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Prospects for Ethnic Peace and Political Participation

In July, TNI-BCN hosted a two-day conference,
involving a diversity of ethnic groups
from different areas of Burma/Myanmar [1],
with the theme “prospects for ethnic peace
and political participation”. [2] Those taking
part included 30 representatives from
Burmese civil society, parliament and
armed opposition groups.

Political events in Burma are continuing to
unfold rapidly, but reform is still at a tentative
and early stage. Under the Thein Sein
government, Burma has entered its fourth
era of political transition since independence
in 1948. Previous hopes for ethnic
peace and the establishment of democratic
structures and processes have been disappointed.
A military coup in 1962 ended the
post-independence parliamentary era, and
the national armed forces (Tatmadaw)
have dominated every form of government
since. Meanwhile conflict has continued
unabated in the ethnic borderlands.

In recent months, new trends – many of
them positive – have begun to reshape the
landscape of national politics. Ceasefires
have been agreed with the majority of
armed ethnic forces; the National League
for Democracy (NLD) has elected representatives
in the national legislatures; Western
sanctions are gradually being lifted; and the
World Bank and other international agencies
are returning to set up office in the
country. Such developments are likely to
have a defining impact on ethnic politics,
which remains one of the central challenges
facing the country today.

The conference focused on four main areas:
the space for ethnic parties in the national
and regional parliaments; the prospects for
ethnic peace; peace as a national issue; and
the impact of regional investment in the
ethnic borderlands. In addition, given the
political failures during previous times of
state transition (1948, 1962 and 1988), the
discussions kept in mind three underlying
questions that need addressing if democracy
and peace are to be achieved: is the
present political system, bequeathed by the
previous military government, reformable;
in an often personalised environment, who
are the key actors on the different political
and ethnic sides shaping the country’s
future; and, are divisive trends of favoured
“winners” and excluded “losers” emerging
again under the new governmental system?

Discussion on all themes reflected a country
in uncertain but potentially fast transition,
where the political landscape remains
fragmented and ethnic parties often feel
marginalised. In the past few months, the
entry of the NLD into parliament, the
spread of ethnic ceasefires and increasing
Western engagement have all encouraged
hopes of progressive change.

On the other hand, daily life is little
changed in many of the ethnic states, with
Tatmadaw domination continuing and
ethnic parties struggling to make much
impact. Military offensives, especially in the
Kachin and Shan States, as well as communal
violence in the Rakhine State, have
caused many citizens to question the likely
shape of the future Burma/Myanmar state.
After decades of conflict, building trust and
ethnic reconciliation will take time.
The activities of ethnic parties in the national
and regional parliaments are still at a
very early stage. For the moment, there is
no real cohesion between the national and
regional legislatures and, at the state and
region levels, much can depend on the chief
ministers who are centrally appointed by
the president. In addition, military commanders
and the Ministry of Border Affairs
still appear to exert the greatest authority in
many ethnic areas. There are also divisions
in ethnic politics between electoral parties
inside and outside of the legislatures, some
of which, like the NLD, boycotted the 2010

For this reason, ethnic parties are taking a
long-term view in developing their political
strategies. Coalitions such as the Nationalities
Brotherhood Forum are working
together to promote ethnic rights in the
legislatures, while steps are being taken to
unite existing ethnic parties on nationality
bases (Chin, Mon, Shan etc.) before the
next general election in 2015. By this stage,
if the current ceasefire process develops, it
is expected that armed opposition groups
will join electoral politics. Federalism
remains a common goal, and it is widely
recognised that unity will be essential if
nationality-based parties are to effectively
represent their peoples and constituencies.

Already a new set of challenges is emerging
in the legislatures that could be to the detriment
of ethnic minority peoples. Two issues
have been the cause of recent concern
– laws on land rights and foreign investment
– which, it is feared, could act as
precursors to the expropriation of land.
This is all the more troubling at a time
when it is hoped that the many internally
displaced persons and refugees can return
home as part of the country’s ethnic ceasefires.
There is also a growing anxiety that
the status of ethnic minority peoples could
be undermined before the 2015 general
election by a national census, the first since
1983, with concerns about how nationality
and ethnic identity will be dealt with in
National Registration Cards.

A sense is thus developing of an expanding
outreach by a centralised, Burman-majority
state before ethnic rights have been effectively
guaranteed in the new political system.
Such concerns are compounded by
government officials and Tatmadaw commanders
wielding personal power in the
states and regions, while the first-past-thepost
electoral system means that Burmanmajority
parties are likely to remain dominant
in national politics after the 2015
general election without countrywide
unanimity for such control.

As yet, there have been no long-term
agreements with Burman-majority parties
(including the NLD) to avoid vote-splitting
with ethnic parties. Support is therefore
growing for an electoral system based on
proportional representation. How such
changes might be brought about, however,
is not clear. The next general election in
2015 is therefore regarded a key date to
work towards in the country’s political

Closely watching these events are armed
ethnic opposition groups, who view the
performance of the national and regional
legislatures as an important barometer in
assessing the new political system. Since
President Thein Sein assumed office, events
in the conflict-zones have moved quickly
and ethnic parties remain doubtful about
the government’s real objectives. The prospect
of peace has been welcomed by all
sides. However, over the past year, different
government officials and army commanders
have been involved in ethnic affairs;
different tactics have been employed
against different ethnic groups; agreements
have not always been kept; and there has
been an underlying perception by ethnic
groups of a strategy of “divide and rule” on
the part of government to prevent them
from working together.

