Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Burmese – Lon chyon yei

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

Lon chyon yēi

Relates to security

Lon chyon yēi literally implies a sense of comforting envelopment as if wrapped in a blanket.  It may also be combined with the verb suffix seik cha (literally, mind-place down) or seik cha let cha (literally, hands-place down); both variants mean ‘trust’ or ‘rest assured’.  In contrast to its etymology, government ‘security measures’ are often anathema to public conceptions of security resulting in widespread insecurity. A feeling of insecurity is variously expressed as seik macha (mind-not settled), seik ma lon ma le (mind-not secure or with a guilty conscience), seik ma hpyaung (mind-not straight), seik ma ēi (mind-not-cold) or seik pu pan (mind-hot), and seik kyaung kya (to be anxious).

‘Security’ figures prominently in the state discourse, as reflected in the forty-nine references in the 2008 Constitution to lon chyon yēi.  As made evident in that document, the military government’s conception of security is focused largely on maintaining the military’s political oversight, and protecting the “state” (naing ngan taw) by ensuring the perpetuation of the Union, national unity, and sovereignty.  (See patriotism).

Invariably, government propaganda presents the Tatmadaw as the principle source of security.  However, the military elite who designs Burma’s security policy are isolated from societal concerns,[1] if not largely indifferent to them.  For many, the onerous demands and capricious behavior of the government and Tatmadaw personnel are often the primary sources of insecurity.

Burmese authorities often proclaim that they prioritize economic welfare over political rights in a manner reminiscent of Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Asian Values’.  Than Shwe went so far as to justify the military’s violent crackdown on demonstrators in 1988 on such grounds:

Security (lon chyon yēi) was most needed for the state and for each individual citizen at the time the Tatmadaw took over.  The people needed to earn their living in security (lon chyon seik cha swa).  They must tend to their food, clothing and shelter needs (sā wut nei yēi ko seik cha let cha) (See human security) safely and free from danger.  That is why the stability of the state (naing ngan taw te nyēin yēi), community peace and tranquility (yat ywa ēi chān tha ya yēi) (See peace), prevalence of law and order (tayā ubadei sōmōyēi) (See order) have been made first among the four political objectives. [2]

Although many Burmese citizens struggle to adequately feed, clothe and house their families, economic concerns are not necessarily preeminent.  Maintaining one’s dignity and autonomy, and feeling safe, are often expressed as priorities.[3] According to many accounts, the public was emboldened to risk their security and demonstrate in 1988, and again in 2007, in large part because of the brutal manner in which government officials initially responded to isolated protests of students and monks.[4]

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has stressed the overriding importance of an ‘inner sense of security’ (seik dat lon chyon hmu) which she regards as essential to one’s well being, and which she asserts is possible only within a democracy that respects the rights of individuals.[5]

Under a system with the rule of law (tayā ubadei aya ouk chok hmu) people have the right to do business freely.  We need to have justice, such that nobody can harm you, and nobody can falsely accuse you.  That is seik dat lon chyon hmu.  Without seik dat lon chyon hmu, you cannot be happy no matter how rich you are…Only when we have seik dat lon chyon hmu will we have economic security sēi pwā yēi lon chyon hmu.[6]

However, security concerns generally preclude open expressions of defiance.  The military government does not tolerate public dissent, and the populace is intimately aware that voicing opposition is dangerous.  Consequently, there are essentially only three ways that Burmese can act as political dissidents in a sustained manner: secretly, in jail as a political prisoner, or in exile. This lived reality is reflected in the Burmese language, rich with expressions about flight and stealth as means by which people (and in particular dissidents) safely dissent.

Due to the prevailing sense of insecurity in Burma, it is often said that people behave like ‘a frightened crow that is eating’ (kyī lan sa sā), conveying the notion that although they are able to survive they do so in a constant state of vigilance ready to take flight at the first sign of danger.  Ironically, Than Shwe also asserted that “the important thing is public security (lon chyon yēi), without peace and tranquility (chān tha ya hmu) people will have a life of ‘eating like a frightened crow’.[7] (The latter phrase is translated simply as “full of anxiety” in the official translation. [8])

Similarly, one may dissent (peacefully or by taking up arms) by ‘hiding in the forest’ tō hko, which the government sanctioned Myanmar-Burmese dictionary defines as “to go underground in order to become a rebel or insurgent.”[9] When political dissidents are secretly engaged in clandestine opposition they are said to be ‘underground’ myei aouk, or ‘UG’, an abbreviation of the English word ‘underground’.  Exiles, in government parlance those who ‘ran from the country’ (pyi pyēi), may go abroad in search of political asylum (naing ngan yēi hko hlon), literally ‘take refuge or shelter (hko hlon)’ and ‘warm oneself by the heat of fire or sun (hlon)’.

