5 March, 2024


Mismanaged Ethnic Conflicts & Resultant Tragedies Of Myanmar & Sri Lanka

By Harsha Gunasena

Harsha Gunasena

Myanmar and Sri Lanka are having a relationship running into centuries. When Emperor Ashoka sent Venerable Mahinda to Sri Lanka in third century BC, he has sent two Bhikkus to Suvannabhumi which is believed to be the parts of current Myanmar. During the reign of the King Anawrahta (1014-1078 AD) Sri Lankan Bhikkus helped the revival or reintroduction of Buddhism in Myanmar. Thereafter the two countries had strong relationship not only on Buddhism but also on trade as well. Later higher ordination which was lost in Sri Lanka was brought from Myanmar not only on prominent instances of establishing the sects of Amarapura and Ramanna in the 19th century but also prior to that during the time of King Vimaladharmasuriya I in the 16th century.

Myanmar is in the headlines of world news these days, not for good reasons but for very bad reasons. There was a coup, and the Military took over the government by force on February 1, 2021. People are protesting and the Military is shooting back to unarmed demonstrators.  Day by day there are more deaths reported as protests continue across Myanmar. Mahn Win Khaing Than, the acting leader of Myanmar’s parallel civilian government, which is called Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Both houses of the National Assembly)- CRPH, appointed by legislators who were removed following a power grab by the military in February, has promised to pursue a “revolution” to overturn the military government. He is in hiding along with most senior officials from the governing National League for Democracy Party (NLD), addressed the public via Facebook.

The Military of Myanmar is ruthless, cannot be trusted and unacceptable as a political authority except for the persons like Dinesh Gunawardena who invited the Foreign Minister of Military Junta of Myanmar to the BIMSTEC Summit to be held in Sri Lanka. It is clearly visible that the Military Junta does not represent the views of the people of Myanmar from whom the sovereign power of the Union is derived, according to the Military facilitated 2008 constitution of Myanmar (Article 4). It is not a kingdom of the Military. Therefore, this invitation is questionable. 

In July 1962 there were riots at the University of Rangoon and the troops were sent to restore order. Military dictator Ne Win said, “if these disturbances were made to challenge us, I have to declare that we will fight sword with sword and spear with spear”. The Military  fired on protesters and destroyed the student union building. After the uprising started on 8 August 1988, the same Ne Win said, “army would have to be called and I would like to declare from here that if the army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit” It was reported that the death toll was around 3000.


The main ethnic group in Myanmar is Bamar (Burmans) (68%). Others are Shan(9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine(1.7%), Chinese (2.5%), Mon (2%), Kachin (1.5%), Indians (1.25%)  Kayah (1.83%) Chin and several other groups. The State recognizes 135 different ethnic groups. It is the position of the Myanmar that the Muslim community of Rohingya who occupies northern Rakhine area bordering to Bangladesh are the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Buddhists accounts for 88% of the population, 6% Christians and 4% belongs to Islam.

Prior to the independence from British, in order to achieve independence speedily, Aung San, Head of the transitional government signed an agreement with the minority ethnic groups in February 1947 which was called the Panglong Agreement where full autonomy in internal administration of the Frontier Areas of the ethnic minorities was promised by the government in principle. Frontier Areas means the areas of the ethnic minorities which did not come under the Burmans in the history. Therefore, there was a historical reason for their request although all of them got together to get independence from the British. Aung San was assassinated in July 1947 prior to the independence and the agreement was not honored by the successive governments dominated by Burmans who were not in favour of granting more autonomy to the Regions. As a result, ethnic clashes started.

Soon after the independence During the time of U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Myanmar, there was an uprising of the communists which was suppressed. There was a division of the ruling party, Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League and U Nu survived narrowly at a no confidence motion against him. With the irrupting ethnic clashes, he invited Ne Win, a Burman Military officer to take over the government temporarily in 1958 overlooking the Chief of Staff Smith Dun, a Karen. Ne Win handed back the power in 1960 but in 1962 he took back the power forcibly. It was the beginning of a long period until a civilian government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi took power in 2015.

Ethnic clashes throughout the country needed a strong government in the center which paved the way for the military regime. Once obtained power military strengthened its position in governance.

However, the ethnic clashes continued. Different ethnicities are having their own militias. They feel that they are insecure without these militias. In addition to that there are other militias as well. Some of the militias work in collaboration with the Military of Myanmar. Some of the militias engage in direct clashes with the Military which is called Tatmadaw. There are four types of militias in Myanmar. Those are Tatmadaw-integrated militias, Tatmadaw non-integrated militias, Tatmadaw-operated community militias and Ethnic Armed Organization (EAO) militias. Some of these militias are engaged in illegal activities such as the drug business. It was said that these militias occupy around one third of the land of Myanmar. .(Militias in Myanmar- John Buchanan)

Although it tried to engage in peace negotiations with the various ethnic groups Military disagreed with the main request of the ethnic groups, a federal solution.

