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Burma Policy Briefing Nr 1

June 2010

Burma in 2010: A Critical Year in Ethnic Politics

2010 is set to become Burma’s most important

and defining year in two decades. The general CONCLUSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS
election scheduled by the ruling State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC) could well  The 2010 general election could mark
determine the country’s political landscape for the most defining moment in a
another generation. All institutions and parties generation, but new divisions in
are faced with the uncertainties of political Burmese politics are undermining
transformation. This includes the military prospects for democracy and national
SPDC, mass Union Solidarity and Develop- reconciliation
ment Association, opposition National League
for Democracy and diverse ethnic nationality  Resolution of Burma’s long-standing
organisations. ethnic crises is integral to the achieve-
ment of real peace, democracy and
At this critical moment in Burma’s history, it constitutional government.
is still not certain whether the general election
will prove an accepted step in the SPDC’s  The UN and international community
seven-stage roadmap for political reform or need to establish a common focus on the
become the basis for a new generation of election and its political consequences.
grievances. As the election countdown contin-
ues, new divisions are emerging in Burmese  Political and ethnic inclusion is essential
politics, warning that a unique opportunity for if Burma’s long history of state failure is
dialogue and national reconciliation could be to be addressed.
 To establish sustainable ethnic peace,
An inclusive discussion and focus on the elec-
there must be conflict resolution,
tion are vital if its conduct and consequences
humanitarian progress and equitable
are to have common meaning – whether in
participation in the economy, bringing
Burma (Myanmar)1 or the international com-
rights and benefits to all the country’s
munity. Burma’s first election in twenty years
(and third in fifty) marks a rare moment of
peoples and regions.
supposedly national participation in deciding
the representatives of central and local
government. Its historic importance cannot be
Political violence and impasse have long
underpinned economic decline and
In no conflict-torn country can a general humanitarian emergency. The problems are
election be expected to resolve all political closely interlinked. But given the primacy of
crises overnight. But it can be an important ethnic conflict in all political eras since
catalyst in establishing peace by acting as an independence, precedent strongly indicates
indicator of popular sentiment and precursor that, unless ethnic peace and justice are
of change. After decades of insurgency and achieved, the legacies of state failure and
military rule, Burma faces many challenges. humanitarian suffering will only continue.

Burma Policy Briefing | 1

BACKGROUND ethnically diverse countries in Asia, minority
peoples make up an estimated third of
Conflict and ethnic grievance have continued Burma’s 56 million, and perceptions of
through every stage of Burma’s political discrimination, poverty and governmental
history since independence in 1948.2 neglect have long fuelled conflict.
Insurgencies broke out among such ethnic
groups as the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Pao Efforts at conflict resolution date back to
during the short-lived parliamentary era independence. Lobbying, however, for ethnic
(1948-62). Armed opposition then reform during the parliamentary era and
accelerated among other nationalities, peace talks with different insurgent groups
including the Kachin, Palaung and Shan, after failed to resolve the many anomalies in the
General Ne Win seized power in a military 1947 constitution, which was federal in style
coup and imposed one-party rule under the but not in name. Subsequently, conflict only
“Burmese Way to Socialism” (1962-88). increased during a quarter century of military
socialist rule under Ne Win’s BSPP.
Burma has since remained in a militarised
state under the present State Peace and The 1974 constitution created for the first
Development Council (formerly State Law time a sense of ethnic equality on the political
and Order Restoration Council: SLORC), map. It demarked seven divisions where most
which assumed power in 1988 after re- of the Burman majority live and seven ethnic
pressing demonstrations that brought down states: Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah (Karenni),
the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) Mon, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan. But the
government of Ne Win. totalitarian nature of government and
draconian counter-insurgency tactics by the
A ceasefire policy was instituted by the new Burma armed forces (Tatmadaw) in the rural
regime in 1989 and a general election held the countryside only increased antipathy and
following year. But insurgencies have resistance. The national economy collapsed,
continued in several border areas; ceasefire and in 1987 Burma was classified with Least
forces have maintained their arms; and there Developed Country status by the United
is as yet no transition to a democratic system Nations as one of the world’s ten poorest
of government. nations. Change was clearly long overdue.

The social and humanitarian consequences 1988 was a year of seismic events that wit-
have been profound. Burma is one of the nessed mass pro-democracy protests and Ne
poorest countries in Asia and ranks 138 on Win’s resignation but ended with another
the UN Human Development Index, putting security crackdown by a new generation of
it on a par with Cambodia and Pakistan. Tatmadaw leaders. The new regime promised
There are over 180,000 refugees from Burma democratic change, but hopes for swift
in neighbouring countries as well as over two reform soon faded. Only in 2010, more than
million migrant workers, legal and illegal.3 twenty years later, does the SPDC appear
There are an estimated 470,000 people ready to institute a new system of govern-
internally displaced in eastern rural districts.4 ment. This, in turn, is precipitating another
The country remains the world’s largest major upheaval in national politics that is on
producer of illicit opium after Afghanistan.5 a parallel with other tumultuous years of
And treatable or preventable diseases like government change: 1948, 1962 and 1988.
malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS
continue to take a heavy human toll. For the moment, Burma’s future political
course remains contentious and far from
The whole country is affected by such suf- clear. Will the 2010 election and introduction
fering, but the major impact is felt in ethnic of a new constitution prove the basis for a
nationality regions, especially conflict-zones new era of consensual government or will it
along the borders with Bangladesh, China, perpetuate conflict and national division?
India and Thailand. One of the most The country is entering a critical period.

