Rohingya children in a refugee camp.
c Displacement and discrimination continue to affect the Rohingya people in Rakhine state, Burma. They are just one of the many minority ethnic groups in the country. [Evangelos Petratos EU/ECHO]

Burma: Can Burma become a multi-ethnic Asian star?

When President Obama visited Burma last year, he was careful to temper any praise he had for the recent reforms undertaken by Burmese President Thein Sein and his government.

Obama took pains to emphasise, in a speech that he made at the University of Rangoon on 17th November, the significant structural and societal changes that would also be necessary if the country was to be placed on the path towards democratization.

“Reforms must meet the aspirations of the citizens who form its foundation. The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished – they must be strengthened; they must become a North Star for all this nation’s people,” Obama said.

By calling on the Burmese government to meet the aspirations of “all this nation’s people” Obama was directly alluding to the distinct and diverse ethnic make-up of Burma. In so doing he was sending a message to Sein.

The strategy undertaken by the Burmese government since 2011, that focused on releasing a specified number of political prisoners, engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi and allowing her political party the National League for Democracy to contest certain elections, could only go so far.

If Sein’s intentions were for Burma to become a successful democracy, he would also have to make a sustained effort to bring about an end to the violence that has existed between the Burmese army and a variety of different insurgent groups since Burma became an independent state in 1948.

In all, there are 135 ethnic groups within Burma that are recognised by the Burmese government in Naypyidaw. The largest of these is the Bamar people, to which both Sein and Suu Kyi belong. They constitute 68% of Burma’s population and also dominate the Burmese army.

The significance of the distinct ethnic make-up of the Burmese army, in regards to Burma’s internal problems, is crucial. Over the past sixty years it is this army which has fought the on-going civil war within different regions of Burma, where insurgent forces have represented these other specific ethnic groups.

The Karen National Union, The Kachin Independence Army and The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, representing the interests of Karen, Kachin and Shan groups respectively, are just three of these insurgent groups.

Therefore, while engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD may bring international recognition of reform for Thein Sein’s government, it does little to gain the acquiescence of members of these distinct minority groups, whose support is necessary to ensure a lasting solution to Burma’s problems.

Moreover, it should also be remembered that Aung San Suu Kyi, with her distinctive personal narrative as the daughter of a prominent Burmese general, would also face distinct challenges to reach a lasting solution to the civil war if she were to be elected President of Burma after the elections scheduled for 2015.

Nevertheless, while this conflict has being on going since 1948, there has been a sense of progress in recent years, with ten out of the eleven ethnic insurgent groups having signed ceasefires with the Burmese government.

January marked the first anniversary of the Karen National Union’s ceasefire with the Burmese government, making this the longest lasting ceasefire between the two since 1948. While the previously protracted nature of the KNU’s conflict with the Burmese army highlights the importance of this ceasefire, lasting solutions to Karen grievances, which have underlined the KNU’s stance over the last sixty years, have yet to be achieved.

Over 140,000 Karen people still live in refugee camps within Thailand, and since January 2012 there have been sporadic instances of indiscriminate fire upon Karen people from the Burmese military in Karen State.

Moreover, as Burmese military units continue to perform exercises in Karen areas, without there being a brokered and finalised agreement to these lasting problems the risk remains that the Burmese military may break their ceasefire with the KNU, and launch attacks on Karen villages.

While there has been a ceasefire in Karen State over the last year, this has not been the case in other parts of the country. Heavy fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Army resumed in 2011 after 17 years of ceasefire, and over the course of the last two years, international organisations such as Human Rights Watch have highlighted the continued use of sexual violence by the Burmese army as tool of intimidation against the women within this state.

While President Thein Sein called for an end to fighting in January, and peace talks took place between the KIA and the army in February, sporadic fighting between the two groups continues. On 10th April, the G8 group of foreign ministers called on the Burmese government to take “further steps” to resolve the situation within Kachin State, but the prospects for an agreed ceasefire in the immediate future remain very unclear.

While the situation in Karen and Kachin States remains unstable, recent events within Arakan State has led to an immediately pressing humanitarian situation involving the Rohingya community.

Human Rights Watch states that the Burmese government’s refusal to allow aid to reach the Rohingya community, following its introduction of discriminatory measures against this Muslim ethnic group is a “humanitarian crisis” that could soon become a disaster.

According to Human Rights Watch more than 125,000 Rohingya people have been displaced within Arakan State in the last year. On visiting a Rohingya refugee camp in February, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, compounded this sentiment when he spoke of the “profound crisis” that he saw occurring within the state.

Aung San Suu Kyi has only recently made a number of public comments on the problems facing the Rohingya community. On 15th April, following an increase in  levels of violence directed at Rohingya groups, she called for a review of the controversial 1982 citizenship law which has led to the Rohingya community being classed as ‘stateless’ people.

Nevertheless, when speaking to the BBC’s Fergal Keane last week, Suu Kyi maintained that internal violence should not be seen as a reason to prevent the lifting of EU economic sanctions on the country. Moreover, while the issue has been raised in meetings with the Burmese government, most recently by British Foreign Secretary William Hague on 16th April, little affirmative action has yet been taken by the Burmese government and the Rohingya community’s suffering continues.

President Obama’s call for Burma to become a “Northern Star for all its people” is not an insurmountable dream. However, in order for this country to be such a state, President Thein Sein’s government will not only have to reform, but proactively enforce ceasefires to which the Burmese army will abide. There are glimmers of hope that this may happen, the ceasefire with the KNU is a positive step, but the current situation within Arakan State stands as proof that the journey towards a prosperous, democratic and multi-ethnic Burma has only just started.

Harry Webb graduated from Leeds University with an undergraduate degree in History in 2012. He is interested in the domestic situation within Cambodia and Burma, as well as the wider implications of US foreign policy in Asia. He lives in London, and has experience of working for a variety of different international non-for-profit organisations.

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