Three years after Myanmar’s first nominally civilian government in decades came to power, many of the country’s 135 minority ethnic groups say they have yet to see any tangible change on the ground.
“No, nothing has changed in our area,” said Naing Law, an ethnic Chin elder in the village of Hla Laung Pan in Chin State, northwestern Myanmar.
“They [the government] don’t care for us. We don’t know what they’re talking about in Naypyidaw [the capital],” he said, suggesting weak implementation of development promises and a continued mistrust between citizens and the government.
Myanmar was ruled from 1962 to 2011 by a repressive military government that crushed dissent; one legacy of this has been heavy landmine contamination in the ethnic states, and economic sanctions led by the United States and Europe. In 2011 the new president, Thein Sein, released political prisoners, allowed freedom of assembly, and abolished official media censorship, stoking unprecedented hopes for development nationwide.
The reforms were welcomed and encouraged by international donors, and aid money jumped from US$355 million in 2010 to $504 million in 2012. A visit at the end of 2011 by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled the warming of relations with Western governments, and the start of a “targeted easing” of sanctions against the resource-rich country and senior officials.
However, ethnic states remain mired in poverty, according to a 2013 report Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process. “Lack of communication and understanding” fuelled “deep ethnic cleavages and distrust… between the different nationalities and the majority Burman population,” it said, adding: “Solving the ethnic problem remains key to ensuring long lasting peace and democracy in the country.”
Each of the 135 minority ethnic groups regards the protection of their individual languages, customs, culture and natural resources important to their national identity. At the same time, the government has steadfastly believed that a “crisis of the minorities” - internal conflict among Myanmar's sizable minority communities, which make up one-third of the population - could undermine the country's stability.
Civil society representatives, politicians, and local residents told IRIN that despite the rhetoric of reform, they have seen little concrete change in their areas. They point to ongoing suffering and instability in ethnic states and an enduring trust gap between citizens and government.
“There is no particular thing that has changed,” Nghepi, secretary of Chin National Party (CNP), said. “Our [Chin] state has been neglected as before. Though the government keeps stressing [the] importance of poverty reduction, evidence of progress has not been seen in ethnic areas,” he said.
Chin State, with more than 500,000 inhabitants, has some of the lowest health indicators in the country, struggles with food insecurity, and more than half of students leave school before the age of 10.
In northern Kachin State, which borders China, more than 90,000 civilians remain internally displaced, following the June 2011 collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The fighting has led to school closures, resulting in remaining facilities being overcrowded, and livelihoods have been devastated.
“Because of the war, people have suffered a lot. The economy [of the state] has gone down as well,” said Awng Wah, chairman of a newly founded political party called Kachin Democratic Party, echoing research arguing that both past and ongoing conflict-related instability have been “direct threats to both positive economic development and democratic reforms”.
“Our people haven’t enjoyed the fruits of reforms yet,” agreed Oo Hla Saw, a founding member of Arakan National Party in resource-rich Rakhine State, explaining that the roads and bridges that connect the western part of the country, such as Rakhine, to central Myanmar remain in poor condition.
“There are still many hardliners [in the central, regional and state governments] who don’t want to change,” said Phoe Khwar, a member of the central committee of the Union of Karenni State Youth (UKSY) in southeastern Kayah State. “The word ‘reforms’ disappears into thin air. It isn’t being realized in our area,” he said.
More positive assessments
However, despite the disillusionment, there are some who praise the current administration’s reform efforts.
“He’s done a good job,” said Stephen Ah Chu of Karuna Myanmar Social Services, an NGO in Shan State, pointing to policy reforms Thein Sein has been implementing in education and health sectors. “Community organizations like ours can now work more freely than before, and the government has built some schools and bridges that were much-needed here.”
“History should judge Thein Sein positively, although he is still criticised for not engaging in more thoroughgoing reforms. His most important achievement may have been his clear political commitment to a nationwide peace agreement, although completing this process has proven frustrating and complex… Apart from the two obvious problems - the unpredictable issue of the Rohingya minority and the predictable resurgence of the Kachin insurgency - his government has made more progress towards consolidating peace than any predecessor,” according to a recent post for The Interpreter.
“A significant point of progress of the civilian government in ethnic areas is there are not many armed conflicts like before,” said Aung Naing Oo, associate director of the Peace Dialogue Programme at Myanmar Peace Center.
So far, the government has signed preliminary ceasefires with 14 out of 16 ethnic armed groups.
“Without peace, development can’t be done,” said Aung Naing Oo.