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THE CHANGING SOCIO-POLITICAL The most important transformation in politi-
LANDSCAPE cal movements was taking place since inde-
pendence. A major test of wills thus devel-
From 1988 to 1991 Burmese politics under- oped as to who would control Burma’s transi-
went a major transformation that persisted in tion: the Tatmadaw, the NLD or ethnic
most organisational aspects for the next two groups in the borderlands who hoped that the
decades. In 2010, however, the imminence of political pendulum could be swinging their
political change is forcing all groups and way. For the next two decades, there would
parties to reconsider their positions. In be frequent calls in Burma and abroad for
essence, to take part in Burma’s new political “tripartite” dialogue as the most appropriate
system, all parties have to register with the method to resolve the country’s political
authorities and transform. crises.

Under Ne Win’s BSPP government, no ethnic Ultimately, it was the Tatmadaw government
parties were recognised by the constitution. that maintained – and increased – national
Instead, ethnic opposition was represented by control through a combination of measures.
a diversity of militant groups in two major These included the repression of the NLD
blocks: the nine-party National Democratic and other opposition groups, the drawing up
Front (NDF), formed 1976, that sought a fed- of a new constitution by a hand-picked
eral union; and allies of the Communist Party National Convention (1993-2008), and the
of Burma (CPB), which had remained the growth of the pro-military Union Solidarity
country’s largest insurgent force since 1948. and Development Association (USDA,
formed 1993) to over 21 million members. In
This pattern of three-cornered conflict particular, Senior General Than Shwe and the
between the BSPP, NDF and CPB was then Tatmadaw leaders consistently rejected tri-
shattered by the 1988 upheavals that caused partite dialogue and United Nations or other
new groups and alignments to emerge. Four international initiatives seeking to bring
events stood out: Burma’s different parties together around the
same table.
 The BSPP was replaced by a new system
of military government under the Ethnic politics thus continued in complex
SLORC-SPDC. and uncertain form. In private, there were
many links between the different ethnic
 In 1989 the new government introduced parties and alliances, with a common deter-
an ethnic ceasefire policy following mu- mination to be influential in the country’s
tinies that caused the collapse of the CPB transition. But there was little agreement
and formation of new ethnic forces in about how this should be achieved. Following
northeast Burma. Several ethnic forces, the 1988-91 upheavals, three new and
led by the United Wa State Army importantly different groupings emerged:
(UWSA), quickly agreed to peace terms. electoral, ceasefire and non-ceasefire
 The 1990 general election was over- organisations.6
whelmingly won by the National League
On the electoral front, 19 ethnic nationality
for Democracy (NLD) and allied ethnic
parties won seats in the 1990 election, spear-
parties that gained the second largest
headed by the Shan Nationalities League for
block of seats.
Democracy (SNLD). Subsequently, most
 Over a dozen MPs-elect went under- parties allied with the NLD through such
ground to escape arrest for having tried initiatives as the 1998 Committee Represent-
to convene a parliament and govern- ing the People’s Parliament. But different
ment. They subsequently joined up with strategies also emerged. From 1995, protest-
other democracy activists, thousands of ing restrictions on freedom of expression, the
whom had fled into NDF-controlled ter- SNLD and allied parties joined the NLD in
ritories in the borderlands since 1988. boycotting the National Convention to draw

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up the new constitution. But six parties, cating autonomous regions similar to those in
including the Union Pao National China; and a 13-party group led by ex-NDF
Organisation (UPNO), continued to attend. members proposing a federal union. Neither
of these ideas was accepted; SPDC officials
Then in 2002 the SNLD and eight other
equate “federalism” with “disintegration”.8
parties set up the United Nationalities
Ceasefire representatives nevertheless contin-
Alliance (UNA) in an effort to promote the
ued attending the National Convention on
ethnic nationality cause. But like the NLD,
the basis that their demands would go into
the electoral ethnic parties grew increasingly
the historical record and could later be re-
marginalised during the long years of
vived. But ceasefire groups grew increasingly
SLORC-SPDC government.
concerned over the lack of political progress.
Ceasefire politics were similarly diverse. By
Non-ceasefire or insurgent groups also
2000, over 25 ethnic forces, some of which
remained a militant presence. In 1992, a
“united front” highpoint was achieved with

