Myanmar political reforms elude ethnic groups


Source dw.de, 18 Oct

A demonstration by the Kachin in Bangkok(Photo: Nicola Glass)

Certain groups have been left out of the apparently impressive transformation taking place in Myanmar – the country’s ethnic minorities. In their regions, the military remains in control.

Many people in Myanmar have not benefited at all from the reforms initiated by President Thein Sein.

In many of the regions inhabited by minority ethnic groups, life has actually become worse.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Kachin state, a resource-rich region in the far north of the country. In June 2011, a 17-year cease fire collapsed after government troops began an offensive against the rebels of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Since then, war has prevailed.

Activists and human rights campaigners complain that the world has taken a blinkered view of the situation in Myanmar. "For us it is very difficult to gain the attention of the international community because all that people see from the outside is Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement," said Hkawng Seng Pan, spokeswoman for the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand.

Calls for a political solution

There has been no break in the fighting since the cease fire collapsed. Human rights campaigners accuse the regime of murder, torture, rape and other atrocities against civilians. Up to 100,000 people have fled from the violence. So far, all talks to establish a truce have failed.

Hkawng Seng Pan (Photo: Nicola Glass)Hkawng Seng Pan says the West has a blinkered view of the situation

In the coming weeks, according to media reports, fresh talks were set to take place between the government and Kachin rebels. It is not only the Kachin who insist on a political solution to end conflict and guarantee minority ethnic groups equal rights within the Union of Myanmar. Other ethnic groups with which Thein Sein’s government has already signed cease fire agreements are also asking for the same thing.

Among them are the Karen in the east of the country, who in January 2012 entered into a truce agreement with the government. Because of the conflict, which has been going on for decades, several hundred thousand people have become refugees in their own country or fled across the border into neighboring Thailand.

Steps to build confidence

The entire process of armistice negotiations is fragile because the government has the upper hand, according to Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership, a network of organizations in the Asia-Pacific regions that campaign for a democratic Myanmar.

"In dealing with the rebel groups, the government is not flexible enough to compromise. A situation in which both sides emerge as winners must be marked by compromise and not, therefore, one in which the rebels simply give in."

Myanmar's President Thein Sein shakes hands with members of the peace group Karen National Union (Photo: Reuters)Negotiations with groups like the Karen have been decribed as "fragile"

To what extent to government will be in a position to solve the Kachin question, observers say, is extremely important for the peace negotiations with the other ethnic minorities. If there were to be no progress in Kachin state, the question would arise about how credible the government’s efforts were, according to activist and author Benedict Roger, who is East Asia team leader for the organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Among the first steps necessary would be a reduction in troop number deployed and an end to human rights violations. Only that way could trust be a built, said Roger.

Mistrust of parliament

In addition, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) – comprised of some dozen rebel groups – has called for Thein Sein’s chief negotiator Minister Aung Min to meet with all rebels at one table rather than negotiate with individual groups.

It also wants the initial debate about a political solution, and any constitutional changes, to take place outside parliament, which is dominated by representatives who are close to the former military government or who are themselves members of the military.

Debating the matter in parliament would be tantamount to recognizing the controversial constitution of 2008, which restricts the rights of ethnic minorities and guarantees supremacy to the military.

The Kachin and Karen regions are not the only flashpoints in Myanmar. In June 2012, ethnic and religious violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.

The Myanmar parliament (Photo: Michael Wetzel, DW)Allied ethnic groups want to keep parliament out of the process of finding a political solution

A subsequent racist smear campaign against the Rohingya, not recognized as a minority in Myanmar, was in stark contrast to the image of the new Myanmar that Thein Sein aims to present to the international community.

Ignored plight of the Rohingya

While the reform process in Myanmar has received high praise from abroad, it has not translated into legal reforms that would see all citizens treated equally. This was the criticism voiced recently by Debbie Stothard of the Altsean Burma network, which campaigns for human rights and reform.

"In contrast with the overly optimistic comments from the West, from Europe and also from Asia, the plight of the Rohingya minority shows what really has to be done in the country other than take advantages of photo opportunities with Thein Sein," said Stothard.

Many observers have questioned whether Thein Sein really has the will to change the country. However, activist Brendan Rogers pointed out that there were signs that he was in the process of promoting a reformist agenda, including a recent cabinet reshuffle in which some hardliners were replaced or demoted.

Hovering above all of this is the question of whether the reforms are, in fact, genuine and irreversible. "Nobody knows how strong the hardliners really are and how much of a position they are in to hinder this process or possibly even start a coup."

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