Recently, the Burmese government’s Union Election Commission rejected the Zomi National Congress (ZNC)’s registration request over a naming row, which effectively prevents the national party for entering the country’s political landscape.
The UEC’s deputy director Hla Maung Cho was quoted saying the ZNC was unable to register 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.
The ZNC was registered as a party in 1988 and represents all the ethnic people living in Chin state. 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 deemed illegitimate and has been banned from all political activities in Burma ever since. However, in an attempt to restore democracy and peace, the ZNC operates as an opposition party along with other political groups such as the National League for Democracy and United Nationalities Alliances.
With the recent democratic reforms in Burma, the ZNC reapplied for registration on 8 March 2012. However, the application was denied on the basis that the name “Zomi” does not represent any ethnic nationality in Burma.
“Given the rapid change in Burma, it is a tragedy to see that the government still refuses to recognise all the country’s ethnic nationalities”
So who are the Zomi?
The Zomi or Zo people (‘mi’ means people) have long inhabited the mountainous areas between India and Burma for centuries. In Burma, the Zo people occupy the whole of Chin State and Kalay, Tamu and Khampat townships in Sagaing division. There are an estimated 3 million members of Zomi population living in Burma currently.
However, due to the lack of contact with the outside world, the group was often referred to as the “Chin” instead of their own name “Zomi.”
The British first imposed the name “Chin” on the group when the colonists first made contact with the Zo people in the 19th century. According to Dr. Vum Son, the author of Zo History, the British adopted the name from the Burmans.
When the Burmans first came in contact with the group in the eleventh or twelfth century, they began calling the Zo people “Chin” for the simple reason that the basket carrying people occupied the western part of the Chindwin River – “Chindwin” meaning “the valley of the baskets”. The word “chin” means basket in Burmese.
The Zo people have their own traditions, culture and language that are completely different from the ethnic Burmans. After Burma gained independence from the British, many Zo people refused to accept the name Chin – a term that they have never used themselves and was only officially used only after British annexation.
Dr. Hau Go, 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 [on] 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 ZNC’s objectives is to officially recognise the Zomi identity as defined by the ethnic group. 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 UEC’s rejection of the ZNC’s 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 the ZNC’s registration request shows that the government is not only violating their rights altogether but is also choosing 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 have been denied their rights. They have been the subject to 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 refuses to recognise all the country’s ethnic nationalities and exclude them from participating 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 discrimination on a daily basis.
- CS Dal is a member of the Global Zomi Alliance based in Kalay, Burma