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Discord amidst democracy: Myanmar’s ethnic woes

The news from Myanmar these days is relentlessly positive. The release of political prisoners, including that of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, coupled with the recent elections, have led to hopes that the country is on the path to genuine democratic reform.

The triumph of the National League of Democracy in April by-elections, capturing 43 of 45 available seats, expresses the appetite for change amongst Myanmar’s citizens. Much praise has been deservedly directed at Thein Sein, the new civilian president. Since assuming office in 2010, he has displayed notable sincerity and political acumen, pressing through reforms without triggering a backlash from hard line elements within either his government or the military. 

Addressing the nation on March 1st, the President declared it his goal to deliver “genuine democracy”. His ambitious programme includes further democratic reform, rebuilding the economy, ensuring the rule of law, and respecting ethnic diversity and equality. It is in this final step of ethnic reconciliation where perhaps the greatest challenges lie. 

Myanmar collage

Photos: Thousands of people have been displaced in Kachin state as a result of an escalation in fightin. Conor O’Loughlin/Trócaire.

Myanmar is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, with 137 recognized ethnicities among its estimated 56 million people. The largest of these is the Burman whom are Buddhist and Burmese-speaking. Non-Burman ethnic groups live mainly in the peripheral areas, many with their own unique culture, language and religion. For decades, the ruling military junta had followed a policy of ‘burmanization’, restricting the practice of non-Burman cultures under the auspices of national unity and security. In consequence, Myanmar has been at war with itself since independence in 1948 and has hosted some of the longest running civil conflicts in the world.

Today, Kachin state is the battleground for one of the most brutal. Here, there are no signs of a ‘Myanmar Spring’. For many Kachin people, a more pressing concern than genuine democracy is evading mortar fire and surviving day-to-day in temporary camps, frightened of returning to their villages and wondering if they will ever be able to do so again.  As many as 70,000 civilians have now fled their homes since June last year, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) collapsed.

The most recent deterioration in relations originates from the government’s attempts to regain military control of its borders along Thailand and China from various armed groups. The government increased its military presence in the area, with the result that the only Kachin political party, the Kachin State Political Party, considered it untenable to compete in the 2010 general election. With no regional Kachin party running, the first steps in the nationwide democratic transition, welcomed in most parts of the country, was in paradox a bitter setback for Kachin. Their hope for some level of federal autonomy quickly regressed. 

Since then, there has been intense fighting in Kachin, including proliferate use of land mines and systematic human rights abuses by both sides. One local source told me: “The army take unwilling boys and men as porters, the KIA enlist them as fighters”. 

Since June, Trócaire has been working with local organisations to deliver life-saving assistance to 36,000 of the most vulnerable people in camps. This includes distributing food, water and hygiene kits, as well as providing shelter, sanitation and education facilities. This has been achieved through financial support from the Irish public, Irish Aid and its UK equivalent, the Department of International Development (DFID). 

Delivering life-saving aid to civilian victims is a complex undertaking. The demarcation between government and KIA areas of control is fluid, with civilian camps straddling both.  KIA forces have resorted to guerrilla tactics, using roadside explosive devices which make main transport routes unsafe. The area has become increasingly militarised as government forces attempt to weed out KIA combatants. Only very recently have United Nations agencies begun to access some camps following months of delicate negotiations with both warring sides. 

The shortfall in humanitarian aid is of grave concern. Community leaders have little optimism that any ceasefire will be agreed in the near future. Worryingly, a presidential plea for an end to hostilities on both sides has not been complied with. Local agencies say they now must plan to supply camps until at least the end of the year. The onset of the rainy season this month raises the spectre of the spread of water-borne diseases and further difficulties in accessing camps by road. 

The international community has rewarded Myanmar for its political progress so far. It must now continue to finance the delivery of humanitarian assistance and encourage greater efforts by the government to resolve the conflict in Kachin. The alternative may lead to a protracted humanitarian crisis, potentially radicalising a younger generation and putting the lives of thousands of civilians at immediate risk.  

A failure in Myanmar to address Kachin ethnic grievances could destabilise the entire reform agenda.  While Myanmar is now commonly portrayed as a country on the path to democracy following years of Orwellian tyranny, this is a risky simplification.

In his inaugural speech, President Sein urged the cessation of the country’s several armed conflicts, declaring that long-running ethnic wars in the country were due to “sectarian strife and racism”. The country’s ethnic minorities had, he said, experienced “the hell of untold miseries”. In Kachin, they still do today.  

Conor O’Loughlin is Trócaire’s Emergency Response Officer and has recently returned from Kachin state.

This article was published in The Irish Examiner newspaper on June 18th, 2012.

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