Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Burmese – Ne sat

May 25th, 2011 · No Comments · Border, Burmese

Ne sat

Relates to frontier;  border; boundary

Burma’s nebulous borders have been a nerve-wracking security concern from the time of its independence, and figure prominently in the government’s security discourse as a referent, threat and focal point of its security strategies.

Ne sat is a vague word, which may variously refer to a distinct boundary or borderline between two countries, or to the boundary and adjacent areas (i.e., frontier or border areas).[1] This ambiguity is reflected in the words etymology: ne means ‘jurisdiction’, ‘territory’, or denotes an, ‘administrative area’; sat means ‘to adjoin’ or ‘be adjacent’. Similarly, the English-Myanmar Law Dictionary defines ‘frontier’ both as Ne sat, and as “a country’s territory near the boundary line between two countries” (authors’ translation from Burmese).  In some cases, however, ne sat is affixed to the word dei tha when referring to border areas or regions (See region).  State propaganda translates ne sat dei tha as ‘border areas’ rather than ‘frontier areas’ perhaps because of the latter terms earlier connotations to the colonial era and the Panglong Agreement 

Border and frontier areas are also expressed with the word ne chā (literally, territory-separate); chā also denotes ‘foreign’ when affixed to the word for country i.e., naign ngan chā.  Boundary is expressed by combing the words ne, and na meik (meaning, an omen, sign or portent).  Ne sun ne hpyā is translated as the far-flung parts of a state or territory, and is formed by conjoing ne with the noun asun apyā ,which means ‘extremity’, ‘far off place’ or ‘remote or outlying areas’.

Historically the Burmese polity lacked stable bounded areas of jurisdiction.  Rather, the polity’s area of control waxed and waned according to the power of the king.  This political order has been variously conceptualized as a ‘solar polity’ or ‘galactic polity’ wherein powerful lowland suns or planets, often in competition with one another, exercised ‘gravitational pull’ over smaller autonomous territories, which in turn might have satellite moons.[2] Many of the areas which comprise modern day Burma’s border regions fell on the farther outreaches of the lowland Burmese polity, often subject to only a weak ‘gravitational pull’, and often held competing allegiances with other lowland polities.

Although British colonialists sought to impose well-defined territorial boundaries, they did not directly rule many of the country’s peripheral areas which were variously referred to as ‘frontier areas’, ‘excluded areas’, or ‘scheduled areas’, in contrast to ‘Ministerial Burma’ which was under direct British rule. [3]

Following Burma’s independence, many of the frontier regions erupted into warfare as ethnic nationalists launched secessionist insurgencies, which raged until the last decade of the twentieth century. Government propaganda presents border areas as particularly dangerous sites of instability, illegality and potential invasion.  In the border regions, insurgent terrorists, opium cultivators, ‘hill peoples . . . incapable of shedding racial prejudices’, and national groups (tāing yīn thā lumyō) that have not ‘abandoned their individual cults and become Buddhists” are all “entangled with foreign influences’.[4]

The association of the border areas with insurgency is reflected in the word tō hko (literally to hide in the forest or jungle) means to ‘rebel’.  As elaborated by James Scott, Burma’s border areas, particularly those which are hilly, mountainous or otherwise geographically challenging to the state, have long served as a redoubt for dissatisfied subjects who sought to escape the state’s exactions or mount a rebellion against it.[5] This continues to be the case.  Mainstream political dissidents flee to the border regions (and often into adjacent areas in the neighboring country) in order to conduct opposition activities or wage insurgent warfare.  In 1970 former prime minister U Nu launched the Parliamentary Democracy Party along the Thai border with several hundred followers.  Following the crushing of the 1988 democracy demonstrations, several thousand students also fled to border areas adjacent to Thailand, India and China in order to form the All Burma Student’s Democratic Front.  Thousands of others have followed to launch exiled dissident groups such as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, and the National League for Democracy–Liberated Areas.

After concluding ceasefire agreements with many of the border based insurgencies, the government initiated a ‘border areas’ (ne sat dei tha) and ‘national races’ (tāing yīn thā lumyō) development (hpun hpyō tō tet hmu) program” overseen by the Ministry of Border Areas and National Races Development (See development). The government has subsequently vaunted this program as evidence that it is working to restore national unity (amyōthā sīlōn nyinyuthmu).[6] As noted in one essay in the state-run paper, ‘the government could win greater trust of national races through implementation of the project, which indicated the government’s loving-kindness (myitta), compassion (karuna) and goodwill (cedana)’.[7]; the latter three terms are all highly espoused values in Buddhism. Following a constitutional referendum in 2008 the SPDC informed these groups that they must subordinate their armed forces under the Tatmadaw as ‘border guard forces’ (nei chā saung tat pwei).[8]

Because parts of Burma’s borderline remain disputed, they are also a potential site of military confrontation with neighboring countries.  In 2001, border skirmishes erupted between the Burmese and Thai armies.[9] The Burmese military has since made a sustained effort to establish anti-aircraft artillery units along this border.

 

 

 

Aung, M. (2002). Neither friend nor foe : Myanmar’s relations with Thailand since 1988 : a view from Yangon. Singapore, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

Lambrecht, C. (2004). Oxymoronic Development: The Military as Benefactor in the Border Regions of Burma. Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities. C. Duncan. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Lieberman, V. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asian in a Global Context, c. 800-1830. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Scott, J.C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Tambiah, S. J. (1976). World conqueror and world renouncer : a study of Buddhism and polity in Thailand against a historical background. Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York, Cambridge University Press.

 

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[1] English-Myanmar Law Dictionary, (Yangon: Lawyers Head Office, 2002), page 136 and Myanmar- English Dictionary, (Yangon: Department of Myanmar Language Commission. 2001), 239.

[2] Lieberman, V. (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asian in a Global Context, c. 800-1830. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.; Tambiah, S. J. (1976). World conqueror and world renouncer : a study of Buddhism and polity in Thailand against a historical background. Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York, Cambridge University Press.

[3] In the preamble of the 1947 constitution, ne sat dei tha is translated as ‘frontier area’, in reference to the areas of the country that had been ruled semi-autonomously under the British colonial administration.

[4] Government of Burma (GOB), The Conspiracy of Traitorous Minions within the Myanmar Naing-Ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad, (Yangon: News and Periodicals Enterprise, Ministry of Information, 1989)

[5] Scott, J.C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Yale University Press.

[6] Lambrecht, C. (2004). Oxymoronic Development: The Military as Benefactor in the Border Regions of Burma. Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities. C. Duncan. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

[7] Myint Soe (Na Ta La) “Passing through Decades,” The New light of Myanmar, 24 March 2004

[8] A more prescise rendering of tat pwei is arguably ‘military units’.

[9] Aung, M. (2002). Neither friend nor foe : Myanmar’s relations with Thailand since 1988 : a view from Yangon. Singapore, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

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