By C. S. Kuppuswamy
Since the “Civil” government came to power in March 2011, after almost five decades of military rule, a spate of reforms have been introduced in the country’s transition to democracy. The ethnic minorities involved in a civil war since independence have only marginally benefited from these reforms. But the one odd development has been the suspension of Chinese funded Myitsone dam which certainly has provided great relief to the ethnic Kachin inhabitants.
About 40% of Myanmar’s population (around 55 million) is composed of ethnic minorities often referred to as ethnic nationalities. Officially there are 135 national races though the major ethnic groups are seven in number- the Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and the Shan. The Burman majority ruling the country and holding key positions in all walks of life accounts for 60% of the population. The ethnic groups are located on the peripheral mountainous areas of the country occupying around 60% the land area while the majority Burmans are in the inland plain areas.
The main demand of ethnic groups is for regional autonomy through a federal set up at the centre to ensure equal rights for all the country’s citizens. This, though assured in 1947 at the Panglong Conference, has been denied consistently by successive constitutions and with measures taken by the military government to marginalise these ethnic groups.
The ethnic minorities resorted to civil war and it is continuing for the last 60 years but for some periods of temporary peace due to the Cease Fire agreements entered into by the government with some major groups. These cease fires have also broken down due to the proposal (under the 2008 Constitution) to convert these ethnic armed groups to Border Guards under the Myanmar Army and the unwillingness of the ethnic groups. Thus the stand off continues.
The oft quoted “Tripartite dialogue” with the government, the democratic opposition and the ethnic minorities has never materialised though the hopes were kindled with the “Civil” Government coming to power in March 2011.
Government’s Attitude and Initiatives
The elections in November 2010 under the 2008 Constitution gave some hopes to ethnic minorities when provincial assemblies were formed and ethnic parties, though small in numbers, had the opportunity to contest and send their representatives to these assemblies as well as to the parliament at the centre. Under the 2008 Constitution “self administered areas” were also created for six of the ethnic groups giving them limited autonomy in their areas.
President Thein Sein in his inaugural address to the parliament as well as in his various speeches later has underscored the seriousness of the ongoing ethnic conflict and its ramifications on the country’s unity and the economy and the miseries inflicted on the ethnic minorities. He has indicated that he will accord top priority to this issue and make fresh efforts with the ethnic groups by negotiations through interlocutors to achieve national unity. There is no more pressure on the armed groups from the government to transform the insurgent armed groups into Border Guards. However the ethnic groups do not seem to be very convinced that these utterances will be translated into action.
In August 2011, the government announced through the official media that the ethnic armed groups desiring to have peace talks should contact their respective state governments before meeting the union government representatives for this purpose. This move clearly indicated that the government wants to have separate peace talks with different ethnic armed groups and not at the national level or with any alliance of some of these groups.
Subsequently Internal Peace Making committees at the centre (in both houses) and in the states were formed to conduct talks with the ethnic armed groups.
President Thein Sein said in a press conference during the ASEAN Summit (Nov 18 -20) that it is impossible to hold negotiations with all the ethnic groups simultaneously and since their demands vary, bilateral talks are necessary. He added that the armed forces can annihilate the ethnic armed groups if it wanted to in a short period.
In November 2011, the government delegation led by Aung Min, the minister for Railways, held peace talks with five Karen and Shan rebel groups out of which three—Shan State Army South, Chin National Front and Karen National Union have informally agreed for a cease fire.
On 29 November 2011, a government delegation led by two former generals, held talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in the Chinese border town of Ruili in Yunnan. It is believed that the talks remained inconclusive.
The Military Actions
While the government initiatives for peace talks with the ethnic groups are underway, fighting between the Myanmar armed forces and the ethnic armed groups have also been taking place in the border areas close to China and Thailand.
Clashes between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke out on June 09, 2011 and it is reportedly continuing till date though some talks were held in between the fighting. Some reports indicate that the government troops have suffered heavy casualties and have resorted to using artillery and tanks against some strongholds of the Kachins. More than 30,000 civilians have been displaced and have sought shelter in the border areas.
The Myanmar army had launched a major offensive against the Shan State Army in southern Shan state in July 2011.
Dr. Zarni, a columnist for “The Irrawaddy” has expressed that the military considers the ongoing conflicts “as their main justification to maintain their power structures” and that it has “shown no interest or political will for establishing genuine and lasting peace. The Generals have turned domestic conflicts into their golden goose”.
