Resolving ethnic conflict - Civic nationalism: a theoretical tool for the ending of civil war? A Myanmar Commentary by Sai Wansai

As the peoples of Myanmar commemorate Union Day this week, Sai Wansai argues that “civic nationalism” can help address the crisis in "ethnic nationalism" that underpins state failure and the enduring cycles of conflict in the country. Seventy-three years after the historic Panglong Agreement brought the new Union into being, Myanmar is a land that is yet to achieve ethnic peace and political inclusion.


Article by

Sai Wansai

Background: a land in ethnic crisis

Nowhere is the force of ethnic nationalism expressed so profoundly in Southeast Asia as in Myanmar (Burma). According to the government’s 2014 Population and Housing Census the country is home to 135 nationality groups. But this figure is disputed and confusing. Among many errors, these classifications include groups that are counted twice or identified under wrong names.1 In ethno-political terms, the picture is rather simpler. Ethnic movements are considered to be represented by around 20 identities in contemporary politics (with a similar number of sub-groups), and it is around these nationality groupings that most political discussions are based in the country today.

Many of the dilemmas in ethnic rights and representation were brought into sharp focus by the introduction of the 2008 constitution. Until this time, only eight major ethnic groups had been demarcated on the country’s political map. The majority population is ethnic Bamar (Burman), and there are seven non-Bamar peoples represented by nationality states of their own: Chin, Kachin, Karen (Kayin), Karenni (Kayah), Mon, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan. But, under the 2008 constitution, further sub-nationalism was represented with the creation of “self-administered” territories for another six peoples: the Naga in the Sagaing Region, and Danu, Kokang, Palaung (Ta’ang), Pa-O and Wa nationalities in Shan State. In addition, twenty-nine electoral seats for ministers were reserved for “national races” in states or regions where they form a minority of more than 51,400 people.2

Inevitably, an ethno-political map of such complexity brings socio-political challenges in its wake. Myanmar today is a land far from ethnic peace and political inclusion. Since independence in 1948, the country has been burdened by armed conflicts that have pitted all the major ethnic groups against successive Bamar-dominated governments. And now, in the present transitional era of quasi-civilian democracy, there are aspirations for autonomy or statehood among smaller nationalities that are dissatisfied with their representation under the 2008 constitution. Generalized political language about “seven ethnic states” and “seven Bamar regions” is no longer deemed to suffice.

The following list is not exclusive but is intended to illustrate some of the complexities in the contemporary landscape. While nationwide peace has yet to be achieved, there has been an upsurge in new ethno-nationalisms from Rakhine State on the Bay of Bengal to the Yunnan Province borderlands in the northeast. It is not only ethno-political movements among such peoples as the Kachin, Karen and Mon who claim the right to bear arms.3 As Khin Zaw Win recently wrote, the peoples of Myanmar are faced with “problem overload”.4

  • The most diverse source of new instability is Shan State. Despite the delineation of “self-administered” territories under the 2008 constitution, there are leaders among such nationalities as the Kokang, Ta’ang and Wa who aspire to “state-level” administrations within the union. There have also been rivalries, and sometimes fighting, between Shan and Ta’ang groups in the north of the state.
  • At the same time, there are Shan-related peoples residing outside Shan State who also want “self-administered” status within the union. Most notably, the Tai-Leng movement of the Shanni Nationalities Army has grown in strength during the past few years to over 1,000 troops under arms.5 Organised into three brigades, the SNA is today active in several parts of the Sagaing Region and Kachin State in an expansion tacitly encouraged by leaders of the national armed forces, the Tatmadaw.
  • Meanwhile there are Naga leaders in northern Myanmar who harbor ambitions of a greater Nagaland that would include political representation with Naga relatives across the India frontier. With a claimed population of over four million people, the Naga are considered one of the largest “unrepresented nations” in the modern world.6
  • Further west, conflict has escalated even more extensively during the past three years in Rakhine State and Paletwa Township of the adjoining Chin State where the United League of Arakan-Arakan Army is active.7 To date, over 100,000 Rakhine and Chin civilians have been displaced as fighting continues to spread in the borderlands with Bangladesh and India.
  • Also in the tri-border region, the issue of rights and representation for a people claiming an ethnic “Rohingya” identity is yet to find a just resolution on the country’s political map. Perhaps no cultural or ethno-political issue – the plight of over one million Muslim refugees in Bangladesh – is gaining greater human rights scrutiny today. At present, the Rohingya crisis is the subject of investigation at both the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The challenge, then, is to find theoretically feasible solutions to the decades-old experiences of conflict in our country. As another Union Day passes on 12 February this month, constructive thinking is essential if peace and reform momentum are to be guaranteed. Seventy-three years after Bamar, Chin, Kachin and Shan leaders came together at Panglong to agree the principles of equality and inclusion in a new “Union of Burma”, modern-day “Myanmar” remains one of the most conflict-torn countries in Asia. Divisions in ethno-nationalisms presently exist on both national and local scale.

