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Myanmar leaders must nurture the country’s many potential ‘Aung La Nsangs’

In our long-running civil wars and waves of racial and religious violence, how many Aung La Nsangs have we killed, maimed or otherwise destroyed?

On Friday, in Yangon, something extraordinary happened to lift the spirit of all Myanmar’s peoples—the generals, the cronies, the National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters, the political exiles, the journalists, and the multi-ethnic population at large.

Mixed martial arts fighter Aung La Nsang made history by becoming the first-ever world champion from Myanmar in any sport. Three judges unanimously declared him the winner in the nationally televised match against the defending ONE middleweight champion Vitaly Bigdash from Russia.

Following Nsang’s victory at Thuwunna Stadium, something else extraordinary happened. Myanmar army commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing issued an official statement of congratulations, claiming the ethnic Kachin fighter embodies the indomitable spirit of Myanmar, the pride of the nation.

Nsang was invited to the Ministry of Defense and presented with a cash award as a token of appreciation and recognition by representatives of all three branches of the Myanmar armed forces—the army, navy, and the air force.

As an ethnic Burmese on the other end of the political spectrum from the Tatmadaw’s leaders, I uncharacteristically welcomed the military’s gesture towards Nsang as symbolically and psychologically significant. I celebrated what I saw as a son of Myanmar making the entire nation proud, one that has been so fractured along ethnic and religious lines, and for so long.

While the country’s Aung San Suu Kyi-led, military-backed peace process is running aground, and the United Nations Human Rights Council bangs on the country’s door to allow a fact-finding mission to visit conflict zones in Myanmar, the emergence of a world champion is an extremely rare moment of jubilation.

But as a son of Myanmar myself, I can’t help but ask a painful question: in our long-running civil wars and waves of racial and religious violence, how many Aung La Nsangs have we killed, maimed or otherwise destroyed?

The new MMA world champion Nsang is no ordinary fighter. In earlier wins outside of Myanmar, Nsang wrapped himself in the flag of the Kachin Independence Organization and publicly expressed his desire for peace in his war-torn birthplace of Kachin State.

On Saturday, the South China Morning Post quoted the new champion as saying: “I hope to be an inspiration to the people of Myanmar. This is for them…. It feels like I am very blessed, and hopefully I can bring blessings to other people as well.”

Hearing this, I am inspired to suspend my skepticism, which is born out of nearly 30 years of political involvement in Burmese affairs as a grassroots activist, hoping that such a nationwide moment of pride may awaken our own better selves, along with a realization that we are bound as those who “drink the same water and live on the same land.” This bond may have been damaged by decades of war and political strife, but it certainly is not dead.

War, danger, and strife

Almost 250 years after the founding—on ethnic Mon land, no less—of Myanmar’s former capital of Yangon, whose name means “end of war, danger and strife,” the country’s conflicts have multiplied, expanded, and deepened. This is largely thanks to misguided political decisions that compound the violence and suffering we have inherited.

The result is the ongoing displacement of communities, so much so that Myanmar is nowranked eighth in the world in its outflow of refugees. The number of forced migrants, according to the recently released United Nations Global Trends report, topped 490,000 at the end of 2016.

This increase is largely due to large numbers of Muslim Rohingya refugees fleeing the western region of Rakhine, or Arakan, to Bangladesh. Here, a 50-year-old strategy aimed at controlling and managing cross-border migration among Rohingya Muslims in Northern Rakhine has degenerated into one of widespread concern for sustained atrocities.

In the Shan and Kachin highlands, the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the KIO and Myanmar’s former government led by President Thein Sein has had a devastating impact on the country’s commercial and political transformation, as well as on the many different ethnic communities that live in the strategic Sino-Burmese borderlands.

Within the society at large, Islamophobia dating back to the colonial era, and violent anti-Rohingya racism, have poisoned the minds of a generally acquiescing and decent public.

In addition to this, the military’s arrest of Burmese journalists from The Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma, and the NLD government’s dismissal of the outrage over media freedom as “low priority” marks a re-emergence of hostilities between the country’s ruling institutions and the press—a crucial pillar of civil society.

While blame and responsibility may be apportioned, Myanmar now needs to take a deep, collective breath as a multi-ethnic nation so that we may regain our common moral sense of what is in the nation’s long-term best interests.

A cathartic moment

While our shared sentiments of jubilation over last weekend’s supreme victory are still fresh, every one of us who cares about the well-being and future of our shared birthplace must honestly and critically reflect on the futility of continuing conflicts over claims and counter-claims of our contributions, histories, territories, revenues, resources, and entitlements.

Myanmar is blessed with trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources, both above and below ground, tapped and untapped. But more importantly, Myanmar’s peoples are our greatest assets, our most potent creative energies. Our strength in unity as an incredibly diverse ethnic community has been damaged, and even destroyed, with each passing year of unresolved conflict.

Having worked intimately and transparently with Burmese military leaders, I do know that there are members of the Tatmadaw who are keen to push for a more representative government in our country. Despite our differences of opinion in how to go about instituting such a government, we share a common desire for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Union of Myanmar.

A youngish colonel I knew, who is now a four-star general in the Commander-in-Chief’s office, asked me ten years ago: “Do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the only person among us who can bring about democratization in our country?” He didn’t mean it rhetorically, and was keen to know my honest answer.

My response then was: “No.” It remains unequivocally so.

But neither the military nor the NLD leaders can expect to succeed in their one-year-old joint efforts at facilitating a democratic transition without the inspired participation of the public. Nor can these powerful military figures and popular political parties accomplish their stated objectives of defending and developing a multi-ethnic Myanmar until and unless there is a fundamental shift in their mindsets.

Sometimes a national tragedy or a moment of collective jubilation can serve as a cathartic moment from which springs a nation’s revival, renewal, and reconciliation. Again as a Burmese whose family has, over three generations, had organic ties with the military, I am hoping that Aung La Nsang’s world championship may turn out to be one such moment for our country.

Nurture, rather than destroy

Leaders from both the NLD and the military must see in every person who calls Myanmar their birthplace a potential Aung La Nsang, an embodiment of pride for our multi-ethnic nation, an asset to our national defense, and a building block for our development.

We are, in fact, blessed with many Aung La Nsangs in the various fields of journalism, civil society development, human rights promotion, minority rights protection, as well as in the creative domains of art and literature, and in science and technology, medicine and engineering, agriculture and forestry, interfaith harmony and peace-building, environmental protection, and scholarship.

Internationally, many of Myanmar’s distinguished sons and daughters have—as refugees, expatriates, and exiles—worked in “world class” institutions or independently.

Myanmar does not need to wait for a new generation of citizens to emerge. The country’s leaders just need to realize and appreciate the potentially invaluable contributions that the as yet unrecognized Aung La Nsangs could make towards peace, security, development and harmony.

Militaries, political parties, religious organizations, and virtually all communities have made mistakes, some grave and consequential. No nation or national institution is complete, finished, or beyond redemption. Therefore, it is not too late for us as a Myanmar community to turn the land we love into one that nurtures, rather than destroys, future Aung La Nsangs, irrespective of our differences in migratory histories, faiths, or opinions.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our fellow citizens could be brought together into a national program in which they were encouraged to share their opinions and expertise, publicly and privately, toward the shared goal of building a true democratic Union of Myanmar?

​As evidenced in Brexit Britain and Donald Trump’s America, racism and prejudice divide and weaken nations. Let us overcome the weight of our past and embrace a reality where every one of us—soldier and civilian, majority and minority, Buddhist and Christian and Muslim—sees our individual achievements celebrated as those of one nation.


(c) 2017 Coconuts Yangon

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