Burma’s civil wars

President Thein SeinPresident Thein Sein in Thailand

December 6, 2012


Ethnic conflicts unresolved in 60 years

Burma’s civil wars

President Obama’s unexpected sudden visit to Burma made it clear that the world has noticed the changes in the country over the past two years, and its new willingness to be open externally. But internally, Burma is not a unified state.

by Renaud Egreteau*

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But initial optimism has been replaced by the fear that negotiations will founder, as has happened so often in Burma.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 practices of the local war economies will continue, compromising the possibility of peaceful inter-ethnic 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 inter-ethnic 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.

9 thoughts on “Burma’s civil wars

  1. On retrospect, the Panglong meeting was a FUBAR beyond all expectations.
    The problem is the typical divide and rule strategy of all despots. While the Union sounds ‘nice’, united the ‘Burmese’ cannot be.

    Gen Khin Nyunt had wanted to follow a republican federalist model in the early 2000, but the conservatives led by Than Shwe were aghast – since that would mean participatory parliamentary representation. There goes their lucrative military business stranglehold.

    The tribal divisions are in almost all spheres – language, customs, religion, economy and social structure. A Chin, Kacin, Wa or Karen in Yangon is like a Chinese educated kid in Lrg. Belakang Mati, K.L., trying to speak bahasa baku to an Bugis snake oil merchant – both as wary, disgusted and unintelligible to each other. The latter being a very recent recipient of a Blue MyKad, which may be of more value to him than a Blue-Motion Mercedes R350 to a UMNO hack.

    So tell me, how long can any peace initiative last since as the writer notes, territory and land-rights for the autocanthous (natives) remain in limbo? Btw, there are no parallels in Malaysia, since the elite natives here tend to reap as much from their own as they rip from the second class Pendatangs. Any questions?

  2. Whatever the problems facing Myanmar, and there will be many for any country just emerging from decades of isolation, it is best to leave the country alone to resolve its issues. Whenever we hear the word “international community” from any outside source, it usually spells headaches and trouble.

    So ALL us outsiders… LEAVE MYANMAR ALONE.

  3. They need aid – and lots and lots of it, and in all forms – whether in materiel or in knowledge acquisition or economy or business/industrial development or international/political support.

    Leave them alone? How? See/hear/speak no evil speak no evil and do no evil?
    The Junta has been, and is Evil. Isolationism only happens in N.Korea – do you suppose we should do the same with our neighbour? I could arrange a visit to the hovels outside Yangon for you to open your eyes. but it’s easier for you to visit the refugee camps in Northern Thailand.. Or even the huge concentrations of them in Cheras, KL.

  4. The Junta is EVIL? Funny how many buy into such arguments. But even if they are (a BIG IF), political reality dictates that one has to lie with the devil at times which is why the Lady is to be applauded. Hers was a belated decision but better late than never. And because of that I think we have reason to be optimistic about Myanmar.

    I feel if, instead of EVIL, we start using DIFFERENT we might do better.

  5. Why do people insist on calling it “Burma” instead of “Myanmar”? Can we Asians shake off the colonised and subservient mindset. The British insisted on using the colonial name because they could not get over the fact that they lost Myanmar to the Myanmarese.

    Have some dignity, Asians!!! Our yellow and brown skins are equal to any white skins.

  6. Isa, you have a very ‘pragmatic’ way of looking at things. I congratulate you on your most awesome ‘Humanity’. War, genocide and oppression is Evil. Here’s to you, it need not be considered to be a Hymn and is without prejudice:

    Kamal, the marginalized tribes consider themselves ‘Burmese’. The appellation Myanmar is not universally recognized – especially by their own.

  7. Agreed that war, genocide, oppression are evil and must always be considered so. The problem in today’s world arises when those who call others evil are no better themselves. Evil should also include those who sell weapons knowing full well how these will be used… so should interfering in the internal affairs of ANY country (which after all was one reason why the UN was set up).

    Just one example… The sanctions placed on Iraq resulted in the death of more than 700.000 children, by some estimates. The unprovoked attack on that country has destroyed its culture… and all for non-existent WMD. Yet the very people who brought this about go aroundt calling others names.

  8. We are talking about Myanmar as much as we may be talking about Syria or DRC. We are not talking about politics, geopolitics or even taking a high moral road. I’m talking about helping if, however and whenever we can. It is a personal quest.

    You seem to be quite content to sit on the sidelines and avoid the the basic questions of our existence. The need for actual physical-psychological help is urgent. Charities are overwhelmed. Conflict management and resolution is impossible under the circumstances. Even the UN agencies are stymied. Yet you repeatedly keep up your mantra of non-intervention. Why?

    Tell me: Does Man’s inhumanity to Man really mean impassivity in the face of others adversity? No wonder humanity has always been in dire straits.

  9. Impassivity is not the same as non-intervention friend… and you should know it.

    By all means intervene but,almost without exception, today’s interventions by that ridiculous body known as the international community are carried out with heavy doses of ulterior motives some of which barely hidden.

    The basic question of our existence would be better resolved if every country were left alone to evolve and sort out its affairs. Sitting on the sidelines is to me a better option than poking our noses into others’ affairs.

    Evolution of societies cannot be telescoped by quick-fix attempts.

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