“ The laws are…against the opinions of the the formation of the National Council Union
of Burma (NCUB), bringing together over
twenty anti-government groups. These
international community and the actual desires of the
included the Karen National Union (KNU,
people of Myanmar... formed 1947), long the country’s leading
ethnic force, and National Coalition
All these election laws are based on the unjust and Government Union of Burma (NCGUB,
formed 1990) comprising exile MPs-elect. A
legally unapproved constitution 2008. According to new political dynamic appeared possible,
uniting ethnic militants in the borderlands
these election laws, we feel that the coming elections and democracy activists from the Burman
cannot be free and fair. ” majority in the cities. But differences over
strategy and the growing ceasefire movement
UNA letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, March 2010 eroded the NCUB’s effectiveness.

This was highlighted when the KNU lost its

were small militia or factions, had been headquarters on the Thai border following a
accorded ceasefire status. But 16 major or 1994 breakaway by the Democratic Karen
“official” groups were recognized, including Buddhist Army (DKBA) which accepted a
former NDF members such as the well- ceasefire with the military government. As
organised Kachin Independence Organisa- fighting continued and refugee numbers
tion (KIO, formed 1961) and New Mon State grew, the KNU, NDF, NCUB and other
Party (NMSP, formed 1958). militant groups maintained their advocacy
for ethnic rights. In 2001, an Ethnic
These peace agreements brought the first Nationalities Council (ENC) was also formed
cessation of hostilities and loss of life for to foster broader unity in preparation for
many decades in key border areas, opening tripartite dialogue. But as the SPDC roadmap
up long closed-off regions to development went forward, non-ceasefire strength and
and trade. But political and economic influence declined inside the country.
progress was slow, and resentment grew over
the exploitation of natural resources, such as All the armed ethnic groups also came under
timber and minerals, with limited benefits to pressure to maintain peace in the borderlands
the local people.7 from Asian neighbours, notably China,
Thailand, India and Bangladesh, who
Then at the National Convention, ceasefire accelerated major trade, energy and infra-
representatives put forward their demands in structure projects with the SPDC. The
two different blocks: a 4-party ex-CPB group, economic and humanitarian situation in
the Peace and Democracy Front (PDF), advo- Burma remained grave. But by the 21st

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century, despite Western boycotts, Burma’s divisions). At the same time, the future
natural resource wealth and strategic position President is required to have military
were gaining Asian priority in one of the experience and 25 percent of seats in the
fastest-developing regions of the world. The legislatures (as well as three key ministries)
idiosyncratic days of Ne Win’s hermetic will be reserved for military appointees.10
“Burmese Way to Socialism” were receding
into history. While the SPDC built a new In one significant change, there will be some
capital at Nay Pyi Taw in the centre of the redrawing of the ethnic map. Seven smaller
country, many of the new natural resource ethnic groups not acknowledged in previous
projects, including gas pipelines and constitutions will gain territories in the form
hydroelectric dams, were located in ethnic of self-administered areas (a “division” for
nationality regions. But it remained the Wa, and “zones” for the Danu, Kokang,
questionable who would really benefit. Lahu, Palaung and Pao in the Shan state and
the Naga in the Sagaing division).
Finally, as the socio-political landscape
changed, ethnic community-based groups This appeared an important historical step.
became more active. Ethnic leaders from But concerns were growing among ethnic
faith-based organisations like the Myanmar parties over the continued military domi-
Council of Churches were go-betweens in nation of government. Not only had there
peace talks, while secular groups increased in been little or no input by electoral and cease-
number from the mid-1990s as the growth of fire groups in the new constitution but there
NGOs gathered pace in the country. Some of were also major uncertainties about how the
these, notably the Shalom Foundation, 2010 election, ceasefire transition and new
concentrated on peace issues, while others system of government would work. SPDC
like the Metta Development Foundation set announcements were rare, intermittent fight-
up aid projects in conflict-affected areas. ing continued with the KNU and other ethnic
forces in the borderlands, and over 2,100
In summary, political change was long political prisoners remained in jail and the
delayed, but community life was by no means NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was still under
moribund.9 With the advent of ceasefires, house arrest.11 Detained ethnic leaders in-
international business, the internet and travel cluded Hkun Htun Oo of the electoral SNLD
mobility, Burma in 2010 was different in and General Hso Ten of the ceasefire Shan
many social and economic respects to Ne State Army (North) who had received jail
Win’s one-party state in 1988. terms of 93 and 106 years for alleged sedition.

