Tatmadaw: Am I Paletwa Keeper (Brother)?

First and foremost, over the past century,[1] the Burmese experienced British colonial rule. They, however, regained independence from the British in 1948. Historically and politically, the Panglong Agreement[2] played a key role when they got independence, given that this landmark agreement was the cornerstone of the state of modern Burma.[3] Though Burma got independence from Britain, it is currently one of the most attention-given, question-marked, and critically watched countries in the world, because of its socio-political, religious, and economic situations (Paletwa). Indeed the world has changed much since 1948 and Burma had dramatically changed, too, implying that the possibility of state collapse once seriously posed by Burmese insurgency was mostly laid to rest in history and that the armed forces rebuilt largely after 1949 has been relatively large, strong, and united.[4] It must be noted here that independence was not actually the end of the search for sovereignty but just the beginning of twin process of “nation-building” and “state-building” for minority groups. Democracy system was introduced again in 2011. That, however, didn’t solve civil war problem; it instead becomes harder and louder. Thus, this paper attentively argues that Tatmadaw is not really the keeper of Paletwa. I, though, suggest how Tatmadaw could become the guardian of Paletwa based on the Book of Genesis stories (Adam’s family and Jacob’s family).

Tatmataw and Chin Ethnic Group

The Chins and the Burmans have traditionally recognized each other as different peoples because of their differences in language and culture-though their features and complexions may be of the same Asian stock as others in Southeast Asia. The Chins lived as an independent nation or state in what was then known as Chinland. Most of Chinland fell under British colonial rule in 1895.[5]Burma gained her independence from Britain on January 4, 1948. After independence, the whole Chin Hills was put under Burmese Administration and Vum Thu Maung was the first minister of Chin Affairs Council till 1951.[6] The ethnic groups increasingly became concerned later that their autonomy was not respected. Civil war ensued for the next decade, and Ne Win seized state power in 1962. That war continues to rock the nation.[7] In July of 1962, the government announced the principles of the Burmese Way to Socialism, which would never allow any private holdings and made all nationalization. The government drove the nation toward socialism and nationalization of all commercial enterprises and placed the political power and material wealth of the country under the officers and men of the army who were not trained in trade and commerce but ordered to run nation.[8]

Though the term “democracy” has been applied in the country since 2010, the Chins do not, in practical terms, witness the fruit of democracy till today.[9] They face difficulties particularly in identity crisis and living condition aboard. Despite independence in 1948 and the installation of government led by U Nu, the military played a decisive role in Burma’s politics. It must be noted, however, that Burmese politics, after independence, is based on ethnic nationalism.[10] In the 1960 election, U Nu and his party promised that if they won the election, they would make Buddhism the state religion. U Nu and his party Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) won the election because he received the support of majority Buddhists. The Kachin and Karen angrily opposed that, but U Nu promised to make Buddhism the state religion. In 1961, Buddhism, thus, became the state religion[11], but a separate bill was enacted guaranteeing freedom of other religions.[12] The Parliamentary Democracy system[13] was experimented under the first Prime Minister, U Nu, for 14 years from 1948-1962.[14] U Nu, the civilian period (1948-58, 1960-1962), promulgated a Buddhist-oriented welfare state under what became known as the Pyidawtha Plan.[15] Ne Win arrested U Nu and seized power in 1962,[16] and brought to an end the short era of multi-ethnic parliamentary democracy.[17] He ruled the country for about three decades under a Socialist system called “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which came to an end in 1988. Throughout this socialist period, Ne Win isolated Burma from the outside world, making the country one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Therefore, some theologians called it “Burmese Way to Loneliness.”

Ne Win took power in the name of preventing the country from possible disintegration and accused armed ethnic groups of attempting to tear apart Burma, thus portraying himself as the sole savior of the country in the face of various ethnic armed rebellions against the central government being dominated by the Buddhist Burman.[18] Thereafter, Tatmadaw[19] ruled the country directly or indirectly until 2011. The direct military rule and direct military regime characterized Myanmar politics.[20] Under the socialist party, the Burman attempted to influence ethnic minorities in social, cultural, and religious matters. The government intentionally and systematically advanced Burman nationalist state policies and enforced them to protect and promote Burman history, religion, cultural, literature, and language. The ethnic minorities’ history, religions, culture, literature and language have been effectively undermined.

