Minorities Still Neglected, Say Ethnic MPs

By Lawi Weng 4 October 2012

The rights of Burma’s ethnic minorities are still not being respected despite recent political reforms, according to ethnic members of the country’s Parliament who expressed dissatisfaction with the administration of President Thein Sein.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday during a trip to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, around a dozen ethnic MPs noted that Thein Sein has not appointed a single member of a minority group to any senior union-level positions.

They said they were especially dissatisfied with the fact that most of these posts have gone to generals or former generals. No ethnic representative were included in a recent cabinet reshuffle that saw the appointment of 11 new ministers, they added.

“They talk a lot about giving rights to ethnic people, but it’s all just on paper,” said Khuang Ling, a Lower House MP from the Chin National Progressive Party.

He said that different MPs asked Thein Sein to appoint some ethnic representatives to positions at the  union level, but their proposal was turned down.

“The government is talking a lot about the promotion of ethnic rights through media outlets such as radio, TV and state-run newspapers, but in reality, they are worried about giving a position an ethnic representative,” said Ba Shein, a Lower House MP from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

Even at the state level, many ethnic people say that they are not really fully represented. In Mon State, for instance, Chief Minister Ohn Myint claims to be ethnic Mon, but does not speak the Mon language and is generally regarded as a Burmese general, despite having some Mon ancestry.

The ethnic MPs also complained that their proposals in Parliament—on everything from the teaching of ethnic languages to poverty alleviation in remote areas—have received very little attention from the government.

“We have tried to make many proposals to address the needs of the people, but to no effect,” said Khuang Ling, who noted that his home state remains the poorest in the country because the central government has done nothing to assist with improving transportation infrastructure.

Min Myo Thit Lwin, an Upper House MP from the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, said that the government doesn’t want to encourage ethnic language education because it has long pursued a policy of promoting Burmese culture at the expense of other cultures.

“The government keeps saying that it will be difficult to teach Mon, but we are already prepared to do it ourselves, without their help,” he said.

Under Burma’s former military regime, it was illegal to teach ethnic minority languages to children. Those caught doing it were often received prison sentences.

Some ethnic MPs noted that the government rarely uses the word “union” to describe the whole country these days, preferring instead to speak of “national politics”—a preference they saw as an attempt to erase Burma’s identity as a union of numerous ethnic groups.

“It’s wrong to talk about ‘national politics’ in a country formed by many different ethnic peoples,” said Dixon Tun Lin, an executive member of the Karen People’s Party.