The recent political unrest and military violence in the Kachin and northern Shan states has been on an unprecedented scale, raising serious questions over the goals of the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein and its ability to control the national armed forces (Tatmadaw). Since assuming office in March 2011, Thein Sein has received praise from around the world for a “reformist” agenda that has seen many political prisoners released, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win seats to parliament, ceasefires with the majority of armed ethnic opposition groups, and a gradual liberalisation of media, business and other aspects of national life. These are trends that the international community has been keen to encourage, with UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon and US President Barack Obama among world leaders visiting Burma/Myanmar.
This honeymoon period is now over. As 2012 progressed, perceptions of the real nature of change under the Thein Sein government were challenged by a series of disturbing events in which serious violence and mass displacement of civilians occurred in several parts of the country.
These included communal conflict in the Rakhine state in which 147 people died and more than 110,000 (mostly Muslims) were dis- placed, and dozens of serious injuries, including Buddhist monks, in a police crack- down on protestors at the Letpadaung copper mine, a joint-venture project between the Tatmadaw-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and a Chinese subsidiary of a state-owned arms manufacturer.
The most protracted violence, however, took place in northeast Burma during a government offensive against the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), an armed ethnic opposition group calling for ethnic rights and autonomy. Until the Thein Sein government came to power, the Kachin region had witnessed 17 years of ceasefire. But since fighting resumed in June 2011, thousands of casualties killed or injured – as well as more than 100,000 internally displaced civilians – have been reported.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The government should halt all offensive operations against the KIO and other armed ethnic forces. Armed conflict will worsen – not resolve – Burma’s ethnic and political crises. The violence contradicts promises to achieve reform through dialogue, and undermines democratic and economic progress for the whole country.
Ethnic peace must be prioritised as an integral part of political, economic and constitutional reform. Dialogue must be established to include ethnic groups that are outside the national political system.
Restrictions on humanitarian aid to the victims of conflict must be lifted. With hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in the ethnic borderlands, a long-term effort is required to ensure that aid truly reaches to the most vulnerable and needy peoples as part of any process of peace-building.
Economic and development programmes must benefit local peoples. Landgrabbing and unsustainable business practices must halt, and decisions on the use of natural resources and regional development must have the participation of local communities and representatives.
The international community must play an informed and neutral role in supporting ethnic peace and political reform. Human rights’ progress remains essential, all ethnic groups should be included, and economic investments made only with the consulta- tion of local peoples.