Ethnic Harmony Needed for Burma’s Reforms to Succeed

The ongoing conflict in Kachin State and last year’s deadly clashes in Arakan State have cast a harsh light on one of the greatest challenges facing Burma as its moves toward reform: the need for ethnic harmony.

“Burma needs not only democracy but also ethnic rights,” says Kyaw Kyaw, a commander of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front-Northern Burma (ABSDF-NB), an ally of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), speaking from the KIA headquarters in Laiza.

“’Democracy and ethnic rights must go side by side. Democracy cannot live without ethnic harmony,” adds the former student activist, recalling an ABSDF slogan from the 1990s, when the group allied itself with various ethnic armies after fleeing the crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988.

In fact, this was not only a slogan of the ABSDF, but also of all the groups belonging to the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), formed in Manerplaw, the former headquarters of the Karen National Union. It brought together not only the KNU and the KIA, but also political organizations and ethnic armies representing Burma’s Mon, Karenni, Shan, Pa-o, Palong, Lahu, Wa, Chin and Arakanese minorities.

However, the DAB, which had called for a tripartite dialogue between the then ruling junta, democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities, suffered a setback in 1994 when the KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese army without the approval of other members.

The New Mon State Party and some other groups later followed the KIA’s example in making deals with the regime, but the KNU, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Shan State Army-South continued to fight until last year, when they signed agreements following Suu Kyi’s historic electoral victory in by-elections last May.

Now the KIA stands alone again, this time as the only major ethnic armed groups that is still fighting the Burmese army.

Civil War and Ethnic Rights

For people living in Rangoon, Mandalay or Naypyidaw, it can be difficult to understand the importance of “ethnic rights,” or even what this term means.

But if you visit ethnic areas, particularly those under the control of ethnic armed groups, you will readily understand why they feel a need to fight against the Burmese army, more that 60 years after Burma achieved its independence.

Few of these places, however, are accessible to foreigners or even Burmese holding foreign passports. And for ordinary Burmese to venture into any of these areas is to risk arrest and imprisonment under Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, which prohibits contact with organizations deemed to be  threat to state security.

Although most rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements since reforms began in 2011, this law remains in force, ensuring that most Burmese will never risk communicating with ethnic armed groups or even people living within their territories. This is deeply unfortunate, as it prevents people from Burma’s cities from ever gaining an understanding of why ethnic rights mean so much to many of their fellow citizens.

If we look back at Burma’s history, we can see that the country would never have become independent without the common assent of the Burman majority and the ethnic minorities. It was the Panglong Agreement, signed by Gen Aung San and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples on Feb. 12, 1947 (and commemorated on that day every year as Burma’s Union Day) that paved the way for independence the following year.

It was the failure of subsequent Burman-dominated governments (particularly the military regimes that ruled from 1962 until 2011) to honor this agreement that caused Burma to fall into civil war, according to the KIA and many other ethnic armed groups, who continue to call for a restoration of the “Panglong Spirit.”

Who Cares about Ethnic Rights?

After Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) joined the army-dominated Parliament last year, many people felt that Burma had finally won some democratic rights. But despite this, and despite the presence in Parliament of ethnic minority parties that contested in the 2010 election, it is still far from clear if the democratic rights of ethnic minorities are adequately represented in Burma.

Indeed, the issue of ethnic rights does not appear to be high on anybody’s agenda in Naypyidaw, despite the events of last year. Suu Kyi has been notably silent on this issue, confining her comments on the Kachin conflict, for instance, to calls for both sides to stop fighting.

Traditionally, people in urban areas, including politicians, are reluctant to talk about ethnic rights. They are especially wary of discussing federalism—something close to the hearts of Burma’s ethnic minorities. After half a century of military rule, federalism is seen by many Burmese as a veiled attempt to divide the country.

