Global Politics

Ethnic conflict in Myanmar a discussion topic during Clinton's trip

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A woman waters a field near the Je Yang Hka internally displaced peoples camp in Kachin, Myanmar. (Photo: Ryan Libre)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Myanmar, both as a reward for responding to international pressures to reform and to try to keep them heading down that path.

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On the long list of issues Clinton will likely discuss with Myanmar’s government — human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation, political repression, prisoners of conscience — perhaps none is more difficult than the government’s relationship with the country’s ethnic minorities.

Ethnic minorities make up more than 30 percent of Myanmar’s population, but they have been struggling with the government for decades. The latest front in these long-running battles opened up in Kachin State in northeastern Myanmar. Myanmar is sometimes referred to as Burma.

In June, a 17-year cease-fire between the Burmese army and ethnic rebels in Kachin collapsed. A network of hydroelectric projects spread across Kachin, close to the Chinese border, had incensed locals.

On June 9, Burmese soldiers and forces of the Kachin Independence Army amassed near one of the Chinese-run projects and opened fire on each other.

The fighting has driven as many as 30,000 people from their homes. Some have fled into makeshift camps scattered throughout Kachin and Shan states, some into mountainous jungle along the border with China and some into China itself.

La Rip heads a network of groups organizing relief efforts for displaced people. He’s based in Laiza, a town on the country's border with China. He said six months into the conflict, it’s hard to know what will happen if things aren't resolved soon.

“People will turn into chaos,” La Rip said, “and we even cannot predict what kind of things will happen — we cannot even imagine.”

Reports from humanitarian groups make it clear what people are fleeing. Human Rights Watch said the Burmese Army has destroyed villages, killed civilians and forced other civilians to work for them.

David Mathieson, a Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, said driving people from their homes is precisely their goal.

“It’s really about denying territory to the civilians in order to punish the insurgents, to make it more difficult for the insurgents to operate,” Mathieson said. “The Burmese military is not interested in killing large numbers of people, they just want the people to flee.”

Myanmar’s government, for its part, claims the opposite is the case.

A recent article in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, has been “committing subversive acts using every trick in the book to undermine peace and stability and rule of law of the State, to kill, harm and panic the innocent civilians.”

Beneath the conflict lies years of distrust. When the government was rewriting its constitution in 2008, it asked Kachin leaders for input. They say their proposals were rejected.

Kachin political parties made a bid to participate in last year’s elections and were denied. In Kachin, voting in the election was heavily restricted.

Variations on this theme are playing out elsewhere in the majority-minority states that ring Myanmar. Southward in Karen, a conflict that has been simmering for sixty years has displaced more than 100,000 people.

David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University, said these conflicts are about the balance of power. Ethnic minorities want more autonomy. Myanmar’s government, unsurprisingly, does not support that.

“To them, federalism is the first step toward secession. And they will not allow it. I don’t think there’s any question about them feeling that way,” he said.

In recent weeks, the government has been holding talks with ethnic leaders. On Tuesday, local media reported meetings between Kachin and Myanmar emissaries.

Mathieson said it’s way too soon to predict success.

“It’s important to recognize that these preliminary peace talks are just that: they’re preliminary. They’re really just talks about continuing to talk," he said. "People should believe in the peace process when they actually see a discernible reduction in the number of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese military in these areas.”

The State Department said that Clinton will consult with ethnic minority leaders on her trip to Myanmar, including leaders from Kachin.