Special Commentary: Myanmar’s Ethnic Conflicts (A Brief Update)

02 Mar, 2013    ·   3831

Janani Govindakutty examines the ethnic conflicts within Myanmar in the context of the ongoing political reforms process

Since independence, multiple ethnic groups have been fighting the State and other groups in Myanmar. With the new reforms process in progress, what is the current status of these ethnic conflicts within the country?

The Kachin Conflict
The Kachins have been demanding autonomy for the past 50 years. Though a ceasefire was declared on 13 January 2013, the clashes between the Myanmar Army and Kachin Independence Army continue. As the Kachin state in Myanmar borders China, a conflict along this periphery ensured China’s involvement in mediating peace talks in February.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi has also expressed her interest in furthering the mediation process, the Kachins have been apprehensive about the National League for Democracy’s commitment towards their cause. For several years, the party has been silent on the human rights violations committed against the Kachins.  President Thein Sein has expressed hopes that his delegation will make headway in resolving the conflict when the Kachin rebels and Myanmar’s government officials met in Thailand on 20 February 2013. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of Myanmar’s 11 ethnic militias, was also present at this meeting. A joint statement issued after the meeting stated that the talks were "frank and friendly". Both the parties expressed the hope of working  out a framework for political dialogue within a stipulated time-frame. With another meeting scheduled later in March this year, several organisations have called upon ASEAN to address the grave humanitarian crisis developing in the Kachin state.

The Shan Conflict 
The Shans have been demanding autonomy since the 1960s. Since 2012, there has been a fresh round of violence between the Myanmar Army and Shan State Army after the collapse of a cease-fire agreement.

In October 2012, the Shan State Army expressed its willingness to meet with the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) to resolve the conflict. Though a ceasefire was concluded in December 2011, the Shan’s issued a statement in December 2012 which highlighted the drawbacks of the ceasefire agreement. The statement cited mistrust and misunderstanding between the warring parties as factors that could possibly endanger the sustainability of the truce, acting as impediments to sustainable peace and constructive political dialogue which could end the conflict.  Yawdserk, President of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the political arm of the Shan State Army (SSA) ‘South’, said he was not interested in “Panglong II”, but only in the terms of the (1947) “Panglong I”. He believed that the Shan’s would lose out on a chance of fulfilling their demands if they agreed to Panglong II.

A framework for political dialogue is now being drafted by the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC), set up by ethnic armed movements in June 2012. The General of Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has asserted, however, that the clashes will continue despite new opportunities for peace through channels of negotiations. The leader also stated that the RCSS had stopped demanding independence and now wanted a federal system to be established to ensure equality and protection of their rights in the constitution. He also reiterated the necessity of both the parties’ willingness to make concessions for a successful political dialogue.

The Mon Conflict 
The Mons are an ethnic group who live along the southern Thai-Myanmar border. Their struggle for self-determination began from 1948. There have been several revolts against the government organised by the New Mon State Party which was founded in 1962.

Last year, the New Mon State Party signed a four-point preliminary peace agreement with the Burmese Union government. The agreement included working towards ethnic peace across the country, holding political talks within 45 days, coordination on regional development deals in the sectors of education, social affairs, health and ethnic affairs, the release of all political prisons and granting open access to political parties, nongovernmental organizations and the media.  An earlier agreement focused on opening liaison offices and settlement of NMSP members at mutually agreed locations. However, hostilities have since continued between the conflicting parties.

In January 2013, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) Executive Committee was convened to discuss the current Burmese military offensive against Kachin State. The members called for an immediate countrywide ceasefire and political dialogue with ethnic groups. The NMSP also supported a resolution by UNFC to condemn Burmese military action against the Kachins.

The US Ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, initiated peace-building activities after meeting representatives of ethnic Mon political parties and organizations in Mawlamyine. He held discussions with the leaders of  All Mon Regions Democracy Party, Mon Democracy Party and New Mon State Party, as well as peace groups, including Buddhist monks in order to build peace throughout the state.

The Rohingya Conflict
The Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim minority of Myanmar, related to the Bengali people of neighbouring Bangladesh's Chittagong district. Myanmar’s government calls them illegal immigrants and does not recognize them as citizens or as an ethnic group under the 1982 Citizenship Law. Thus, the Rohingyas are stateless and a source of conflict within the country.

The Rohingyas have been facing discriminatory policies by successive Burmese governments. Last year, a series of riots broke out between the Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists of Myanmar. A lot of people were killed and displaced, the government declared a state of emergency in Rakhine. The government is supporting internally displaced people with the help of the international community. A UN/NGO Rakhine Response Plan was chalked out to manage humanitarian aid for the developing crisis.

Though the government of Myanmar is working towards granting the Rohingyas citizenship, the process has been delayed due to Rakhine opposition to the move. On the sidelines of the 21st ASEAN Summit in November last year, President Thein Sein sought Indonesia’s help to resolve the Rohingya problem in his country. Indonesia, along with Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, have been emphasising that the conflict was not necessarily communal in nature. Thein Sein has also extended an invitation to any party that wishes to observe and analyse the current situation in Myanmar. 

In January 2013, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa visited Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state and the areas affected by sectarian violence. He stated that an effort to nurture a sense of confidence, a sense of reconciliation among the different communities was necessary apart from the rehabilitation of the Rohingyas. He urged Myanmar’s neighbours to provide economic opportunities to the affected community.
The United Nations office in Myanmar is working with the Thein Sein government towards a permanent solution. Several Rohingya refugees were rescued from human traffickers by the Thai government recently and will be repatriated to Myanmar soon. The Thai government refuses to give the Rohingyas a refugee status. In early February 2013, the Sri Lankan Navy rescued Rohingyas in who were stranded in the sea after the Thai Navy forcibly removed their boat’s engine. Though the Burmese embassy in Colombo was contacted by Sri Lankan officials, for the possible repatriation of these Rohingyas, there has been no response. Thus, the Rohingyas continue to struggle for their existence.

To conclude, the current scenario in Myanmar stands thus: only nine ethnic armed groups out of eleven have reached even a preliminary stage in the negotiation of peace pacts with the Myanmar government at respective levels.  Myanmar, therefore, continues to remain embroiled in ethnic conflicts of varying turbulence across the country.