There are some, however, who have tried to tackle the ethnic issue head on. Recently, the 88 Generation Students group sent a delegation to the KIA stronghold of Laiza to assess the situation there. They also offered to help the government negotiate an end to the conflict, but have so far received no response from Naypyidaw.

The government, it seems, is only interested in moving forward with its own negotiating team, led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min. But even as Aung Min calls for talks, the Burmese army continues shelling KIA positions near Laiza, casting doubt on the sincerity of the government’s desire for a negotiated end to the conflict.

What about the international community? Does it care about the aspirations of Burma’s ethnic minorities?

So far, most foreign governments and organizations seem more interested in keeping up the momentum of political and economic reforms, and have paid little attention to the core demands of minorities. Some have expressed concern about the conflict in Kachin State, but few recognize the underlying causes of the unrest.

For its part, Burma’s military has tried to block any discussion of the issue of ethnic rights by urging the international community to focus on what it calls “terrorist actions and atrocities committed by the KIA.”

All of this bodes ill for Burma’s prospects of reform. Until all stakeholders start working together to achieve meaningful progress in restoring ethnic harmony, the chances of achieving lasting peace and prosperity will be very slim.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a former student activist who fled to ethnic rebel-controlled areas in 1988. He is now a freelance journalist and writer in exile.


7 Responses to Ethnic Harmony Needed for Burma’s Reforms to Succeed

  1. We are talking about minority rights and I agree with that.The question is , do the rebel groups such as KIA, KNU, DKBA, SSA ans so on, truly represent each and every ethnic group? And what percentage of the people living in one particular State supports the rebels? I just want to know if those rebels have the full support or the mandate ? Or what are their political platforms/ I’m Burmese but I have never known or heard of any prominent rebel leaders or their demands for ethnic rights or for democracy. Even when the whole country was under the military boots and Daw Suu was under house arrest which ethnic has reached to the International Community for Daw Suu’s release and for Democracy and Human rights in Burma? KIa was busy doing business with the ruling gegerals while Daw Suu was helpless. I have no faith in any of the rebel leaders because they are as bad as the Burmese generals. They crave for money and for power and that’s it! If these rebel leaders are sincere enough to thinbk of their people, they should have laid down their arms 60 years ago. They’ve been fighting for 60 years and still going on? Forget about it!

    • Thamain Pone(TP) wrote :”And what percentage of the people living in one particular State supports the rebels?”
      Question to TP: Where do you get this above information? Give us your valid references or research papers. If it is from than shwe and your guess, it is rubbish.

      TP wrote:” I just want to know if those rebels have the full support or the mandate ? ”

      Question to TP: What is Panglong agreement and who are the governments ( bama u nu and bama military thugs) in Burma after independence? Are there any ethnics languages teaching in schools in Burma?

      TP wrote:” Even when the whole country was under the military boots and Daw Suu was under house arrest which ethnic has reached to the International Community for Daw Suu’s release and for Democracy and Human rights in Burma? KIa was busy doing
      business with the ruling gegerals while Daw Suu was helpless.”

      Question to TP: Since 1948, kachin has been isolated and bullied by bama U nu and bama military thugs, compared to DASSK (15 years house arrest). From simple mathematics, you should sincerely compensate kachin suffering. Do you know kachin army was the first to declare the conquer on Japanese invasion in Burma before Aung san betrayed his Japanese army? It led to Burma independence from British in the trust of Aung San’s kyat slogan by kachin? Kachin needed to betray British colony at that time. If so, what is the price and compensation from you, naive Thamain Pone for kachin as well as all other ethnics in this forum.

      We all have no faith on you. Please, be aware that kachin rebels need tp buy ammunition and fighter jets for defensing their own lands so Kachin rebels need businesses and money. Do Rangoon, Mandalay and Nay-pyi-daw have jade mines, like Kachin land for business to buy jet fighters?