This commentary therefore poses the question as to whether the concept of “civic nationalism” – as opposed to “ethnic nationalism” – can act as a shared aspiration among our different nationality peoples to end the long-standing state of civil war. In proposed answer, the commentary begins with a conceptual overview to target some of the key difficulties in language and concept that are holding back political progress. The analysis will primarily use data and perceptions from the experience of Shan State, but many of the same observations could be equally made about other nationality areas in the country. The commentary will then conclude by highlighting how a balance between the aspirations of ethnic and civic nationalism can help support resolution of the challenges of ethno-political conflict in the field.

As the country embarks on another general election year during 2020, the situation is now urgent. More than ever, it needs to be recognised that the post-colonial representations in constitutional politics have failed. New ways and new understandings are essential in order to bring the country together. It is to be hoped that the shared goals of civic nationalism can prove the spark that can encourage participatory – and inclusive – discussion among protagonists who currently stand on different sides.

Civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism: a glossary of terms

Since independence in 1948, successive Bamar-dominated powers have been employing “ethnic nationalism” as their main foundation in the failed process of post-colonial state-building. Such an ideology has many shortcomings in our country. In contrast, it can be argued that “civic nationalism” provides the prospect of holistic – and entirely viable – solutions for healing our divided societies. But before plunging into the world of civic nationalism, it may be helpful to first acquaint ourselves with some of the political glossary of language used in a hypothetical approach. Concepts and terms often overlap.

In this debate, terminology generally focuses on two political areas: “nation” and “ethnic”. At the “national” level, such terms as “nation”, “nation-state” and “nationalism” are primarily concerned. At the “ethnic” level, such terms as “ethnic nationalism”, “cultural nationalism”, “linguistic nationalism” and “virtual ethnic communities” might all be employed. In this vacuum, I would argue that it is the concept of “civic nationalism” that combines these two political worlds. Such a concept has been notably lacking in the formulation of modern-day Myanmar.

(1) Nationalism, nation and nation-state

Turning to the issue of “nation” first, Peter Rasmussen argues in the Global Policy Forum that the idea of “national affiliation” is a deep-rooted one in the human psyche, and members of a nation may suffer a very visceral response to any threat against it, real or perceived. 8 In support of this definition, he lists some of the following attributes as underpinning the qualities of nation or nationhood:

  • A common inter-relationship.
  • This relationship may be actual but, very often, it derives from myth, such as the notion of a "blood" bond between members.
  • A shared cultural heritage.
  • Linguistic coherence in the form of one or more languages that are identified with national identity.
  • A sense of identification by members with the nation.9

These values of shared nationhood are similarly summarized by Paul Johnson in his “Glossary of Political Economy Terms”:

  • "A large aggregation or agglomeration of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, linguistic, historical and/or cultural heritage that has led its members to think of themselves as belonging to a valued natural community sharing a common destiny that ought to be preserved forever.”10

These justifications and manifestations of nationhood are then built upon by government leaders and architects in their construction of a “nation-state”. In such a case, the characteristics of a nation-state are defined by Peter Rasmussen as follows:

  • Monopoly on the exercise of force.
  • Legitimacy, as perceived by the governed.
  • Institutional structures that are established to handle governmental tasks, including, but not limited to, the exercise of force.
  • Control over a territory – whether absolute or partial.11

A nation-state is explained in much the same terms by Paul Johnson in his political glossary:

  • "A form of state in which those who exercise power claim legitimacy for their rule partly or solely on the grounds that their power is exercised for the promotion of the distinctive interests, values and cultural heritage of a particular nation whose members ideally would constitute all, or most of, its subject population and all of whom would dwell within the borders.”12

Johnson, however, does have an important caveat. Such notions of nationhood and nation-state identity do not necessarily establish or guarantee peace or inclusion within borders that are fixed. This is very much the case in “multi-ethnic” states. As he defines, nationalism is also an ideological construct:

  • "An ideology, or rather a whole category of similar ideologies, based on the premise that each nation (or at least the ideologist's own nation) constitutes a natural political community whose members should all live together under the authority of ‘their own’ independent nation state. When the people of one nation live in large numbers in a multi-ethnic state or in states with government(s) dominated by political elites drawn from another nationality, nationalism often becomes an ideology justifying rebellion or secession in order to create or recreate a nation state for the heretofore subjugated nation.”13

This state of contested identities, instability and resistance, it can be argued, very much mirrors the post-colonial experience of Myanmar.

(2) Civic, ethnic and cultural nationalism

A similar diversity of values and terms exists in the political worlds of “civic”, “ethnic” and “cultural” nationalism. According to Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian academic and politician, the “nationhood” of ethnic nationalism is defined by “language, religion, customs and traditions”.14 It holds people together with “pre-existing ethnic characteristics” and not by “shared political rights”. In support of this identity-based vision, ethnic nationalists emphasize “common roots, inheritance, emotional attachment, unity by ascription” and “ethnic majority rules”.15

In contrast, Ignatieff defines “civic nationalism” as having a “political” – rather than “ethnic” – base. In this case, nationhood is defined by the “equality”, patriotism and common citizenship of all those who subscribe to its political creed and shared set of political values. In such a state, sovereignty is vested in the people who are represented through such civic institutions as parliaments and the constitution. The rights of citizenship are also open to all people regardless of race, color, religion, gender or language. To support these principles, emphasis is placed upon the “law, choice, rational attachment, unity by consent” and “democratic pluralism”.16

"Ethnic” and “civic” nationalism, however, should not be seen as independent or exclusive. There are many ways in which there can be overlap or inter-marriage between the two. The most obvious embodiment comes in the form of “cultural nationalism”. As the popular history website Historyplex explains:

"A nation which gives its people all the joys of freely enjoying their cultures by accepting the diversity and sharing it with people of other cultures, the nationalism of such a nation is called cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism is an intermediate between ethnic nationalism and liberal nationalism.”17

In the contemporary world, there are many countries that claim to espouse the values of multi-culturalism. These include China and India in Asia and Canada and the USA in the West. But there is diversity among international models in the ways that “cultural nationalism” may be perceived or promoted. Traditional rulers in Bhutan, for example, take pride in the “happiness culture” and distinctive lifestyles that, they believe, are preserved in the Himalayan kingdom by restricting foreign tourism and other aspects of the modern world. Politicians, by contrast, in the modern city-state of Singapore take a different approach, reflecting their multi-ethnic origins and history of trading inter-change on a busy Asian crossroads. As the Public Policy specialist Peter Fuchs describes, “cultural nationalism” in Singapore may have “dramatically distinct” Chinese, Malay and Indian aspects but their “very admixture and interaction” forms a “bold new statement”.18

For the peoples of Myanmar, elements of all these tendencies and experiences will be familiar. But, until the present, successive governments have failed in their efforts to promote their visions of “cultural nationalism” through the different eras of centralised rule that followed the British departure.

Many examples can be picked out. In the parliamentary era after independence (1948-62), “union spirit” was unsuccessfully promoted, a failure hastened by disrespecting the key principles of ethnic autonomy and equality that were enshrined in the Panglong Agreement of February 1947. Meanwhile the U Nu government failed in its endeavor to impose Buddhism as the country’s “state religion” in the early 1960s. Subsequently, the military government of Gen. Ne Win (1962-88) led the country to the brink of social and economic collapse by seeking to shut international borders off and impose the monolithic “Burmese Way to Socialism”. For a quarter of a century Myanmar became a one-party state under the Tatmadaw’s ethnic Bamar leaders.

Eventually, Ne Win’s military socialist government was brought down in 1988 by pro-democracy protests that swept across the country. But, to date, the cultural and ethnic landscape has little improved during another three decades of military-dominated government. After over half a century under Tatmadaw rule, the challenges of “civic”, “ethnic” and “cultural” nationalism have been made ever more complicated by such introductions as the 1982 Citizenship Law, the designation of 135 official “national races” and the ethno-political demarcations of the 2008 constitution. The consequence of these delineations has been to bring inconsistencies and anomalies to the country’s political landscape rather than equal rights and representation for different peoples and cultures.

Still today, under a National League for Democracy government, ethnic conflicts continue and reforms are promised to bring inclusive peace to strife-torn communities. But, for the moment, very different definitions can be heard about an inclusive “cultural nationalism” that can be shared among all peoples and faiths. Ethno-nationalism remains a dynamic – and unaddressed – force in many parts of the country.

(3) Linguistic imperialism

Another issue that is relevant to the challenges of ethno-nationalism is that of language. During the era of military government (1962-2011), the majority-Bamar language was promoted, while non-Bamar languages were systematically downgraded. Such a marginalisation is termed “linguistic imperialism”. The expression can also refer to the promotion or prioritization of an international language, such as English or Chinese, to the detriment of local languages and dialects. According to Richard Nordquist: “ Linguistic imperialism is the imposition of one language on speakers of other languages. It is also known as linguistic nationalism, linguistic dominance, and language imperialism.19

Political scientists advocate a number of ways to address the impact of such dominance by one language. Here the concept of civic nationalism or a “civic nation” is key. In her essay on “Civic Nationalism and Language Policy”, Anna Stilz outlined a series of key principles by which minority languages can be protected and promoted alongside a common language in a manner that should be acceptable to all ethnic and linguistic groups:

  • "A civic nation should not “publicly privilege or endorse a national culture or language”.
  • All citizens should be treated “with equal respect”.
  • A civic nation “should not aim at linguistic homogeneity”.
  • Rationalization in a common language should be “at least cost” to other linguistic groups.
  • Decentralization” is the best socio-political model.
  • Although support for minority languages can be expensive, the collective interest of a “sufficiently large” linguistic group is grounds for the right to promote that language in parallel to a common language.
  • In a civic nation, “multilingualism” is best realized through a “federalist system of decision making” on language policy.20

Regrettable to say, discussion about the rights of non-Bamar languages is still in its infancy in ethno-political discourse today.