Tatmadaw and Paletwa

There are 388 villages in Paletwa Township and people living there are generally estimated to number 110,000. The fighting has impacted some 60,000 people, while 4,000 to 6,000 have been displaced from their homes, according to the Chin State government.[21] Many civil servants reasonably refuse to work in Paletwa Township, where the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) have been fighting each other since November of 2018. Fighting has been intense in the last weeks and many observers speculate that the clashes could have prevented students from getting to school. Hundreds of students of course failed to turn up for their final matriculation examination in southern Chin State. Salai Aung Min, director of the educational department for Paletwa Township, said their absence could be related to problems with transportation. There are 2,690 high school students in Paletwa Township and only 2,217 took their examination. 473 students missed their test. Paletwa Township had the highest numbers of absentees for the matriculation examinations in Chin State.[22]

A Burma Army air attack on Meik Sawa village in Paletwa Township killed 11 civilians, according to residents of the community. Most of the residents of that village are ethnic Chins. According to the locals, there was no movement of the Arakan Army around their village at the time, thus leading to further questions as to why the air strike by government forces was carried out. In recent months, the Burma Army and the Arakan Army have been engaging in intensifying clashes in southern Chin State and northern Rakhine State, leading to severe restrictions on travel, internet access, and food supplies.[23]

The Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) issued a strong condemnation of the Burma Army’s air strikes on some villages in Paletwa Township, which caused mass displacement and more than 20 deaths. In a statement released on March 15, the second day of the attacks by fighter jets and helicopters, the CNLD said that there has been no movement of Arakan Army (AA) troops—the organization with which the Burma Army has been engaging in intensifying clashes in the region—around the villages that were targeted in the air strikes. Pu Noe Thang Kap, chairperson of the CNLD, said that the Burma Army has a responsibility to protect the people of the country but is instead attacking them, a pattern that he finds unacceptable. “These villages are civilian villages. Even if rebels or insurgents or revolutionary men were hiding in the villages, they should not attack the villages,” Pu No Than Kap told Khonumthung News. “The government’s army must protect the people. They must avoid doing things that can cause suffering for the people. If the AA’s soldiers were hiding in those villages, the Burma Army could take an alternative approach. But they directly went to drop bombs into villages. We cannot accept it.” He added that the use of fighter jets and combat helicopters in the civil war was “excessive.”[24]

More than 2,000 locals have fled clashes between the Burma Army and the Arakan Army (AA) in Paletwa Township and are seeking refuge in the town of Samee. According to the local People Hope Organization, there are now 2,265 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Samee. Civil society organizations in the area say that the IDPs are in need of emergency aid supplies, including basic foods such as rice, cooking oil and salt. “The Chin State government has provided 100 bags of rice. I am expecting that we will need to provide them with 40 bags of rice per day,” Zaw Lee Aung, who is working with the People Hope Organization, told Khonumthung News, adding that wholesale shops are out of rice. “We have problems with water as well as with electricity. We need drinking water. We cannot buy waterproof canvases for the toilet. We don’t have firewood for cooking. Youth are trying to find firewood. They need many things,” he said of the IDPs.

Among the people seeking refuge in Samee’s monastery, church, middle school, and public halls are 24 pregnant women, and more than 700 children under age 15. On March 14 and 15, at least 21 civilians were killed and 28 injured in air strikes by the Burma Army on the villages of Meik Sawa, Wetma and Pyine Tain. Locals in the area are concerned about their security and continued clashes. More people around Paletwa and Samee are expected to flee in the coming days and weeks if the current fighting remains ongoing. Government and AA troops have been engaged in escalating clashes along the Mee Chaung River in Paletwa since March 16.[25] Thus, the following discussion will help us to understand why Tatmadaw is not really Paletwa’s brother and suggest how Tatmadaw can become Paletwa’s brother based on The Book of Genesis stories-Adam’s family and Jacob’s family.

