Is Burma ready for civic nationalism?

  • Written by Sai Khuensai /S.H.A.N
  • Published in Op-ed

Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first;

Nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), French general and statesman

I never knew the world has different terms for different nationalisms until the 19-25 November issue of The Economist recently reached my hands.

Of course, having been in and out of Thailand for more than 45 years, I know my cousins have their own separate terms: kinship by blood (ñati-thang-sailued) and kinship by principles and laws (ñati-thang-dhamma) accepted within a diverse and broad community. What the Thais call “Chart” (Nation) comprises both kinships.

According to Michael Ignatieff, Canadian politician and academic, “Ethnic Nationalism” and “Civic Nationalism” can be compared in the following way:


In addition, says The Economist, civic nationalism unites the country around common values, such as freedom and equality, to accomplish things that people could never manage alone. “It contrasts with ethnic nationalism, which is zero-sum, aggressive and nostalgic and which draws on race or history to set the nation apart. In its darkest hour in the first half of the 20th century, ethnic nationalisms led to war.”

Our present leaders, as well as their predecessors, perhaps with the exception of Aung San, who started out during British rule with “ethnic nationalism” seem to think they have developed to “civic nationalism”, by dumping “Burma” which the pre-Independence legislature had adopted, and restyling the country “Myanmar” without bothering to ask the nation. They should find out the truth about themselves by allowing the non-Bamars (or, non-Burmans, or non-Burmese) to rule for a while, and re-examine their feelings about being civic nationalists under non-Burman’s dominance.

The truth that is going to emerge is not what our leaders may anticipate:

    Whatever they’ve been saying about “Myanmar” being an all embracing label for the diverse ethnicities of the country, at heart they themselves are still “Bamar”
    That as long as they are not giving up their own “ethnic nationalism,” it will not be fair for them to urge the non-Burmans to get rid of their “narrow minded racism,” like they tried to do at the 21st Century Panglong. Perhaps our leaders still need somebody to remind them a leader only leads by example, not words

Fortunately, our Burmese rulers are not alone. Once again, the world has returned to ethnic nationalisms with leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the likes.

But unfortunately, this resurgence of ethnic nationalism will not guarantee world peace, let alone peace in Burma, but will only push the whole planet toward war and destruction.