Briefing: Myanmar’s ethnic problems
A Karen soldier in eastern Myanmar
MAE SOT, 29 March 2012 (IRIN) - Mutual distrust, power struggles and tension over the hoarding of resources, including gold, gems and timber, have characterized the long history between the rulers of Myanmar - primarily of Burman background - and the many other smaller ethnic groups that comprise this Southeast Asian nation of more than 50 million.
According to the last official census in 1983, the Burman accounted for 69 percent of the country’s population.
Each ethnic group 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.
Now, a shift in government discourse and a recent string of cautious ceasefires have prompted people to wonder whether peace will last this time and what it will bring to participants in the longstanding civil conflicts, how it will affect the regional refugee crisis, and what it will mean for the recent relaxation of restrictions and a more open Myanmar.
Until the 2010 presidential election, the military government had shown few concrete signs of addressing ethnic grievances, resorting instead to brutal crackdowns, which earned international rebuke and sanctions from potential donors. IRIN offers a brief overview of the complex ethnic mix that Myanmar hopes to meld into a flourishing modern state.
Main ethnic groups
Main armed groups
||Proportion of population
||Kayin State in eastern Myanmar bordering Thailand
||Kachin State in the north, bordering China
||Kayah State, on the border with Thailand
||Chin State in western Myanmar, bordering India
||Mon State in southern Myanmar
||Rakhine State in western Myanmar
||Shan State, bordering Thailand
||Wa Special Region, on the border with China
||Northern townships of Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh
– The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) took up arms in 1949, almost immediately after the British left Myanmar, making it one of the oldest rebel armies in the world. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU).
– In 1961, after a coup led by General Ne Win - variously prime minister, head of state and chairman of the ruling party from 1958 until 1988 - the Kachin rebels formed the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
– The Karenni Army (KA) was created after the Burmese government incorporated Kayah State into the Union of Burma in 1951. Karenni leaders argued they had not agreed to incorporation. The KA is the military wing for the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
– The Chin National Front (CNF) was founded in March 1988 as a coalition of several Chin opposition groups to push for greater autonomy.
– The New State Mon Party (NSMP) established an armed wing that has fought the government since 1949, when military forces entered Mon territory.
– The Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) was first set up with the help of the KNU in the 1950s but it became defunct after most of its leaders were arrested. In the 1970s it reassembled, but is still one of the smallest ethnic armies.
– The Shan State Army (SSA) was formed in 1964 as Burmese military began to move into Shan State. The SSA later split into two factions, creating the Shan State Army-North, which signed a ceasefire with the government in 1964, and the Shan State Army-South, which continued to fight the state until an initial ceasefire in December 2011.
– The United Wa State Army (USWA), created after the fall of the Community Party Burma in 1989, is one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armies and receives military resources, infrastructure and support from neighbouring China.
– As various leaders have left major armies and created new militias, some have signed ceasefires with the Burmese government and enjoyed freedom to trade with neighbouring countries, including the Karen (Democratic Buddhist Army, Karen Peace Council Kokang, Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army) and Kachin (New Democratic Army and Kachin Defence Army).
Why have they taken up arms?
Before British forces pulled out in 1947, they attempted to unite Myanmar’s various “nations”. With British officers as witnesses, many ethnic groups signed the Panglong Agreement, intended to be binding on the post-colonial administration, which would guarantee ethnic rights and self-determination, and the inclusion of minorities in the democratic process.
Aung San, a leader of the Burman ethnic group, who had led the country to independence (and was the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi), and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin negotiated the agreement. However, Aung San was assassinated soon after and the Burmese military began its slow advance into the ethnic states to rule by force.
Photo: David Longstreath/IRIN
|An ethnic Karen refugee family outside their hut at the Mae La refugee camp along the Thai-Burmese border
Many ethnic groups took up arms to protect their states from Burman rule, demanding autonomy, ethnic rights and an inclusive democracy.
Their demands have remained unchanged. According to Lama Gum Hpan, a KIO “Central Committee” member, the Kachin fighters have always stood by the Panglong Agreement. “To this day we wish for the Burmese government to honour the agreements made in 1947,” he told IRIN.
In the run-up to the 2010 elections of the nominally civilian government in power
, a proposal for a border guard force was drafted, which aimed to include ethnic groups in the state army – and called for their disarmament.
Nearly all the ethnic armies refused and several ceasefires faltered.
Why have ceasefires failed?
Burmese dissident media have compiled a list of ceasefires dating back more than two decades between the government and major rebel groups as well as splinter movements.
