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An open letter to Burma’s leaders

Suu Kyi meeting with Min Aung Hlaing (R) and Thein Sein (L) on 1 October, 2014. (PHOTO: DVB)

By Maung Zarni
December 9, 2015


Retired Snr-Gen. Than Shwe
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
President Thein Sein
Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing


As a Burmese I am heartened to hear the news of the four leaders working diligently to end half a century of authoritarian rule and usher in a democratic transition.

Both the public at home and the international media can be heard applauding your admirable efforts to prevent what could have been the latest in Burma’s bloody political tradition of the changing of the guard, whereby the usurper ‘ate’ the sitting one’s ‘head’ – as we say in Burmese. Like many Burmese I very much welcome the prospect of the Old Guard transferring power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) which unmistakably enjoys a broad mandate from the national electorate.

It is against this auspicious backdrop that I call to your attention the two major issues that concern our nation of multi-ethnic and multi-faith communities; first, the long-running civil war against non-Bamar or non-Myanmar peoples, and second, the slow genocide of the Rohingya.

These two national issues of main concern here amount to crimes of national significance.

As a country, we must end the bloody civil war that the Tatmadaw has been waging ferociously and ruthlessly against our own ethnic brethren, during which the lives of millions have been destroyed and communities displaced and terrorised. Equally important, we must end what is credibly and increasingly commonly viewed as a national policy of genocide against the Rohingya.

I must remind you that in the past, successive post-independence Burmese governments have officially and verifiably recognised the Rohingya as an ethnic group of our country living in their ancestral land – the borderlands between the post-WWII new nation-states of former Burma/Myanmar and former East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

As a matter of fact, less than a year after our country’s independence from Britain, the Rohingya leaders officially sent a written letter (dated 9 December 1948) to the country’s first Prime Minister U Nu. The letter established that their distinct ethnic community of Rohingya was an integral and constitutive member of the newly independent Union of Burma, rejecting the view that they wanted to be a part of the predominantly Muslim country of Pakistan next door.

The letter registered their intent to remain a part of Burma and pledged their unwavering allegiance to the new country. Furthermore, the same official letter – which the Special Branch of the Ministry of Home Affairs archived, expressed their willingness to live peacefully side by side with the majority Buddhist Rakhine [Arakanese] whom the letter addressed as “our brethren”.

In our country today when the public hear the word ‘Rohingya’, most immediately assume them to be illegal ‘Bengali’ from Bangladesh who are lying to the world about the non-existent and fictitious ethnic identity.

This unwarranted assumption came about as the direct result of a sustained propaganda effort by Military Intelligence. The project was designed to present the Rohingya as a people with no roots in Burma.

Instead we would do well to remember that the modern nation-state of Burma, born out of the clutches of Britain’s colonial rule, is the outcome of a voluntary association among the disparate ethnic communities that now form a part of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar.

When U Aung San and key members of his post-WWII cabinet under the British Governor, including the highly respected Muslim leader U Razak were murdered in 1947, Aung San’s surviving Bamar colleagues blatantly broke bloke most important promise of fair power-sharing arrangement anchored in the principle of equality among main ethnic groups.

It would be fair to say that it is the political dishonesty and failure to uphold the founding agreement on the part of our own Bamar political and military leaders that gave birth to various ethnic armed revolts. The civil war, however limited to certain regions of Burma, has been raging for over six decades.

The non-Bamar communities experience the Tatmadaw’s nation-building measures nothing short of internal Bamar colonialism similar to Britain’s ‘pacification campaign’ of the highlands in 1890s.

Even our National Day celebrations are an affront to them. For they have their own respective national days and martyrs which we choose not to acknowledge.

Likewise, the government’s systematic attempts to wipe out the Rohingya, in terms of their social, political and economic foundations, as well as their literal existence have been going on for almost 40 years.

In a nutshell, our country is plagued by a myriad of problems. They are the direct result of the failures on the part of national leaders, politicians and generals to uphold truths, to speak out when truths are butchered and verifiable lies of national significance are enshrined as facts. Armed conflicts, religion-based racism, ethnic and economic tensions have come to characterise our country, once considered one of Asia’s bright post-colonial nations.

The people have paid the price for the leaders’ failures.

The current transition, however peaceful, from the military rule to the semi-democratic NLD government lacks the potential to end the two national crises that I have focused on. We cannot build a democracy or a peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-faith modern nation on the basis of official lies and broken promises of Burma’s founders.

May I remind us all that the late U Aung San held dear “love of truth” as a guiding principle in life and politics. He wrote and talked to his friends about how much he wanted to instill this value in his three children. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would know this incomparably better than me, of course.

For the military leaders who studied at the Defence Services Academy for four full years, you would recall that all officer cadets were required to read a collection of essays by and about the Tatmadaw’s founding father, U Aung San, entitled ‘The Thoughts, the Conducts and the Deeds of General Aung San’. The essays portrayed him as the model leader: an honest, compassionate, selfless and genuine patriot with an open intellectual mind.

The leaders who abuse non-Bamar ethnic minorities are betraying U Aung San’s vision of the Federal Union of Burma as a place where citizenship is both colour and faith-blind and where “indigenous” simply meant anyone who was born on the Burmese soil and who wishes to contribute to the building of a multi-ethnic country.

In the midst of optimism among the mainstream Burmese majority as well as the international cheerleaders of the ‘Myanmar Spring’, it is high time for our four leaders to snap out of the dark legacies of the past military rule, under which lies are truths, and truths are considered treasonous.

It is imperative that the four of you, our most influential national leaders, return to U Aung San’s vision and values. After all we are self-proclaimed Buddhists who are to appreciate the short-lived nature of all human lives.

May I, from the bottom of my heart, urge you to endeavour to end the slow genocide of the Rohingya and to bring about the cessation of all military offensives against our own ethnic brethren in eastern Burma in particular.

May you be well in mind and body. May all in Burma be at peace,

Maung Zarni

In permanent exile, United Kingdom.

This is the abridged English translation of the original Burmese, downloadable at The full English version is also at

Maung Zarni is a Burmese dissident scholar with 27-years of involvement in the country’s politics. He has just completed concurrent visiting academic fellowships at Harvard and the London School of Economics.

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