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ARTICLES English Violation of Ethnic Rights in Burma: Who are the Zomi
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Violation of Ethnic Rights in Burma: Who are the Zomi

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Recently, the Union Election Commission of the Burmese Government rejected the Zomi National Congress (ZNC) registration request as a national party for entrance into the country’s political landscape over a naming row. Union Election Commission’s deputy director Hla Maung Cho was quoted saying the ZNC was unable to register the party because the term ‘Zomi’ is not recognised by the Burmese government. The party was told to change its name and to reapply for registration before the end of May, 2012.

The Zomi National Congress was registered as a party in 1988 representing all the ethnic people living in Chin State, Burma. The party won two seats in the infamous 1990 general elections but the results were later annulled by the then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1992. Subsequently, the party was announced illegitimate and has been banned from all political activities in Burma ever since. However, in an attempt to restore democracy and peace, ZNC operates as an opposition party along with other opposition parties such as the National League for Democracy and United Nationalities Alliances over the last two decades.

With the recent democratic reforms in Burma, ZNC reapplied for registration as a party to be involved in the country’s political reforms on March 8, 2012. However, the application was denied on the basis that the name “Zomi” does not represent any ethnic nationality in Burma. So who are the Zomi and where have they been all this time? In fact, the Zomi or Zo people (where ‘mi’ means people) have long inhabited the mountainous areas between India and Burma since early centuries. In Burma, the Zo people occupy the whole of Chin State and Kalay, Tamu and Khampat townships from Sagaing Division. It is estimated that there are about 3 million of Zomi population living today in Burma.

However, due to the lack of contacts with the outside world in the early days, the early literature often refers them as “Chin” instead of their own name “Zomi.” The name “Chin” was first imposed on them by the British when they first had contact with the Zo people in the 19th century. According to Dr. Vum Son, the author of The Zo History, the British adopted the name from the Burmese. It appears that the Burmese called the Zo people “Chin” for the simple reason that they discovered a basket carrying people occupying the western part of Chindwin River from their early contacts in the eleventh or twelfth century AD. “Chindwin” means “the valley of the baskets” as “chin” means basket in Burmese.

The Zo people have their own traditions, cultures and language completely different from the Burmese and they never called themselves ‘Chin’. Besides that many Zo people find it very difficult to accept a name other than the one they call themselves. After Burma gained independence from the British, many Zo people cannot accept the name Chin because they have never called themselves by that name, and, moreover, they know that the name Chin was officially used only after the British annexation.

Dr. Hau Go (1971), a Zomi scholar and lecturer at Mandalay University wrote: “Whatever Chin meant or means, however it originated and why, the obvious fact is that the designation ‘Chin’ is altogether foreign to us, it has been externally imposed to us. We respond to it out of necessity but we never appropriate it and never accept it and never use it to refer to ourselves. It is not only foreign but also derogatory, for it has become more or less synonymous with being uncivilised, uncultured, backward, even foolish and silly.”

One of the Zomi National Congress party’s objectives is to reinstate their own Zomi identity and origin as who they are and have been to themselves, and not simply whom they have been regarded as by others. The party claims that the demand for their own identity complies with the UN declaration of indigenous rights which states, in article 2, that indigenous people and individuals are free and equal to all other people and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular those based on their indigenous origin or identity. The Union Election Commission’s rejection of ZNC application to register as a party on the grounds of not recognising the term ‘Zomi’ seems to have a bigger implication than just denying a party.

ZNC chairman Pu Cin Sian Thang was quoted saying the government’s denial of the party’s right to mention their own ethnicity saddened him most and could lead to the disintegration of ethnic solidarity. He said, “it is not important whether we get to participate or not, but we are disappointed in having our rights got violated and being told that our ethnicity doesn’t exist in the country.”

The rejection of ZNC registration request shows that the government not only violates their rights altogether but also chooses not to recognise the existence of the Zo people which might suggest that Burma is willing to cleanse the Zomi ethnic group from the country. This is not the first time the Zomi ethnic group is denied their rights. They have been the subject of the systematic practice of ethnic cleansing under preceding governments.

Given the rapid change in Burma, it is a tragedy to see that the government still ignores to recognise the country’s ethnic nationalities and totally excludes them from getting involved in the political reforms. Ben Rogers from Christian Solidarity Worldwide rightly says that Burma is still a long way from genuine change, until it recognises and includes its ethnic nationalities, who make up 40% of the population and inhabit 60% of the land, so that they can live in peace, with equal rights, autonomy and respect for their ethnic, religious and cultural identity. Today in Burma, many ethnic nationalities still face oppressions and discriminations on a daily basis.

By: CSDal ( UK)

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