The Genesis of Conflict and Peacemaking:

Phyllis Trible, Old Testament scholar, suggests that the Bible is like a pilgrim wandering through the ages to which each age brings its questions.[26] Political readings consider how social, economic, politics and ideology have shaped the use of the Bible over the centuries and how these realities impact the interpretation of the Bible and theologies today.[27] Thus, a repeated question through the ages, and again in our age, has been: What can we learn about conflict and peacemaking from the Bible?

The Book of Genesis gives us the stories of earth’s first families, and how they dealt with conflict. In every age, our first school in conflict and peacemaking is our family of origin. So it is useful to look at earth’s first families to see how they handled conflict. Furthermore, Genesis provides some common ground for examining the question. Current Myanmar politics continue to be shaped by how people read the 2008 Constitution and the Bible (Genesis).

The Family of Adam and Eve: Murder

Immediately after the story of Creation Account, we are thrust into a story of murder-the first post-Eden option for dealing with conflict. We can kill people with whom we are in conflict. Both Cain and Abel were, for instance, religious and dutifully brought sacrifices of what they produced to God. However, God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. It seemed that Abel’s is further qualified as being “the firstlings of his flock.” Thus, Cain was very incensed, and his face fell. His face turned as red as a torch.

Seeing Cain’s anger and fallen face, God, the eternal parent, counseled him: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance (face) fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:6-7). Loss of face is a powerful driver of violence. People will possibly risk their lives to save their faces. As a consequence, Tatmadaw risk their lives to save their faces as well as they directed their anger against ethnic minority groups. Yet violence is not inevitable.[28]

God finally confronted Cain “Where is your brother Abel?” “I do not know,” Cain replied, “am I my brother keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is the very first humankind’s post-Eden question to God. More than 2,000 locals have fled clashes between the Burma Army and the Arakan Army (AA) in Paletwa Township and sought refuge in the town of Samee. As stated before, there are now 2,265 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Samee, and the IDPs are in need of emergency aid supplies, including basic foods such as rice, cooking oil and salt. “…Your brother’s blood is crying (Screaming) out to me from the ground!” said God to Cain. On the one hand, ethnic minority groups’ (Paletwa) blood is crying out to God from the civil war (IDPs camp). Cain did not kill his brother, Abel, alone but also all of the generations, which would have flowed from him. Likewise, Tatmadaw did not kill only Paletwa (Ethnic minority groups), but also all of the generations, which would have flowed from them.

The Family of Jacob: Reconciliation

The culmination of the quest of earth’s first families for ways of working with conflict is found in the story of the children of Jacob, namely Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was the first son of Jacob by Rachel, his favorite wife, but the second youngest among all of Jacob’s twelve sons by his four wives. He was Jacob’s favorite son. The relationship between Joseph and his brothers was further strained by his dreams, which he did not have the good sense to keep to himself (Gen. 37:5-11). One day when Joseph’s father sent him to check on the other sons and the flocks they were tending in a distant field, the brothers saw their opportunity for revenge.

When the brothers saw him coming wearing his special “Long robe with sleeves,” they quickly huddled in the field to plot their revenge. Their first thought was to kill him, and so exercise the Cain option. Reuben, in charge as the oldest son, opposed killing him. “Let us not take his life,” Reuben said. “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.” His thought was that later he would “rescue him of their hand and restore him to his father” (Gen. 37: 21-22).  The brothers listened to Reuben, and proceeded to strip Joseph of his special robe and throw him into a dry pit.

While Reuben apparently watched the flocks at some distance, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob took the lead. “Why not sell him to these Ishmaelites?” he said to his brothers. “Let us do him no harm, for after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood” (Gen. 37: 26-27). And his brothers agreed. Judah’s moral reasoning resurfaces the brother theme of Genesis. “Am I my brother keeper?” Well, yes, he seems to reason. I really should not kill my brother, my own flesh and blood, but he is a bother. Finally, they made a deal with Ishmaelite traders, selling Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver.