In the meantime, despite restrictions imposed

THE CHALLENGE OF THE 2010 on other political movements, senior govern-
ELECTION ment officials began canvassing for the USDA
that was expected to turn into a pro-military
The completion of the country’s new consti- party before the polls. As the SPDC’s game
tution during 2008 and announcement of the plan unfolded, opposition groups faced the
2010 election gave a new impetus to political dilemma of how to respond. After two dec-
life. As details emerged, there were few sur- ades of SLORC-SPDC rule, many parties
prises. Burma’s future government will con- hoped that time was still on their side and
tinue to be dominated by the military under that tripartite dialogue, supported by interna-
an executive and unitary system rather than a tional pressure, was still feasible. But two
federal or union system as proposed by pro- government announcements indicated that
democracy and ethnic groups. There will be there was no longer room for complacency.
three elected bodies: a bicameral legislature at In April 2009 the SPDC unilaterally ordered
the national level comprising the People’s that ceasefire groups must transform into
Assembly (lower house) and the National new “Border Guard Force” (BGF) battalions
Assembly (upper house), as well as 14 re- under government authority before the polls.
gional legislatures (for the ethnic states and Then in March 2010, the election laws were

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announced, setting deadlines for when parties cal repression and “unjust” electoral laws;12
must register to take part – or become and the April resignation of Prime Minister
unregistered and effectively illegal. Thein Sein and 26 other ministers and offi-
cials to form the new Union Solidarity and
Events now began to move fast, with parties Development Party (USDP) from the USDA.
having little choice but to declare themselves The NLD, which for two decades had flown
on or off the SPDC’s political roadmap. the main banner for Burma’s democracy
Hopes for alternative routes to dialogue cause, now faced deregistration and oblivion,
appeared at an end. while continued military domination of gov-
ernment seemed assured via the expected
USDP victory in the election, along with the
“Myanmar is a multinational nation. Peaceful reserved seats for military appointees in the
solution of the problems based on equality and
Against this backdrop, the representation of
solidarity should be the only means when there are ethnic parties began to look very different.
From the outset, there were controversies and
conflicts and contradictions among the national new blurring of the lines between electoral,
ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups as
minorities or between a big race and a smaller race. different parties and citizens decided their
future positions.
They cannot be solved by suppression or resorting to

arms. ” Electoral: A new generation of ethnic elec-

toral parties appeared certain in national
Bao Youxiang, UWSA chairman, November 2009 politics following the polls. Over half the
forty parties registered by the end of May
represented ethnic nationality groups. Some
well-known names left the stage and new
THE ETHNIC RESPONSE actors entered. Given the diversity and small
size of most parties, leaders recognized that
The long-term consequences of the 2010 elec- there was little chance ethnic parties would
tion and government transition may take have much impact on the national stage
years to become clear. In such a strife-torn under existing political conditions. For this
country, new crises can always be expected. reason, the decision whether to stand or not
During 2009-10 the election did not act as a came down to two judgements: to boycott
focus for political and ethnic unity. Instead, because the SPDC roadmap is not regarded as
fresh divisions emerged, reflecting the frag- credible or to stand because, as a popular
mentation that had occurred during previous saying put it, “a constitution is better than no
periods of governmental change. Diverse constitution”.
strategies were discussed, but ultimately most
stakeholder groups were faced with three In particular, after five decades of totalitarian
choices: to participate, boycott or confront rule, some ethnic leaders believed that the
the polls. All were high-risk choices that introduction of a new “power-sharing”
could determine the fate of different political system of multiparty parliamentary govern-
movements for a generation. ment in which 75 percent of seats are
“civilian” offered a better platform for long-
Further shifts in the positions of different po- term change than continued conflict and
litical and ethnic movements can be expected military rule. They argued that such countries
as the election approaches. In particular, the as Indonesia, South Korea and the Philip-
tone of future politics was coloured by two pines had found their own ways for transition
historic decisions early in 2010: the vote of from military rule through parliamentary
the NLD central committee in March not to processes during previous decades. Pro-
stand in the election on the grounds of politi- election leaders were especially keen that