Of particular concern are Tatmadaw offensives
begun under the Thein Sein government
against the Kachin Independence
Organisation and the Shan State Army-
North, both of which had ceasefires in the
State Peace and Development Council
(SPDC) era, and Nay Pyi Taw officials
appear unable to halt military operations
on the front-lines. The consequences have
been profound. Hundreds of lives have
been lost; over 60,000 civilians internally
displaced; and many villages destroyed. The
recent outbreak of communal violence in
the Rakhine State further highlights the
complexity of ethnic challenges in the

At the same time, there remain hopes that,
providing the Thein Sein government is
committed to democratic and ethnic reforms,
mechanisms can be established that
lead to peaceful solutions. The majority of
armed ethnic groups now have ceasefires
with the government, and Thein Sein’s
recent establishment of a “Union-level
Peace Making Committee” is encouraging
expectations that an inclusive process can
be established to resolve conflict through
dialogue. Peace is regarded a “national”
rather than simply “ethnic” issue, and the
advent of the NLD in parliament and
support from democracy activists among
the Burman public is furthering hopes of a
countrywide movement for peace. A new
“Panglong” conference is thus thought
desirable to symbolise a new era of unity
and progress.

The recent involvement of international
agencies in conflict resolution is also
raising hopes that peace processes under
the Thein Sein government will be different
from the SPDC era. This has become a fluid
and fast-moving area, with ethnic parties
expressing concern that the diversity of
international groups making approaches
could complicate rather than help events in
the field. The agendas and relationships of
international agencies are not always clear.
Nevertheless there is hope that international
actors, by constructively working
together, can support initiatives to bring
ethnic rights and social justice to the

Four main groupings have lately emerged:
the Myanmar (formerly Norwegian) Peace
Support Initiative, which is piloting
humanitarian projects in new ceasefire
areas; the Peace Donor Support Group,
which includes Western government
donors, the World Bank and the UN; the
International Peace Support Group, which
is an informal coordination network of
over 20 international NGOs; and the
Myanmar Peace Centre, which is being
established by the Thein Sein government
to act as secretariat to the national Peace
Making Committee and as the focal point
for international actors concerned with
peace. All are emerging formations, and
patterns could change, depending on
events within the country.

Finally, the impact of regional investments
in the ethnic borderlands is a growing
cause of concern. In principle, investments
that are sustainable and benefit the people
have not been opposed by local communities,
and President Thein Sein’s postponement
of the China-backed Myitsone Dam
in the Kachin State was welcomed as an
indication that the government is listening
to environmental and local community
concerns. In recent months, however, the
pace of economic pressure has accelerated,
and many communities fear that they will
be bypassed in local planning and progress.
As ethnic parties point out, conflicts continue
in many border areas and the new
political system is not yet fully representative
and functioning.

Protests have already started against projects
in several parts of the country
(Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, Tanintharyi), and
in the coming years these issues are likely
to gain in importance. The ethnic borderlands
are strategically located in the path of
many new investment projects, and there
are concerns that Burma could suffer the
“resource curse” that undermined equitable
development in other parts of the world,
unless ethnic peace, political reform and
participatory planning are initiated from
the outset.

Major economic projects are now under
way, including the oil and gas pipelines to
China, the Kaledan Gateway project with
India and the Dawei Development project
with Thailand. But this is only the beginning:
China wants to open up the country
to the sub-Asian region via a north-south
corridor, while Japan is interested in another
from east to west. Special economic
zones, too, are being mooted that are
expected to lead to more land expropriation,
and this is deepening concerns about
the future of the many displaced persons,
refugees and migrant workers in the ethnic
borderlands. Huge economic and humanitarian
challenges remain.

How these issues will be resolved is as yet
uncertain. There are, however, constructive
ways forward. Ceasefire processes that lead
to inclusive political agreements are regarded
as essential, and it is hoped that the
new parliamentary system will, in the
meantime, develop the competence to
effectively represent and legislate on issues
of economic concern. Transparent planning
processes will also be vital, and compliance
with UN, ASEAN and other international
standards will help all sides work
together in the national interest. Clearly,
there remains much to achieve during the
course of the current parliament.

In summary, Burma is now at a sensitive
stage in its political transition. Under the
Thein Sein government, encouraging
prospects for the future have undoubtedly
emerged. But reform is still at a very early
stage, and there should be no underestimation
of the difficult challenges that lie
ahead. Ethnic conflict and militarydominated
government continue in many
areas and, after decades of division,
intensive efforts are still required to bring
about an inclusive and lasting peace.

A new parliamentary system is in place, but
further attention will be needed on such
issues as electoral, census, land tenure
rights, education, investment and economic
reform to guarantee the rights of all peoples.
Independent institutions must also
strive to grow in an environment where
power and decision-making are often in the
hands of small elites. And, as events move
quickly, it is vital that all parts of the country
are included. The history of state failure
has long warned of the debilitating consequences
of political and ethnic exclusions.


[1In 1989 the military State Law and Order
Restoration Council government changed the official
name from Burma to Myanmar. They are alternative
forms in the Burmese language, but their use has
become a politicised issue. Although this is changing,
Myanmar is not yet commonly used in the English
language. For consistency, Burma will be used in this
report. This is not intended as a political statement.

[2The conference followed the Chatham House Rule,
which reads as follows: “When a meeting, or part
thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule,
participants are free to use the information received,
but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the
speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be
revealed.” See: http://www.chathamhouse.org/aboutus/

Las opiniones y conslusiones expresadas en el siguiente artículo son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del CETRI.