Burma’s president Thein Sein — through his envoy, former general Aung Min — has in just one year renewed most of the ceasefires agreed by the previous junta, including one with the powerful militia of the Wa minority in the north, who have produced and trafficked opium since the 1960s. In particular, he has managed for the first time to negotiate agreements with the Kayin, Shan, Chin and Kayah minorities (1). As a result, the international community, led by Japan and Norway, says it is willing to support development projects in the newly peaceful zones on the Burmese-Thai border.
But initial optimism has been replaced by the fear that negotiations will founder, as has happened so often in Burma. There are frequent skirmishes between Shan rebels and the Burmese army, and division within the Kayin community over dialogue. And while talks have started with groups on the Burmese-Thai border, in the north the Kachin conflict has worsened since the Kachin Independence Army took up arms again in June 2011. The fighting has displaced more than 100,000 Kachins, with many seeking refuge in Yunnan Province, in China.
Sectarian violence against the Rohingya — a Muslim minority whose version of Sunni Islam is quite unlike any other in the region — has flared up again in the majority Buddhist Rakhine (Arakan) state. The recurrent brutality they suffer is the legacy of a history of conflict between the communities; the Buddhists obsessively reject the Rohingya.
When the Shan, Chin and Kachin minorities accepted a semi-federal constitutional framework at the 1947 Panglong Conference, the Bamar majority guaranteed them a form of autonomy. But the other minorities were not invited, and Kayin observers rejected the outcome. Since the failure of these accords, the ethnic policy of the Bamar-dominated central government has alternated between dialogue and violent counter-insurgency. They have not managed to break this with a lasting political agreement on self-determination, the sharing of resources and land, or even minority cultural and religious rights. Copying the strategy outlined in the 1990s by General Khin Nyunt, chief of intelligence until his dismissal in 2004, Thein Sein has called for a “peace of the brave” between soldiers until a settlement can be reached on ethnic questions.
Legacy of civil war
But many obstacles remain, starting with the mistrust between the Bamar and minorities, the legacy of six decades of civil war. Division is less pronounced within the Bamar community, as can be seen from the current reconciliation between the military hierarchy and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (whose father, also Bamar, founded the army).
Years of guerrilla warfare produced excellent Kachin, Kayin and Shan military leaders but they turned out to be poor political strategists, unable to agree a common vision for a peaceful Burmese political union. As for the Bamar, few are prepared to question the dominant view of the Burmese nation as an exclusive, almost endogamous, racial community, whose religion is Buddhism.
Rethinking the idea of the nation is essential, especially since the ethnic question is linked to territory, and therefore the economy. Since the 1940s, war economies have developed in the border areas, and peace there would upset powerful local and cross-border interests. As Burma attempts to open up its economy to the world, its rich natural resources are arousing interest. Peripheral areas, especially Shan and Kachin states, are rich in timber and precious stones, and they have hydroelectric potential. The local communities are struggling to stop their territories being plundered by the Bamar majority — the army and conglomerates close to it — and foreign companies (Chinese and Thai). As long as Burma is unable to guarantee equitable and fairly distributed development, the predatory practises of the local war economies will continue, compromising the possibility of peaceful interethnic relations.
However, a civil society is emerging and being listened to in the new capital Naypyidaw. It includes unarmed ethnic groups who are a welcome counterpart to the Bamar opposition, still limited to Aung San Suu Kyi. Thein Sein’s suspension in September 2011 of the huge Chinese-led Myitsone dam project in Kachin state marked their increasing power. Now the surprising decision to empower the national parliament and 14 local legislative assemblies (created by the 2008 constitution, more federalist than the previous two, and put in place after the 2010 elections) (2), has created a new space for political dialogue and raised new hopes for interethnic dialogue.
Renaud Egreteau is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong.
(1) Burma consists of seven regions populated chiefly by the Bamar (who make up two-thirds of the population), and seven states populated mainly by ethnic minorities, including the Shan, Kayah (Karenni), Mon, Kayin (Karen), Rakhine (Arakan), Chin and Kachin. See André Boucaud and Louis Boucaud, “Burma: an election foretold”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2009.
(2) The party close to the army won 77% of parliamentary seats in the 7 November 2010 elections, amid a climate of fear and electoral fraud.
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