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Burma in 2010: A Critical Year in Ethnic Politics

Burma in 2010: A Critical Year in Ethnic Politics

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Published by Jutta Pflueg
TNI-BCN Burma Policy Briefing Nr 1 June 2010
TNI-BCN Burma Policy Briefing Nr 1 June 2010

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Published by: Jutta Pflueg on Jul 12, 2010
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 Burma Policy Briefing | 1
2010 is set to become Burma’s most importantand defining year in two decades. The generalelection scheduled by the ruling State Peaceand Development Council (SPDC) could welldetermine the country’s political landscape foranother generation. All institutions and partiesare faced with the uncertainties of politicaltransformation. This includes the militarySPDC, mass Union Solidarity and Develop-ment Association, opposition National Leaguefor Democracy and diverse ethnic nationalityorganisations.At this critical moment in Burma’s history, itis still not certain whether the general electionwill prove an accepted step in the SPDC’sseven-stage roadmap for political reform orbecome the basis for a new generation ofgrievances. As the election countdown contin-ues, new divisions are emerging in Burmesepolitics, warning that a unique opportunity fordialogue and national reconciliation could belost.An inclusive discussion and focus on the elec-tion are vital if its conduct and consequencesare to have common meaning – whether inBurma (Myanmar)
or the international com-munity. Burma’s first election in twenty years(and third in fifty) marks a rare moment ofsupposedly national participation in decidingthe representatives of central and localgovernment. Its historic importance cannot beignored.In no conflict-torn country can a generalelection be expected to resolve all politicalcrises overnight. But it can be an importantcatalyst in establishing peace by acting as anindicator of popular sentiment and precursorof change. After decades of insurgency andmilitary rule, Burma faces many challenges.Political violence and impasse have longunderpinned economic decline andhumanitarian emergency. The problems areclosely interlinked. But given the primacy ofethnic conflict in all political eras sinceindependence, precedent strongly indicatesthat, unless ethnic peace and justice areachieved, the legacies of state failure andhumanitarian suffering will only continue.
The 2010 general election could markthe most defining moment in ageneration, but new divisions inBurmese politics are underminingprospects for democracy and nationalreconciliation
Resolution of Burma’s long-standingethnic crises is integral to the achieve-ment of real peace, democracy andconstitutional government.
The UN and international communityneed to establish a common focus on theelection and its political consequences.
Political and ethnic inclusion is essentialif Burma’s long history of state failure isto be addressed.
To establish sustainable ethnic peace,there must be conflict resolution,humanitarian progress and equitableparticipation in the economy, bringingrights and benefits to all the country’speoples and regions.
Burma in 2010: A Critical Year in Ethnic olitic
Burma Policy Briefing Nr 1June 2010
2 | Burma Policy Briefing
Conflict and ethnic grievance have continuedthrough every stage of Burma’s politicalhistory since independence in 1948.
 Insurgencies broke out among such ethnicgroups as the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Paoduring the short-lived parliamentary era(1948-62). Armed opposition thenaccelerated among other nationalities,including the Kachin, Palaung and Shan, afterGeneral Ne Win seized power in a militarycoup and imposed one-party rule under the“Burmese Way to Socialism” (1962-88).Burma has since remained in a militarisedstate under the present State Peace andDevelopment Council (formerly State Lawand Order Restoration Council: SLORC),which assumed power in 1988 after re-pressing demonstrations that brought downthe Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP)government of Ne Win.A ceasefire policy was instituted by the newregime in 1989 and a general election held thefollowing year. But insurgencies havecontinued in several border areas; ceasefireforces have maintained their arms; and thereis as yet no transition to a democratic systemof government.The social and humanitarian consequenceshave been profound. Burma is one of thepoorest countries in Asia and ranks 138 onthe UN Human Development Index, puttingit on a par with Cambodia and Pakistan.There are over 180,000 refugees from Burmain neighbouring countries as well as over twomillion migrant workers, legal and illegal.
 There are an estimated 470,000 peopleinternally displaced in eastern rural districts.
 The country remains the world’s largestproducer of illicit opium after Afghanistan.
