Unresolved Ethnic Issues Threaten Myanmar Reforms
Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, 11 May
Discussion of economic reforms in Myanmar (Burma) should not overshadow the critical need for a political solution to the longstanding grievances of the country's ethnic minorities, observers in Washington warned on Friday.
In recent days, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has announced that Myanmar is set for an "economic takeoff", even while new reports state that ongoing violence in the ethnic minority Kachin state has claimed the lives of 31 more people.
"When you talk to government officials in Burma about the problems in the ethnic areas, their usual reaction is to say that the answer is economic development. I think that is absolutely not the case," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"If you begin with economic development in areas that are still experiencing conflict, where you have no political solution, you're going to have the wrong kind of development – a continuation of the kinds of human rights abuses that we've seen for many years."
Anger has festered in Myanmar's ethnic-majority areas for decades, motivated particularly by the fact that the national government and economy has been dominated by the Burman majority since the country's independence.
This alienation has sparked the creation of numerous armed ethnic groups as well as some of the longest-running conflicts in the world.
Over the past year, however, a series of political reforms have been enacted, and the government has put a clear priority on negotiating ceasefires with many of the armed ethnic groups. Yet critics warn that the talks have been focused solely on getting signed agreements – while the underlying grievances have been pushed aside.
As yet, there has been almost no official discussion on about moving towards a political solution to these issues.
Even the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), only recently came around to prioritising the ethnic issue.
"The National League for Democracy has always said, 'Solve the political problems first and then we will solve the economics problems and the minority problem,'" says David Steinberg, a long- time Myanmar expert currently with Georgetown University here in Washington. "I thought that was unsound from the beginning. These are parallel things that go together."
The broader difficulty in moving forward is undoubtedly due to pushback from the military.
While Myanmar has been under military control for more than a half- century, in January 2011 a quasi-civilian government was created, albeit under a new military-written constitution.
Although the full extent of civilian rule in Myanmar today thus remains open to debate, in the ethnic areas there is no debate whatsoever.
"The civilian government has no sway over what happens in the ethnic areas," says Malinowski. "On at least two occasions, President Thein Sein has asked the army to cease offensive operations in Kachin state, and the army has simply continued to do what it's been doing."
On Thursday, reports arose of a military commander in the north promising that his troops are preparing to "wipe out" the 8,000- strong Kachin Independence Army.
According to many analysts, one of the primary issues at stake is one of resources, with the minority-dominated areas being particularly rich in this regard.
Control of the ethnic areas could thus be a key factor in one of the most critical long-term issues for Myanmar: civilian control over the military.
"The more the military has access to its own sources of revenues, the less it needs to listen to a president like Thein Sein," Malinowski says.
While it remains unclear how or when the civilian government will be able to turn greater focus on the issue of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, there could already be a potentially powerful tool available within the new constitution: provincial legislatures in the minority areas.
Although these bodies are yet to have any real power, Steinberg says that their real problem is a lack of capacity. "One of the things that the U.S. and ASEAN ought to do is try to build capacity within these bodies, so that minority communities can begin to represent their own people in the central government."
In the eyes of some, issues of ethnicity and nationalism have played significant roles in bringing about the recent months of reforms, as well.
One of the arguments against Western-imposed economic sanctions over the past decade has been that such measures would drive Myanmar into the arms of the Chinese. Indeed, this is just what has happened, with China having for years been Myanmar's strongest bilateral relationship, investing massive sums of money in the country.
Recent years, however, have seen growing anti-Chinese sentiment among many in Myanmar, at all levels of society.
"Chinese investment became associated with corruption," says Malinowski. "It was seen by people with a sense of nationalism, both in the opposition and in the Burmese military – it was seen as bad for the country's interests."
In turn, that helped to foster a push on the part of a new generation of Burmese leaders to reach out to alternative partners, particularly the United States.
Still, such nationalism could yet prove dangerous for the fragile reforms process, particularly if the international community insists on claiming ownership for what is taking place in Myanmar today.
"The reforms themselves need to be seen as Burmese – they are not foreign," Steinberg warns. "For foreigners to take credit for these would be a mistake given the highly nationalistic elements in that society."