Some analysts are also of the view that the military operations are continuing with a view to pressurise the ethnic groups to opt for peace talks.
Most human rights organisations have repeatedly accused the Myanmar military of continuing to perpetrate a wide range of human rights violations with impunity. They have demanded more transparency and need for accountability of human rights abuses. A resolution expressing grave concern over human rights violations in Myanmar was approved in the UN General Assembly in November 2011.
In this connection the Ethnic Nationalities Council has brought out a report titled “Discrimination, Conflict and Corruption – The Ethnic States of Burma” – a well documented account of the problems faced by the ethnics.
Reactions of Ethnic Groups
Though some major ethnic groups have started contacting the state governments for initiating peace talks, there is scepticism on the part of most groups on the sincerity of the government in working out an amicable solution.
A report of the International Crisis Group of 30 November 2011 indicates that the following ethnic groups have contacted their respective state government Peace-Making groups and that a four-point initial peace agreement have been signed by them paving the way for the next stage of national level peace talks.
- The United Wa State Army 06 September 2011
- The National Defence Alliance Army (Mongla) 07 September 2011
- The 5th Brigade of Democratic Karen Buddhist Army 03 November 2011
The ethnic groups under the umbrella organisation—United Nationalities Federal Council (formed in February 2011) are keen that negotiations should take place with this organisation rather than on a one to one basis with its component groups, but the government appears to be adamant in dealing with the groups bilaterally.
In the peace talks held in November 2011, between the government and some ethnic groups in areas bordering Thailand and China, the following have entered into cease fire arrangements—some written, some verbal and some informal
- Shan State Army—South (SSA-S)
- Karen National Union (KNU)
- Chin National Front (CNF)
The major drawback of the ethnic groups over the years is their inability to form a united front with an acceptable agenda for all the ethnic groups to negotiate with the government. Efforts in uniting the groups by forming umbrella organisations such as the National Democratic Front (1976), Democratic Alliance of Burma (1988), Ethnic Nationalities Council (2001) and the latest United Nationalities Federal Council (2011) have all failed as a true representative organisation of all the ethnic groups. This weakness has been exploited by the government over the years by weaning away some of the groups with some special concessions or the other. The government again appears to be comfortable in dealing with individual groups and not with any umbrella organisation.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an open letter on 28 July 2011 to President Thein Sein with copies to some ethnic groups that she is ready to get involved in efforts to resolve ongoing armed conflicts between the military and ethnic groups.
She is also believed to have discussed the ethnic issue with Aung Kyi, the Labour Minister who was acting as the liaison officer of the Government, in a number of meetings she has had with him since her release in November 2010.
Her meeting with President Thein Sein on August 19, 2011 and the rapprochement since then has elevated her status and kindled the hopes of ethnic groups who had welcomed her intervention in the ethnic issue.
However, the International Crisis Group report of 30 November 2011 indicates that she being a Burman, and not having a “clear understanding of the ethnic situation”, some ethnic groups feel that they may not get a fair deal with her intervention. This is rather a myopic view and with her father’s legacy behind, she is bound to play a major role towards the betterment of the ethnic groups if she is involved the process.
After 60 years of this long drawn conflict, the ethnic groups must realise that their aspirations for a federal set up at the centre and full fledged regional autonomy are unlikely to be fulfilled in the near term. But their hopes are pinned on Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps creation of some more “self administered areas” like the six approved under the 2008 constitution for some ethnic groups can be demanded and may be acceded to.
The ethnic groups should be happy if their other concerns of peace in their area, equality with Burmans, economic opportunities, better infrastructure, preservation of their culture, language etc. and human rights are attended to over a period of time.
Consequent to the visit of Hillary Clinton (30th November to 2nd December 2011) and the US detente in the foreseeable future, Myanmar will be compelled to improve the human rights situation in the country (a core concern of US), which will help the ethnic groups in a big way.
With the most active armed groups on the borders with China and Thailand, these countries have had problems of refugees, drugs, cross border crime as well as some economic advantages. Hence their policies towards the ethnic groups and cooperation with the Myanmar Government are vital for a lasting solution to this problem. The international community can also help in many ways to ameliorate the plight of the ethnics.
As of now, the reforms under way in Myanmar are directed more towards democratisation perhaps due to geo-political constraints and less on achieving national reconciliation perhaps because the ethnic problem is considered a domestic issue. But the ethnic question cannot be wished away. It is a perennial problem that needs to be addressed now and once for all. Democratisation of the majority Burmans alone will not do.