In Myanmar the majority is against sharing power. At a survey conducted under the supervision of the International Republican Institute, USA in 2019 following question was asked from the participants. “Do you support giving the States/Regions more autonomy and power so that they can make decisions for themselves, or do you think that all power and decisions should be centralized and made by the Union Government”.  70% of the participants said that they were for centralization and 28% said that they were for decentralization. 8% was undecided. 53% preferred the regional Chief Ministers be appointed by the Union Government. 39% preferred that they be elected by the regions and 8% was undecided. Out of the participants 70% were the majority Burmans. (Public Opinion Survey Myanmar-2019- Center for Insights in Survey Research)

Situation was not changed significantly even after Suu Kyi came to power 2015. Suu Kyi’s stand on Rohingya Muslims is well known. Gambia filed a case against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the allegation of genocide of Rohingyas. She represented the country and argued the case.  Suu Kyi has reached out to the ethnic minority political parties to discuss improving relations during her tenure. Several of the parties accepted her offer, but several others remain skeptical, given her perceived disregard of minority concerns over the last five years.

However, NLD tried to change the constitution introduced by the Military in 2008, where Military have 25% of the seats of both the houses and the constitution can be amended only with more than 75% approval of the House of Representatives. In addition to that a referendum is needed to amend certain articles (Article 436). NLD proposed to amend the constitution in 2020;  to give more powers to State and Regional legislatures by amending articles  188,196,198(b) and 198(d); . to restrict the interference for the center in periphery by amending articles 225 and 226; to give more power to the Regions and States in appointing the Chief Minister, appointing and termination of the Ministers to the Regions and States by amending articles 261, 262 and 264.  The Amendments were not approved since the Military did not support them.

Therefore, NLD was more responsive to the ethnic issue compared to the Military. This was proved in the recent general elections which were nullified by the Military which was held on November 8, 2020. The House of Nationalities and the House of Representatives are the two Houses of the National Assembly of Myanmar. NLD lead by Suu Kyi won the House of Nationalities with 61.6% and the House of Representatives with 58.6% out of the total number of seats counting the allocated seats to the Military with the total. In both houses NLD won the majority covering the areas of all the States and Regions except for Rakhine and Shan States. NLD lost these States in both houses. Elections of State and Regional Houses also were held and NLD won 56.9% of out of the total seats including 25% allocation to the Military. In addition to that there were 29 Ministers of Ethnic Affairs elected to State and Regional houses and 79% of them were from NLD. The elections were cancelled due to insurgency of 3.1%, 3.4% and 5.5% of the seats of House of Nationalities, House of Representatives and State and Regional houses respectively. Therefore, the victory for NLD was a landslide victory where they have increased the number of seats in both Houses in the National Assembly and State and Regional Houses compared to the general election held in 2015. Election monitors found that the election results were credible and reflecting the will of the majority of voters.

The people of Myanmar enjoyed the taste of freedom during the period NLD was in power. Hence, they will continue to agitate against the Military rule. If the regional ethnic groups and their militias can support the people, the situation would be difficult for the Military. For that the majority Burmans should forgo their interest for the centralized state. Hence the problem is coming to the point where the whole issue was started. At the beginning it was the independence from the British empire and now it is the independence from the Military. Therefore, not solving the ethnic problem in Myanmar came back destroying the freedom of the very people who oppose the devolution of power by way of an autocratic rule in the Center.

China and Russia firmly back the current Military Junta in the international forums. It is beneficial for China to have an isolated regime without any friends to take its agenda forward.

Sri Lanka

The situation of Sri Lanka is a mild form of the situation in Myanmar. The core problem of the country is ethnic issue which paved the way for 30 yearlong internal conflict. Majority Sinhalese do not like to devolve power to the periphery. Several attempts were made by different political leaders to devolve power, but all were failed. This resulted the armed internal conflict and during the conflict with the influence of India, the 13th amendment to the constitution was brought in as a solution. However, militants did not accept it and finally they were defeated in war.

The previous government (2015-2019) started reforms based on popular demand and a democratic space for the people was created. The power of the President was reduced and that of the Parliament was strengthened by the 19th amendment to the constitution. The government was in the process of preparation of a new constitution on one hand to convert the governance structure to a Westminster system once again and on the other hand to give more power to the Provincial Councils.

After Easter Sunday attacks the popular thinking was changed. There were demands that the post of the President should be strengthened, and this was done with the 20th amendment to the constitution and associated autocratic moves by the government which were highlighted in the recent United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) resolution 46/1 as well. Now there are demands that the limited powers given to the provinces also should be reduced. It is difficult to implement it mainly due to the opposition of India. However, the people who are used to the expanded democratic space during the previous regime cannot be suppressed easily by the strengthened centralized power of the President. China and Russia back Sri Lanka against the international pressure.

Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Myanmar became independent on 4 January 1948 and Sri Lanka became independent one month later, on 4 February 1948.

Majority of both the countries, Burmans and Sinhalese oppose federal constitutions. In Myanmar they use the term Union and in Sri Lanka they use the term Unitary State. All of them oppose even to the word, federal.

