Myanmar's Fraught Relationship With its Ethnic Minorities

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

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They make up over 30 percent of Myanmar's population, and have been struggling with the government for decades. The latest front in these long-running battles opened up in Kachin State in northeastern Myanmar (also known as Burma).

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

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

The fighting has driven as many as 30,000 people out of 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.

La Rip heads a network of groups organizing relief efforts for displaced Kachin. He's based in Laiza, a town on the Myanmar/China Border. He says that, six months into the conflict, it's hard to know what will happen if things don't let up 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 by humanitarian groups make it clear what people are fleeing from. Human Rights Watch cites instances of the Burmese Army destroying villages, killing civilians, and forcing innocents to work for them. David Mathieson, a Burma Researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that driving people from their homes is precisely the point.

"So 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 says that 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 this conflict lies years of distrust. When the government was rewriting its constitution in 2008, it asked Kachin leaders for input. These leaders say their proposals were rejected. Kachin political parties made a bid to participate in last year's elections and were denied. In Kachin State, voting in the election was heavily restricted.

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

David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University, says that these conflicts are basically about the balance of power. The ethnic minorities want their states to have more autonomy. Myanmar's government, unsurprisingly, does not. "To them, federalism is the first step toward secession. And we 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 about halting violence. On Tuesday, local media reported meetings between KIA and Myanmar government emissaries.

David Mathieson says it's way too soon to get hopes up. "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. 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 Secretary Clinton will consult with ethnic minority leaders on her trip to Myanmar, and they say that there are Kachin on the list.

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    At the Je Yang Hka internally displaced peoples camp in Kachin State, Myanmar. (Photo: Ryan Libre)



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