Recent peace deals – still in their early stages – have been inked: the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) signed in December 2011, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and New Mon State Party (NMSP) in February 2012.
This has not stopped clashes. The Burmese government has blamed persisting army incursions on communication problems between the seat of government in Nay Pyi Daw and frontline troops at least 500km away. The central government ordered its troops to halt fighting on 12 December 2011 but a number are still firing
“This is war. They [Karen rebels
] will continue to fight until they can see that the Burmese government is actually trying to achieve peace,” said David Tackapaw, “foreign minister" for the KNU.
He maintains that historically there has been “a lack of genuine will by the Burmese government to listen to the KNU's demands for ethnic rights and self determination for the Karen people”, and said they are dealing with a military that sees the ethnic problem as a military issue, not a political issue.
Lama Gum Hpan, of the Kachin Independence Organization, said although the government has recently made overtures, the rulers are not interested in finding a political solution to the problem. “We are not interested in ceasefires; we want to find long-lasting and durable solutions to the ethnic oppression in this country.”
In June 2011, a 17-year ceasefire between the two sides collapsed following efforts by the government to incorporate numerous armed ethnic groups into a single border guard force
Will current talks succeed?
Despite faltering peace on the frontlines, rebel leaders from the Myanmar’s ethnic armies have noted change in the government's willingness to engage.
In a recent speech to parliament reported in local media
, Myanmar President Thein Sein said long-time enemies have the same goal: “The expectation of ethnic groups is to get equal rights for all. Equal standards are also the wish of our government.”
Discussing the ongoing conflict with the Kachin, Thein Sein said: “Fighting will not stop by pointing the finger of blame at each other. Ceasefires are first needed on both sides for political dialogue… We all have to work so our ethnic youths who held guns stand tall holding laptops.”
Analysts note most ceasefires are in nascent stages and have a long way to go, but if the government can control its military, a thus-far elusive peace with ethnic rebels is within reach.
Tackapaw, of the Karen National Union, said ceasefires have been negotiated too quickly and with too few conditions to guarantee long-term change.
What about the region’s refugees?
Photo: David Longstreath/IRIN
|A Burmese refugee attends to her sick child at the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand
According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), due to conflict more than 400,000 people are believed to be living in internal displacement in the southeast, while some 150,000 refugees, asylum seekers and others fleeing violence in Myanmar are in camps in Thailand
If the ceasefires hold, many may return to Myanmar, Sally Thompson, the TBBC's executive director, said. “If the current momentum of political reforms continues, then it is unlikely that the camps will still be open in five years.”
Many refugees across nine camps along the 1800km-long border Thai-Burmese border told IRIN it is still too early to tell if recent respites in the conflict will last long enough for them to return home. Saw Plu, a Karen elder, said he believed the Myanmar government was “playing a trick”, and fighting will inevitably erupt again. Yet despite their concerns, the vast majority of refugees voiced their desire to go home and are waiting for signs of a “genuine” peace.
“Ceasefires are only the beginning of a process of peace building and national reconciliation - there must be political dialogue,” said Thompson. “It is a long road… to build trust after 60 years of conflict. The government will have to deliver significant improvements in the daily lives of people in former conflict areas to demonstrate their sincerity.”
If the ceasefires do not last and fighting erupts again, more refugees will flood into Thailand, she warned. In Kachin State, where conflict has continued in some regions since June 2010, and peace efforts have failed, Burmese refugees are flooding to neighbouring China.
UN estimates put the number of people now in Kachin after being displaced by conflict at more than 50,000, with several thousand more in China.
Julia Marip, from the Thailand-based Kachin Women’s Organization, said tens of thousands have been displaced by violence. “The situation is really bad here. The Burmese government has not allowed INGO [international NGO] access
to the Kachin refugees in our areas. If a ceasefire agreement is not made soon, the refugee situation will become a major crisis.”
What will happen if the country is more open?
Most foreign investors - with the notable exception of China
- have long been reticent to do business in Myanmar because of internal conflicts and sanctions imposed by a number of Western countries.
If the government holds free and fair elections in April 2012, and can achieve lasting ceasefires with rebel armies, donors have held out the possibility of easing sanctions, which may open resource-rich areas inhabited by ethnic minorities for investment.
Ethnic leaders have voiced fears such development may rush ahead
without taking their wishes into account.
“We know that one of the biggest incentives to find peace with ethnics is to get more foreign investment in,” said Tackapaw. “We have to make sure that proper consultation is done with the civilians, and everything is done in a sustainable manner which benefits the ethnic civilians, not just the government and foreign investors.”
For more, visit IRIN's in-depth: What next for Myanmar?