US Envoy Should Prioritize National Reconciliation

Published on September 12, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Irrawaddy – September 12, 2011

Derek Mitchell, the United States envoy for Burma, is making his maiden official trip to Burma this week. It took nearly four months from his nomination in April to the confirmation in August for his new job. He is the second nominee to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

In November 2008, the outgoing President George W. Bush nominated Michael J. Green for the job which was never confirmed. The post was created as part of the Block Burmese Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts (JADE) Act of 2008.

With his experience regarding Asia, including his most recent job as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, Mitchell is someone who knows about the region, even if not specifically about Burma.

The creation of a special representative post, equivalent to ambassador rank, itself is a significant policy shift by the US government. Under the Bush administration, Burma was isolated and labeled as an “outpost of tyranny.” Since the failed democracy uprising in 1988, the US has not established an ambassadorial level engagement with Burma.

On the eve of his visit beginning Sept. 8, the US State Department announced that Mitchell’s trip is “intended to build upon US dialogue and engagement toward shared goals of genuine reform, reconciliation and development for the Burmese people.”

The visiting envoy is expected to meet with a wide range of stakeholders, including leaders from the government and the opposition groups. In his attempts to help facilitate national reconciliation, what should be the envoy’s priority? Should the focus be on domestic actors or the international community?

He is expected to do both simultaneously. A visit to Bangkok and Jakarta is included in his itinerary. Thailand and Indonesia are two influential members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), in which Burma is a member. Since Burma is seeking to chair Asean in 2014, these two countries have certain leverage to influence the Burmese leadership.

Although they play important roles, the cause of Burma’s problems is neither the 1988 student uprising nor the dismissal of the 1990 general election result. It has a deep-rooted history, which needs the attention of policy planners and strategic thinkers.

If you pose a question to Burma’s ethnic minorities today, a majority of them, if not all, will consider themselves as a separate nationality. Such claim may sound like a radical approach, but that is not surprising for those who understand the political landscape of Burma prior to independence from the British in 1948.

When the international community says Burmese, the general assumption is that it is inclusive of all the people of Burma. However, ethnic minorities do not always approve of this generalization. Before the country’s independence, the term Burmese would refer to the people of Burma proper (ethnic Burmans).

For instance, the Karens can argue that they are not Burmese and were forcibly made to be part of the Union of Burma at the Panglong Conference in 1947. Likewise, the Chins, the Kachins and the Shans can argue that they only signed the Panglong Agreement because leaders of the then Burma proper agreed to autonomy for each nationality under the Union of Burma.

Because the ethnic minorities feel deceived by ethnic Burmans after the departure of the British, coupled with the oppressive nature of successive Burmese governments, there is lack of mutual trust between the Burmans and the minorities.

The interpretation of national reconciliation may also differ among the different Burmese opposition groups. A majority of ethnic Burmans would find reconciliation acceptable if the 1990 general election result is somehow acknowledged, and there is a review of the 2008 Constitution.

However, to ethnic minorities, restoration of democracy is inadequate without federalism. For the past few decades, successive Burmese governments have mistakenly construed the definition of federalism as separatism or secessionism.

It must be clear to the Thein Sein government that federalism is not tantamount to disintegration of Burma. The government should broaden the margins of national reconciliation to all ethnic groups of the Union of Burma.

Reconciliation among the ethnic Burman themselves will be a good start. The recent mitigation of confrontation between the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy and Thein Sein’s government is a positive development, although it is still premature to draw any conclusions.

If the Burmese government and the international community are serious about resolving the decades-old problems, they must address the concerns of ethnic minorities. To do this, the government must initiate a tripartite dialogue.
Such negotiation should involve leaders of ethnic minorities, the Suu Kyi led Burmese opposition and representatives of the Burmese government at the highest level.

Since the U.S. engagement is welcome by all parties, the visiting envoy should seize this opportunity to emphasize the need to begin a tripartite dialogue. For such meeting to be congenial and productive, ethnic minorities should be allowed to express their concerns freely without intimidation.

Since the military could not neutralize the ethnic insurgency over the past six decades, it is time for the Burmese government to realize that military operations are not the solution to Burma’s problems. Resorting to violence begets violence.

In his attempts to facilitate national reconciliation, the U.S. envoy must understand that a permanent solution to Burma’s problems greatly depends on the level of reconciliation achieved between the Burmese government and ethnic minorities.

At the international level, the envoy should consider the possibility of holding a six-party talk, involving the US, the European Union, ASEAN, China, India, and Burma. Any breakthrough in such setting will be a great success to the U.S. engagement policy.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma/Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (

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