Can Literature Save Myanmar’s Peace Process?

In late January 2019, the Tatmadaw took control of the remote Naga region headquarters of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), an ethnic armed organisation that has yet to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

In March, 5 leaders of the NSCN-K were arrested by police in Khamti Township, Sagaing Division after attending a meeting at their liason office, a meeting organised by the Naga Culture Centre Committee to discuss peace in the Naga region.  That such a meeting was organised by a non-political, non-armed group shouldn’t really be a surprise.

Starting in 2014, foreign attendees of the intermittent peace conference noted the inclusion of members from similar organisations.  Though they lack the formal representation and status of their political and military counterparts, these organisations are invited, as observers, because of their non-aggressive, intermediary position.  These groups exist all over the country, in every township.  Often they are the only community based organisation on the ground and when fighting erupts between the groups on either side of the negotiation table, it is the cultural groups who are there to respond, both to the community and to the media.  Not the Tatmadaw.  Not the ethnic armed organisations.

The role of ethnic culture associations as mediators or negotiators of trust and faith in the ongoing nationwide peace process has been overlooked by many foreign commentators.  But perhaps they shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

The intersection of politics and culture has a long history in Myanmar.  Historically, the ethnic communities’ political leaders have also been the guardians of their culture.  The Duwa’s in Kachin, the Saopha’s in Shan State patronised language, literature, dance, music, textiles and traditional law.

In 1860 the Shan Saopha Sao Seng Naw Pho ordered the Shan language to be revised to resemble the Burmese circular script in order to take advantage of the Baptist missionary press which at the time had only created types for the Burmese script, (the Shan in Thailand continued to use the original ‘bean sprout’ script)

After independence, a Duwa of one the largest Kachin clans who lands stretched from Myitsone to Mogaung granted a piece of land in the capital Myitkyina to what would become the Manau Cultural Park, a home for several organisations that are now dedicated to the survival and progress of Kachin literature and culture, including the Kachin Dictionary Committee, the Wunpawng Shing Ni arts collective and the Manau Dance Festival committee.

Sai Mong Mangrai, a senior member of the Kengtung ruling family, helped to modernise the Shan script and was instrumental in the upgrading of the teaching of Shan lit and language through Shan State until the 1962 coup where he was imprisoned without trial.  His wife, of Mon-Bama descent, was Daw Mi Mi Khaing a prominent writer (ironically, one Sai Mong’s daughters married one of the son’s of his jailer, Ne Win).

At the same time and further south, Khu Hte Bu Pe, the son of the Karenni Saopha had developed the Kay Phodu script.  ‘Discovered’ on a 18th century stone inscription it allegedly predates the existing two Kayah Li scripts (one in Romanic alphabet, the other in Burmese, both designed by Roman Catholic priests in the 1800’s).  Khu Hte Bu Pe updated the script, and taught it to Karenni youth until Ne Win outlawed its use, claiming that as the Karenni had an existing script (Ne Win of course favoured the Burmese iteration) they didn’t need another one.  The KNLPP, a main Karenni ethnic armed group adopted the script and used it in all their publications and communications and taught it in Karenni refugee camps in Thailand.  The Tatmadaw subsequently labelled the Kay Phodu script as ‘the rebel script’.  It was finally legalised by the Kayah State Government in 2014, 3 years after Khu Hte Bu Pe died.

With the demise of the traditional elite and the imposition of unelected leaders from the Bama majority, ethnic communities have suffered a decades old policy of ‘burmanisation’ by successive administrations, policies that limited the teaching of ethnic languages and literature in schools, the rewriting of the past to favour Bama history, the restriction of cultural expression through festivals and celebrations.

In place of the now gone Duwas and Saophas, community mobilised associations have taken on the role of guardians of their respected culture.

Almost all of the ethnic communities have a central organisation dedicated to the preservation and development of their literature and culture (with the glaring exception of the Chin).

