Conflict & Justice

What Place Will Ethnic Minorities Have in Myanmar's Future?

Recent fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin—an ethnic minority in the northeast of the country—is the latest outbreak in tensions that date to that country's independence from Britain in 1948. (Back then the country was called Burma.) Conflict between the government and the country's myriad ethnic minorities is a major hurdle on Myanmar's road to reform.

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The past two years have brought some positive developments: Active talks between the government's recently-appointed peace negotiator and newly unified ethnic minorities. But fighting in Kachin State continues, contrary to a presidential announcement last week.

As many as 100,000 civilians have fled the violence and reported human rights violations, many to IDP camps elsewhere in Kachin State or over the border in China. Some have ended up in northern Thailand. We met some Kachin on a Sunday in early December at Wunpawng Christian Church outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

About 90 people gathered for a Kachin-language service and a few seasonal songs, including a version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

The Kachin are Christian; one source of tension with the country's Buddhist majority. Reverend Wunnaw Naw Mai sees lessons for his congregation, most of whom are from Myanmar's Kachin State, in the Old Testament.

"We should come back to our land, like the Israelites," he told us with a laugh after the service.

The Kachin and other ethnic minorities never got the autonomy they say they were promised in 1947 as the country prepared for independence from Britain. They've been fighting for it on and off ever since.

The Kachin signed a ceasefire with the government in 1994; it held for 17 years. A year-and-a-half ago it broke down, sparked by disagreements over government-backed energy projects in Kachin State. Humanitarian groups say the fighting has driven as many as 100,000 people from their homes.

Among them is Reverend Naw Mai's father, Hkawng Dau. He says Myanmar military forces invaded his village and burned down his church, and he fled to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. He'd just gotten to Chiang Mai for a short visit.

"The people who fled – a lot of them are old," he said. "They're glad they're alive, but they're also worried because everything they had is destroyed. Their farms, their livestock—everything."

Fighting has continued since President Thein Sein called for a halt last week; in the past similar announcements have had similar results. And Kachin distrust of the government runs deep–they say they got nothing in return for laying aside their weapons back in 1994.

"KIO has experience in the last 17 years of ceasefire period. Nothing, never talk about those political issues in those time," says La Aung, a member of the Kachin Independence Organization, or KIO, the rebel army's political wing.

"What you had was basically the Kachin now saying, 'Look, we tried the ceasefire, we didn't fight, and nothing changed for us. We still didn't get rights that we wanted.'" says Paul Keenan, the author of several books about Myanmar's armed ethnic groups and a researcher at the Burma Center for Ethnic Studies, Peace and Reconciliation http://www.burmaethnicstudies.net/. He says this time around, the Kachin want to see a plan for political concessions before they stop fighting.

And they're not going it alone—they're one of 12 members of the United Nationalities Federal Council, a newly-formed coalition aimed at negotiating ethnic goals in a unified front.

Chief among their goals is more political power for Myanmar's seven ethnic states. They've moderated their aims since the 80s, when the goal was independence. The Myanmar government, in turn, no longer balks at the suggestion of increased state autonomy.

"It's a completely different environment I've been told in relation to previous peace negotiations," Keenan says, adding that ethnic representatives tell him they're being listened to now, where before they were dictated to.

Of course, as negotiations proceed, bullets still fly, both in Kachin State, and in Shan State to the south. It illustrates what many say is a disconnect between the country's new reformist president and a hard-line military.

"It is like having two governments in one country," says Kheun Sai, publisher of the Shan Herald Agency for News and a longtime actor in ethnic issues. "In the urban areas it is the Thein Sein government. But in the rural areas it's still the army, and you're still fighting. It is a different kind of struggle."

In recent weeks, the US, British and Chinese governments have expressed concern about the fighting, as has the United Nations. For the moment, though, lasting peace seems distant for the Kachin in their native Myanmar. And, in Thailand, most among the congregation at Wunpawng church are staying put.

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    Wunpawng Christian Church near Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

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    La Aung of the Kachin Independence Organization and Nai Han Tha, General Secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council and the New Mon State Party, in Chiang Mai. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

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    Kheun Sai, publisher of the Shan Herald Agency for News, at his home in Chiang Mai. On the wall behind him is the Shan flag, a map of Shan State, and drawings of the Shan long drum, a traditional instrument commonly played during Shan New Year and other c

  • Congregation.jpg

    Congregation singing at Wunpawng Christian Church. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

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