 And treatable or preventable diseases likemalaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDScontinue to take a heavy human toll.The whole country is affected by such suf-fering, but the major impact is felt in ethnicnationality regions, especially conflict-zonesalong the borders with Bangladesh, China,India and Thailand. One of the mostethnically diverse countries in Asia, minoritypeoples make up an estimated third ofBurma’s 56 million, and perceptions ofdiscrimination, poverty and governmentalneglect have long fuelled conflict.Efforts at conflict resolution date back toindependence. Lobbying, however, for ethnicreform during the parliamentary era andpeace talks with different insurgent groupsfailed to resolve the many anomalies in the1947 constitution, which was federal in stylebut not in name. Subsequently, conflict onlyincreased during a quarter century of militarysocialist rule under Ne Win’s BSPP.The 1974 constitution created for the firsttime a sense of ethnic equality on the politicalmap. It demarked seven divisions where mostof the Burman majority live and seven ethnicstates: Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah (Karenni),Mon, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan. But thetotalitarian nature of government anddraconian counter-insurgency tactics by theBurma armed forces (Tatmadaw) in the ruralcountryside only increased antipathy andresistance. The national economy collapsed,and in 1987 Burma was classified with LeastDeveloped Country status by the UnitedNations as one of the world’s ten poorestnations. Change was clearly long overdue.1988 was a year of seismic events that wit-nessed mass pro-democracy protests and NeWin’s resignation but ended with anothersecurity crackdown by a new generation ofTatmadaw leaders. The new regime promiseddemocratic change, but hopes for swiftreform soon faded. Only in 2010, more thantwenty years later, does the SPDC appearready to institute a new system of govern-ment. This, in turn, is precipitating anothermajor upheaval in national politics that is ona parallel with other tumultuous years ofgovernment change: 1948, 1962 and 1988.For the moment, Burma’s future politicalcourse remains contentious and far fromclear. Will the 2010 election and introductionof a new constitution prove the basis for anew era of consensual government or will itperpetuate conflict and national division?The country is entering a critical period.
 Burma Policy Briefing | 3
From 1988 to 1991 Burmese politics under-went a major transformation that persisted inmost organisational aspects for the next twodecades. In 2010, however, the imminence ofpolitical change is forcing all groups andparties to reconsider their positions. Inessence, to take part in Burma’s new politicalsystem, all parties have to register with theauthorities and transform.Under Ne Win’s BSPP government, no ethnicparties were recognised by the constitution.Instead, ethnic opposition was represented bya diversity of militant groups in two majorblocks: the nine-party National DemocraticFront (NDF), formed 1976, that sought a fed-eral union; and allies of the Communist Partyof Burma (CPB), which had remained thecountry’s largest insurgent force since 1948.This pattern of three-cornered conflictbetween the BSPP, NDF and CPB was thenshattered by the 1988 upheavals that causednew groups and alignments to emerge. Fourevents stood out:
The BSPP was replaced by a new systemof military government under theSLORC-SPDC.
In 1989 the new government introducedan ethnic ceasefire policy following mu-tinies that caused the collapse of the CPBand formation of new ethnic forces innortheast Burma. Several ethnic forces,led by the United Wa State Army(UWSA), quickly agreed to peace terms.
The 1990 general election was over-whelmingly won by the National Leaguefor Democracy (NLD) and allied ethnicparties that gained the second largestblock of seats.
Over a dozen MPs-elect went under-ground to escape arrest for having tried
to convene a parliament and govern-ment.
They subsequently joined up withother democracy activists, thousands ofwhom had fled into NDF-controlled ter-ritories in the borderlands since 1988.The most important transformation in politi-cal movements was taking place since inde-pendence. A major test of wills thus devel-oped as to who would control Burma’s transi-tion: the Tatmadaw, the NLD or ethnicgroups in the borderlands who hoped that thepolitical pendulum could be swinging theirway. For the next two decades, there wouldbe frequent calls in Burma and abroad fortripartitedialogue as the most appropriatemethod to resolve the country’s politicalcrises.Ultimately, it was the Tatmadaw governmentthat maintained – and increased – nationalcontrol through a combination of measures.These included the repression of the NLDand other opposition groups, the drawing upof a new constitution by a hand-pickedNational Convention (1993-2008), and thegrowth of the pro-military Union Solidarityand Development Association (USDA,formed 1993) to over 21 million members. Inparticular, Senior General Than Shwe and theTatmadaw leaders consistently rejected tri-partite dialogue and United Nations or otherinternational initiatives seeking to bringBurma’s different parties together around thesame table.Ethnic politics thus continued in complexand uncertain form. In private, there weremany links between the different ethnicparties and alliances, with a common deter-mination to be influential in the country’stransition. But there was little agreementabout how this should be achieved. Followingthe 1988-91 upheavals, three new andimportantly different groupings emerged:electoral, ceasefire and non-ceasefireorganisations.
 On the electoral front, 19 ethnic nationalityparties won seats in the 1990 election, spear-headed by the Shan Nationalities League forDemocracy (SNLD). Subsequently, mostparties allied with the NLD through suchinitiatives as the 1998 Committee Represent-ing the People’s Parliament. But differentstrategies also emerged. From 1995, protest-ing restrictions on freedom of expression, theSNLD and allied parties joined the NLD inboycotting the National Convention to draw

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