    • If the Burmen are as sincere as you tried very hard to sound to be, hold referendums in ethnic area and find out who wants to stay and who wants to stand out. Do the Burmen have the guts to see set backs? If history is any suggestion, Burmen will close their eyes and refuse to accept the truth being sour losers as always. How many times in post-independence time has the Burmen held up their side of the deal?

  2. Htet Aung Kyaw wrote”Few of these places, however, are accessible to foreigners or even Burmese holding foreign passports. And for ordinary Burmese to venture into any of these areas is to risk arrest and imprisonment under Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, which prohibits contact with organizations deemed to be threat to state security.”
    Above information shows how all the ethnics are isolated by bamanization of bama military thugs (unethical , discrimination, selfish, bullying altitudes). People around the world should condemn this kind of ogre inhumane behavior due to the low born of bama military thugs. All ethnics fought for Burmese independence from the slogan of Aung san who was also killed by bama. Afterwards, panglong agreement is rubbish and the killer, U saw and rapist than shwe are bama national heroes now.

  3. If Burma have a lot of people like Htet Aung Kyaw who see the reality of Burma, Burma would already have been more developed than Japan. Thamain pone must be still brained washed by Burma military thugs. I did not think he know about (Since 1976) he is not eligible for DSA and OTS unless he have 12.5 % or more Chinese blood. If he is pure Burmese he can not be more than colonel If he is ethic national and christian or Muslim he can not be more than major.I hope he understand not only ethic minorities but also majorities of Burmese itself ruiined by this 60 years civil war. U saw was scapegoat for killing Aung San and other. The true responsible persons are U Nu who purposely late for the meeting and Newin who control arm supply in that time. Newin provoke ethic national to become rebels so that military have became united and easy for him to handle power. This military also follow their evil father Newin step.

    • Late U nu is faked Buddhism and is the one who makes use of Buddhism in Burma against Christian kachin ethnics obviously. Therefore, U nu should be expelled and condemned from world Buddhism organization.

  4. The truth is that somehow Burmans and other ethnic groups Shan, Chin, Karen, Kachin, and even Rohingya will have to negotiate some form of peace sooner or later. Why not look at the present as an opportunity to do this? I know people shouldn’t be naive about the past, but there have been military dictatorships for hundreds of years, not just 60. There is a need for unity in the country of Burma or Myanmar, not civil war. People need opportunities for jobs, businesses and access to the benefits of resources in their own regions FIRST, not have everything centralized and be left with nothing.

    The first step should be greater regional autonomy, not separate nation states. The country is about to face a gobal economy, so people might as well do this together as a united nation, not as a bunch of bickering ethnic groups. It may be tough, but that’s the reality people must face. You can’t have it both ways.Sure, U Nu, Than Swe, Ne Win and others have been grossly unfair, but let them pass on, and allow a new generation introduce the changes necessary to bring Myanmar into the 21st century. Diversity and even disagreement is okay, as long as people can come to agree on a few things. Leave some of that nostalgic bitterness aside and at least try to move forward. That’s what Aung San would have done, and it’s what DASSK is trying to do.

    Many people know their history and feel strong bitterness and resentments with good reason. Many people have suffered, been killed, been tortured or brutally displaced from their homelands. But it makes no sense to give up before you start. It’s time to MAKE HISTORY. This is your opportunity to do it for good or bad. There is an old saying-Nada malo dura por cien anos, ni hay cuerpo que resiste-Nothing bad lasts a hundred years, nor is can a body resist this. Ni Win is dead. So is Aung San and countless others. But as long as you are alive, there can still be hope. Sure there will be problems, but you’ll never know unless you really try. The heart of the Buddhist faith, IS the heart. You do what is right, because you know that is what you must do–not always because you follow a Western concept that you have to succeed. You should follow your heart and fight for what you believe. Whether you’ll win or not isn’t important. It’s all about whether you’ll really follow what you should do ,,or, just give up before you start. It’s time to stop criticizing and start doing. There will be plenty of time for criticizing later when you see how what you try turns out.

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