Ethnic Groups Face Uncertain Future

What will happen to Burma's minorities after the national election?


An ethnic Karen boy stands next to Karen National Union soldiers at a base on the Thai-Burma border, Jan. 31, 2006.

Burma’s regional ethnic groups, many of whom have fought for decades with the country’s central government over questions of autonomy, face an uncertain future as the date for national elections approaches, experts said.

The vote, scheduled for Nov. 7, is widely predicted by international observers to be a sham designed to allow the military rulers of Burma, also called Myanmar, to retain power either directly or through civilians acting under their control.

Speaking on Oct. 20 at a panel discussion hosted in Washington by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and Human Rights Watch, constitutional lawyer David Williams said that Burma’s army will likely launch a major attack against the country’s ethnic groups soon after the vote is held.

“The junta has long claimed that the ethnic resistance forces really want to disintegrate the Union, that they want to break up the country, and that only armed force can keep the country together,” said Williams, executive director of the Indiana University-based Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Williams noted that a constitution enacted by Burma’s generals in 2008 gives the army authority to act in whatever way it wants to preserve “national solidarity.”

“Now, recall that this regime has frequently found a ‘threat to national security’ when people disagree with it publicly,” Williams said.

“They’re prepared to slaughter peacefully protesting monks. So I think there’s no reason to think that after the elections the military will define national solidarity differently.”

Power sharing sought

Burma’s ethnic groups, who live mostly in the country’s north and along its eastern and western borders, have long sought “a credible promise that the central government will stop attacking them—especially its civilian populations,” Williams said.

“They want federalism and power sharing in the Union government, and when they look at this constitution they don’t see it.”

In the run-up to the November election, the junta has already attacked several of Burma’s smaller ethnic groups and has insisted that the larger groups’ armies transform themselves into “border guard units,” which they refuse to do, Williams said.

The larger groups, now coordinating military strategy through a coalition called the Military Alliance, expect a fight, and are prepared to resist, he added.

Closely watched

David Steinberg, a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, also speaking on the panel, said that Burma’s military rulers regard federalism as “a first step toward secession” and will never allow it.

“I think that is a major error on the part of the military,” Steinberg said.

Rights listed in Burma’s 2008 constitution include “the rights of minorities” and “the fostering of minority culture,” though, Steinberg said.

Steinberg noted that Burma’s new constitution also provides for provincial, minority legislatures, though these will be based in the country’s capital, Naypyidaw, and will be closely watched by the army.

“They are restricted of course, as we know. But this is the first time this has happened, and this is significant.”

The concerns of ethnic groups may even come to “trump politics” on certain local issues, Steinberg said.

“For example, some of the minorities in areas where the Chinese have dams, hydroelectric projects, mining, and other things, may claim that local people are not getting any benefits.”

“Because the Chinese employ their own people for these projects,” Steinberg said. “The electricity goes to China, and there are often environmental problems connected with these projects. ”

Minority rights in Burma have traditionally been ignored, Steinberg said. “And that has been one of the tragedies.”

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney.