Ethnic peace key to Myanmar reform
By Brian McCartan
In her first statement this week as an elected parliamentarian, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi chose to highlight the plight of ethnic minorities, underscoring the issue’s rising importance in domestic politics.
Her speech was delivered amid ongoing fighting between the government and ethnic insurgents in northern Shan and Kachin States and communal strife in western Rakhine State. It also underscored the need for the government to reach durable political solutions with ethnic minority groups or risk the unraveling of democratic and economic reforms.
Suu Kyi made her speech calling for new laws to protect minority rights to Myanmar’s Lower House of Parliament in the capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday. Her call came in support of a proposal to enact such laws introduced the previous day by Ti Khun Myat, a representative from Shan State of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Suu Kyi’s statement, however, broadened the issue, noting that protection of minority rights is a complex issue that goes beyond the preservation of languages and culture as called for in the original proposal. Invoking the “Panglong spirit” she implicitly connected it to the 1947 Panglong Agreement signed between her father, independence hero General Aung San, and ethnic Kachin, Shan and Chin representatives.
That agreement intended to provide for equality between the country’s ethnic Burman-dominated central regions and ethnic minority frontier regions by granting autonomy to peripheral areas. In exchange, the Shan, Kachin and Chin agreed to join what was then known as the Union of Burma.
For ethnic minority leaders, the Panglong Agreement was viewed positively as a step towards federalism, one that in historical retrospect was undermined by the military coup of 1962 and never properly implemented. Suu Kyi noted that the “spirit” of that agreement was “based on equality and mutual respect”.
“Keeping this in mind,” she said, “we, all of us parliamentarians, must work together to amend the laws as necessary to be able to protect ethnic rights as well as to develop a truly democratic nation”.
Other parliamentarians, particularly those from ethnic minority constituencies, have already criticized Ti Khun Myat’s legislative proposal for lacking provisions on the protection of human rights and issues of equality and regional autonomy.
Some hope Suu Kyi’s speech will help to break the logjam. Ethnic representatives have tried in vain to have their concerns addressed through participation in the 2008 constitution drafting process, during the 2010 general elections and in the early phases of this new era of parliamentary democracy.
During her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last month, Suu Kyi said she and her party “stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation”.
That call has the potential to expand reforms that have so far concentrated mainly on economic issues and the relaxation of past civil liberty curbing restrictions that due to civil war and lack of central control in peripheral areas affected largely only the central region of the country.
Ethnic conflict resolution is crucial for stability and security, without which economic development and democratic processes will remain stunted. Insurgency and government counter-insurgency operations continue to wreak havoc in many border areas where much of the country’s trade passes and natural resource wealth lies.
In one sense, Suu Kyi’s speech echoed a statement made by President Thein Sein on July 10 to members of the Union Peacemaking Working Committee, a government created body seeking resolution to ethnic region conflicts.
During his earlier speech, Thein Sein said, “In implementing political and economic reforms, easing of ethnic conflicts needs be considered. Only when such reforms are carried out, will national reconciliation be achieved and ethnic conflicts ended.”
A notable difference, however, is that while Thein Sein’s speech indicated that reconciliation with the ethnic groups will stem from political and economic reforms, Suu Kyi’s statement emphasized the importance of achieving political solutions to ethnic problems as a step toward countrywide political and economic development.
While Thein Sein has made reconciliation with different ethnic groups through ceasefire agreements a policy priority, fighting still rages in the country’s northern Kachin State. A long-standing ceasefire between the government and Kachin Independence Organization broke down in 2011 over issues of ethnic and political rights.
The Kachins have also raised concern about the environmental and developmental impact of several government-backed dam projects in the area. The conflict has been attended by some of the heaviest fighting seen in the country in over a decade, resulting in hundreds of deaths on both sides and tens of thousands of new refugees.
Fighting has also continued between the Shan State Army-North in north-central Shan State, despite a ceasefire agreement signed with the government in January this year. Both struggles have cast a shadow over the government’s so far largely successful peace drive in other insurgency-hit areas of the country. Western countries, including the United States, have made it clear to the government that resolution of the conflicts is necessary for the complete lifting of their economic sanctions.
