Burma’s Ethno-Political Conflicts Will Continue

Published on September 3, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen 

Without addressing the root cause of the problems, the Burmese military junta is intensifying attacks against its own citizens. The latest tension erupted between the Burmese army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Kokang armed group.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 10,000 to 30,000 people have fled to China since the tension flared up on August 8, when the Burmese army raided the home of Peng Jiashen, the Kokang armed leader, in northern Shan state.
The consequences of confrontation between the two groups have spilled over the international border. The affected country is none other than the military junta’s closest ally, China, a country that maintains robust economic ties with Burma.
China hopes Burma “properly deal with its domestic issue to safeguard the regional stability in the China-Myanmar border area," said the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, on August 28. The statement is unusual for China that usually defended Burma in the face of international criticisms.
There are two important concerns for the Beijing government. First, the victims who have fled to the Yunnan province are mostly ethnic Chinese origin or Chinese nationals; second, Beijing sees skirmishes along the border are threatening the harmony and stability of Yunnan province.
The statement, however, should not be taken as a change of China’s foreign policy toward Burma. Beijing will continue to maintain its bilateral relationship with Naypyidaw intact. The Burmese military junta is also unlikely to part ways with communist China because of such border skirmishes.
The MNDAA, which demands autonomy, rejected the military junta’s proposal to transform its armed cadres to Border Guard Force. The proposal has been rejected by many other ceasefire groups, and the issue becomes a political headache for the Burmese military junta.
The latest development is a consequence of the unresolved longstanding ethno-political conflicts in the Union of Burma. The nature of conflict is an evidence of the existence of two different sets of movement in Burma: democracy and democracy that guarantees the rights of ethnic minorities.
The Union of Burma had gained independence from the British in 1948, but its ethno-political problems have not been settled. Though more than a dozen armed groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the junta, the simmering tensions still linger.
The 1947 Panglong agreement was the foundation of the Union of Burma. Prior to independence, ethnic Burmans did not rule over other ethnic groups and vice versa. The different ethnic nationalities came together to form the Union of Burma.
Ethnic problems in Burma had started long before independence. The mistrust exacerbated when the spirit of Panglong agreement was not honored.
One fundamental principle of the agreement was to establish a federal government. With the assassination of Aung San, who headed negotiation for Burma’s independence from the British, the dream of establishing a federal society was shattered.
The latest tension is a consequence of the military’s attempt to silence the voice of opposition in the run up to the 2010 general election. Unless the military junta can persuade the different ceasefire groups to its own terms, it is likely that similar confrontations will occur.
Despite international criticisms, the Burmese military junta is determined to move forward with the 2010 general election. Under the guidelines of the 2008 constitution, it is by and large a forgone conclusion that the military will stay onto power after election.
Burma will see a transitional government with a military-dominated multi-party democracy. The military junta’s official name ‘State Peace and Development Council’ will either be abolished or renamed.
If the United States of America and the Peoples’ Republic of China can lead a coordinated international strategy, there still is a chance for the success of international community’s engagement.
Otherwise, one thing is clear that the ethno-political conflicts in Burma will continue to remain in post 2010 election.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.