Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ethnic Minorities Hold the Key to Burma’s Future

Op-ed, The Irrawaddy, Friday, January 23, 2009

Ethnic Minorities Hold the Key to Burma’s Future


Ceasefires that cannot be transformed into political settlements and a lasting peace are typical examples of protracted deadlocks. When neither party seems willing or able to resolve this situation, the deadlocks have the potential to trigger an escalation strategy in conflict. This is the point that the Burmese military and ceasefire ethnic groups have now reached. The question is what strategy options are available for both parties.

The Burmese military has initiated ceasefire agreements with no less than 17 ethnic rebel groups since 1989 and has allowed the groups to retain their arms and control somewhat extensive blocks of territory over the past twenty years. This shows uncharacteristic tolerance on the part of the military, which, like the whole Burman population to some extent, has a chauvinistic and patronizing attitude toward ethnic minorities.

The Burmese junta has accepted this situation for at least three reasons. First, the ceasefire accords have allowed the military to avoid multiple enemy fronts in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and to focus mainly on suppressing political opposition in central Burma.

Secondly, the ceasefire condition that prevails in the border areas has enabled the Burmese military to make unprecedented advances in its relations with neighboring countries¬ especially China and Thailand ¬in both security and economic terms. The neighbors that once supported Burma’s ethnic rebels along their borders as a key part of their buffer policy or because of an ideological affinity have now shifted to the policy of full economic cooperation with the Burmese junta through massive investment and border trade.

Lastly, the ceasefire accords give the military regime the much-needed political legitimacy that they have lost since the bloody crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. The regime constantly points to the ethnic ceasefire groups as the most defining feature of its “national reconsolidation” policy and as evidence of its claims to legitimacy.

However, the success of the military’s strategic tolerance is now about to be put to the test, as the regime must do two things before the 2010 elections to ensure that the progress it has made toward establishing a so-called “disciplined democracy” is meaningful.

First of all, the military needs to redraw the map of Burma under its new constitution. The basic state structure, consisting of seven centrally located regions surrounded by seven ethnic states, will remain the same. This favors the continuing dominance of the Burman majority, who live mostly in the seven regions. Some states, however, will see their maps being redrawn, with five Self-Administered Zones (for Naga, Danu, Pa-O, Pa Laung and Kokang ethnic groups) and one Self-Administered Division (for Wa ethnic group) designated by the military. The seventeen “special regions” established in the ethnic ceasefire areas are due to expire when the military redraws the map in accordance with the new constitution. Re-mapping must also be done soon so that the junta can establish new electoral constituencies in the country, especially in the ethnic areas. However, there is still no consensus among all parties concerned with regard to the drawing up of a new map, and this issue remains contentious.

Secondly, and more importantly, the military needs to disarm the ceasefire groups, reclaim territory from them, and push them to transform themselves into political parties ready to contest the 2010 election. This will be a major test of the military’s “contained Balkanization” of the ethnic areas; failure to achieve these goals could trigger an outright conflict and, in the worst case scenario, initiate another era of regional instability.

The question is how ethnic ceasefire groups will respond to the regime’s plans for their future. The indications so far suggest that ethnic groups will not likely give in to the junta’s demands. The United Wa State Party (UWSP), for example, now refers to itself as the “Government of Wa State, Special Autonomous Region, Union of Myanmar” in official documents. The UWSP, which has long pressed the regime to designate the Wa territory as a “state” in the constitution, has refused to call the area under its control “Shan State Special Region 2” in accordance with the terms of their ceasefire agreement or “Shan State Self-Administered Division” in accordance with the military’s new constitution.

Two other strong ceasefire groups, ¬the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), ¬have already officially stated that they will not contest the 2010 election. The NMSP even went so far as to say that it does not accept the military’s constitution.

There are two things the ceasefire groups can and should do. The first would be to resist the regime’s forced disarmament under the current conditions.