In brief, when the famine came, it was not limited to Egypt, but extended throughout the Middle East, including ancient Palestine where Joseph’s family continued to live. Hearing that there was grain in Egypt, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt, where they met the second in command in the country, whom they did not recognize as their brother. But on their second visit, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, and moved the entire family to Egypt. The final encounter between Joseph and his brothers that we see is a model of reconciliation (Confession, Forgiveness, and Repentance).

Peace and reconciliation begins with an act of exposing violence: The early Christian community understood the event of the cross of Christ as an act of God reconciling the World to God and their task as disciples as proclaiming the gospel of reconciliation. However they did this by exposing violence. Their message was: You killed Jesus, but God raised him up.[29]

Conclusion:

The post-Eden story in The Book of Genesis begins with the destruction of life in Cain. It ends with the preservation of life in Joseph. Both are the result of conflict. Cain asked the first critical post-Eden question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Joseph, at the end, clearly modeled an unequivocal “Yes” to the question. The Union of Burma was founded by the Burman, Kachin, Shan, and Chin. Myanmar now enters a new era, so to say, with faith and hope, in the forceful waves of political storms with ups and downs, for democratic changes and reforms, for restoration of lasting peace and national reconciliation, to take place at national level. However, no Ministry of Ethnic Affairs was formed separately and strongly under Ministries of the Government. Current Ministry of Ethnic Affairs appears to be just symbolic with no independent political and financial powers, to be operated as a part of one of other main ministries of our government. No national budget has been made separately for the development of ethnic nationalities. What matter most is national reconciliation and peace. If a nation has to progress and prosper, unity is of utmost importance, said Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counselor.

The images and sounds on the ground in Paletwa of Chin State shatter the impression of peace, reconciliation and a steady march towards democracy that President Win Myint’s government has bid to convey to the outside world. It is less complicated when both parties are guilty of something and both have a part in the act of violence. Many civil servants are refusing to work in Chin State’s Paletwa Township, where the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) ethnic armed group have been fighting since November 2018. In that case, any talk of peace and reconciliation becomes a double burden for the victims (IDPs). Therefore, Tatmadaw is neither Paletwa’s keeper nor brother.

            [1] Burma had experienced a monarchical rule from the early 11th century to the late 19th century under King Anawratha (1044-1885), the first Burmese King, and had encountered three Anglo-Burmese wars (1824, 1852, 1885). The last Burmese monarch, King Thi Baw, was dethroned by the British in 1885 when the whole country became a colony of the British Indian Empire (1885-1937) until 1937. Burma experienced a long colonial rule under the British Indian Empire for 124 years (1824-1947).

                  [2] Leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups met with Gen. Aung San’s temporary Burmese government to discuss a Burma independent of Britain. They agreed on: A united approach to independence from Britain, regional autonomy for these “Frontier Areas” within a Union of Burma, democratic rights for peoples in Frontier Areas, and financial support and/or autonomy as required.

                  [3] Rory McLaughlin, Politics: Ideas, Institutions and Actors, Student’s Book (Yangon: Mote Oo Education, 2018), 9.

                  [4] Pum Za Mang, “Church and State Relation in Myanmar” (Paper presented at the joint project of Myanmar Institute of Theology and Norwegian School of Theology MF, Myanmar, January 16, 2019).

                  [5] Zomi Theological College, Chin Church History, 33.

                  [6] Starting from 1951, Parliamentary Election was held every four years and the political parties contesting the first elections to the Chin Affairs Council were Chin National Union, Chin People Freedom League, and Chin Congress Party. Za Hre Lian became the first elected minister of Chin Affairs Council and later succeeded by Ral Hmung. However as the central government was so weak to handle the insurgencies within the nation, this Council had to resign and general election had to be held again, there Za Hre Lian once again became minister till Gen. Ne Win usurped power and overthrew the public authority in 1962.

                  [7] Pa Yaw, The Church in Myanmar under Successive Governments (Unpublished, 2004), 14.

                  [8] Thus confusion, mismanagement and corruption were seen every nook and corner of the nation. Myanmar is one of the most corrupted country in the world and Chin State is the most corrupted State in Myanmar.

