015 ambush of a military unit, we have not made the presence of IIGs in Myanmar such a bilateral issue vis a vis Myanmar either. We don’t like IIGs in Burma but we have pressed them to take action against military camps and those actually indulging in militant attacks.

So, I don’t see why we should be hypersensitive to the Myanmar military’s concerns in hosting people who are actually fleeing them. The same humanitarian considerations could apply to us. You have the Meitei IIGs, the Naga IIGs, ULFA, everybody taking shelter in Myanmar. Why should they give shelter and we not?

SC: Does the Myanmar military have the wherewithal to throw those people out or is it that they are not able to throw them out?

GM: Suppose we had made it a big issue and said all right, look, regardless of whether they are indulging in provable anti-India activity or not, they are foreign nationals, why don’t you just tell them to leave? After all, if I were to suddenly decide I want to go and settle down in Myanmar, they would not allow it, right? Why don’t they just apply their own immigration laws? They have actively and consciously given them refuge. I don’t see why we have to appease the military in this respect.

SC: As matters now stand, it appears that more conflict is probably unavoidable. So how do you see the struggle between the Myanmar military and the people opposing them playing out, and what should be India’s role in this?

GM: It’s still early, still evolving. What I do see is a very clear division between the military and the people. I’m not sure there’s any constituency other than the military that is behind the military at this point of time. It is the military versus the people. In the past the military was able to make peace with the ethnics and impose order in the Bamar heartland or represent Bamar nationalism and ethnocentrism. This time many of the ethnics – but not all – are willing to support the resistance against the Tatmadaw. There are some ethnic groups that are ambivalent or just keeping off. You know about the Arakan Army and many of the northern armies that are under Chinese influence and of Chinese ethnicity.

But even if let us say all the ethnics were to get together, numerically and in terms of military force, the Tatmadaw is stronger, has better weapons and organisation, discipline coming from the 1940s, and so theoretically they should be able to suppress that. But I think we should also factor in that it’s not just force, military to military, but also large numbers of people who support the resistance. So a lot will depend on how the popular uprising can continue, and what kind of solidarities and unities and cooperation are forged between the Bamar and the ethnics.

But it is one thing to have sentiments; it is another thing to convert that into formal administrative and political arrangements. Sentiments may be good but actual division of power, mindsets, sharing of resources…many of these things come into play. So it is difficult to see a very clean and rosy solution to this. Most probably we will have a prolonged contest and in this it will matter how forces within the country and outside are ranged.

If you saw my piece in CPR the other day on ASEAN, I have assessed that a little bit. That opens the question of who is to do what. I think as Myanmar is a member of ASEAN, the first responsibility lies with ASEAN.

But of the ASEAN countries only two share borders with Myanmar. In my view this is not something we can simply leave to ASEAN. We need to be involved in political solutions.

It would be premature at this stage to talk about the outline or framework of this political solution. Essentially it would mean there would have to be, whether they like it or not, negotiations between the Tatmadaw and the National Unity Government or whoever represents the opposition – I am not limiting it to the National Unity Government, there are other players as well.

And also amongst the opposition, because it’s not like the opposition is a single monolithic opposition with a clear leader who is accepted by everyone. Post this situation, even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s situation is going to have to be renegotiated because a lot of new players have come in. If you’re going to have a more federal structure, there are going to be changes in the structure of power as well.

The situation is very polarised, very confrontational, very volatile, and there is very little common ground, but any road ahead is going to have to work on the basis of bringing the parties to the table to at least start a dialogue. We will have to see which are the most important countries in this. I certainly think Thailand, India, China, Japan, ASEAN as an entity, may all have to play a role in this.

The important thing here is that while ASEAN is central to this and has a responsibility to deal with the problem that is within its own association, they cannot say nobody else has a say in the matter, because other countries are going to be immediately affected. I would say among those countries India will be the most affected. If you look at those countries, where will people go? In the past they went to Thailand, but now with military rule in Thailand as well, there may be some resistance. It will be ironic if they have to go to Bangladesh after all that happened with the Rohingya. China is far away and how much will they accept, who will they accept, all that is there. So, it will fall on us. We need to realise this. We cannot keep our hands off. We cannot hide behind statements and we cannot hide behind ASEAN for too long. At some point the problem will be in our hands and we will need to deal with it and anticipate it and shape it to the extent possible. Instability in Myanmar along with instability in Afghanistan on the other side will be a disaster for us.

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Mukhopadhaya, Gautam (2021). “The Past and Future of Myanmar: A conversation with Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya.” Partition Studies Quarterly, Issue 04, [Link]

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