Ethnic minority groups in Myanmar are calling on the international community to set stronger benchmarks or steps in the incremental removal of international sanctions, following this week’s announcement by the European Union (EU) to suspend sanctions for a year, retaining only the embargo on arms sales.
“Now more than ever, it’s important that our voice is heard,” Zipporah Sein, general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) told IRIN on 27 April. “If sanctions are to be lifted, it’s important that specific benchmarks be put in place.” Many argue there can be no real progress towards democracy until the country formerly known as Burma makes peace with all its ethnic groups.
Viewed as key to the development of Myanmar, the suspension of EU sanctions announced on 23 April is seen as another major endorsement of Burmese President U Thein Sein’s recent political reforms, which include the release of hundreds of political prisoners, new laws allowing labour unions and strikes, a gradual easing of media restrictions, and ceasefire agreements with various ethnic rebel groups.
The Burmese government has had contentious relationships with its ethnic minority groups, which account for about a third of the country’s more than 54 million inhabitants, and many have fought for greater autonomy or secession for their regions since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948.
At the weekend, leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella group comprised of 11 of Myanmar’s leading ethnic groups – including the Mon, Shan, Karenni, Chin, and Kachin people – released a statement announcing that they were prepared to meet with Myanmar’s chief negotiator, U Aung Min Aung Min, to present their version of a durable roadmap to peace.
At the end of 2011, the government launched peace initiatives with several of Myanmar’s ethnic armies.
“The UNFC has the same position as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [leader of the National League for Democracy, Burma’s main opposition party],” said KNU Vice President David Tharckabaw, during the meeting in northern Thailand near the Burmese border. “We support the rule of law, the amendment of the constitution, and building internal peace.”
Tharckabaw, along with other members of the UNFC, maintains that political dialogue, not resource development, must be the top priority after a nationwide cease-fire is reached.
The EU’s decision to ease sanctions follows an announcement by Washington a week earlier that the US will relax some financial restrictions on the country to support certain humanitarian and development projects.
“These [steps] were… in response to what we viewed as very positive parliamentary elections,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing on 17 April.
Less than a week later, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that his government would resume loans to Myanmar, and cancel US$3.7 billion of debt owed by the impoverished nation after by-elections that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party win 43 of the 44 contested seats earlier in April.
Some $61 million to assist ethnic minorities, improve medical care and other rural development programmes, as well as disaster prevention efforts, were also pledged, the Japan Times reported. Canada suspended most of its sanctions on 24 April.
Nevertheless, there are also calls for caution, particularly in Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas. “The suspension of EU sanctions keeps the pressure on the Burmese government to continue reforms, while also making a strong positive gesture that genuine reforms will be rewarded,” said Anna Roberts, executive director of Burma Campaign UK. “For the threat of re-imposition of sanctions to be credible, the EU must set clear timelines and benchmarks.”
Speaking before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs on 26 April, Joseph Yun, principle deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the US State Department, noted: “In Rakhine State systematic discrimination and denial of human rights against ethnic Rohingya remains deplorable. Overall, the legacy of five decades of military rule – repressive laws, a pervasive security apparatus, a corrupt judiciary, and media censorship – is all too present.”
Fighting continues in Kachin State, in northern Myanmar, as thousands of displaced people in camps brace for the coming monsoon season.
“Right now, the IDP [internally displaced person] number is increasing” along the edge of the areas controlled by the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO), General Secretary La Ja reported.
“There are about 75,000 internally displaced people in Kachin State. Now that the rainy season is setting in, they will be needing shelter, food and medicine.”
Current UN planning figures put the number of displaced at between 50,000 and 55,000, while international access to areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military arm of the KIO, remains limited.
La Ja says the recent armed build-up of government troops, and the escalation in attacks, is out of step with the government’s words of peace.
“We want the first step to be that the government… withdraws, [and] re-positions their… troops. Their troops are very close to the KIA troops – that can spark many problems and a never-ending conflict.”