Burma’s Ethnic Powder Keg

April 2013

Prague – Two years have passed since Burma held its first general election after more than two decades of military dictatorship. The regime hailed the popular vote as an important step in the country’s transition from military to civilian rule, and the economy has made impressive strides under President Thein Sein’s civilian government. But, if the country cannot resolve its long-running ethnic conflicts, all of this progress could be undone.
Troubled relations between Burma’s government and its ethnic minorities constitute a serious obstacle in the country’s path to stability and prosperity. Indeed, Burma’s recent history has been plagued by ethnic violence and protracted conflicts with government forces, particularly in Karen, Shan, and Kachin states.
Many of Burma’s ethnic minorities – whose members comprise almost 40% of the population – have long been subjected to persecution and mistreatment. As a result, they often harbor anger and resentment toward the government, with some even taking up arms in resistance. There is a real danger that opponents of Burma’s transition could exploit these tensions, fueling ethnic conflict in order to derail reform efforts.
While Sein has signed cease-fires with ten ethnic armies since becoming President, more durable settlements are needed to ensure lasting peace. And two particularly violent, long-standing ethnic conflicts remain far from any resolution at all.
The northern state of Kachin – which is rich in natural resources, and serves as a vital transport route to China – has experienced fierce fighting since a 17-year truce between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army collapsed in 2011. In January, the military reportedly deployed gunships and fighter jets in a push to shut down KIA headquarters in Laiza. The conflict has displaced more than 75,000 people.
While previous rounds of negotiations between the government and resistance leaders, held in February and March, have been unsuccessful, the two sides have agreed to resume talks later this month. But the stakes are high; another failure could reignite civil conflict and all but destroy any remaining hope for reconciliation.
Ethnic tensions are also running high in the western state of Rakhine. The relationship between the majority Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya has long been a tinderbox. The Rohingya are not recognized by Burmese law, and face official discrimination and harsh treatment, including virtually impenetrable barriers to citizenship and forced labor.
Last June, tensions erupted when a Rakhine mob, reacting to the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men, killed ten Muslims who had no connection to the incident. Violence quickly spread across the state, displacing thousands of people. While the government has managed to restore order, its heavy-handed, discriminatory approach has weakened prospects for peace.
Despite the great strides that Burma has made in the last two years, the specter of ethnic conflicts continues to haunt the transition to democracy. If the government does not make genuine progress soon, the international community’s enthusiastic support for the country’s reform efforts will likely dissipate, compromising future efforts at negotiations and jeopardizing Burma’s democratic prospects.
There is reason for hope. In February, Burma’s government and the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of 11 ethnic militias, conducted official peace talks. Yohei Sasakawa, a founding member of the Shared Concern Initiative, participated as the sole observer, mediating the talks in his capacity as the Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar.
The successful realization of official peace talks through an observer reflects the significant progress made since informal discussions were held last November. There is a growing understanding in Burma of the importance of the international community’s support in reaching a lasting settlement.
Such a settlement remains possible. Despite their history of armed resistance against the government, Burma’s ethnic minorities do not pursue a separatist agenda. Rather, they seek a constitutional guarantee for a certain degree of autonomy in exchange for their commitment to the path of non-violence.
The lack of a separatist inclination provides a more stable foundation for a peace agreement. But the positive momentum for reconciliation must be intensified. The international community must redouble its efforts to help Burma, with its almost sixty million people, to move toward lasting peace and true democracy. Better integration of ethnic minorities, with full respect for their human and civil rights, is essential to reducing the risk of a resurgence of ethnic violence – and to giving Burma’s transition a chance to succeed.
H.R.H. El Hassan bin Talal
André Glucksmann
Vartan Gregorian
Michael Novak
Yohei Sasakawa
Karel Schwarzenberg
Desmond Tutu
Richard von Weizsäcker