Three Key Issues and Perspective of Burma’s Reform

By: Sai Wansai
Tuesday, 08 January 2012

As 2012 ends and many wonder where would 2013 lead Burma, in the light of Thein Sein initiated reform process, it is important to assess the whole political spectrum, specifically on key issues that have influenced and affected the people of Burma in general.

Sai Wansai
Of all the happenings during last year, the ethnic conflict in Kachin State, the sectarian violence in Arakan State and the Letpadaung copper project in Sagaing Region stand out as crucial issues, which need to be handled with utmost sensitivity, if Thein Sein’s reform is to be able to continue and bear fruits. Of course, many other supporting issues also compliment, energize and empower the people’s participation in the ongoing transformation process, such as power blackout protest in several big cities and peace rallies among others. But there is no denying that the changing political atmosphere is made possible by Thein Sein’s reform initiative.

Ethnic conflict in Kachin State

The war in Kachin State, which has resumed after 17 years of ceasefire, heated up to a point that the government troops were using air power to bombard KIA positions. This has to be taken as heightening the ethnic conflict and the declaration of a military solution, in opposition to political dialogue initiated by the Thein Sein regime.

According to AP News, on 31 December 2012, KIA spokesman La Nan said it regarded the government's Christmas ultimatum, which was followed by series of air offensives, as a declaration to solve the struggle between the two sides through military rather than political means. He said that what the Kachin regarded as a new government offensive was apparently meant to force the Kachin to accept the government's terms for peace.

According to VOA, on 02 January Wednesday, hundreds participated in a Peace Virgil in the middle of Rangoon and prayed for the end of escalating armed conflict in Kachin State.

Meanwhile, in contradiction to the government’s claim that the military is not using aircraft to combat the KIA days earlier, the statement broadcast on state television, on 02 January Wednesday, that the military has acknowledged carrying out air strikes against Kachin rebels. This begs the question on how much control the reformist Thein Sein government has over the army.

(Cartoon: Harn Lay / Myanmar Times)

Even though the government has already signed truce with 13 ethnic armed groups, the intensity of the offensive, using air strikes in Kachin State, negated the self-proclaimed, government policy of peace initiative through political dialogue.

Many have speculated that in the aftermath of SPDC military regime, the quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein is a real reformist, having to do tight rope walking so as not to antagonize the militant hardliners, who are waiting in the wings to jeopardize the reform process.

True, Thein Sein has doled out a couple of directives to the military to stop offensive in Kachin State, so that peace process could begin in earnest. But the military responded with more operations, as if to mock the President. Otherwise, the recent air raids on the KIA positions could only be understood as having the blessing of the President to do so.

BBC report, on 02 January Wednesday, Major Zau Tang said that there have been no difference of opinion between the government and the military, where the issue on subjugation of non-Burman ethnic nationalities is concerned.
Likewise, SNLD joint-secretary Sai Leik in an interview in VOA, on 19 December 2012, when asked if he thinks the government have to be careful with the military and if the two entities should be viewed separately as reformers and hardliners, replied that they were just birds of the same feathers.

SNLD Chairman, Hkun Htun Oo was even more direct. In an interview with the BBC, on 04 January, when asked on how the non-Burman ethnic nationalities feel on the eve of 65th anniversary Independence Day, he replied that it is only the change of colonial master from British to the majority, ethnic Burman; and that the fruits of independence benefited only the lowland Burmans and not the non-Burman ethnic nationalities.

He stressed that the wars going on in Kachin State, and to a lesser extent in Shan State, were the product of uneven reconciliation approach by the regime to each of the armed ethnic groups. He particularly blamed that he was at a loss on why the government could not understand the aspirations of non-Burman ethnic nationalities, who are struggling for equality and rights of self-determination.

Concerning the conflict in Kachin State, first the government denied the use of air power against the KIA, but later admitted to have used air strikes to recapture a hill top position, which is crucial to keep the supply line open to resupply its front line troops. Lately, when the concern for escalating the war in Kachin State and condemnation become louder internationally and domestically, the government came up with a statement that the use of air power was just for self-defence. One couldn’t help to wonder, whether the war is being waged by the KIA in Burma heartland or the government troops going on offensive in Kachin State.

And as such, Thein Sein’s peace call or initiative doesn’t look promising, if he is posturing himself as a protector of the Burma Army than acting neutrally as President of all ethnic groups, who is determined to see reconciliation take place earnestly. And if the military could not be reined in and made to toe the government policy line, its reform process would fail. In addition, to quote Larry Diamond, Burma could be stuck indefinitely with “a hybrid system – part democratic, part military-dominated, intrinsically prone to instability stemming from irreconcilable tension between those two competing source of authority”.

Sectarian violence in Arakan State

The 2012 sectarian violence between the Arakanese and the Rohingya Muslims, as they liked to be addressed, is a product of differing historical concept from different perspective of the two groups. While the Arakanese and as well, successive Burmese regimes, are convinced that the Muslims are mere illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingyas consider themselves as one of the Burma’s minorities, which have been inhabiting Arakan State for hundreds of years.

