Sunday, March 22, 2009

Myanmar: The struggle within

[The military intelligence officers] tied my hands together and hung me from the ceiling. They used sticks to beat me. They had a tub of water and they covered my face with a cloth and would dunk my head under the water until I fell unconscious. When I regained consciousness, they would do it again. For the entire week, they didn't give me any water for drinking. I was so thirsty so I told them I wanted to use the toilet. When I got to the toilet I drank the toilet water.
- Former Chin political prisoner (Source: Human Rights Watch)

The world's attention for the past decade has focused more or less on the struggle between the military government and the political opposition over national power in Myanmar. Too little has been spoken about the ethnic conflicts, which represent a more fundamental and intractable obstacle to peace, development and democracy.

The ethnic minorities in Myanmar, also known as Burma, have long borne the brunt of abusive military junta, which has prevailed in the country since General Ne Win staged a coup against the democratically elected government in 1962. They are the targets of unpaid forced labour, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture, religious repression, restrictions on movement, forced military trainings and conscription, extortion and confiscation of personal property, sexual harassment and violence.

According to Smith Martin, author of Burma (Myanmar): The Time For Change, “Ethnic rights and conflict resolution are at the centre of challenges facing the country today…It is in these areas that many of the most acute political and humanitarian crises exist. This, in turn, has fuelled the debilitating cycle of conflict, militarization and economic malaise that has long needed to be addressed if Burma is ever to progress as a modern nation state”.

The Ethnicities
Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with over 135 different ethnic groups, and its population speaking over 100 different languages and dialects. Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are believed to represent approximately one-third of the state’s 52 million inhabitants, which includes an estimated population of 2 million Chinese and Indian. (Source: Myanmar Backgrounder: Ethnic Minority Politics).

Ethnic groups like Rohingyas, Shan, Karen, Kachin and Chin, have unsuccessfully waged long insurgencies against the abuses committed by the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army), but to no avail. In fact, according to a January 28 Human Rights Watch report, many of these ethnic groups like CNF (Chin National Front) are a threat to their own people.

Among all these, the worst suffered are Myanmar’s boat people, also known as the Rohingyas. The Muslim ethnic group inhabiting the Northern Rakhine state in Myanmar has been denied citizenship by the government. Most of these people have escaped to neighbouring countries like India, Thailand, and Malaysia but their illegal-immigrant status makes them vulnerable to labour abuses and most of them are forced to return. For example on January 28th, Thailand convicted more than 60 Rohingyas of illegal entry and announced they would be deported.

In 1947-48, when Burma got independent, the ethnic groups faced three choices:
1) Remain an English colony, an idea proposed by Winston Churchill as Grand Colonial Scheme;
2) Gain independence individually, an idea proposed by HN Stevenson (officer of Burma's Frontier Areas);
3) Join the Burmese independent movement, which was the offer made by Gen. Aung San, and formalised by the Panglong Conference in February 1947, which rests on three principles: equality, voluntary association, democracy.

Independent Burma was created on the understanding that it would be a federal union. The separate political rights of the minority national areas were recognized in the January 1947 agreement between General Aung San and the British Prime Minister Attlee. The rights of the ethnic national groups were also recognized in the February 1947 Panglong Agreement between Burman leaders and other national groups, in the commission of inquiry on the frontier areas. Unfortunately, Aung San was assassinated just a few months after the conference, in July 1947, and Burma did not become the expected federal system, but a mixture of federalism and of a unified system.

Because of constitutional problems, insurgency started in 1948. The 1948 constitution gave each nationality representation in a Chamber of Nationalities at the national level. The constitution specifically only recognized four states for the Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Kachin. Only the Shan and Karenni were granted the right to separate after 10 years. For other groups, territory was not provided for in the constitution.

Later on, when Buddhism was promulgated as state religion, Chins and Kachins (Christians) took arms (1961). The present constitution of Burma, enacted in 1974 under General Ne Win, gives no autonomy to the ethnic nationalities. Under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is known as the ruling junta, there is no respect for minority languages, cultures, or political aspirations. The Government’s response to the minority nationalities is purely militarized. Inspite of this reality, Myanmar still claims to be a "union" and the anniversary of the Panglong Agreement is celebrated every year since 1962 as "Union Day"!

Future Tense
Elections are due in Myanmar in 2010 and holding them under the military’s constitution means not contributing to stability or a smooth political transition to democracy and ethnic autonomy. The situation more or less would remain the same for the ethnic minorities unless there is a change in the Constitution, which grants broad powers to the Tatmadaw.

Going by the past record, least can be expected from the ruling junta. Any change in the situation can only be brought about by stringent international action, but decades of isolation and sanctions has only made Myanmar's ruling generals more stubborn.

Experts opine that instead of warning and condemnations coupled with economic restrictions, countries and regional groupings like ASEAN must pressure Myanmar for a tripartite dialogue between the Opposition, ethnic groups and the military rulers.

Analysts believe that EU should put pressure on the main external supporters of the junta - China, India and Russia. China is the key supply of arms, ammunition and motor-vehicles to the SPDC’s army with strength of over 400,000 soldiers.

Russia sold the junta a squadron of second-hand MIG-29 fighter jets, same power as the F-16 fighters manufactured by the USA, for US $150 million in 2001 and India continues to provide armaments and military assistance to the Burmese junta in return for natural-resource concessions.

Each of these three countries has provided millions of dollars worth of military hardware to the Burmese military, in so doing providing tools for further oppression. It is high time that these nations revisit their Myanmar policy.


Sockalingam Sam Kannappan said...

Ms. Meenakshi Aiyer:
I read your article on Burma with interest. My grandfather and father were in Burma. Our family had business at 61 Mogul Street and gift shop at Strand Hotel, Rangoon and land/ house in Diehu. We still have all documents in my nativeplace Nattarasankottai, Tamil Nadu. I worked with Burmese Association, Houston during last cyclone.
Sockalingam Sam Kannappan
Houston, Texas

Debjani D Baruah said...

What sanctions are you talking about Iyer? That junta should be put behind the bars and the reins of the country should be handed over to Suu Kyi. Tough economic sanctions haven't worked so far. Groups like ASEAN just blabber and get away with it! There are a couple of good points in this piece, like India, Russia and mainly China must revisit their Burma policy. All in all, an interesting read.

Kamraan Haider said...

Nice to see that you are looking beyond South Asia. I quite agree with the points in the article. There are a couple of Burmese living in West Delhi...Why don't you talk to them??