A major sticking point in ongoing negotiations between the Myanmar government, the autonomous military and the nation’s many ethnic armed groups concerns how much autonomy should be granted to frontier areas and how that devolution of power should be distributed among various ethnic groups.

Despite recent elections and a transition to quasi-democracy, the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, remains the most powerful institution in the country. Successive military leaders have belittled, denied and squelched the grievances of ethnic minorities, including chronic complaints of military abuses and insensitivities that have perpetuated armed conflict.

Those attitudes have carried over to de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ongoing 21st Century Panglong peace initiative. Armed forces commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said in his opening address at the conference on May 24 that it was necessary to move past the “misjudgments and misunderstandings” among ethnic groups that have led to “the armed conflicts that have sprung up from those wrong opinions.”

Internally, however, the military must be aware of the many problems independent Myanmar, previously known as Burma, inherited upon achieving independence from colonial rule. The former British colony awkwardly lumped together peoples with little in common or entrenched in conflicts that predated the colonialists’ 19th century arrival.

The British exploited those centuries-old ethnic tensions in divide-and-rule fashion– a tactic the Myanmar military later adopted to maintain the status quo of ethnic Burman rule in a highly-centralized political system. That cynical approach to peace and reconciliation is most clearly seen in the official military claim that Myanmar is home to “135 national races.”

An ethnic woman takes a selfie with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun - RTX37CJT
An ethnic woman takes a selfie with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar May 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

It is unclear, however, what the military really means by “race.” An official list of the supposed 135 races was compiled in a 2014 census — even though it does not, as some military spokesmen have asserted, date to the British colonial era. The 1931 Census of India, the last census conducted during British rule, lists no more than 20 ethnic groups, including people of Chinese and Indian descent.

The 1982 Citizenship Law, which controversially defined different types of citizenship and deprived certain groups of that right, does not explicitly say that there are 135 national races. Rather, it specifies different degrees of citizenship depending on how long an ethnic group has been settled within the current national boundaries.

The law also states that ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and others that resided in Myanmar prior to the 1824-1826 Anglo-Burmese War are considered full Myanmar citizens. No first date of arrival is mentioned in the law. Others who arrived after that war could be recognized as “associate” or “naturalized” citizens, according to the law.

The 135 national races concept was first advanced in the early 1990s, when Myanmar was ruled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military junta. But those precise ethnicities were not specifically identified at the time.

Myanmar-Ethnic Groups-Map-October -2016

Myanmar expert Martin Smith wrote in his 1994 study “Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights” that the SLORC mentioned “135 national races” but “has produced no reliable data or list of names.”

One of the earliest references to 135 national races was in an article written by an unnamed “high-ranking Tatmadaw officer” published on August 7, 1991 in the then official organ, Working People’s Daily. “The fact that there are 135 national races living in Myanmar…is a hindrance to the idea of drafting a constitution based on the ‘big race concept,’” the article said.

The seminal article’s underlying, though not overtly stated, premise was that all major ethnic groups should be split into smaller sub-groups to avoid recognition of and negotiation with “big races”, namely the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan ethnic groups, among others.

The first official list of all 135 national races was produced just prior to the 2014 national census. The list mentions a dozen different “national races” in Kachin state, nine in Kayah state, 11 in Kayin state, 53 in Chin state, nine separate ethnic Bamar groups, one in Mon state, seven in Rakhine state and 33 in Shan state.

Soldiers from the Shan State Army-South march in formation during a military parade celebrating the 69th Shan State National Day at Loi Tai Leng, the group's headquarters, on the Thai-Myanmar border February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX25TH3
Shan State Army-South soldiers march during a military parade celebrating the 69th Shan State National Day at Loi Tai Leng, the group’s headquarters, on the Thai-Myanmar border February 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Ethnic lines are blurred in nearly all the classifications. A closer examination of the Shan state list, for example, reveals that Tai Long, or “big Shan”, is listed twice: once as Tai Long and the other as Shan Gyi, which have the precise same meaning in Shan.

In Kachin state, the Hkakhu is classified as a separate ethnic group, although it refers only to people living “up the river”, i.e. above the confluence of the Mali Hka and the Nmai Hka Rivers, which form the nation’s main Irrawaddy River. Gauri, a clan rather than an ethnic group, is also listed as a separate race.

The list of 53 national races in Chin state, meanwhile, is actually a compilation of various dialects spoken among the Chins. The rest of the racial list is similarly fanciful in its creation of separate races from coherent large ethnic groups.

Some suspect the military divined the supposed number of national races through numerology. When the SLORC junta declared there were exactly 135 national races, some analysts noted that the three digits – 1, 3 and 5 –summed equal the number 9, the military’s supposedly lucky number symbolizing unity.

Ethnics leaders and Myanmar government officials attend the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun - RTX2NPE1
Ethnics leaders and Myanmar government officials attend the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar August 31, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Under previous military regimes, major decisions were almost always taken on dates whose digits added up to the number 9. The 1988 military takeover occurred on September 18 of that year. Then pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest on July 18, 1989, while the later annulled 1990 election her party won was held on May 27. At one point, Myanmar even had 45 and 90 kyat banknotes.

Using numerology as a guide to national peace and unity in a nation with as many diverse ethnic groups as Myanmar, and where civil war has been raging since independence in 1948, hardly seems like a sensible way forward. A more realistic, fact-based approach, one which examines why all previous attempts to establish peace and reconciliation have failed, is clearly needed.

Whether the country should be a federal union, as most ethnic minority groups demand, or maintain a highly centralized national structure, as the military believes necessary to prevent disintegration on ethnic lines, the issue will not be settled any time soon if there are as many as 135 seats representing each supposed national race at the peace talks table.