6 | Burma Policy Briefing

ethnic parties stand for constituencies in the tained leaders in order to discuss cooperation
state legislatures which, otherwise, would be in “democratization and national solidar-
won without contest by pro-military and ity”.15 No response was forthcoming, and in
Burman-led parties, notably the USDP. March the UNA sent a statement to UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for
Most ethnic parties still wanted a union syst- international pressure on the SPDC to release
em, and there remained important areas of political prisoners, halt military operations
disagreement, including the powers of the and begin tripartite dialogue with the NLD
ethnic states, cultural rights, security, foreign and ethnic representatives. The 2008 consti-
affairs, and control over natural resources. tution and election laws, the UNA said, were
But it was hoped that reforms could be against “the actual desires of the people”.16
introduced in future legislation, despite the
likely difficulties in moving constitutional The UNA’s decision not to take part was not
amendments. the complete end of the arguments. As hap-
pened with the NLD boycott, some former
Based upon such considerations, the electoral
members tried to support electoral move-
landscape began to change during 2010. Only
ments in new guises. For example, a break-
four of the ethnic parties from the 1990
away group set up a new All Mon Region
general election re-registered (for example,
Democracy Party after a Mon Working Com-
the Union Kayin [Karen] League). They were
mittee, including Mon electoral and ceasefire
joined by a new generation of nationality
representatives, decided not to contest the
parties, reflecting the complexity of ethnic
polls. The Shan Nationals Democratic Party
politics. The Pao National Organisation, for
also included former SNLD members. But as
example, was an amalgamation of the
the election drew closer, there were no
ceasefire group of that name and the UPNO.
guarantees that these new parties would enjoy
The Kachin State Progressive Party (KSPP)
a more durable future than the UNA parties
was formed by Dr Tu Ja and officials of the
now departing the electoral stage.
ceasefire KIO who resigned to help set up a
civilian party. Among the leaders of the Kayin Ceasefire: During 2009-10, similar
People’s Party were a KNU peace mediator uncertainties beset the country’s diverse
Dr Simon Tha and retired naval commander ceasefire groups. In terms of history,
Tun Aung Myint. The Union Democracy membership, finance and territorial control,
the ceasefire forces far outweighed electoral
Party was a broader grouping, set up by vet- parties in their ability to operate
eran Shan politician Shwe Ohn to support the independently and, with an estimated 40,000
ethnic cause in parliament.13 Other ethnic troops under arms, their existence was a
parties included Chin, Kokang, Lahu, Mon, continued reminder of the need for conflict
Mro, Palaung, Rakhine, Shan and Wa identi- resolution in Burma’s “neither war nor
ties. Their common refrain was the pledge to peace” impasse.17
pursue ethnic political and cultural rights in
the establishment of peace and democracy. The ceasefire groups, however, were not
closely allied, consisting of former NDF
In contrast, there were other influential eth- parties, ex-CPB members of the PDF and
nic movements that decided not to contest various small militia or breakaway factions.
the polls. The United Nationalities Alliance of Their ceasefire terms had generally allowed
parties from the 1990 election supported the them to maintain their arms and territory
Shwegondaing Declaration of its NLD ally, until the introduction of a new constitution.
stating that the party could only participate In the meantime, while attending the
on three conditions: the release of political National Convention, they had concentrated
prisoners, constitutional amendments and on building peace through business and
international monitoring of the polls.14 SNLD development programmes. But there were no
members also petitioned the SPDC for a clear agreements on political timetables or
meeting with Hkun Htun Oo and other de- military transition when the new constitution

Burma Policy Briefing | 7

was introduced. Instead, given their broader warned that the people were feeling
social and community structures, ceasefire “threatened and insecure” by government
leaders wanted to support new ethnic parties actions.20 The KIO also went ahead with
in the promised multi-party election and then support for the new KSPP in the elections.
negotiate military change with the new But by May, no major breakthrough had
government following the polls. occurred, with SPDC officials warning the
Disappointed by the 2008 constitution, they NMSP that, if the ceasefire forces did not
wanted to see clear evidence of political transform into BGFs, the situation would
reform before agreeing to transformation. return to “pre-ceasefire” conditions.21

In private, none of the different sides wanted

a return to full-scale conflict. Agreement was
“Every ethnic group wants peace and development still possible if the ceasefire groups were
allowed to transform on compromise terms
for their state. They do not want conflict. They will after the polls. But military training and
deployments were stepped up by different
respond according to how they are treated. ” forces in both China and Thailand border
areas, and local civilians prepared to leave
Gen. Htay Maung, KNU/KNLA Peace Council chairman, April 2010 their homes if fighting should break out.
Meanwhile one ceasefire group, the Shan
State Army (North), split in April over the
BGF issue, and there were rumours that
dissatisfaction was rising among troops in
The SPDC, however, took ceasefire groups by such ceasefire groups as the DKBA that had
surprise with its April 2009 order that the already accepted the BGF system. After over
groups break down into BGF battalions, two decades of ceasefires, no clear or
effectively under government authority. inclusive resolution appeared imminent.
Officers over 50 should retire, and 30
Tatmadaw soldiers would join each 326- Non-ceasefire: As political developments
troop battalion, including one of the three accelerated, non-ceasefire groups became
commanding officers. Most of the smaller further marginalised from national influence
groups acceded; in the ethnic conflict-zones, during 2010. Over a dozen armed ethnic
the Tatmadaw has long supported local groups and factions still exist around Burma’s
militia. But veteran nationalists from such borders. They are allied with Burman
movements as the KIO, NMSP and UWSA dissidents in such fronts as the NCUB, which
refused. Unease then worsened in August includes remnants of the armed All Burma
when the SPDC sent in troops against the Students Democratic Front as well as exile
ceasefire Myanmar National Democratic MPs in the NCGUB. But the strength of non-
Alliance Army in the Kokang region to ceasefire groups has been on the decline since
support a breakaway faction that accepted the the mid-1990s, only four movements still
BGF orders. As many as 200 people were maintaining forces of significant size: the
killed or wounded, and 37,000 refugees fled Chin National Front on the India border, and
into China.18 the KNU, Karenni National Progressive Party
and Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) on the
Talks then continued into 2010 and SPDC Thai border.
deadlines were repeatedly pushed back. The
UWSA chairman Bao Youxiang told the All non-ceasefire groups denounced the 2010
SPDC negotiator Lieutenant General Ye polls. At its February 2010 central committee
Myint that a “peaceful solution” based on meeting, the KNU pledged to “vigorously
“equality and solidarity” should be the only oppose” the election, denouncing it as an
means to resolve conflict.19 His remarks were “extension” of the 2008 constitution “adopted
echoed by General Htay Maung, chairman of through fraud and coercion”.22 The SSA-S
the ceasefire KNU/KNLA Peace Council, who leader Yawd Serk warned that “large-scale