(4) Virtual ethnic community

In protection of minority peoples, another theoretical term that has been increasingly employed in political and anthropological discourse during recent years is the concept of “virtual ethnic communities”. This is especially the case of little-recognised peoples who live across international borders or who have been able to improve inter-connection and inter-community awareness in the modern digital age. As the political scientists Galina Gribanova and Maxim Nevzorov have written:

"Virtual ethnic communities are mainly based on the necessity of preserving ethnic identity in the situation of danger. Indigenous people being on the verge of disappearance in many parts of the world were among early adopters of modern information and communication technologies not only in order to be connected in space and time but also to make their voices heard in (the) age of globalization.”21

The subject of virtual ethnic communities is returned to again below (see Appendix: “The Example of the Sámi People”). But in the case of Myanmar, such identities or peoples as the Kokang, Kayan, Lisu, Naga, Rohingya and Ta’ang can all be picked out. In recent years, advocacy for such “nationality” identities has notably increased. This is a phenomenon that has accelerated due to a combination of discrimination, marginalisation, conflict, displacement and the increasing spread of diaspora who have become important elements in the sustenance of ethno-nationalist identity and goals.

The shortcomings of ethnic nationalism, Bamar-centrism and “Burmanization”

Although Bamar-dominated military and political classes might not see their activities as such, they have been implementing a form of “ethnic nationalism” since the country’s independence. Ethnic majority rule is a cardinal ingredient in ethno-nationalism, and this is applied at all levels in politics and society. To try and get around this confusion, successive governments have thought that rallying around the different ethnic groups under the collective label of “Myanmar” with “union spirit” will resolve the country’s national identity problem. But such banners do not answer the fundamental crisis in state unity and identity. Whether this was the original intention or not, “union spirit” has become a form of “cultural nationalism” propagated by governments in our country under the guise of providing a common “Myanmar” identity for all.

Non-Bamar peoples see such cultural nationalism, based around “Myanmar” or “union spirit” parameters, as an illusion. Myanmar was only promoted as a term of collective identity after 1989, and it has never found popular acceptance among non-Bamar peoples. Equally regressive, the promotion of Myanmar is seen as a distraction from the founding principles of the “Union of Burma” in 1948. For ethnic nationality peoples, the post-colonial Union was a new political entity that was voluntarily formed on the basis of the 1947 Panglong Agreement. The key bedrocks were ethnic union, autonomy and equality, and this was designated as the core element in our nation-building process.

By contrast, many Bamar leaders in government today propagate the notion that the present-day nation stems from a Myanmar empire which, they claim, has existed since “time immemorial”. On this basis, they argue that the central state is entitled to govern over all areas inhabited by non-Bamar peoples.

As our legacies of conflict highlight, these are views of our country’s history that ethnic nationality groups strongly reject. Many pro-federal and pro-democracy supporters among the ethnic Bamar-majority also support such criticism. Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, before becoming State Counsellor, said that Myanmar was not meant to be a collective national identity embracing all non-Bamar groups within the Union. Rather, she acknowledged that it was an alternative form for “Burma” in the Burmese language. But these distinctions appear to have been forgotten since the NLD assumed government office in 2016.

Nowhere is cultural nationalism so dominant in the country today as in linguistic imperialism. It is, in essence, a form of “Burmanization” enforced by central governments on non-Bamar peoples through the institutions and legislation of the central state. Step by step, the teaching and upgrading of non-Bamar languages have been disrupted and blocked since independence. The result is that, in modern-day Myanmar, the Burmese language is imposed as the sole official language, while minority languages are not allowed as a second optional language – even within non-Bamar territories.

The aim of governments has been twofold: to carry out institutionalized assimilation through the use of the majority Burmese (Bamar) language; and to discourage non-Bamar nationalities from using their own languages. The warnings to non-Bamar peoples are clear. Since their languages are not practised in higher education and have no official value, they have become barriers to political and socio-economic advancement.

