Cablegate: American Center Speaker Promotes Dialogue On

Published: Mon 23 Feb 2004 10:07 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) Summary: Embassy Rangoon's Public Affairs Section
hosted Fulbright Scholar Jeffrey Kamakahi for programs on
diversity, inequality, and social change with Burma's many
ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Though the target
audiences greatly appreciated his visit, they also expressed
their continued distrust of the ruling SPDC (particularly
with regard to the seven point "road map to democracy") and
the Burman/Buddhist majority. Despite common calls for NLD-
SPDC-ethnic group dialogue and demands for federalism, the
ethnic groups' internal divisions prevent a unified approach
to the SPDC. The Muslim community, marginalized and
oppressed by the SPDC and having no natural minority ethnic
affiliation, feels particularly powerless. End Summary.
Diversity and the Need to Look to the Future
2. (U) From February 8-14, Professor Jeffrey Kamakahi, a
professor of sociology from St. John's University in
Minnesota, and current Fulbright Scholar at Sendai
University in Japan, visited Burma (with Regional Fulbright
funding support) to give presentations on diversity,
inequality, and social change to a variety of ethnic,
racial, and religious groups. As a reflection of the value
Americans place in a diverse society, the program's
objective was to help our target audiences view diversity
positively and find mechanisms to constructively address
3. (U) The programs were directed at both cross-ethnic
political groups, such as the United Nationalities Alliance
(UNA) and the Ethnic Nationality Mediators' Fellowship
(ENMF), and mono-ethnic organizations, such as the Karen
Development Committee (KDC) and the Shan Language and
Literacy Association. In addition, the Professor met with
religious-based groups and individuals, such as the faculty
and students of the Myanmar Institute of Theology, the
recently retired Catholic archbishop of Rangoon, an
interfaith group organized by the Mandalay YMCA, and Muslim
Community religious and social leaders, as well as a student
group from a prominent Islamic Center.
4. (U) In his presentations, Professor Kamakahi stressed
the importance of looking to the future to establish a sense
of "identity" as a basis for increasing solidarity within a
society, rather than clinging solely to traditional ideas of
race and ethnicity that often divide communities. He
contended that ethnic and religious majorities are not as
monolithic as they seem and can often find common cause with
minority groups. He also emphasized, however, that the
majority often gets its way and that those with power try to
keep it.
"Second-class Citizens" Mistrust Government But Lack Unity
--------------------------------------------- -------------
5. (SBU) All the groups with whom Professor Kamakahi met
are attempting to address ethnic/religious identity issues
both in the general sense of coexisting equitably and
peacefully with a Burman-Buddhist majority, and in the
specific sense of determining how to defend their
ethnic/religious interests in the context of the SPDC's
seven-point road map to democracy. The road map includes
convening a national constitutional convention and holding a
referendum on the new constitution to be followed by
parliamentary elections to form a new government. The SPDC
has been conducting bilateral negotiations with a number of
ethnic groups to participate in the constitutional
convention. In that context, all groups expressed gratitude
to Professor Kamakahi for provoking discussion and providing
intellectual tools to address diversity issues.
6. (SBU) Professor Kamakahi's program also revealed a
unanimity among groups that ethnic and religious minorities
are treated as "second class citizens" even in the areas in
which they constitute a majority and that the SPDC (with its
policies of "divide and rule" and "Burmanization") could not
be trusted. Most also called for a "tripartite" dialogue
among the SPDC, NLD, and the ethnic groups.
7. (SBU) In many instances, the mistrust of the SPDC
extended to the Burman/Buddhist majority as well. A UNA
participant explained: "I hate Burman authority, not Burman
people," though he added that the SPDC was a "master race"
government. A Shan interlocutor commented that while he had
no problem trusting other ethnic groups, he could not trust
ethnic Burmans. Similar sentiment was expressed in meetings
with other ethnic and religious groups. In fact, none of
the ethnic groups have built significant alliances with the
members of the Burman-Buddhist majority. (Ironically, in
Mandalay, ethnic Burman Buddhists who expressed sympathy for
the plight of non-Buddhists, had nothing but mistrust for
the burgeoning Chinese community there.)
8. (SBU) Ethnic groups' common consensus disintegrates over
a number of issues, including what actions should be taken
in light of the SPDC road map. As much as the ENMF (which
is working with ethnic cease-fire groups) supports the
national constitutional convention envisioned by the SPDC
(under certain conditions), the UNA opposes it, and both
believe they represent the best interests of their own
ethnic groups. Perhaps revealing his own ideas on
diversity, one UNA representative likened an SPDC invitation
to the constitutional convention to "inviting a Muslim to
eat pork." The ENMF's more positive posture towards the
road map has drawn criticism for its leader, Reverend Saboi
Jum. Retired Catholic Bishop Gabriel, himself a Karen,
accused Saboi Jum of being an opportunist, personally
profiting financially from cease-fire negotiations.
9. (SBU) Another factor contributing to ethnic disunity was
the perception of each group's importance vis--vis the
other groups. For example, because of the KNU's support of
Burmese exile groups on the Thai border and the Karen
minority's wide geographic distribution within Burma, the
Karen community believes it is a leader among ethnic groups.
Commenting about participation in the national convention, a
Karen business leader said: "If we go in, the rest (of the
ethnic groups) will follow." Similarly, the Shan community
still feels an acute historical grievance: they believe that
the Union of Burma only exists because of the Shan
nationality's agreement to join in 1948.
Muslims Feel Powerless and Unrepresented
10. (SBU) Having emphasized their Burman identity in the
past, the Muslim community feels particularly helpless in
the face of SPDC oppression. For example, SPDC authorities
insist on identifying Muslims as "mixed race," a negative
attribute in the SPDC's "pure Burman" race construct.
Muslim leaders have supported the NLD in the past, but they
do not feel the NLD's support in return. And because they
have no natural ethnic affiliation (as some of the Christian
denominations do), Muslim interests are not even voiced (let
alone represented) in the current political environment.
The Muslims reserved particular disappointment for the
Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian governments for their
indifference to the plight of Burmese Muslims.
11. (SBU) In that context, the Muslim leaders appreciated
Professor Kamakahi's message of seeking commonality with
other groups in order to forge a future-oriented identity.
Commenting on the Professor's lecture to a student group
from a prominent local Islamic Center (the first such
Embassy event with this group), a Muslim leader said:
"You've said the right thing."
12. (SBU) Comment: Professor Kamakahi commented that most
of the groups seemed to be at the "pluralism" phase of
diversity, with each group defining itself by its past and
negotiating with other groups for its own parochial
interests. However, given the enthusiasm that greeted this
program, perhaps ethnic and religious groups will begin to
explore points of commonality among groups in Burmese
society (including the Burman/Buddhist majority) that will
help address constructively their historical grievances and
current political aspirations. End comment. MARTINEZ
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