The government exploits the necessarily opaque nature of dissident activities by equating them with darkness and lawlessness.  For instance, those who end their struggles as dissidents are said to have ‘left the darkness and entered the light’ (amaung htu hma ah līn win yauk te).  Many Karen in the hilly and mountainous border areas of eastern Burma chose a life ‘on the run’ as a conscious strategy of resistance.  As elaborated by Heppner, “flight into displacement is not an act of helplessness, but one of many tactics they deploy to remain beyond the reach of the state.” [10] In this case, flight is a response to the state’s efforts to relocate and sedentarize Karen so that the government can better control them.

International parlance classifies such Karen as ‘internally displaced people’ or IDPs.  However, the ‘outside looking in perspective’ elaborated in the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement[11], fits imperfectly leading some analysts to understand Karen IDPs in a manner that is fundamentally at odds with Karen’s own understanding of their predicament.  Consequently, well intentioned humanitarian efforts to ‘protect’ these populations by promoting their ‘return’ and ‘reintegration’ (Lambrecht 2004) and helping the state to assist them (i.e., sedentarizing them), could easily imperil the intended ‘beneficiaries’ by undermining one of their principal means of resistance.[12]

 

 

 

Anon (2001). Myanmar- English Dictionary. Yangon, Department of Myanmar Language Commission.

Heppner, K. (2006). ‘We Have Hands the Same as Them': Struggles for Local Sovereignty and Livelihoods by Internally Displaced Karen Villagers in Burma. International Conference on Land, Poverty, Social Justice and Development. Netherlands, Available at http://www.khrg.org/papers/wp2006w1.pdf.

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.

Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (2004). Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. New York, United Nations.

Than Shwe ( 1999). Addresses delivered by Commander-in-chief of Defence Services, Senior General Than Shwe [in Burmese and English]. Yangon.

Thida and Aye Chan Naign, Ed. (1995). Selected Campaign Speeches Delivered by Aung San Suu Kyi 1988-1989  [in Burmese] Channel Islands, La Haule Books.

 

 

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[1] See for example, Tin Maung Maung Than, “Myanmar Preoccupation with Regime Survival, National Unity, and Stability,” in Asian Security Practice: Material and Ideational Influences, ed Muthiah Alaggapa, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, pp 390-416. See also Tin Maung Maung Than, “Mapping the Countours of Human Security Challenges in Myanmar,” Myanmar: State, Society and Ethnicity, ed. N Ganesan and Kyaw Yin Hlaing.

[2] Than Shwe ( 1999). Addresses delivered by Commander-in-chief of Defence Services, Senior General Than Shwe [in Burmese and English]. Yangon.

[3] Heppner, K. (2006). ‘We Have Hands the Same as Them': Struggles for Local Sovereignty and Livelihoods by Internally Displaced Karen Villagers in Burma. International Conference on Land, Poverty, Social Justice and Development. Netherlands, Available at http://www.khrg.org/papers/wp2006w1.pdf.

[4] Than Shwe’s quote neglects the fact that the protests in 1988 erupted in significant part because of economic decline, growing economic hardship, and shortages of essential foodstuffs.

[5] Seik dut lon chyon hmu combines the word for mind (seik), a Pali word meaning the essence or quality of something (dut) and the word for security.  Seik dut is typically translated as ‘morale’ or ‘spirit’.

[6] Thida and Aye Chan Naign, Ed. (1995). Selected Campaign Speeches Delivered by Aung San Suu Kyi 1988-1989  [in Burmese] Channel Islands, La Haule Books.

[7] Than Shwe ( 1999). Addresses delivered by Commander-in-chief of Defence Services, Senior General Than Shwe [in Burmese and English]. Yangon.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Anon (2001). Myanmar- English Dictionary. Yangon, Department of Myanmar Language Commission.@169

[10] Heppner, K. (2006). ‘We Have Hands the Same as Them': Struggles for Local Sovereignty and Livelihoods by Internally Displaced Karen Villagers in Burma. International Conference on Land, Poverty, Social Justice and Development. Netherlands, Available at http://www.khrg.org/papers/wp2006w1.pdf.

[11] Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (2004). Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. New York, United Nations.Available in English and Burmese at http://www.brookings.edu/projects/idp/gp_page.aspx

[12] Heppner, K. (2006). ‘We Have Hands the Same as Them': Struggles for Local Sovereignty and Livelihoods by Internally Displaced Karen Villagers in Burma. International Conference on Land, Poverty, Social Justice and Development. Netherlands, Available at http://www.khrg.org/papers/wp2006w1.pdf.

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