Today the language crisis is delicately balanced. In many ethnic states, urban centers have been absorbed and more or less assimilated into Bamar cultural systems and norms. This, it is argued, represents a degree of success for proponents of Burmanization. Fortunately, however, a large proportion of non-Bamar peoples still reside in small towns and villages where the Burmese language is little spoken and local communities remain unassimilated. Meanwhile non-Bamar languages have been kept alive in territories controlled by ethnic armed organisations around the borders with other peoples or countries. But with this cultural independence comes a high social and political price. This includes a high rate of illiteracy since many of the previous systems of ethnic language teaching – for example Buddhist monasteries and private classes in Shan State – were either banned or disrupted by successive Bamar-majority governments after independence.

Only since political transition began in 2011 have there been signs of change. Under the present system of quasi-civilian government, the teaching of non-Bamar languages is allowed again, but this is only outside of school hours where it resembles a sort of hobby activity or holiday-time undertaking. There is therefore still a long way to go before non-Bamar languages become official subjects in the school curriculum or they are recognized as second official languages in the different ethnic states and territories. For the present, a cultural nationalism based upon the Bamar-majority population remains the doctrine of the central Myanmar state.

United Wa State Army troops, eastern Shan State

Martin Smith

United Wa State Army troops, eastern Shan State

Ethnic nationalism among non-Bamar peoples

It is important to stress that the issue of ethnic nationalism is not simply a question of “Bamar-majority versus non-Bamar” peoples. Nationalism is also strong among non-Bamar groups. Since independence, this has been most obviously represented by the seven major nationalities who are demarcated by states of their own. But demands have also been increasing during recent decades among such peoples as the Kokang, Lahu, Pa-O, Ta’ang and Wa who also want self-administrative status or state-level recognition with defined rights within the Union.

Many of these movements and aspirations are long-standing. But, as the international door to the county opens, the increased advocacy of minority groups in Myanmar also reflects the rising trend of ethnic nationalism globally. Today “identity politics” are internationally in vogue. With this acceleration in ethnic consciousness, there come many questions as to how such aspirations can be accommodated in such a multi-ethnic land as ours. If, for example, we take the situation in Shan State, notions of homogeneity are a tall order. A vast highland plateau the size of England and Wales, Shan State is a vibrant territory in which populations and settlements are mixed and often overlap.

To some extent, stop-gap solutions have been offered under the 2008 constitution where "self-administered” territories have been demarcated for such peoples as the Danu, Pa-O and Wa. But these are only short-term remedies that will not settle the challenges of ethno-nationalism completely. Not only do armed struggles continue among such peoples as the Kachin, Kokang and Ta’ang, but inclusive agreements are yet to be reached in the government’s two main processes for ethnic peace and national reform: the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the 21 Century Panglong Conference. For the past three years, government peace initiatives have been badly faltering, and it is clear that fresh ideas are needed in order to try and revive political dialogue and national understanding.

This challenge brings us to the point of considering what kind of theoretical frameworks are needed to overcome the complicated issues of identity and power-sharing in such an ethnically diverse land as “Myanmar”. Ethnic conflict has long been integral to the failure of the post-colonial state.

The intermeshing of civic and ethnic nationalism

Since independence, ethnocentrism – in the form of Burmanization – has become the main driving force of different governments under the criteria of “ethnic majority” rule. This is, without doubt, the most important obstacle that needs to be removed. To address this challenge, “civic nationalism” provides many answers. In practical terms, civic nationalism would mean the replacement of ethnocentrism with a framework of political checks and balances. Most obviously, these would include civil institutions such as elected legislatures and a reformed constitution, emphasis on the rule of law, equality of peoples, freedom of political and cultural expression, unity by consent and democratic pluralism.

Such principles are easy to lay out. But, in adopting civic nationalism, it would not be possible to disregard all features of ethnic nationalism entirely. Cultural or linguistic identity are key ethno-political dynamics. For this reason, a mixed model is suggested by theoreticians working in this field. As Margareta Nikolas of the Nationalism Project explains:

"Civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism only provide the nature of the route towards their goal…a successful practice of nationalism is one where the process is an interaction of both civic and ethnic nationalism, an intermeshing of the two.”22

In other words, civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism can be two sides of the same coin. But, for such a multi-ethnic state to succeed, it is essential that a modern “nation-state” has a consensual foundation that is acceptable to all: i.e. a common national identity. But if one dominant ethnic group has a monopoly on political, social and economic decision-making, then the result is likely to be inter-ethnic conflict. Evidence for this outcome can be seen in struggles currently taking place in many different places around the modern world.

This failure of the nation-state has very much been the experience of Myanmar. The lessons are compelling of the need to make change. In order to end the cycle of state failure, the model of ethnic nationalism practised in our country over the past seven decades needs to accommodate key features from civic nationalism.

