“If Burma receives one kyat, you will also receive one kyat.” (The kyat is the country’s currency.)
During recent visits to some of Myanmar’s many ethnic minority communities, I often encountered this historic assurance made by Bogyoke Aung San, hero of the anti-colonial independence movement and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, to representatives of these communities at the signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947. Failure to fulfill its promise of equitable distribution of resources between Myanmar’s Bamar core and ethnically diverse periphery lies at the heart of a violent cycle of conflict that has plagued Myanmar since Aung San’s assassination, soon after Panglong was signed. The contours of this conflict continue to define Myanmar’s politics, resulting in vast discrepancies in the impact of the current democratic transition.
To be sure, reformers within the semi-civilian government have already achieved remarkable progress in their efforts to democratise, with tangible effects. Government mouthpieces have been replaced by generally uncensored private newspapers, their front pages filled with the now-ubiquitous image of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), outlawed only six months ago, has re-entered the formal political arena for the first time in 12 years and, through relatively free elections, won 43 of the 44 seats for which it ran during by-elections in April.
Yet signs of progress are isolated. In the hinterland, where most of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups reside, the situation over the past year has in fact mostly deteriorated. In these areas, social unrest provides the basis for de facto military rule, where the suffering of many minority groups calls out for attention amid the unguarded political optimism found in so many newspaper headlines today. While the world applauds peace in Myanmar, wars are underway in minority areas that challenge, and could derail, still-nascent democratic reforms.
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In the predominantly Christian Kachin State, to the north, a government military offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced as many as 75,000 civilians on both sides of the Chinese border since a tenuous ceasefire collapsed in February 2011. Control of the area is divided between the central government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which administers its territory – in conjunction with the KIA – as a self-governing entity that provides basic social services through parallel health, education and justice departments.
Speaking with residents of Myitkyina, the provincial capital, where electricity is now only available for just four or five hours a day, it is the provision of efficient and affordable services that girds their support for KIO as much as an ethnic affinity. Residents’ support for KIO is strong and outspoken, which is striking in a country where decades of state surveillance have smothered public political dissent. Despite nightly governmental television programming in which KIA troops (or groups falsely portrayed as KIA, as many Kachin believe) lay down their arms, the popular opinion is that there is no durable end in sight.
Just outside Myitkyina, a large build-up of government forces has sealed access to KIO-controlled territory, preventing UN and other international aid agencies from distributing much-needed supplies to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In response, local religious-based organisations, like the Kachin Baptist Convention, have transformed themselves into mass emergency-relief providers, serving some 20,000 IDPs by drawing upon a network of over 300,000 members, a powerful example of the potential capacity of civil society organisations in Myanmar society.
During visits to some of the dozens of IDP camps in which these refugees languish, I encountered countless terrifying stories of human rights abuses, including pillaging and burning of villages, torture and rape. Many refugees have been trapped in the camps for more than a year, unable to return to their homes, if they even exist, out of fear of targeting by government forces operating on the assumption that all Kachin are KIA.
At the centre of the conflict is control over the area’s vast natural resources. Kachin State is richly endowed with jade, ore, iron and timber. It is also home to the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, where last fall President Thein Sein unexpectedly announced the suspension of Myitsone Dam, the largest of a seven-dam, multi-billion dollar project. It is widely assumed that the announcement was heavily influenced by rising concerns of Chinese influence in Myanmar: Myitsone would have sent 90 per cent of the electricity it produced to China’s Yunnan province.
Locals, however, are quick to remind one that the dam has only been suspended, not cancelled. Citing the muddy red colour of the once clear Irrawaddy River water, they explain how settlements originally constructed for Chinese dam workers, which displaced hundreds of locals, now house new Chinese labourers for gold mining operations following the discovery of large deposits during the dam’s construction. Indeed, although Myitsone’s suspension marked an important achievement for local environmental community groups, it has done little to slow the massive exploitation of Kachin’s resources for export to China and India, with profits for the central government
Oil, gas and geopolitics
The thorny issue of resource extraction by foreign companies is not unique to Kachin State. In Shan State, in Myanmar’s eastern region, the China National Petroleum Company is constructing a dual oil-gas pipeline across Myanmar from Kunming to Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal, where it will link to new a deep-sea port and oil extraction facilities. None of the planned energy production is for distribution in Myanmar, despite the fact that fewer than 20 per cent of households in Myanmar have access to regular electricity.
