Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Behind the Headlines: Myanmar

Source: Soldiers patrol through a neighborhood that was burnt during recent violence against Muslims, 2012. © 2012 Reuters

Source: Soldiers patrol through a neighborhood that was burnt during recent violence against Muslims, 2012.
© 2012 Reuters

by Nic Watkins

The last few years have seen Myanmar emerging from decades of authoritarian rule.  As the military began to withdraw from power the international spotlight turned onto the county.  Bi-elections in April 2012 saw the National League for Democracy (NDL) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi win 43 of the 46 seats available.  The return of democracy was for some, the end of the story but what is the situation in Myanmar today, now the cameras have left?

In its latest blog series, ISIS Europe hopes to draw attention to those countries that once used to be at the centre of attention of the media and policy-makers, but that have recently been overshadowed by other topical crisis.  The emergence of democracy should be applauded but it is not the end of the story.  Myanmar faces an incredibility challenging time, not only in its consolidation of democracy, but it must also deal with ethnic conflicts, inter-communal violence and anti-Muslim unrest.  Each of these issues threatens to undermine both Myanmar’s transition and its economic development.

A country divided

 Myanmar is one of the world’s most heterogeneous countries in ethnic and religious terms with more than 130 different ethno-linguistic groups.  Its population is estimated to be around 55 million with the majority Buddhist Burmans constituting around two thirds of the population.  Burma is split into regions, known as states, in which the majority of the population belong to a similar ethnic identity.  The Shan (9%) and the Karen (7%) are the largest minority groups, followed by the Rakhine (3.5%), the Chin (2.5%), the Mon (2%) and the Kachin (1.5%).  Burma, as it was known then, became independent in 1948.

The Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw took power in 1962 and installed a military junta, abolished federalism and nationalised the economy.  Many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups took up arms against the regime and have been fighting ever since.  The Tatmadaw ruled the country with an iron fist, using marshal law to stifle any calls for democracy and committed mass Human Rights (HR) atrocities.

The transition began when elections were called in 2010.  The military set up its own political party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and with favorable conditions and a NLD boycott, Thein Sein, head of the USDP came to power in March 2011 and began a set of reforms opening up the country, including the release of political prisoners, the expansion of the media and the creation of a National Human Rights Commission. The reforms also included creating peace-making Central Committee designed to spearhead negotiations to end years of conflict with the ethnic groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released after 15 years of house arrest in November 2010 and took part in the aforementioned bi- elections in 2012.  At the world economic forum in June she announced her intensions to run for president in the elections scheduled for 2015.  There is real hope both inside Myanmar and the wider international community that she can be the catalyst for a genuine, lasting transformation. In some quarters there a dangerous sense that its job done, but a transfer to democracy is just the beginning of tackling Myanmar’s problems.

Rohingya Muslims

Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Myanmar is the situation for Rohingya Muslims; a linguistic and religious minority group living in Rakhine state, the Rohingya number around 900,000 people.  Originating from what is now Bangladesh, The Rohingya’s exact migration date to Myanmar is unknown but they have faced persecution and resentment since their arrival.  Human Rights Watch called the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They are denied citizenship and lack the basic rights and protection that this affords.  They face severe restrictions on freedom of movement and numerous abusive policies.  More recently the situation for the Rohingya has become more hostile.  The growing influence of Burman-Buddist Nationalism stirred by the influential monk led ‘969’ movement which preaches intolerance to towards the Islamic faith.  In June and October 2012, clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine left around 200 people dead and 140,000 Muslims displaced.  Rioting and general anti-Muslim violence has spread to other parts of Myanmar.  In Meiktila a dispute in a shop led to the targeting of Muslim business and a mob killing at least 44 people.  Throughout the troubles, state apparatus has been heavily criticized by the Rohingya as well as international HR observers for failing to stop abuses, some going as far to say they have been implicit in the killings.

The treatment of the Rohingya could undermine all of the progress made on democratisation and the protection of rights if they are continued to be ignored.  It also constitutes a security risk for the region with large numbers of refugees heading to neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand and the already unstable Bangladesh.  Not only has this starred anti-Muslim feeling in these countries but it is is also undermining international support of Myanmar as a whole, which could lead to withdrawal of aid and a reduction in economic investment which the country so desperately needs to ignite development.

