Despite having instituted a series of domestic changes, Burma’s new government has thus far missed a chance to solve the deeply rooted conflicts with ethnic groups, some of which have lasted for more than 60 years, said ethnic minority leaders.
While launching a report titled “Discrimination, Conflict and Corruption – The Ethnic States of Burma,” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, leaders of the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) said that the Burmese government is still engaging ethnic armed groups in a military manner—which they said is a mistaken approach that has failed to solve the problem since the era of Gen Ne Win, the former Burmese dictator who took power in 1962.
As a result, although Naypyidaw has made significant progress in other areas, such as relations with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the suspension of work on the Myitsone hydropower dam and the relaxation of press restrictions, the government has not made any meaningful progress in the area of ethnic minority affairs.
The ENC’s Vice chairman, Salai Lian H Sakhong, an ethnic Chin professor who has written several books about the ethnic minorities of Burma, said, “If military means were a solution to ethnic conflicts, I think Gen Ne Win would have already solved the problem. We ethnic people hold arms not because we want war, but for the purpose of self-protection.”
The ethnic leaders said that while Naypyidaw made positive progress in other areas, military conflicts initiated by government troops have actually been increasing in ethnic areas, especially in Kachin State, where about 25,000 civilians have been internally displaced. Separate hostilities have also been reported in Karen State and Shan State, said Saw Kwe Htoo Win, the chairman of the ENC.
The ENC report said that the Burmese government, particularly from 1962 until 2010, pursued only a military solution to what is primarily a political problem, and have consequently given ethnic groups no other option but to engage in an armed struggle.
Burma, known to be well-equipped from a military standpoint, has an estimated 400,000 military troops, while ethnic armed groups are estimated to have between 40,000-50,000 armed troops.
Suikhar, the secretary general of the ENC, said that Burma’s national army should only protect against external evasion and have nothing to do with internal affairs.
A change from militarization to demilitarization is needed, and unless demilitarization takes place there is no indication that a real peace will be achieved in Burma, said Sakhong.
In order to solve the ongoing conflicts, the ethnic leaders called for tripartite dialogue among the Burmese government/military, the pro-democracy opposition and the ethnic groups, as well as a constitutional amendment turning Burma into a federal union. They also said that international figures, including UN envoys, have not done enough to help end Burma’s ethnic conflicts.
Between 35 and 40 percent of Burma's population of 55 million is non-Burman, comprised of indigenous ethnic groups such as Karen, Shan, Karenni, Kachin, Mon, Chin and Arakanese, almost all of which have fought against the central government for independence or autonomy for decades, some since Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948.
On August 18, Naypyidaw announced that it offered an “olive branch” to the ethnic armed groups, encouraging them to contact their respective state or division governments as a first step toward meeting with a union government delegation.
After the announcement, there were some minor peace talks reported in ethnic areas, but they had no significant results, according to observers who recently visited ethnic areas.
Some commentators and analysts have argued that the delay in addressing the ethnic issues may stem from an internal power struggle taking place between hard-liners and reformists in the current government cabinet.
They said that while Burmese President Thein Sein used his civilian authority to rebut China with respect to the Myitsone Dam, he may not have the power to effectively deal with ethnic armed conflicts because they fall under the authority of the military. In addition, some analysts said that some cabinet members might attempt to block Thein Sein even if he had the power and desire to strike a peace deal with the ethnic armed groups.
In addition, there has been speculation that some ministers in the current cabinet who were hard-liners in the previous military junta are not happy with the suspension of work on the Myitsone Dam by Thein Sein. These hard-liners include Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and Zaw Min, the minister for Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power-1.
The power struggle is an obstacle to progress on the ethnic issues, said the observers.
One year ago today, Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s former military regime orchestrated a general election that all objective observers agreed was neither free nor fair. Ironically, this sham election and Than Shwe’s concurrent efforts to protect himself and maintain the military’s grip on power created an environment where the small steps toward reform that are taking place today became possible.
The real question is where the country goes from here, because the true test of the sincerity of President Thein Sein and his fellow “reformers” will be whether they institute more meaningful and irreversible reforms that put real political and economic power into the hands of the Burmese people, where it belongs.
But in order to understand the direction that Burma might possibly head in the coming year and beyond—and how that direction might be influenced to ensure that it is a positive one—it is helpful to quickly review where the country currently stands and how it got here.
The November 2010 election was shunned by Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and was widely condemned as a farce. The 2008 Constitution handed the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and the election was rigged in almost every conceivable way to make certain that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would dominate the open seats.
In the end, the USDP “won” more than 80 percent of the seats it competed for, and together with the military it placed ex-general and ex-regime prime minister Thein Sein, who was Than Shwe’s hand-picked candidate, in the post of president.
When the smoke from the election had settled and the new government was entirely formed, only Than Shwe and his second in command, Gen Maung Aye, had officially stepped aside—all of the other junta leaders remained in direct positions of power, be it wearing civilian or military garb. For example, the current president, first vice-president, and speakers of both the upper and lower house of Parliament were all leading members of the former regime, as were most members of Thein Sein’s cabinet.
