In Burma, Conflict Threatens Reform, 2 Years On

By Todd Pitman 1 April 2013

LAIZA—When Burma’s post-junta government took power two years ago vowing to bring democracy to one of the world’s most repressed nations, Da Shi Naw was under no illusion his own life would improve any time soon. But the 61-year-old farmer never dreamed it would actually get worse—a lot worse.

First, a 17-year ceasefire between the army and ethnic Kachin guerrillas relapsed into fighting that tore through his family’s fertile rice fields, forcing him to flee into the mountains on foot. Then, after a year in a packed displaced camp far from home, war edged close once more.

Government troops began pounding rebel positions near the Kachin stronghold of Laiza with artillery and airstrikes that shook the ground here until late January. The battles triggered such a panic, authorities took the extraordinary step of urging people to dig their own bomb shelters.

And so, one cold day when camp administrators began handing out shovels, Da Shi Naw, humbled by fate, began plowing the ground a few steps from his tiny hut. He dug a rectangular cavity into the earth, a simple, makeshift hide covered with bamboo poles just big enough to climb into with his wife and their two-year-old grandson.

“We have nowhere left to run,” he told The Associated Press. “We have begun to lose hope.”

Two years into President Thein Sein’s historic term as Burma’s first civilian president in half a century, this Southeast Asian nation has moved closer to democratic rule than any other time since a 1962 army coup. Although few initially believed that Thein Sein, a former general, was sincere about reform when he took office on March 30, 2011, his administration has since orchestrated a top-down revolution that has stunned the world and given hope to millions of people, allowing freedoms unheard of just a few years ago.

Yet even as Burma basks in world praise and foreign investors rush in, some parts of the country have taken phenomenally tragic turns for the worse—plagued by explosions of ethnic and sectarian violence so grave, the government has acknowledged they threaten the very process of reform itself.

Here in the north, where the army is still battling rebels of the Kachin Independence Army, residents do not speak of the country’s newfound freedoms. There is no talk of economic liberalization, of the end of censorship or the suspension of western sanctions. There is no discussion, either, of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise as an elected lawmaker after nearly two decades under house arrest.

Here, the only subject is the tragic counter-narrative to progress, the story of a region where roads and bridges have been severed by fighting, where families have been separated and 100,000 people have been displaced.

“We feel our lives are going backward,” Da Shi Naw said. “It has never been this bad.”

And Kachin state is not alone.

Last week, bloody anti-Muslim pogroms ripped through the nation’s heartland for the first time, raising the specter of new instability. In the central city of Meikhtila, Buddhist mobs armed with machetes burned mosques and Muslim shops in a rampage that left charred corpses piled in the streets and more than 12,000 people, mostly Muslims, homeless. The unrest has spread since, with mosques ransacked in several villages north of the capital, Naypyidaw.

Thein Sein declared a state of emergency for the second time during his term, deploying the army to Meikhtila to restore order. It was a jarring move given the military’s long history of oppression. But Muslims welcomed the troops’ arrival, and analysts say the move further strengthened the army’s power.

In a national speech Thursday, Thein Sein said such conflicts were to be expected “during our period of democratic transition.”

But “we must face and overcome these challenges together,” he said, calling on his countrymen “to rise above the old ways of doing things.”

“As a nation, it is our firm belief that only an inclusive democratic society based on equality for all citizens will ensure peace and stability,” he said, “especially in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith country such as ours.”

Such words of assurance, though, still ring hollow for many.

In western Arakan State, where Buddhist-Muslim unrest exploded twice last year, human rights groups accused the state itself—its own idle security forces—of failing to stop the violence, and in some cases facilitating it.

More than 120,000 people, mostly Muslims, are still displaced there, and Thein Sein’s government has failed to ease still-festering tensions, enforcing instead the de facto segregation of ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, whose movement has been heavily restricted.

The Rohingya are now so desperate that more than 13,000 of them have fled into the sea this year on flimsy boats. An unknown number have died trying, or been seized by human traffickers; one boat that left Burma with 130 people arrived with only about 30 after drifting across the sea without food and water to Sri Lanka.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said Friday that the “government has simply not done enough to … tackle the organized and coordinated mobs that are inciting hatred and violently attacking Muslim communities.”

The result, for those caught up in unrest, has been a feeling of helplessness.

Even Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose name had become synonymous with the nation’s once black and white struggle against repression, has failed to speak up for the newly downtrodden masses.

Since winning a parliament seat in by-elections last year, she has morphed into a calculating politician who has begun to court the military that once oppressed her.

During a recent visit to a controversial Chinese-backed copper mine project in Letpadaung, she told villagers who complained their land had been illegally seized for the project that they would have to accept the loss. Local residents who had hoped she was coming to defend them jeered her in unprecedented scenes.

The visit heralded “a new era in Burmese politics,” Aung Zaw of the Irrawaddy online news magazine wrote in an editorial. Suu Kyi “can no longer count on Burma’s people to believe her when she says that everything she does is in their best interests,” Aung Zaw said.

In the north, Kachin leaders have begun intermittent talks with government envoys, and some roads have reopened as a result. But battles continue, and the fundamental demand of ethnic groups for autonomy and rights they say are denied by the military-conceived constitution remain unaddressed.

To its credit, Thein Sein’s government has signed ceasefire deals with every armed insurgent group except the Kachin. Yet the army has simultaneously intensified its war in the north, undermining prospects for broader talks to overcome the root causes of ethnic conflict.

Ethnic groups make up about 40 percent of the country’s 60 million people, and there can be no stability without them.

In the meantime, Laiza’s displaced population “has sunk into depression,” said La Rip, a local aid worker who heads a relief group called the Kachin Development Group.

“They want to go back to their villages, but they can’t even think about the future,” he said. “Because nobody knows when the fighting will end.”

Da Shi Naw said that even though the safety of China beckoned just a few meters (yards) away on the other side of a rocky stream bordering his camp, fleeing there was out of the question. Beijing forcibly expelled Kachin refugees last year, leaving the tens of thousands of residents and displaced in Laiza only one place to go—down.

Today, children play in bomb shelters and trenches dug throughout his displaced camp, monuments to fear and everything that has gone wrong in Burma over the last two years. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of such shelters have been built in backyards across Laiza, where three civilians were killed by an artillery round in December.

“I’m tired of running,” Da Shi Naw said. “We don’t feel safe here. But what can we do but pray to God?”