8 | Burma Policy Briefing

civil war” might break out.23 And sporadic ENC and NCGUB to call for a new “national
but sometimes heavy fighting in several reconciliation” programme.26
border areas, especially with the KNU and
SSA-S, was evidence that insurgent struggles However, achieving a united voice between
were by no means over. armed and non-armed member groups
proved difficult. This was highlighted when
A particular new source of conflict were gov- the ENC wrote a letter to United States
ernment business schemes with Asian neigh- Senator Jim Webb after his visit to Burma.
bours, such as the proposed Hat Gyi dam in The group rejected armed struggle as a
the Karen state that was backed by both Thai- “solution” and pledged its support for
land and China.24 But during any fighting, it “eligible ethnic groups in running for office”
was usually the civilian population that to ensure a representative vote.27 Recognising
suffered the most. Despite the increasing the changing political landscape and
resettlement of refugees to third countries in emergence of new ethnic parties, not all non-
the West, official refugee numbers in Thai- ceasefire leaders agreed with an election
land remained around 130,000 (mostly Karen boycott or disruption. If they fail to keep in
and Karenni), with up to two million mi- touch with the people, history could pass
grants, both legal and illegal. insurgent and borderland groups by.

On a smaller scale, refugees and illegal mi- Community-based organisations, meanwhile,

grants also remained on the Bangladesh and viewed the growing uncertainties and threats
India borders (mostly Muslim refugees on the of new volatility in ethnic areas with deepen-
former, Chin and Naga on the latter). This ing concern. After decades of conflict, com-
scale of violence led to calls for an investiga- munity leaders advocated that all sides main-
tion into “crimes against humanity or war tain dialogue to resolve political disagree-
crimes” in Burma, an appeal subsequently ments. “The ethnic minority groups in all
echoed in a report by UN human rights regions of Burma need peace,” the Human
Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana.25 Rights Foundation of Monland said. “The
people in ethnic regions need development to
In political terms, however, non-ceasefire improve their livelihoods, education for their
groups had to watch as bystanders while children and health care in their
electoral and ceasefire groups engaged with communities."28
the SPDC. Any future peace talks with the
KNU and other non-ceasefire forces could For Burma’s long-suffering peoples, such
only come after the election. With the NLD progress is long overdue.
and UNA boycotting the election, veteran
insurgent leaders claimed that their long- CONCLUSION
standing position of no compromise with the
military government without political In 2010, Burma is on the brink of epoch-
solutions was vindicated. But they struggled shaping change. After two decades of military
to find an effective strategy to rally rule, Than Shwe and the SPDC generals
opposition against the polls. Pressure was also finally appear ready to move ahead to the
exerted on them from neighbouring next stage of their roadmap for political
governments to maintain a low profile, the reform. Through a combination of measures,
Thai authorities several times raiding KNU continued dominance of the Tatmadaw and
and other opposition safe houses on the Thai Than Shwe’s supporters in government seems
side of the border. assured. These include marginalising the
NLD and victorious parties from the 1990
Most anti-SPDC groups along the borders election; reserving seats for military
eventually came to support the 2009 appointees and the likely victory of the USDP
formation of a Movement for Democracy and in the 2010 polls; building a new capital at
Rights for Ethnic Nationalities, bringing Nay Pyi Taw; and promoting trade and
together the broader alliances of the NCUB, energy deals with Asian neighbours. Conflict

Burma Policy Briefing | 9

and divisions among ethnic nationality ethnic areas, the new economic projects are a
groups further strengthen the military’s growing source of grievance, with local
dominance. Only, it appears, will changes communities complaining of being bypassed
within the Tatmadaw itself cause the military and excluded.30
authorities to alter course now.
A series of explosions in April 2010 that hit
targets across the country warned that resent-
ment could be rising against the military
“The ethnic minority groups in all regions of Burma government and its supporters. Various
dissident groups were accused or suspected.
need peace, and want the new government to solve Targets included a toll gate near Muse in the
Shan state; the Mytisone and Thaukyaykhat
their political problems and end armed conflicts dam projects in the Kachin state and Bago
division respectively; Loikaw police station in
through peaceful negotiations with ethnic minority the Kayah state; a telecommunications office
in Kyaikmayaw, Mon state; and the Water
armed groups. Festival in Yangon, in which 10 people were
The people in ethnic regions need development to killed and over 170 wounded. After another
two decades of military rule, Burma remains
improve their livelihoods, education for their children in a state of conflict.