A flare up in communal conflict between ethnic Buddhist Rakhines against Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine State beginning in early June has left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless. While not an insurgency, the violence between one ethnic minority – allegedly backed by the security forces of the majority government – against another minority group points toward the potential for continued instability in ethnic relations.
Naypyidaw views the Rohingya as foreigners and many in Myanmar, including among other ethnic groups, view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Civil war between the Burman-dominated central government and the country’s ethnic minorities has raged since almost immediately after independence from Great Britain in 1948. Importantly, these struggles began under a democratic government system and continued under decades of military dictatorship.
Indeed, it was the fear of a breakup of the Union of Burma that was cited by the coup makers as a major reason behind their 1962 coup and suspension of democracy. Harsh counter-insurgency campaigns characterized by gross human-rights abuses together with subtler bans on ethnic cultural practices and language instruction has engendered deep distrust of central authorities among most ethnic minorities.
Recent statements by Aung Min, vice chairman of the Union Peacemaking Working Committee and Thein Sein’s point man for negotiating with ethnic political organizations, hint that the government may be willing to consider discussion of the creation of a federal system.
To date, Aung Min is believed to have stood firm on the government’s eight-point guidelines for Union-level ceasefire negotiations that have so far been used to structure discussions with armed ethnic organizations. The eight points require ethnic groups to renounce all claims to independence, agree to remain in the Union of Myanmar, and join in mainstream politics and state-led economic development.
During a June 22 meeting with representatives from some 14 political parties in the old capital Yangon, Aung Min said, “The guidelines are not carved in stone. We can discuss and amend them as necessary. Right now, we are working hard to hold a Panglong-like political dialogue before the end of 2014.”
His statement was interpreted by some as a reversal of the government’s previous refusals to discuss federalism, a new Panglong-style conference, or engage with more than one ethnic group at a time for discussions on politics, self-government or autonomy issues.
It also marked an apparent departure from the government’s earlier rigid position that all political settlements should be worked out in parliament, a body currently dominated by the military and Burman majority. This has given new hope to some ethnic leaders that while the creation of a federal union is not likely in the immediate term, it could be achievable in the long-term.
The Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC) was reorganized in May, making Thein Sein the head of its central committee and giving it more powers to negotiate directly with armed ethnic organizations. Aung Min, the UPWC’s vice chairman and who now reportedly refers to himself as the “minister without borders”, has in recent months made frequent trips to neighboring China and Thailand to hold closed door discussions with different ethnic group representatives.
The military, however, remains a key player in the national reconciliation efforts. While Thein Sein and his supporters rule from Naypyidaw, the military and its powerful regional commanders are still the driving central force in many ethnic minority areas. The UPWC appears to have little command over the military, whose operations, including in the Kachin and Shan States, have sometimes been at odds with the efforts of its peace negotiators.
Thein Sein has made several calls on military units to refrain from offensive actions, but these executive commands have been ignored in Kachin State as well as in other ethnic areas. Clashes continue with the Shan State Army-South, including a major skirmish on July 25, while rebels in the neighboring Karen State are worried military efforts underway to reinforce and resupply army forward bases signal a possible resumption of hostilities.
Thein Sein’s government may be genuinely keen to reach political settlements with ethnic-based insurgent organizations, but there are still many hardliners in the military who seek revenge for casualties in fighting against the Kachin and Shan and still believe they can crush their resistance through military means. Many of these officers rose through the ranks with indoctrination against ethnic armies and served on the front lines fighting insurgents.
For Myanmar’s reforms to take root they must soon move beyond emphasis on the country’s central region and begin to address the military’s supremacy over the civilian government’s in the border regions where most ethnic minorities reside. After decades of civil war, democracy and local autonomy represent the best hope for alleviating ethnic minority regions’ entrenched poverty and underdevelopment. Whether Thein Sein’s and Suu Kyi’s calls will result in real reconciliation, however, still depends on the military top brass.
Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.