Ethnic Conflict

In May of this year the government signed a tentative peace agreement with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), after having previously signed agreements with armed groups in 14 other major ethnic conflicts.

Although each ethnic states motivation is different, open armed conflict has been a constant in Myanmar’s history.  Originally most states wanted independence and conflict intensity has varied dramatically from state to state but has included prolonged ceasefires and periods of all out war.    Sates have shown some willingness to negotiate previously but never to give up weapons. Years of internal strife have forces hundreds of thousands of citizens to relocate.  There are some 400,000 refugees in Bangladesh; 50,000 in Thailand; 25,000 Malaysia.  The years of insurgencies has built up a huge reliance on war economies, illegal trade abd extraction of natural resources as well as land seizures. Porous boarders and weak state mechanisms make the smuggling of resources easier and both sides of the conflict have benefited from this black market.

The signing of peace agreements including ceasefires is obviously a positive step, but with so many negotiations ongoing it is difficult to envisage every one leading to successful conclusions.  This is not the first time ceasefires that have been signed.  Previously in 1994 a ceasefire with the KIO had held but the Kachin’s were left out of the constitution drafting in 2008 and returned to open conflict.  Similar mistakes must be avoided if current negotiations are to be successful.

The tentative agreements still require consolidation.  Key issues in all the ethnic conflicts, such as repositioning of troops, integration of armed forces, monitoring mechanisms, and a meaningful political dialogue all remain unresolved. To secure peace, an alternative equitable peace economy and a plan to regulate the significant natural resources of the states must be developed.   The precarious dynamics mean that one state returning to war could see a domino effect in which the others follow suit.  Estimates vary, but there are said to be at least 100,000 armed insurgents in Myanmar; whist they still hold on to their weapons the threat of destabilisation remains.

The future?

Today most of the ethnic groups have declared themselves willing to remain part of the state of Myanmar, but only if their rights to cultural, economic and political autonomy are guaranteed. One answer to this is a form of federalism but the exact makeup of any system will be highly contested.  With so many ethnic groups wanting their positions protected, negotiations are verging on the impossible.  And that’s before you’ve included a powerful military who may decide they want nothing of the sort. 

Even the NDL position on the ethnic groups remains vague.  Aung San Suu Kyi has held talks with the four largest groups and stated a belief in finding a solution to the problem, but quite what form that will take is yet to be articulated.  She is seen in some quarters pro-Burman and has faced criticism for not supporting the ethnic struggles or for speaking out against the treatment of the Rohingya.

In March 2013 the USDP proposed to parliament that a committee for changing the constitution of 2008 If federalism was split accords state or ethnic lines, it could lead to further division within the country particularly if some groups negotiate better deals.  Any new borders will create new minority problems as no state is homogenous.

A wide ranging national dialogue on Myanmar’s future is essential.  It must include the government, opposition groups, ethnic parties and their armed wings, the ethnic and religious minorities as well as civil society.  This would help to support the political transition as well as seek answers to the governance of the states.  Since February the UNFC, currently the most important umbrella organisation of the ethnic minorities has held several rounds of negotiations with the government concerning the framework for a political dialogue.  This dialogue could be integrated into the negotiations and would be an important step in integrating the different regional aspects into a national discussion.

The Role of the EU

The EU has approved aid of 150 million Euros for 2012-13, 30 million of which has been earmarked for the peace process.  The EU has been looking to strengthen the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), Commission President José Manuel Barroso indicated that the EU has great hopes that the MPC will offer an inclusive and impartial dialogue platform for all actors.  It is also working to strengthen the negotiating capacity of the ethnic minorities.  It also supports humanitarian missions, with 12 million Euros for emergency aid in Kachin and Rakhine State in 2012.

The EU should target two main areas to support the political process in Myanmar.  It must assist the introduction of federal structures while simultaneously working to encourage a national dialogue.  It must do both as the cornucopia of positions of the ethnic groups will complicate the perusal of federalism.  The only way to create lasting peace will be through an open, national dialogue.

The entire collective memory of Myanmar is conflict.  The military rule that ignited such conflict appears to be on its way out, replaced by democracy but the decades of conflict with government has left a legacy of mistrust.  The horrors of the past are not easily forgotten but Myanmar’s future depends on its distinct groups finding the common ground to move the country forward.  In many ways the transition is only the start of Myanmar’s journey, if it is unable to tackle its outstanding issues in a way accepted by all then its democratic future will be in question.


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