and health care in their communities. ” The international community and all political
groups in Burma therefore face major
Human Rights Foundation of Monland, March 2010 challenges in their responses to the 2010
election. To date, there has been little unity
and consensus. The situation is reminiscent
Burma’s troubled history since independence of the 2008 referendum to which there was
does not portend easy or quick solutions. also a disparate response, meaning that the
Parties supporting the election believe that it proposed new constitution was never fully
could take the life of at least one parliament, faced up to, debated or approved by all
until 2015, for political progress and reforms stakeholders. The international community,
to take root. But as political momentum too, remains divided by Western policies of
gathered pace in early 2010, it became clear sanctions and Asian policies of engagement.
that not only would there be little chance of
amending the 2008 constitution but that the For these reasons, a sustained and inclusive
election would go ahead without the NLD focus is vital on the 2010 election, both within
and both ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups Burma and the international community, so
whose inclusion is integral for national that its outcome can have clear and historic
reconciliation. As at other key turning points meaning. There are three major areas by
in Burma’s history in 1948 and 1962, a new which reform transition can be adjudged:
government system is about to be introduced political, ethnic and economic.
to a backdrop of conflict and exclusion.
The political challenges include the
The starkest warnings of Burma’s plight are construction of a democratic system of
in the countrywide poverty and humanitarian government that guarantees representation
crises. Despite the growing economic links and human rights for all. The ethnic
with Asian neighbours, the military govern- challenges include conflict resolution and
ment remains among the most condemned in humanitarian progress in the most
the international community and the subject impoverished regions of the country. And the
of repeated censure by the United Nations for economic challenges include equitable
grave human rights abuses, including forced participation, sustainable development and
labour, torture and extrajudicial executions in progress that will bring benefits to every
the ethnic borderlands.29 Indeed in many district and ethnic group.

10 | Burma Policy Briefing

In summary, without such benchmarks for 13. Mizzima News, “Shwe Ohn invites political par-
inclusive reform benefiting all peoples and ties to unite for strong opposition”, 23 September
citizens being achieved, the election and
introduction of a new government are 14. NLD, “The Shwegondaing Declaration”, 29 April
unlikely to bring sustainable peace and
15. “Shan party petitions junta chief for meeting with
reconciliation to Burma.
detained leaders”, S.H.A.N., 6 January 2010.
16. UNA letter, “To H.E. Ban Ki-moon, the
Secretary-General United Nations Organization New
York”, 16 March 2010.
1. In 1989 the military government changed the offi- 17. Kramer, Tom, Burma: Neither War Nor Peace:
cial name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. The Future Of The Cease-Fire Agreements In Burma,
They can be considered alternative forms in the Bur- Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 5 July 2009.
mese language, but their use has become a politicised 18. Kramer, Tom, Burma’s Cease-fires at Risk:
issue. The UN uses Myanmar, but it is not commonly Consequences of the Kokang Crisis for Peace and
used in the English language. Therefore Burma will Democracy, Transnational Institute, Peace & Security
be mostly used in this publication. This is not Briefing No. 1, September 2009.
intended as a political statement. 19. Bao Youxiang, UWSA chairman, letter, “To
2. For historical analyses of the ethnic conflict, see for General Ye Myint, Our opinion and demands
example Smith, Martin, Burma: Insurgency and the concerning the problem of determination of Wa
Politics of Ethnicity, London: Zed Books, 1999; South, region boundary and transformation of troops”, 10
Ashley, Ethnic Politics in Burma: States of Conflict, November 2009.
Abingdon: Routledge, 2008. 20. Gen. Htay Maung, chairman KNU/KNLA Peace
3. Tomás Ojea Quintana, “Progress report of the Council, letter to, “Lt-Gen. Ye Myint, Chief of
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights Military Intelligence, Naypidaw”, 22 April 2010.
in Myanmar”, Human Rights Council, 10 March 21. Kon Hadae, Independent Mon News Agency, “SEC
2010, p.17. gives NMSP a ‘pre-ceasefire relationship’
4. Thailand Burma Border Consortium, Protracted ultimatum”, 19 April 2010.
Displacement and Militarisation in Eastern Burma, 22. KNU, “Statement of 2nd Meeting of the Central
November 2009, p. 3. Committee after the 14th KNU Congress”, 22
5. Kramer, Tom, Martin Jelsma and Tom Blickman, February 2010.
Withdrawal Symptoms in the Golden Triangle: A 23. Hseng Khio Fah, “Shan rebel leader warns of
Drugs Market in Disarray, Amsterdam: large scale civil war”, S.H.A.N. 28 April 2010.
Transnational Institute, January 2009.
24. Work was halted for a time after two Thai
6. The analyses in this report are based on written engineers were killed in guerrilla attacks. See for
materials and interviews with representatives of example, Saw Yan Naing, “Survey Work Pressing
government and different ethnic groups over many Ahead at Hat Gyi Dam Site”, The Irrawaddy, 19
years. August 2009.
7. See for example, Global Witness, A Conflict of 25. Quintana, op. cit.
Interests: The uncertain future of Burma’s forests, 26. UPI, “Myanmar democracy group offers
London, 2003. alternative”, 14 August 2009.
8. See for example, speech of Vice-Senior General 27. ENC (Union of Burma), letter to Senator Webb,
Maung Aye, New Light of Myanmar, 8 January 2010. 28 September 2009.
9. See, South, Ashley. Civil Society in Burma: The 28. Human Rights Foundation of Monland,
Development of Democracy amidst Conflict, Policy No.3/2010, 31 March 2010.
Studies No. 51, Washington D. C.: East-West Center
29. See for example, Quintana, op. cit.
and Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2008.
10. For an analysis, see for example, International 30. See for example, Global Witness, A Disharmoni-
ous Trade: China and the continued destruction of
Crisis Group, Myanmar: Towards the Elections, Asia
Report No.174, 20 August 2009. Burma's northern frontier forests, London, 2009;
Kachin Development Networking Group, Resisting
11. See for example, Amnesty International, The the ood: Communities taking a stand against the
repression of ethnic minority activists in Myanmar, imminent construction of Irrawaddy dams,
London, 2010., 2009; and Shwe Gas
12. NLD statement, “A message to the people of Movement, Corridor of Power: China’s Trans-Burma
Burma”, 6 April 2010. Oil and Gas Pipelines, Chiang Mai, 2009.