Whatever the case, the 2012 sectarian riots stemming from the rape and murder of an Arakanese woman have claimed 88 casualties – 57 Muslims and 31 Arakanese Buddhists – as of officially stated count on 22 August, 2012. Fighting broke out again in October 2012, which claimed at least 80 deaths. An estimated 100,000 people are said to be displaced, with thousands of houses burned belonging to both warring communities.

Although a committee has been formed by the government, in August 2012, to probe the causes of communal clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya, it is reported that no meaningful cooperation, especially from the part of the Rohingyas, were forthcoming, due to the fact that the committee has no Rohingya representation.

This is also a mammoth task, which needs to rewrite the 1982 citizenship law introduced by BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party) regime, if the Rohingyas that are really entitled to be citizens are to be reinstated. Further, the screening of the Rohingya population into categories like long time settlers, with citizenship right, including their offsprings; recent immigrants before the World War 2, under the British rule; and undocumented immigrants that have lately crossed the border; should be on the table, most appropriately headed by reputed international or UN mandated, sponsored organisation, with concerned domestic parties integrated into it. And based on these findings, different resident statuses should be worked out that would lead to a better solution. While in the meantime, the border with the Bangladesh should be effectively guarded and enforcement of immigration strictly followed

Clearly, this is also going to be a major hurdle for Thein Sein regime, if his much touted reform initiative is to continue.

Letpadaung Copper Mine

On November 29, 2012, in Monywa, Sagaing Division, local security forces forcibly dispersed six protest camps at the Letpaudaung copper mine, arrested an unknown number of protesters, and injured at least 40, including many with serious burns.

The Letpadaung copper mine, owned by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a Burmese military conglomerate, and Wanbao Mining, a subsidiary of Chinese industrial and arms manufacturer China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), has long been controversial. Villagers at the nearby Sabetaung and Kyisintaung mines - collectively known as the Monywa Copper Project, from which Letpadaung is an expansion - told Human Rights Watch that for many years they have had health problems from air, soil, and water contamination they believe are the result of mining processes. Many at the old mine sites also allege their land was confiscated without compensation. (Source: Human Rights Watch – 01.12.2012)

The government crackdown has caused serious skin burns on many the victims of which most are Buddhist monks.

Following the raid, monks began organizing peaceful protests nationwide to demand justice. Thein Sein regime, after initial backtracking that the crackdown was handled properly according to the international norms, responded by issuing apologies, from Sagaing Division’s police chief and the country’s religious affairs minister, but the monks were not satisfied because the apologies did not come the president and were not directed at those who were injured during the crackdown.

Later on 15 December 2012, a minister from the president’s office, Union Minister Hla Tun apologized on behalf of the President to Buddhist monks who were injured during a police raid in a formal ceremony, in the country’s second-largest city of Mandalay.

Handling of the Letpadung issue centres around on how to limit and control the military conglomerate’s cloud, which has been virtually above the law and answerable only to the military; and the disastrous environmental side-effect, plus the military confistication of local farmlands without compensation.

To wrap up, Thein Sein regime would need to accept the fact that 65 yeard of “nation-state” building, which seeks to dominate all other ethnic groups in all socio-economic sphered by majority, Burman ethnic group, through coercive military might has been totally shattered. The ongoing internal war in Kachin State is a case in point. But this does not mean that the armed conflict is restricted only to Kachin State and initial truce signed with the other 13 ethnic armed groups are irreversible, given that repeated armed clashes still occur between the government troops and the two Shan State Armies, SSA North and SSA South.

And as such, the regime should opt for “state-nation” building, which is made up of many nationality groups, where the central authority – Union government – still manages to instil strong identification and loyalty from its citizens. (Source: A Need for Political Pact – Larry Diamond)

The solution to sectarian violence in Arakan State would need all-inclusive participation through humanitarian outlook, moral ethic aspects and pragmatic approach, aiming for a positive, instead of win-lose outcome.

The Letpadaung Copper Mine issue is still not yet resolved. And the opposition to further operation of the mines in Sagaing Region is threatening to gain momentum, after the government apology to the monks of its brutal crackdown on 29 November. This delicate problem should be tackled with social justice and environmental preservation in mind and not just protecting the military’s economic concern.

Apart from the mentioned key issues, Thein Sein regime still need to solve or accommodate numerous public dissatisfaction like power blackout, labour disputes and peace rallies that are also gaining momentum.

Summing it up, the quasi-civilian, Thein Sein regime has not made progress from its “Electoral authoritarian regime” status. Hopefully, the regime will alter its acquired mindset from the past and make 2013 a year of genuine reconciliation and unity of all nationalities.

The contributor is the General Secretary of Shan Democratic Union (SDU) - Editor


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