This leads us to options in the political theory of civic nationalism that we need to incorporate into the existing concepts of ethnic nationalism that have not worked. In particular, we need to pay cognizance to the aspirations among not only the eight major ethnic groups, such as the Bamar, Karen and Shan, but also smaller nationalities and peoples who have similar hopes and goals: for example, Naga, Ta’ang and Wa. This will not mean simply adjustments to the constitutional map but a revision of understandings about the nation-state identity of the post-colonial Union. Political discussions need to be imbued with a different scope of discourse.

A road to solutions?

Many arguments can be picked out in support of civic nationalism. But, for this vision to succeed, there should be two fundamental starting-points.

  • First, agreement on an environment of multi-cultural citizenship, equality and partnership that will be crucial to sustain peace.
  • Second, recognition that nation-state formation using ethnic nationalism in the manner practised by governments after independence has failed to forge a common national identity that is acceptable to all peoples.

The explanation for these failures may appear complex in the field. But there is one inter-connecting reason at the heart of national politics: the leading social and political class, which is essentially an ethnic Bamar and military elite, have no vision as to how to build a common identity that supports representation and equality for all.

In confirmation of this deficit, a trail of failed policies and initiatives can be identified since the British departure in 1948. These include institutionalized assimilation, linguistic imperialism, a one-party state, Burmanization, the 1982 Citizenship Law and the flawed attempt to build a “Myanmar” identity on the basis of the prescribed existence of 135 “national races”. Under the 2008 constitution, Myanmar may be multi-ethnic in name, but it is not in socio-political practice. In the view of non-Bamar peoples, there has been a continuity in policies by different actors among the political elite to enforce and maintain the dominance of the Bamar-majority population.

The need, then, is to augment or replace the practice and notions of ethnic nationalism with those of civic nationalism. It has to be remembered that, in a successful multi-cultural state, nationalism produces nationhood and not the other way around. The concepts of shared heritage, common cultures and common ancestry cannot be written off; they are integral to the foundations of many modern states. But, through the promotion of civic nationalism, multi-culturalism will enhance rather than hinder the development of a common state identity. To achieve these ends, citizens must be able to rally around other societal goals besides those of ethno-nationalism. Key values in civic nationalism include the equality of peoples, shared political rights and allegiance to the same political procedures. The monopolization of governmental decision-making by one majority ethnic group has to end.

In the interaction between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism, a variety of ideas can be considered that promote a common national identity. Five propositions are listed below as food for thought, but they are by no means intended to be exclusive. At root, our country needs a different kind of roadmap for ethnic peace and meaningful reform. Such reflections should run parallel to the processes for political dialogue and governmental transition.

1. Adoption of principles from civic nationalism

Multi-cultural citizenship and democratic pluralism based upon civic institutions such as parliament and a reformed constitution need to be promoted and accepted. “Cultural nationalism” based around the misleading categories of the 135 “national races” is unrepresentative and does not reflect our peoples, identities and societies as they exist on the ground. The political and civic institutions of our country should embody the richness and diversity of our cultures rather than misrepresent the socio-political landscape and continue the rigid dominance of one major ethnic group.

2. Changes in political and ethnic labelling

On the surface this might appear controversial, but cognizance needs to be given to the fact that many names for identity or territory are inconsistent or contested. Many examples can be provided: e.g. Rakhine (Arakan), Kayah (Karenni), Chin (Zomi) and Bengali (Rohingya). Understanding of reflective terms for identity – whether local or national – will therefore be vital in the formulation of a shared sense of national heritage and culture. These reflections can happen after a satisfactory process of national reconciliation and political settlement, but they could also be deliberated during transitional negotiations. Open-mindedness will be essential to foster national discussion and inclusion. Without these essential steps that include all peoples, it will be difficult to forge a common national identity.

3. Innovations on the model of the “Federated Shan States”

It is often forgotten today, but the 1922 model of the Federated Shan States provides a precedent for a different kind of ethnic and administrative landscape within our country. Democratic innovations will be essential, notably elected legislatures. But such a system of devolved and holistic governance could be a way to satisfy state-level aspirations among smaller minority groups. One could even go further to change the name of Shan State to a shared state-level identity to satisfy all nationality groups living within the territory. Inclusion and consultation among all peoples are necessary if civic nationalism is to succeed. The historic experiences and formulations of Shan State, which reflect our long traditions and cultures, also have relevance for other ethnically diverse territories in the country.

4. Revival of language pluralism

Many countries in the modern world are multi-lingual, but such pluralism has been suppressed since independence in post-colonial Myanmar. It is a major source of grievance and disadvantage among non-Bamar peoples. This discrimination should be easy to address. The leading position of the Burmese language can be complimented with ethnic languages as optional second languages. This would include allowance for official usage as well as provision in the school curriculum. Non-Bamar languages would consist of the seven major (non-Bamar) peoples and smaller language groups that have sizeable populations. Further research would be needed, but this policy could be expanded as multi-language education is rolled out. It is long since time to return to the principles of “unity in diversity” – not assimilation – that were agreed by Aung San, Sao Shwe Thaik, Duwa Zau Rip and the Union of Burma’s founders at independence in 1948.