Burma Policy Briefing | 11

TNI-BCN Project on Ethnic Conflict in Burma Burma Policy Briefings

Burma has been afflicted by ethnic conflict and civil war since Burma in 2010: A Critical Year
independence in 1948, exposing it to some of the longest in Ethnic Politics, Burma Policy
running armed conflicts in the world. Ethnic nationality peoples Briefing No.1, June 2010
have long felt marginalised and discriminated against. The
situation worsened after the military coup in 1962, when Burma’s 2010 Elections:
minority rights were further curtailed. The main grievances of Challenges and Opportunities,
ethnic nationality groups in Burma are the lack of influence in Burma Policy Briefing No.2,
the political decision-making processes; the absence of June 2010
economic and social development in their areas; and what they
see as the military government's Burmanisation policy, which
translates into repression of their cultural rights and religious

This joint TNI-BCN project aims to stimulate strategic thinking

on addressing ethnic conflict in Burma and to give a voice to
ethnic nationality groups who have until now been ignored and
isolated in the international debate on the country. In order to
respond to the challenges of 2010 and the future, TNI and BCN
believe it is crucial to formulate practical and concrete policy
options and define concrete benchmarks on progress that
national and international actors can support. The project will
aim to achieve greater support for a different Burma policy,
which is pragmatic, engaged and grounded in reality.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) was founded in 1974 as an

independent, international research and policy advocacy Other Briefings
institute, with strong connections to transnational social
movements and associated intellectuals concerned to steer the Burma’s Cease-fires at Risk;
world in a democratic, equitable, environmentally sustainable Consequences of the Kokang
and peaceful direction. Its point of departure is a belief that Crisis for Peace and
solutions to global problems require global co-operation. Democracy, by Tom Kramer,
TNI Peace & Security Briefing
BCN was founded in 1993. It works towards democratisation Nr 1, September 2009.
and respect for human rights in Burma. BCN does this through
information dissemination, lobby and campaign work, and the Neither War nor Peace; The
strengthening of Burmese civil society organisations. In recent Future of the Cease-fire
years the focus has shifted away from campaigning for economic Agreements in Burma. Tom
isolation towards advocacy in support of civil society and a Kramer, TNI, July 2009.
solution to the ethnic crises in Burma.
From Golden Triangle to
Rubber Belt? The Future of the
Transnational Institute Burma Centrum Netherlands Opium Bans in the Kokang and
PO Box 14656 PO Box 14563 Wa Regions. Tom Kramer, TNI
1001 LD Amsterdam 1001 LB Amsterdam Drug Policy Briefing No.29,
The Netherlands The Netherlands July 2009.
Tel: +31-20-6626608 Tel.: 31-20-671 6952
Fax: +31-20-6757176 Fax: 31-20-671 3513 Withdrawal Symptoms in the
E-mail: E-mail: Golden Triangle; A Drugs Market in Disarray. Tom
burma-project Kramer, Martin Jelsma, Tom Blickman, TNI, January 2009.

12 | Burma Policy Briefing