Some groups may take part in the 2010 election through their proxy ethnic parties, but they must not give in to the regime’s demands for the disarmament of their troops or the loss of territories under their control.

Secondly, they should convey the message to neighboring countries, ¬particularly China and Thailand, and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations¬, that the 2010 election, which will be held under the military’s constitution, will in no way contribute to stability or a smooth political transition to democracy and ethnic autonomy.

Genuine national reconciliation and nation-building must precede the restructuring of the state. The neighboring countries and the regional group should, therefore, be reminded that the situation of “contained Balkanization” in Burma could easily lead to a resumption of localized arm conflicts between certain ethnic ceasefire groups and the Burmese army unless the latter negotiates an acceptable political resolution with fourteen major ceasefire groups whose strength reaches over 40,000 armed troops. Such a situation would particularly alarm China, since the most volatile areas are around the Sino-Burmese border, where formidable Wa and Kachin ethnic groups are based.

The aforementioned resistance and warnings should be accompanied by two political demands: a review of the constitution, and the release of political prisoners, including Shan ceasefire leader Hso Ten and Shan MP-elect Khun Htun Oo. These demands are largely in line with those of the mainstream opposition in central Burma and the international community.

However, the ceasefire groups must be strategic and coordinated in their action. Otherwise, they will face inter-group divisions¬ with some groups giving in and others resisting against disarmament ¬as well as intra-group splits ¬with one part of a group surrendering and another part resuming fighting.

Many ceasefire groups have, in fact, issued collective statements in the past to raise their political demands with the junta. When the military resumed the National Convention in 2004, collective demands were issued to the regime on two occasions ¬by eight groups the first time, and by 13 the second (with the KIO and the NMSP joining in both efforts). Their demands included the right to discuss and revise the undemocratic principles and procedures of the convention, the right of elected representatives from the 1990 election to participate in the convention, and the clear distribution of power to the states.

Similar collective efforts should now be used to achieve the two key political goals of a constitutional review and the release of political prisoners. A broad, well-coordinated effort must be strategically articulated not only to consolidate the domestic power bases of ethnic groups, but also to persuade neighboring countries to engage in and facilitate an acceptable political resolution in Burma.

If the ceasefire groups fail to stand together and be strategic at this critical historical juncture, they will lose their ground and eventually succumb to the junta’s “divide and conquer” tactics.

In the long run, ethnic minorities will be the ultimate losers under the military’s constitution. Burma will remain a highly centralized state in the post-2010 era. The undemocratic power of the president and the brooding presence of the military at every level of government in the ethnic states will not produce anything approaching the level of autonomy desired by ethnic minorities.

While military-owned businesses, junta cronies, foreign investors and traders, and ethnic drug lords and elites plunder the natural resources of the ethnic states, local ethnic populations will continue to be denied economic opportunities. This situation is already common in many areas. For example, logging companies from China bring their own cutters, drivers and laborers to work their concession in the Wa ethnic area, leaving locals impoverished and susceptible to social ills such as drug abuse, prostitution and diseases.

In the post-2010 era, ethnic states will also see their environment further destroyed by greedy businesses and bad governance.

The preservation of ethnic identity will be at serious risk as states or self-administered communities will have almost no authority over the issues of language or cultural and religious rights.

Moreover, since a military chief will independently administer military affairs in the post-2010 era, including the recruitment of troops and the deployment of military forces, the issues of child soldiers, forced relocations, forced labor, landmines, internally displaced persons, the flow of refugees to neighboring countries, and rape and other rights violations – all of which are associated with the military’s unchecked interests and behavior¬ – will remain unresolved, especially in ethnic minority areas.

Relentless repression and the darkest side of economic globalization will continue to cause lives in the ethnic states to be, as Hobbes described, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

It is now up to the leaders of ceasefire groups to decide whether they will betray the 60-year long struggle for their ethnic people or stand together with an effective strategy to fight for equal ethnic rights. The rest will be history.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile and a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.


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