                  [9] Chin people are part of the founding members of the Union of Burma with Kachin and Shan, Under the Panglong Agreement in February 12, 1947.

                  [10] Saw Hlaing Bwa, “Ethnicity, National Identity and Church Unity” (Lecture, Myanmar Institute of Theology, January 22, 2019).

                  [11] Many of ethnic group want to separate from the Union, according to the option of under the 1947 constitution to leave the Union after ten years.

[12] David I. Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Need to Know (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010), 59.

                  [13] The practice of parliamentary democracy was discontinued with effect from the time when the Prime Minister tried to make a proposal of making Buddhism State’s religion. The ethnic armed and opposition groups rose up to fight against this proposal of making Buddhism State religion and the statement against the issue of using Buddhism as State religion was officially recorded.

                  [14] Samuel Ngun Ling, “Ethnic Diversity in Past and Present: A Historical Perspective” (Paper presented at the national and International Conference “Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Myanmar” Organized by Myanmar Institute of Theology and the Protestant Faculty of Theology/University of Muenster (WWU), Myanmar, February 5, 2019).

                  [15] David I. Steinberg, Burma: The State of Myanmar (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2001), 16.

                  [16] Flemming Ytzen and Mikael Gravers, “Local Actors” in Burma/Myanmar: Where Now? eds. Mikael Gravers and Flemming Ytzen (Denmark: NIAS Press, 2014), 63.

                  [17] Matin Smith, Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights (London: Anti-Slavery International, 1994), 25.

                  [18] Pum Za Mang, “Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Myanmar,” in Theology Under The Bo Tree: Contextual Theologies in Myanmar, Contextual Theology Series, edited by Thomas Cung Bik (Yangon: Myanmar Institute of Theology, 2017), 99.

                  [19] The Burmese word “Tatmataw” means Myanmar Armed Forces.

                  [20] Military regime ruled the country for 52 years (1962-2014) under different names and leaders: Revolutionary Council; Burmese Socialist Program Party; SLORC and SPDC under U Nu, Ne Win, Saw Maung, Than Shwe and Thein Sein.

                  [21] The Irrawaddy, “Civil Servants Refusing to Work in Chin State’s Paletwa Amid Fighting Between Military, AA,” The Irrawaddy, January 17, 2020, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/civil-servants-refusing-work-chin-states-paletwa-amid-fighting-military-aa.html (Accessed March 22, 2020).

                  [22] Khonumthung, “Students In Paletwa Township Absent From Matriculation Exam” Khonumthung News, March 14, 2020, https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/students-paletwa-township-absent-matriculation-exam (Accessed March 22, 2020).

                  [23] Khonumthung, “Burma Army Airstrike on Paletwa Village Kills (11) People,” Khonumthung News, March 17, 2020, https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/burma-army-airstrike-paletwa-village-kills-11-people-0, (Accessed March 22, 2020).

                  [24] Khonumthung, “Chin Political Party Condemns Burma Army Attacks on Paletwa Civilians,” Khonumthung News, March 19, 2020, https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/chin-political-party-condemns-burma-army-attacks-paletwa-civilians, (Accessed March 22, 2020).

                  [25] Khonumthung, “Thousands of Villagers Flee Fighting and Seek Refuge in Samee,” Khonumthung News, March 20, 2020, https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/thousands-villagers-flee-fighting-and-seek-refuge-samee, (Accessed March 22, 2020).

                  [26] Phyllis, Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), IX

                  [27] David A. Holgate and Rachel Starr, SCM Study Guide to Biblical Hermeneutics (London: SCM Press, 2012), 103-105.

                  [28] Dalton Reimer and Ron Claassen, The Genesis of Conflict and Peacemaking, Center for Peacemaking & Conflict Studies (Fresno: Fresno Pacific University, 2005), 1-4.

                  [29] Joseph Prabhakar Dayam, A Memory that Re-members Peace and Reconciliation: A Perspective from a Dalit Theology of the Cross (Bangalore: United Theological College, 2012), 10-13.

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