Referred to by western researchers by the generic Ethnic Culture and Literature Associations, many actually take on several forms of the title such as the Mon Literature and Culture Committee, the Kachin Culture and Literature Co-operation, the Kayah Nationality Literacy and Culture Committee.  Some claim to have a lineage dating back to the 1950’s others have formed only at the turn of the century.  All rely on community donations.  Many operated in a grey area, refusing to register with the government for fear of intervention by a state that sought to counter what they believed in.  Often their activities would depend on the fluctuating relationship between the state and the ethnic armed groups in the area.  In a time of truce, books could be published, festivals could be celebrated, when conflict erupted again those writers and organisers would be arrested.

Over the years, these ECLA’s have become a training ground for politically active youth and retired political seniors.

Nai Tun Thein, President of the Mon National Democratic Front in the 1950’s and jailed between 1963 and 1969 was president of the Mon National Celebration Committee and Mon Literature Contest Sub-committee from his release until 1988.  Another senior member of the MNDF was president of the Mon Literature Culture and Committee in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The Kachin Youth Culture Uplift Association was formed in Kachin state by school headmaster Brang Seng who became president of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, itself possibly born out of a university based Kachin literature society called the Seven Stars in the 1950’s.

Salai Tin Maung Oo, the only known student democracy activist to be officially executed by the military regime was secretary of the Rangoon University Chin Culture and Literature Association.

In recent times, Dr Saik Mawk Kham, one of two vice presidents under the Thein Sein administration was a former chairman of the Shan Culture and Literature Association.  Khun Htun Oo, President of the Shan Nationality League for Democracy was also chairman of the Shan Culture and Literature Association.

The former chairman of the Taang Culture and Literature Association, U Win Kyaw was elected Governor of Palaung special region in 2016.

Nor is this intersection confined to the ethnic culture and literature associations.  The NLD government had at least 12 writers elected in the 2015 elections.  Including at least 2 members of the Myanmar Writers Association and Nay Phone Latt, a then member of the Myanmar chapter of PEN International.

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During the first Panglong Conference in March 1946, U Saw, the former premier (and assassin of Gen Aung San) and Shan Saopha of Yawnghwe formed the United Myanmar Cultural Society, the first and still only attempt at an inclusive cultural organisation of all the ethnic communities.  The objective was to introduce the shared study of languages, customs and religions between all the people of Myanmar to establish a better and mutual understanding.

This admirable ideal was put into practice at the second and more famous Panglong conference from 6th to 12th February 1947.  Many seem to forget that this ‘conference’ was actually titled a ‘pwe’ or festival, indicating that not only would this be a site for political discussion on the future of the nation, but also a time for cultural celebration.  The progamme for the event (printed by the Nyaungnankyetthaye Press in Yawnghwe, Shan State, later to be forcibly shut down by Ne Win) listed times for the cattle shows, plowing demonstrations and an arts and craft exhibition open from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm every day.

That first glimmer of a shared appreciation of culture and literature died in the Secretariat on July 19th 1947.  As the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement negotiations stretches on across multiple administrations it is clear that the organisers of the 21st Century Panglong Peace conference have forgotten the cultural spirit that the original conference they hope to imitate was built on.

This is to everyone’s detriment.  Often the issues are not just political or economical but are rooted in a cultural legacy.  The Chinese backed Myitsone dam development is a great example of this.  Opposition has focused on the ecological damage done by the dam construction but there is also a cultural root to the discord.

The story goes that a long time ago a Chinese emperor named Huang De journeyed into the Myitsone region and died.  The Kachin don’t know why he was there or how he died but he was buried in a hill on the west side of the confluence.  In animist times, a Kachin prophet declared that the Kachin people must find his body and place a marble in his grave so it will soak up the king’s power otherwise the Chinese will forever have control over the Kachin people.  It is not remembered if this was done, but many elders believe it was not seeing how the Chinese are pushing for the dam’s completion.  The recent visit by the Chinese ambassador in Myanmar to the Kachin Baptist Convention aggressively warning them not to fight against the dam is only further proof to the Kachin.

Failure to understand – unlike their predecessors – that cultural transmission is just as important as political unification, will, I believe be one of the greatest mistakes that any administration will make in the many years to come.   The ethnic culture and literature associations are one answer to this mistake.

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