5. Promotion of virtual communities

The identities and cultures of endangered peoples can be empowered through the promotion of virtual communities, whether through online or offline connection. This is especially important in the case of peoples without exclusive territories and who may inhabit different sides of domestic or international borders. Many nationalities in our country face this challenge today. The key value is that virtual communities can energize the preservation and consolidation of ethnic identity without having inter-connected territories. They can still claim the representation and rights of a recognised nationality group.

In this respect, the Sámi indigenous solution can be looked at as an example. A people living on the Scandinavian frontiers of Europe, the Sámi reflect the experiences of minority peoples in Myanmar and the sub-Asian region who have failed to gain the recognition of autonomy or an independent nation-state. Like the Sámi, many ethnic groups in Myanmar also live in different territories or across international frontiers. Equally pertinent, during a time of rapid global change, the Sámi experience reflects the diversity of ways, socially as much as politically, in which marginalized peoples can take their destinies into their own hands in support of a better future. Ethnic peace and national recognition is not a gift from the state but it is built by the people (see Appendix: “The Example of the Sámi People”).


Our country is facing a host of grave challenges today. But amongst many needs, it has long since been clear that, if we want to resolve conflict and build national peace and security, it is essential to start with the divisive nationalist concepts that underpin the modern state’s formation. Four recommendations stand out.

As a first step, it is important to go back to basics and address the many disagreements and misconceptions over common heritages and cultural identity. After half a century under military rule, differences of opinion have been widening. At root, the Bamar governing elite has quite different views from those of non-Bamar peoples. Ethnic Bamar leaders promote the view that modern-day “Myanmar” stems from the time immemorial of a historic Burmese empire that was only disrupted by the intervention of British colonial rule. This, they believe, drove a wedge between Bamar and non-Bamar peoples. In contrast, ethnic nationality movements regard the post-colonial state as a new political entity that emerged only through political consensus at independence by virtue of such platforms as the 1947 Panglong Agreement and Union of Burma constitution. As such, the impositions of colonial rule should no longer have relevance to the 21st century challenges today. At the same time, it needs to be recognised that the territories that constituted pre-colonial “Myanmar” were a very different – and very multi-ethnic – world.

Second, and related to this, it is essential to recognise that the implementation of a state nationalism built around the criteria of one majority ethnic group is not working. The starkest evidence for this failing is the endemic condition of ethnic conflicts that have been continuing around the country since independence without any sign of final ending. It is impossible to estimate the humanitarian cost as well as damage to inter-societal relations. The ethnic nationalism, cultural nationalism and “union spirit” invoked in support of the Myanmar state are not comprehensive enough to embrace all peoples. Rather, they have sustained counter-nationalisms and alienation among different nationality peoples

Third, to address the limitations of ethnic nationalism as expressed in the country today, it is necessary to promote the criterion of “civic nationalism” that all the peoples can share. This should be the guiding principle for a harmonious society. This does not mean that ethnic nationalism will – or should – disappear. But all stakeholders in the country should reflect on the need for conceptual change, especially among the governing elite. The challenge is to bring together the characteristics of ethnic nationalism with civic nationalism to produce a blend that truly reflects the needs and interests of all peoples.

Finally, after seven decades of inter-ethnic conflict, inclusion needs to be the bedrock that will bring our country's peoples and stakeholders together. A start was made in 1948 to build a new union that all peoples could cherish, be proud about and confidently live with. But great suffering and damage have followed in the intervening years. It has thus fallen to a new generation to take this essential task forward. Peace and transformative change will not be possible until all share common goals in the building of a nation-state that all peoples, faiths and cultures can feel a genuine part of. Civic nationalism offers the prospect of new roads towards solutions. But there still remains very much in the way of political reform and nationwide peace-building that needs to be achieved.

Appendix: The Example of the Sámi People

The Sámi people, also known as Lapp, inhabit Lapland in Finland and adjacent areas in Norway, Sweden and Russia.23 With an estimated population of 80-100,000 people, they speak three main dialects that are considered to come from one language. In earlier times, the Sámi people suffered from assimilation programs in the countries they inhabit and nearly disappeared. Most Sámi are bilingual today. But following initiatives to foster their language and culture, they are now in a firmer position to promote their political rights whilst safeguarding their heritage and identity. In this respect, their model has lessons for many ethnic groups around the world. Their experience is applicable to smaller minorities in Myanmar.