“The calculated [Chinese] approach… suggests the important geo-strategic implications of the pipeline for China, as it provides direct access to Middle Eastern oil reserves and the ability to bypass the Malacca Straits, dominated by US allies.”
Interestingly, mass protests have not accompanied the displacement of thousands of poor Shan farmers as they did in Kachin. This is partially attributable to a more sensitive approach by the Chinese developers, no doubt aware of the pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment and cautious of repeating the lessons of Myitsone. The calculated approach, including cash payments and television sets, also suggests the important geo-strategic implications of the pipeline for China, as it provides direct access to Middle Eastern oil reserves and the ability to bypass the Malacca Straits, dominated by US allies.
Yet the Shan are hardly indifferent to the dark red pile of upturned farmland that now runs across the province like a fresh wound, or to the broader political arrangement it represents. Violence between government military forces and Shan State Army soldiers has erupted along the pipeline corridor, where the increase in the government military presence is perceived by local armies as a breach of the fragile ceasefire agreements.
For local civilians, the familiar sight of armed conflict reinforces popular distrust of the central government and its many holdovers from the previous regime, which carried out intense military campaigns here in the 1980s and 1990s. As one Kyaukme resident explained: “That time was like a nightmare for us; it will be hard to forget.”
Popular distrust by the Shan and Kachin is directed not just at the central government, however, but also the NLD and its predominantly urban, Bamar ethnic makeup. While there is much support for Aung Sun Suu Kyi, there is wide anxiety that beyond her and the abstract democratic principles upon which her party stands, the NLD has little to say, substantively, on the issue of minority rights.
The NLD has done little to mitigate these concerns. During a meeting with an NLD official in Yangon, I was told blandly that the NLD sympathises with minority aspirations. But when pressed on how such aspirations might be addressed, the answer seemed to lie vaguely somewhere on the other side of the 2015 elections, which the NLD is widely predicted to sweep.
A pattern of violence
Of particular concern regarding NLD’s position on minority rights is the party’s silence following the recent violence in Rakhine State along Myanmar’s western border, where clashes between the majority Buddhist Rakhine and the Rohingya, Myanmar’s much-persecuted Muslim population, have resulted in more than 60 deaths and 90,000 displaced, according to UN estimates.
The latest episode in this long-running conflict is the direct result of discriminatory government policies. Based upon the mistaken belief that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the government requires Rohingya to provide evidence that they have lived in the country before 1823 to claim citizenship, according to Article 3 of the 1982 immigration law. Born into and mostly confined to squalid, informal refugee camps by legal restrictions on movement, work and study, and subject to arbitrary property confiscations, the vast majority of the some 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar are unable to satisfy this onerous requirement. The Buddhist Rakhine suffer no such restrictions, creating much enmity between the two groups.
“The government requires Rohingya to provide evidence that they have lived in the country before 1823 to claim citizenship.”
As I travelled through the few areas of the region accessible to foreigners just before the violent outbreak, mutual resentment was evident from racial slurs and derogatory remarks widely used by each group against the other. Notably, it was this same racist rhetoric that emerged online as coverage of the conflict spread via Myanmar’s increasingly accessible internet.
In June, a match was tossed into this tinderbox when 10 Rohingya were dragged from their bus by a crowd of some 300 Rakhine and beaten to death in apparent retaliation for the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman. Communal violence rapidly escalated, leaving much of the countryside in ashes.
In response, on June 10, President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency, effectively implementing martial law in Rakhine. Military forces poured in. Roads, shops and teahouses were closed. Order, or at least the version on display in Shan State and in government-controlled areas of Kachin State, has been restored.
Social unrest in minority areas presents unique challenges in an uncertain time, but resorting to the heavy-handed policies of the past reinforces a pattern of violence and threatens to put policy-making back in the hands of the military, with retrogressive implications for the reform agenda.
Addressing minority demands for autonomy and full political rights, as promised by the Panglong Agreement, will require increased civilian control of the military, as well as reforming policies designed to centralise control of resources. Neither of these challenges is small; we should temper our expectations and timelines accordingly. But they are not impossible. Success requires the vigilance and support of the international community. Given the importance of the outcome, it is the least we can do.
Corey Pattison is a graduate student at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.