Lian Sakhong's Martin Luther King Prize Acceptance Lecture
The Salemkyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden
15 January 2007
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Dear Friends:
When I was told that I had been awarded for the Martin Luther King Prize for 2007, I felt extremely honored. When I first heard from the chairperson of the Martin Luther King Prize, I was speechless because I could not believe what I was hearing. I certainly never expected such a prize for my involvement in this struggle. I am involved in this movement for just two reasons; first, it is to achieve for my country a free and open democratic system, which I think is often taken for granted here in Sweden.
Second, I am involved in this process for what I view as the very survival of my birth community of the Chin people in Burma and by extension the survival of my own ethnicity and identity as well as the other oppressed ethnic nationalities of Burma. So, it seems to me that what I am doing in this struggle is quite personal: reflecting my believes and struggling to achieve in the political context of Burma where those believes and my ethnic identity are valued and respected for my generation and the future generations of the peoples of Burma. You can understand that I did not expect any prize for working on something that reflects so much of my personal values. And I would like to take this opportunity and express my gratitude that it is one of the great privileges of belonging now to Swedish society that I have the freedom and a means to work and struggle to achieve what is important to me and the Chin people. To be associated with a prize bearing the name of one of the persons I most admire is an honor beyond anything I could ever have imagined
I must admit that I was quite delighted when I heard the name of Martin Luther King, who was one of my heroes since my university days in Rangoon. It also brought back many sweet memories of student life when we were young and dared to think and challenge almost everything under the Sun. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the two theologians who inspired me personally, “daring in order to know” as they both taught us. Just before the fateful events of student-led uprising in 1988, I wrote a term paper at Theological Seminary comparing the non-violent strategy applied by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Ethic of “Just War” applied by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both of them dared to challenge unjust laws, and both did not survive their struggle. In those days, my heart was a bit closer to Bonhoeffer; may be it was because of the fact that the regime of Nazi Germany was more similar to the military dictatorship in Burma. However, both of them are my inspiration; and both of them received their inspiration from the teachings of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed that
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,And recovery of sight for the blind, and released the oppressed.
Since I joined the movement, I have written many letters and statements calling for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners in Burma but not to avail. Since the popular uprising in 1988, the entire people of Burma “are the prisoners in our own house”, as Aung San Suu Kyi said. Burma under this military regime is just like a blind man who lost his sight intentionally, for it was covered by absolute darkness with extremely negative attitude. And there are millions of oppressed to be released. This is what our struggle is all about.
In this struggle, we are fighting for freedom, justice, peace and fundamental human rights. We want “freedom from fear” because we live our lives under this military regime in constant fear. We want “freedom of expression” because freedom of expression is a huge crime under military dictatorship. We have over one thousand political prisoners in Burma, who committed no crime but daring to express their free will. We want “freedom from want” because the peoples of Burma are destitute living under extreme conditions of impoverishment, hunger and disease without remedy in the land that used to be known as the “rice bowl of Asia”.
We want “peace” because the regime in Burma has been at war with its own people for more than five long decades. Yes, we want peace but the peace that we want is not just in terms of the absence of conflict but in terms of the presence of justice.
We want “justice” because there is no such thing as the rule of law under a military dictatorship. Martial Law, according to General Saw Maung, is no law at all but the use of force. In today’s Burma, law and order exist not for protecting its people but for sustaining dictators in power. We want basic “human rights” because human rights abuses have become part of the political system in the so-called “law and order restoration”, as the military junta used to call itself the “State Law and Order Restoration Council”.
Finally, we want to live with human dignity because when all kinds of rights are abused people lose their dignity, integrity and identity. And what we want is to live just like a human being who is the image of God. So, our struggle is a struggle to be an authentic human being again.
Our struggle is not just for changing the government in Rangoon, or in Naypidaw, but for restructuring the country into a Democratic Federal Union as it was agreed by General Aung San and ethnic national leaders in 1947 at the Panglong Conference, when the Union of Burma was founded at the first place. The root cause of political crisis in Burma is not just ideological confrontation between military dictatorship and democracy; it also involves constitutional problems rooted in the denial of the rights of self-determination for ethnic nationalities who joined the Union as equal partners according to the Panglong Agreement. The only solution for political crisis in Burma, in our view, is to establish a genuine Federal Union of Burma, which will guarantee the fundamental rights for all citizens of the Union, political equality for all ethnic nationalities, and the right of self-determination for all member states of the Union within federal arrangement.
In this struggle, we also challenge the notion of “nation-building” in which the concept of “nation” is blended with “one ethnicity, one language, and one religion”. As such, nation-building belongs to what social scientists call “subjective values”, that is, culture, language, religion, ethnicity, homeland, shared memories and history, etc., which differentiate one group of people from anothervalues that cannot be shared objectively between different peoples. From its process, the very notion of “nation-building” excludes other ethnic groups, cultures, religions and everything related to multiculturalism and diversity. Thus, by accepting only one homogeneous set of cultural and religious values as its political values, the process of nation-building can produce only a nation-state made by a homogeneous people or nation that claims pre-state unity based on culture, history or religion. As a result, a nation-state made by a nation through the nation-building process cannot accommodate other cultures, religions and ethnic groups. What it can do at best is it can tolerate non-integrated minorities as guests, but not as equal citizens. The status of fully recognized citizen can be attained only by integration.
In such circumstances, minority groups have only “either-or” choice: either integrating within the majority culture after paying a big price of destroying their original cultural roots, or resisting integration but after paying a big price of being denied the opportunity to enhance their cultural identity through political means. In both cases, minority groups must pay a big price because the only choice for them is between assimilation and resistance. Assimilation in such situation is nothing but ethnic and cultural extinction, and resistance can be anything in between life and death. Thus, it is obvious that the nation-building process is impossible to implement in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious plural society like the Union of Burma. The only way to implement the nation-building process in a plural society is to use coercive force for assimilation. However, using force for ethnic assimilation will definitely be resulted in confrontation and conflict, because the very notion of nation-building is hostile to multiculturalism and diversity. Unfortunately, this conflict is exactly what is happening in Burma during the past fifty years.