Burma's Long War With its Ethnic Minorities

The Obama Administration has stated that ethnic issues must be solved if the Burmese government wants the US to lift sanctions. But judging by where things stand right now, President Thein Sein has his work cut out for him if he wants that to happen.

There have recently been signs that Thein Sein understands the message being consistently delivered by US diplomats, the latest by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who received a warm reception and the blessing of Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic pro-democracy leader who in the past was accused of being an obstacle to improved Burma-US ties, and who left after warning the Burmese that doing something about the ethnic divisions was a priority.

But this is hardly the first time peace talks have been held in Burma. In fact, every time Burma has had a new government its leaders have extended what appeared to be an olive branch, only to have the initial goodwill eventually break down and lead to more distrust and conflict.

As long ago as Gen Ne Win’s 1962 coup, in fact, he called for a ceasefire and offered to hold peace talks with all armed groups, including communists and ethnic groups. The government facilitated meetings and provided the rebel leaders with transportation, including air travel, from their jungle hideouts to Rangoon for the month-long peace talks.

The discussions foundered on the fact that ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Shan and Arakanese all wanted some form of near-complete autonomy within a federal system, while the government asked them to surrender their arms and come back into the legal fold. With no apparent trust between the parties, the talks finally broke down and fighting soon resumed. With the civil war continuing, Ne Win then built a military machine with the intention of wiping out the resistance, but he never succeeded.

This time, reportedly Thien Sein sent Aung Min, Burma’s minister of railways, to northern Thailand to hold preliminary ceasefire talks with five ethnic armed groups, including major Karen and Shan rebel organizations. Aung Min, who was an intelligence officer in the 1980s and a former commander of the Southern Command, is said by colleagues to be straightforward and moderate. He is also known to be close to both Thein Sein and former junta chief Snr Gen Than Shwe.

Following the talks, Maj Sai Lao Hseng, a spokesperson for the Shan State Army-South, said that “Minister Aung Min explained to us that there are three steps toward the emergence of peace—a ceasefire, cooperation between ceasefire groups and Naypyidaw for development, and a meeting hosted by the government to tackle unsolved political conflicts.”

While the fact that the peace talks took place at all is a welcome development, and the Bangkok Post went so far as to call the talks “historic,” it must be cautioned that nothing approaching historic has happened yet.

Although sources reported that three of the ethnic armed groups have informally agreed to a ceasefire—and the United Wa State Army previously accepted a temporary accord—no permanent ceasefire has been agreed to with any major ethnic armed group and fighting in Shan, Karen and Kachin states continues with no end in sight.

Following the brutal crackdown on protest in 1989, the junta, rather than laying the groundwork for an anticipated dialogue, demanded that the ethnic armed groups be transformed into members of its border guard force and began applying both political and military pressure to force them to do so. This only deepened the level of mistrust and led directly to the resumption of armed conflicts.

Under the current government, the border guard force proposal has been dropped, but the ethnic groups are still waiting for the long-promised political dialogue to be initiated. Sources said that Thein Sein’s government intends to hold a national level peace conference in the future and political observers speculate that Aung San Suu Kyi will even be invited to attend.

Such a conference is still far from a reality, however, and before any such national level discussions take place, the military and government have to look at the ongoing conflict from a different perspective and no longer stick to their previous, military-dominated strategies and policies.

This may have been what Thein Sein was attempting to do when—in line with what Aung Min told the ethnic groups in his recent meeting with them on the Thai-Burma border—he told reporters at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bali that there was a need for development in the ethnic regions and his government intended to reach out to ethnic groups for peace talks.

Still, Thein Sein has sent mixed messages over the last several months, in some cases saying he wants peace but in others revealing that his understanding of the ethnic struggle is one-dimensional and deeply rooted in the military’s arrogant view of ethnic minorities and their issues.

The prime example was his remark calling the Kachin rebels Thaung Gyan Thu, which is usually translated as “insurgents,” but to Burmese means a rebel group with no political agenda and has connotations of terrorism.

Thein Sein went on to say it would only take a few hours for the Burmese armed forces to tackle the fighting in Kachin State if it so desired. But even if he is correct that the Burmese army and air force could swiftly defeat the vastly outmanned and outgunned Kachin Independence Army by launching an all-out military offensive, it would never crush the soul of the Kachin resistance. (The irony is the Kachins who entered ceasefire in 1994 were waiting for political dialogue for years returned to fight this year and ceasefire broke down. Due to ongoing fighting thousands were displaced and many fled to China-Burma border. Only a few local NGOs have access to some IDPs but the government denied access and prevented UN agencies and international NGOs to enter conflict zone where two forces continue to fight and reports of human rights violations began to emerge. UN humanitarian agencies and INGOs in Rangoon have little power and remained silent on the issue. NGOs in Rangoon say Oxfam and and the World Food Program to distribute rice to refugees in Kachin areas, but only those controlled by the government )

The same could be said with respect to the other ethnic armed groups including the Karen National Union, which began its armed quest for equal rights and autonomy in 1948 and has waged effective guerilla warfare in Karen State since losing its headquarters in 1994.

Therefore, the military option will never lead to a lasting peace, and if Thein Sein’s new government is serious about building trust with the ethnic armed groups, it should first halt military offensives and call for a nationwide cessation of hostilities, during which preliminary talks can take place at the regional level to understand and resolve local issues.

In the second phase, the government and all of the ethnic groups— including the “ethnic alliance” if the groups so desire—should sit down and identify in an open and frank manner the main issues related to the conflict.

Finally, a national dialogue—perhaps a conference—should take place between the leaders of the government and the ethnic groups, with the goal of reaching a long-term political settlement. What should not happen is for the second and third steps to be delayed until the Burmese government implements its supposed plan to develop the ethnic regions.

While the economic development of the ethnic regions is a laudable objective if undertaken with the right motivations, attempts to simply pour development resources into these areas without at least concurrent efforts to reach a comprehensive political solution will at best be viewed with suspicion and could lead to more conflicts, because the government’s efforts will surely run headlong into the areas controlled by the ethnic militias and potentially conflict with the ethnic groups’ desire to make their own decisions regarding local development.

More importantly, the government must send a signal that it realizes that Burma’s ethnic groups are not just asking for new bridges, roads, schools, hospitals and aid. The ethnic minorities took up arms and demanded local autonomy in order to preserve their identity and culture. Until a political solution is found that allows them to do so, there will be no peace in Burma.

(Aung Zaw is editor of The Irrawaddy, an independent publication based in in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Parts of this appeared originally in The Irrawaddy.)