Today the Sámi people are represented by three Sámi parliaments: in Sweden, Norway and Finland. A joint council of representatives, called the Sámi Parliamentary Council, was established by the three Sámi parliaments in 2000. In Russia, meanwhile, the small Sámi population is represented by non-governmental organisations. There are also important institutions that represent and promote Sámi culture, both locally and within the region. These include the Sámi University of Applied Sciences and Sámi University College in Norway. Academic links have been developed with other indigenous peoples around the world, and research and higher education are focused on the needs of Sámi society. In September 2007, Sweden, Norway and Finland all voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, while Russia abstained.24

In subsequent years, Sámi organisations in Russia have faced harassment. This is where the role of virtual communities has been a notable success in the preservation of Sámi identity and culture. In the digital world, the influence of virtual communities has been steadily growing in the sphere of politics among decision-makers and Internet groups who share the perception that their identities are under threat. In this respect, the Sámi people have proven an outstanding example in combining online and offline activity across international frontiers to preserve their language, promote their cultural heritage and strengthen political lobbying.

As Galina Gribanova and Maxim Nevzorov have noted, the Sámi movement has been successful in six key regards:

  • Sámi nationalists have proven an inspirational example to other indigenous peoples
  • they represent a divided people living in four countries
  • the Sámi political environment may differ from that of Nordic countries and neighbouring Russia, but this has not prevented networking and collaboration
  • by positioning themselves as one nationality, the Sámi have used the Internet to strengthen trans-border relations and send clear political messages to different government authorities
  • online communication is not a replacement for offline politics, but it provides additional instruments to disadvantaged social and ethnic groups.25

Sai Wansai is a Shan political analyst and the ex-General Secretary of the former Shan Democratic Union.

This commentary is part of a TNI project funded by Sweden and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the funder.


1 See e.g., Transnational Institute (TNI), “Ethnicity without Meaning, Data without Context: The 2014 Census, Identity and Citizenship in Burma/Myanmar”, TNI-BCN Burma Policy Briefing No.13, February 2014.

2 Bamar (5), Karen (5), Chin (3), Shan (3), Pa-O (2), Rakhine (2), Lisu (2), Akha, Intha, Kachin, Kayan, Lahu, Mon, Rawang (1).

3 For a study of the ethno-political challenges in Kayah State, see, Tom Kramer, Oliver Russell and Martin Smith, From War to Peace in Kayah (Karenni) State: A Land at the Crossroads in Myanmar (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 2018).

4 Khin Zaw Win, “What lurks beyond the Belt and Road in Myanmar?”, New Mandala, 14 January 2020:

5 See e.g., Chit Min Tun, “Without Territory, the Shanni Army’s Difficult Path to Recognition”, The Irrawaddy, 8 April 2019. There are few ethnographic studies on contemporary Shan-Tai peoples. But the Tai Leng are generally considered to constitute around 300,000 inhabitants in Myanmar today.

6 “Naga rebel group leader marks 40-year anniversary in jungle hideout”, Mizzima News, 3 February 2020. Naga people inhabit the northern borders of the Kachin State and Sagaing Region in Myanmar and Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland in India. See e.g., Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization: “Nagalim”, 26, April 2019:

7 For a recent overview, see e.g., Martin Smith, Arakan (Rakhine State): A Land in Conflict on Myanmar’s Western Frontier (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 2019).

8 Peter Ravn Rasmussen, "‘Nations’ or ‘States’: an Attempt at Definition”, Global Policy Forum, 20 July 2001:

9 Ibid.

10 Paul M. Johnson, “A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Nation”,

11 Rasmussen, "‘Nations’ or ‘States’".

12 Paul M. Johnson, “A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Nation state”,

13 Ibid: “Nationalism”:

14 Michael Ignatieff, “Civic Nationalism & Ethnic Nationalism”, Michigan State University:

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Historyplex, “What Does Cultural Nationalism Mean?”:

18 Peter Fuchs, “What is cultural nationalism and what are some examples of it?”, 21 August 2018:…

19 Richard Nordquist, “The Meaning of Linguistic Imperialism and How It Can Affect Society”, 31 July 2019:

20 Anna Stilz, “Civic Nationalism and Language Policy”, Philosophy & Public Affairs. No.37.3, Wiley Periodicals, 2009, pp.260-61.

21 Galina Gribanova & Maxim Nevzorov, “Virtual Ethnic Communities as Political Actors: the Case of Sami People”, Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, Vol.15.4, 2017, p.49:$/sci/pdfs/PA003RU17.pdf

22 Margareta Mary Nikolas, “False Opposites in Nationalism: An Examination of the Dichotomy of Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism in Modern Europe”, Centre for European Studies, Monash University, 11 March 1999, p.13:

23 "Sami People”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9 January 2020:

24 “Indigenous peoples in Sápmi”, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs:

25 Gribanova & Nevzorov, “Virtual Ethnic Communities”, p.49.



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