US policy and Myanmar protracted conflicts

Published on November 2, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Brunei Times – November 02, 2009

In just over a month from the announcement of the Obama administration’s nine-month long policy review on Burma (Myanmar), the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and his deputy will pay a two-day visit to the military-ruled Myanmar from November 3 to 4.

Kurt Campbell and Scott Marciel are expected to meet with senior military officials and members of the opposition, including detained Aung San Suu Kyi as well as representatives of ethnic minority groups. The administration announced on September 23 that it will pursue a direct and high-level engagement with Myanmar, while retaining sanctions. Though the visit is a short one, it will be a test of the engagement-sanction policy.

There are critics who argue that the U.S. high-level attention validates the brutality of the junta which has waged war against its own people and imprisoned more than 2,200 political prisoners. Proponents of engagement, however, argue that the policy is a way forward to democratization for the country that has been under military rule since 1962.

The good news is that Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, welcomes engagement for the fact that it is designed to be inclusive of the State Peace and Development Council, the National League for Democracy, and the ethnic minorities.

As the first high-level talk is set to begin, the U.S. government and other international players need to understand the historical nature of conflicts in this ethnically diverse nation where there are “135 races” per the government data, which is primarily based on dialectical variations.

Before the British colonization in 1886, the territories of ethnic minorities (Frontier Areas) were not part of the Burma proper. For example, the Shans were ruled by their own sawbwas (princes), and the Chins and Kachins were ruled by their own chiefs. The 1947 Panglong agreement served as the basis for the formation of the “Union of Burma,” and the country’s independence from the British in 1948.

Many have often failed to understand the complexity of the conflicts in this Southeast Asian nation. Until recently, many thought the conflicts are entirely between the Myanmar military junta and the opposition on the question of democracy.

The conflicts are largely the consequences of mistrust and misunderstanding between the majority ethnic Burman-led central government and other ethnic minorities because of the failure to implement the 1947 Panglong agreement. One significant agreement was granting “full autonomy” to the Frontier Areas, which has not materialized until today.

The failure to implement this historic agreement has increased mistrust and misunderstanding between the successive ethnic Burman-led military governments and other ethnic nationalities. Autonomy has been the core demand of minorities for over 50 years since 1947, and continues to remain the fundamental issue.

A successful conflict resolution would come from holding open dialogue. And dialogue will yield positive results if the rights of all ethnic groups are respected, irrespective of political and religious affiliations.

Equality of rights is one fundamental democratic principle which is missing in Myanmar today.

Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are neither secessionists nor separatists. They are striving for autonomy in their respective territories. The minorities believe that self-determination would give them an opportunity to preserve their culture, language, and tradition.

There needs to be an environment where everyone receives equal treatment in the eyes of the law, regardless of the size of population. Under the military dictatorship, ethnic minorities are alienated in many ways. However, this does not suggest that ethnic Burmans do not suffer under military rule.

There are evidences that the military junta has stepped up actions against ethnic minorities before the 2010 general elections.

The dismantling of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an ethnic Kokang armed group, in late September was an example. With an army of over 400,000 without foreign enemy, the junta has the power and resources to cripple minorities militarily, but not the spirit of their movement.

To bring a long lasting solution to the decades-old conflicts, it needs the sincerity, honesty and participation of all ethnic groups. The country needs reformation in various sectors – both private and public. Political problems need to be resolved by political means.

Because of the protracted nature of conflicts, there will be no quick fix or a magical solution to Myanmar problems. It will require in-depth analysis, a systematic approach, and comprehensive remedial measures, including mediation and negotiation.

Because of its economic, political, military power, and the wide reception by the Burmese military junta and the opposition alike, the United States has the best leverage to help restore democracy in Burma. Any political solution should somehow address the concerns of ethnic minorities.

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 ( He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers in Asia, Africa, and the United States of America.