Sunday, July 12, 2009

Addressing ethnic grievances the key to Burma’s future

Vientiane (mizzima) – The imperative of addressing longstanding grievances held by a multitude of ethnic groups in Burma is the critical obstacle to overcome if the country is to stand any chance of a peaceful and stable transition to democracy, according to a new study by an international think-tank.

The Dutch-based Transnational Institute (TNI), in a July 2009 report entitled Neither War Nor Peace, argues that democracy is likely to remain elusive for all of Burma’s citizens as a result of the lack of political development and pervasiveness of corruption in ethnic regions.

Examining the situation on the 20th anniversary of the initial ceasefire agreements reached between the Burmese military and ethnic insurgents, author Tom Kramer argues “The single most important factor to achieve peace in Burma is the need to find a lasting political solution for the repression and lack of ethnic rights.”

The issue is said to be of pivotal importance at present as Naypyitaw attempts to persuade the various ceasefire groups, seventeen by official tally, to accept a role as “border guards” in a reconfigured Burma following the scheduled 2010 general election.

However, concludes the study, ceasefire groups are likely to remain highly skeptical of the scheme as long as the prevailing environment is perceived as being characterized by an increasing Burmanization of ethnic areas, a lack of input in the political decision making process and insufficient development.

The report is mildly critical of popular sentiments expressed by the Western media and pro-democracy activists, including the debunking of the Panglong Agreement as a missed opportunity for national unity.

Instead, Kramer prospers that in its non-inclusive form and ill-defined statutes, the Panglong Agreement of 1947 actually abetted in paving the way for the eventual ethnic hostility that has come to ravish the history of modern Burma.

Additionally, ethnic parties are said to be wary of the main pro-democracy leadership in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, while remaining appreciative and supportive of her general line.

“[T]hey [ethnic groups] feel that her [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] party doesn’t see the ethnic issue as a central element to the political future of Burma, and has failed to formulate appropriate policies to address the issue,” TNI summarizes.

However, the ceasefire groups are themselves not spared partial blame for the ongoing state of affairs, with Kramer asserting “few have developed a clear political vision for the future,” a sentiment seen both as a reflection of poor leadership and an effect of persistent government harassment.

Though opportunities for economic development were central in the formulation of ceasefire agreements, of which only the Kachin Independence Organization is in possession of a written document, TNI nevertheless puts forth that the “real problem in post-ceasefire economies is a lack of economic opportunity.” It is a situation said to be exacerbated by the perceived necessity of all parties to then turn to illicit or short-sighted economic undertakings such as drugs and unsustainable logging.

Despite the ceasefire agreements having failed to meet political grievances and inadequately addressing development concerns, the study does point to relative gains in ceasefire zones in the areas of armed violence, human rights violations, travel and the nurturing of civil society organizations.

Kramer points out that the Metta Foundation, a post-ceasefire civil society organization founded in Kachin State, was one of the few organizations able to effectively operate in a timely fashion in the country’s devastated delta region following the cyclone of May 2008.

The fall of the Communist Party of Burma at the close of the 1980s, in conjunction with the wider collapse of communism, along with the removal of former Prime Minister Kyin Nyunt in 2004 are detailed as critical events in the history of ceasefire agreements; with the former ushering in the first opportunities for Rangoon to reach such understandings with armed ethnic groups and the latter removing the principle architect of the ceasefire agenda from the scene.

And though the author goes to some length to highlight the extensiveness of division and difference across Burma’s ethnic kaleidoscope, he nonetheless reaches a similar conclusion to the longstanding argument that the country’s political imbroglio can essentially be broken down into three components: the Burmese army, the National League for Democracy and the country’s ethnic groups – maintaining that despite the many fissures “their [the ethnic groups] main goals are similar.”

Ultimately, TNI finds that little will change in Burma in terms of peace and security in the wake of the 2010 general election, with ethnic grievances remaining unaddressed and hostilities continuing to simmer under a veneer of ill-stipulated political relationships.

Any renewed fighting between government and ethnic forces is assessed to most likely result from the activities of youth and splinter groups to the prevailing ceasefire outfits.

Approximately 40 percent of Burma’s overall population is believed to be comprised of ethnic minorities.

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