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Shan State

Once the masters of the Burmans when they ruled after the collapse of the Pagan-based monarchy, the Shans have no historical inferiority complex. In the centuries after the Pagan period, the Shans developed their own monarchies where Shan mandalas of power oscillated constantly as more powerful Burmese and Thai kings contested each other. Deference to outside royalty was a small price to pay for considerable Shan independence internally. The Shans were basically rice farmers, skillful traders, and a valley people. In matters of governance, historically they have allowed an aristocratic elite to rule them. Much like their Burman neighbors and linguistically and genetically very close to the ethnic majority in Thailand, they nevertheless have maintained a uniqueness. The Shans have preserved customs and beliefs long since forgotten by their neighbors, for their society fosters such fidelity. For example, a Shan scholar has referred to the range of their monastic practices as "a living museum of ancient sectarianism" because nowhere else in Burma have people so cherished and preserved the diversity of their Buddhist heritage. Under policies and programs of early Burmese nationalists and later of military socialists, however, Shans have shed diversity more and more each year.

Certainly, the Shan era of the sawbwa (chieftain) was gone forever, and with the era's demise also departed much local feuding and many traditional graces. The fierce independence that each local world emperor engendered, however, had not likewise departed. Whether or not one accepted the belief that Shan plans for possible independence from Burma helped to motivate the army coup in 1962, one had to recognize that many Shans still believed they deserved more than token statehood or representation in the Union Day parade at Rangoon each February 12. If they were to be caught permanently in the web of nationbuilding, then many Shans wondered whether the nation planned simply to take more from the Shans than it would ever return, as traditional Southeast Asian village wisdo m has always maintained is inevitable. Trapped in such a web, the Shans then could turn to the ancient arts of obfuscation, insurgency, and armed insurrection as options, or perhaps accept funding from outsiders who would like to harness internal discontent for international purposes. Another obvious alternative was to become a "born again" socialist, join the mass party, and seek fortune and fame with the Burman majority.

Assimilation in the Burman majority was a painful decision, as would be a similar process if Shans were absorbed into Thailand, where minorities were not tolerated as separate entities but were put under constant pressure to become Thai in language, dress, religion, and politics. Faced with unwelcome pressure to assimilate by both the Burmans and the Thai, many Shans sought to establish whatever symbolic or real uniqueness they could manage. Peculiarities of language and script were preserved, their form of Theravada Buddhism was different in many subtle ways from that of their neighbors and, most importantly, historical evidence for their right to independence was not allowed to be forgotten.

A few Shans have become involved in the smuggling and opium trade as a means of generating income and power. Fragile alliances have been made with Chinese-backed communist groups, descendants of the Chinese Nationalist troops, or with other ethnic groups in rebellion, such as the Karens, Was, or Kachins.

Using trails and a centuries-old smuggling network, Shans could move great quantities of material into Thailand. Much Burmese Buddhist art reached Bangkok by that route, and a Chinesecontrolled smuggled jade business thrived as part of the same network. In the early 1980s the smuggling and drug traffic continued, despite decades of sporadic army efforts on both sides of the border to eliminate it or persuade the people to grow other crops or raise bees. The smuggling traffic also brought back into Burma the consumer goods for the thriving black market that provided what Burma's economy could or would not produce. The entire illegal system provided funds that would be used to keep alive Shan hopes for more autonomy.

Such hopes were not very realistic if most outside observers of the Burmese scene are correct. BSPP committees in Shan State were carefully fashioned by the military-controlled, unityconscious leadership in Rangoon, whose ultimate goal was an integrated society tightly controlled by a central government, not a loose federation of states with a strong leader at the center of each. In such an environment it did little good to evoke the memory of the old Panglong Agreement days where national hero General Aung San had forged a bonding spirit that gave the Shans and others hope of more autonomy. Moreover, under the BSPP programs, the natural wealth in agricultural products, teak, ore, hydroelectric potential, or precious stones in Shsn State was to be harnessed not so much for itself as for the higher goals of the socialist development of the entire country.

Perhaps the greatest danger to Shan autonomy would come when young Shans, indoctrinated in a highly controlled public education system, began to believe that the old Shan sawbwas were truly the archetypal aristocratic villains of socialist lore, whose demise was a victory over the forces of evil and a blow struck for the freedom of the masses. If Rangoon rhetoric succeeded in discrediting the sawbwas as oppressors of its peasants and workers, then the BSPP enticements of socialist power and plenty might yet have genuine appeal and efficacy, because the sawbwas in the early 1980s were vital symbols of Shan political identity, as they had been for centuries. The official attitude was that minorities could have their cultural unity within the framework of political unity. Minority identity would then become harmless theatrics epitomized in the Union Day parade at Rangoon, when the Shan minorities marched in their proper alphabetical place for a majority Burman crowd. Because many Shans rejected this role, Shan rebellions continued, other Shans dragged their feet in the nationalizing process, and still others cooperated with the socialist system either because they believed in it or because they hoped it might yet be possible to assert unique Sham claim in the People's Assembly.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:31 ZULU