Burmans and Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists. The divisions in both countries are mainly based on ethnicity and to a lesser extent on the religion. In Myanmar there are conflicts among Buddhist ethnic groups as well which is not the case in Sri Lanka and therefore Sinhala Buddhists are a cohesive group.

In Myanmar getting the Center strengthened was a result of not devolving the power to the Periphery in time by popular demand. In Sri Lanka in the recent history, when the liberals were strong the tendency is to devolve the power to the Periphery and reduce the autocratic power of the Center. When the nationalists are strong which is the current situation, the tendency is to centralize the power horizontally as well as vertically. If the situation continues Sri Lanka also can experience what Myanmar is experiencing.

Democratic states with devolved power are not weak states. Strongness comes with unity and not with divisions. If unity is not there within the country, then it is easier for the international power players to enter the country. It happened in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and it is happening in Myanmar now.

In Myanmar it is difficult for the Junta to control the situation although they are killing innocent people left and right since people know what the freedom was during the NLD regime. In Sri Lanka the image of the President who was feared very much before he came to power was reduced in line with the democratic freedom people enjoyed during the previous regime.

Myanmar and Sri Lanka were reported to ICJ and UNHRC respectively about their treatment to the ethnic minorities. Therefore, the situation of both countries in this respect is internationalized.

China and Russia are backing the regimes of both the countries when the international pressure comes.

Myanmar is in the illegal and illegitimate hands of the Military. Suu Kyi who has made immense personal sacrifices towards democracy in Myanmar was detained. Death toll is over 500. The world should move forward in the direction of recognizing the parallel civilian government, Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews said that Myanmar need the help of the international community and they need that help now.

(some of the information was gathered from Wikipedia)

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Latest comments

  • 8

    Harsha Gunasena,

    Why are you afraid to say that Sri Lanka needs the help of the international community and they need that help now?
    Are you waiting for a situation worse again like that in Myanmar now to say that?

    Or, are you worried about a white van visiting you?

    • 9

      The military in Myanmar is under the control of China and Sri Lankan Rajapaksa military regime is under the control of China. White Vans are official vehicles of transport of human beings in Sri Lanka now.

    • 3

      Sri Lanka is not under a military dictatorship as Myanmar.
      What is the morality of a coward who covers himself behind a pseudonym even to make a comment, and asking me whether I am afraid? I have said what is to be said.

  • 7

    I guess Lankan Monks revived or reintroduced Myanmar with their own brand of Lankan SB , where we see the rabid fanatism and minority cleansing.. As I mentioned, when countries identify with Myanmar and North Korea, no sensible country other than Juntas , will support us in future. Putin just claimed ownership of Russia until 2036. I would not categorize Lanka as milder form or situation, because person like Suu Kyi in Lanka, would have been buried 8 feet under by now.

  • 8


    Yes, Sri Lanka is not a military dictatorship yet, but for all practical purposes to Tamils in the North-East they are close to one.

    Furthermore, don’t forget all the regular pogroms against Tamils committed by Sinhalese thugs since 1956. Most of them were instigated by the governments in power then, and the security forces aiding and abetting in it.

    Most important of all during the end of the war the security forces committed genocide of Tamil killing about 150, 000 innocent men, women and children by bombing and shelling indiscriminately. Advance countries like the US , UK and others have evidence of these from Satellite videos, etc. They will be produced at the appropriate time I believe.

    Sri Lanka does not have to be an exact parallel to Myanmar, but Sri Lanka has committed far more atrocities to Tamils over 72 years.

    Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka have committed genocide of minority nations within in different ways. I hope your conscience, if you have one will attest to what I say.

    According to international experts on genocide what has been happening, and still happening to date to Tamils of the North-East is genocide.

    The present regime is working at an accelerated pace to completely wipe out the Tamil nation inside by colonizing the the North-East with Sinhalese from the South.

    • 2

      Harsha, you, and I are on the same side. You should be happy that some Sinhalese like Harsha and me are clearly stating that Tamils and Muslims have to be treated better than is now the case.
      I hope that other readers will go back and see what was said here:

      We may not go as far as you do, but I have no objection to your presenting an even stronger case than we do. We want to remain one country, but if we break up, I will accept it.
      One problem is that most of our people vote like fools, and there is little doubt in my mind that if the communal cries are sustained by the Double-Pakshas they may outvote us again. To that extent, this is a legitimate government.
      I feel myself that external intervention may be necessary; if it comes, I may not be whole-hearted in approving it.

  • 4

    Why change when the system is working?

    Militaries of both countries have won against terrorists.

  • 1

    Dear Harsha Gunasena,
    Thanks for the article. One angle often missed out in Ceylon is the role of the Judiciary. Unlike in South Africa, we failed to build a robust Judiciary, which weathered political changes. The early appointments to CJ after independence were persons the Government deemed safe. The Judiciary never recovered, except perhaps briefly under Neville Samarakoon.

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