So when Thein Sein gave a series of speeches after being sworn in that signaled the adoption of a reform agenda which included an anti-poverty and anti-corruption campaign, along with a “good governance” agenda, most observers were understandably skeptical and wondered whether any real action would follow the president’s words—after all, the Burmese opposition had heard these words many times before, and nothing had ever happened.
But then some small but positive things did begin to happen. Certain press restrictions were eased, Martyr’s Day and International Day of Democracy ceremonies were allowed, Internet website bans were lifted and Suu Kyi met with a government liaison. These steps were followed by even more significant moves, when Suu Kyi met face-to-face with Thein Sein, the president suspended work on the Myitsone Dam project and a small number of political prisoners were released. More intangibly, but still very importantly, people in Rangoon and some other major cities began to feel less fear about speaking more openly about politics.
The international community has praised these reforms while urging the government leaders to take more meaningful and concrete steps. Several Western government representatives have visited Burma recently, including the US special representative for Burma, Derek Mitchell, who said that his talks with government leaders were constructive, candid and frank.
According to his latest press briefing, Mitchell has been able to raise important issues that the regime in the past had been reluctant at best to discuss, including armed conflicts in the ethnic region and the plight of the conflict’s victims. But Burma’s current leaders need to demonstrate the political will to solve the decades old ethnic conflict and to make a long-lasting peace underpinned by political solutions, rather than putting band-aids on the deep-seated tensions with temporary ceasefires.
Outside of Burma, the US has remained a leading player in shaping Burma policy and actively advocating for change, and high-ranking US officials, including Mitchell, have now held several rounds of talks with Burmese government representatives in Washington and Naypyidaw. The US has maintained its sanctions, but has said that it is ready to “respond in kind” if Burma makes genuine democratic reforms and halts human rights abuses.
Inside of Burma, Suu Kyi—who in the past has been a strident critic of the regime, was personally barred from contesting in the 2010 election and who advised the NLD not to contest—has said she believes that Thein Sein is straightforward and sincere and has sent generally positive signals since their face-to-face meeting.
Shan State (Burmese: ရှမ်းပြည်နယ်, pronounced [ʃáɴ pjìnɛ̀]; Shan: မိုင်းတႆး[mœ́ŋ tɑ́ɪ]) is a state of Burma (Myanmar). Shan State borders China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south, and five administrative divisions of Burma in the west. Largest of the 14 administrative divisions by land area, Shan State covers 155,800 km², almost a quarter of the total area of Burma. The state gets its name from the Shan people, one of several ethnic groups that inhabit the area. Shan State is largely rural, with only three cities of significant size: Lashio, Kengtung, and the capital, Taunggyi.
Shan State, with many ethnic groups, is home to several armed ethnic armies. While the military government has signed ceasefire agreements with most groups, vast areas of the state, especially those east of Thanlwin river, remain outside the central government's control, and in recent years have come under heavy ethnic-Chinese economic and political influence, whereas other areas are under the control of military groups such as the Shan State Army.
More than 30,000 Shan war refugees need humanitarian aid
During the beginning of the conflict, many refugees return to their homes periodically, but since July, because of more intense fighting, returning has become more difficult and food shortages are occurring, “Many don’t have rice. Even if they have, many are forced to eat rice with the pith of banana stems. Some people have to share their food with others who have nothing,” He said some refugees have fled to towns in areas controlled by Wa along the Sino-Burmese border, or to Fang in Chiang Mai District on the Thai side of Thai-Burmese border. In the Wan Hai area alone, at least 24 displaced villagers, mostly children and the elderly, have died of diarrhea and malaria, according to the joint statement. The statement also alleged that government troops have committed atrocities against the civilian population including murder, rape and mutilation. The two Shan social organizations also separately released reports on eight alleged rape cases between March 21 and July 5 in Shan State. The statement urged the international community to provide cross-border aid through outside relief organizations because aid agencies working inside Burma had not been allowed access to the affected areas. “With the regime keeping a tight control on all aid in Burma, cross-border aid is the only way to reach war-affected populations,” Nang Hseng Moon, a coordinator of the Swan NGO, said in the statement. “We urge international donors to respond to this humanitarian crisis before further lives are lost.”
Over 30,000 displaced by Burma Army attacks face humanitarian crisis in northern Shan State
Numbers of villagers fleeing Burma Army atrocities have soared to over 30,000 during recent intensified attacks against the Shan State Army North (SSA-N), causing a dire humanitarian crisis in northern Shan State. Over 4,000 Burmese troops from 42 battalions were deployed during July to seize the SSA-N headquarters of Wan Hai in Ke See township, backed up by jet fighter planes. Advancing through surrounding villages, troops have been scaling up atrocities against civilians, including killing, rape and mutilation. One dead villager was found with his leg and hand cut off. An estimated 31,700 villagers from nine townships have fled since the Burma Army began its offensive on March 13, breaking its 22-year-long ceasefire with the SSA-N. Some have fled to towns, to Wa-controlled areas along the China border, or to the Thai border, but most are hiding in the jungle near their villages. Those in hiding are facing chronic shortages of food, clean drinking water, shelter and medicine, with heavy rains exacerbating the situation. In the Wan Hai area alone, at least 24 displaced villagers, mainly children and old people, have died of diarrhea and malaria in the past month. No international aid has reached these displaced communities so far.