The Forgotten Minorities of Myanmar by Nehginpao Kipgen

The Forgotten Minorities of Myanmar Nehginpao Kipgen

8 November 2009 In just over a month from the announcement of the Obama administration’s nine-month long policy review on Burma, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and his deputy will pay a two-day visit from November 3 to 4, to the military-ruled country.
Kurt Campbell and Scott Marciel are expected to meet with senior military junta officials and members of the opposition, including detained Aung San Suu Kyi as well as representatives of ethnic minority groups. The administration announced on September 23 that it will pursue a direct and high-level engagement with Burma, while retaining sanctions. Though the visit is a short one, it will be a test of the engagement-sanction policy.

There are critics who argue that the US high-level attention validates the brutality of the junta which has waged war against its own people and imprisoned more than 2,200 political prisoners. Proponents of engagement, however, argue that the policy is a way forward to democratisation for the country that has been under military rule since 1962.

The good news is that Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, welcomes engagement for the fact that it is designed to be inclusive of the State Peace and Development Council, the National League for Democracy, and the 
ethnic minorities.

As the first high-level talks is set to begin, the US government and other international players need to understand the historical nature of conflicts in this ethnically diverse nation where there are 135 races as per the government statistics, which is primarily based on dialectical variations.

Before the British colonisation in 1886, territories of ethnic minorities (Frontier Areas) were not part of Burma proper. For example, the Shans were ruled by their own sawbwas (princes), and the Chins and Kachins were ruled by their own chiefs. The 1947 Panglong agreement served as the basis for the formation of the ‘Union of Burma’, and the country’s independence from the British in 1948.

Many have often failed to understand the complexity of the conflicts in this Southeast Asian nation. Until recently, many thought the conflicts were entirely between the Burmese military junta and the opposition on the question of democracy. The conflicts are largely the consequences of mistrust and misunderstanding between the majority ethnic Burman-led central government and other ethnic minorities because of the failure to implement the 1947 Panglong agreement. Autonomy has been the core demand of minorities since 1947, and continues to remain the fundamental issue.

Successful conflict resolution depends on the facilitation of open dialogue on the basis of equality between all the interested parties. Such open dialogue will yield result if the rights of all ethnic groups are respected, irrespective of political and religious affiliations. Equality of rights is one fundamental democratic principle which is missing in the Burmese society today.

Burma’s ethnic minorities are neither secessionists nor separatists, but are striving for autonomy in their respective territories within the Union of Burma. The minorities believe that self-determination would give them an opportunity to preserve their culture, language and tradition. There needs to be an environment where everyone receives equal treatment in the eyes of the law, regardless of the size of population. In the run up to the proposed 2010 general election, the junta has stepped up military campaigns against ethnic minorities. With its sizeable army of over 400,000, and without foreign enemy, the junta has the power to cripple minorities militarily, but not necessarily the spirit of their core demand, which is autonomy. To bring a long lasting solution to the decades-old conflicts, it needs the sincerity, honesty and the participation of all ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups should be brought into confidence, and their legitimate demands should be looked into.

Because of its economic, political, military power, and the wide reception by the Burmese military junta and the opposition alike, the United States has the best leverage to help restore democracy in Burma. Any solution should somehow address the concerns of ethnic minorities, including a fundamental question on autonomy.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma and general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s