Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Burma

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Burma, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Burma convened its first parliament in over 22 years in January 2011, after elections in November 2010. In March, Thein Sein was sworn in as President, officially dissolving military rule. The government has eased restrictions on media, permitted the creation of trade unions, and passed a law to allow peaceful assembly and protest. It has also reached out to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released significant numbers of political prisoners and pledged to prioritize minority issues. But whether reforms translate into genuine progress remains to be seen. While 17 out of the 22 ethnic political parties won at least one seat in the election (15.7 per cent of available seats), the conduct of parliamentarians is governed by laws criminalizing comments that are considered a threat to national security or the unity of the country, or violate the 2008 Constitution.

Tensions between the junta and armed ethnic groups in the run-up to the November 2010 election broke out into renewed fighting in 2011. The military broke a 22-year ceasefire with the Shan State Army-North in March, mobilizing an additional 3,500 troops. By June, the 17-year ceasefire with Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was breached. By December, an estimated 34,000 people were in displacement camps along the border with China from this recent outbreak; the government was not allowing access to international relief organizations. Increasing militarization in Kachin State led to an increase in human rights violations. In their 2011 report, the Kachin Women's Organization documented the rape by soldiers of 34 women and girls, 15 of whom were subsequently killed. The Burma military's use of rape as a weapon of war has been well documented and continues under the new government.

The fighting in Kachin State broke out at the location of a Chinese-operated hydroelectric dam project at Daepin. Earlier, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) sent an open letter to the Chinese government, warning that if it continued with construction of the 6,000 megawatt Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River, armed conflict would likely ensue. To the surprise of many, in September the Burmese government temporarily halted the Myitsone, citing public opposition. However, local Kachin groups report that construction at the dam site has continued, and the approximately 1,000 displaced Kachin have not been permitted to return to their homes. The US$ 3.6 billion Myitsone dam is one of eight dams planned on the Irrawaddy River, and is being developed by China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) and Asia World Company of Burma. Ninety per cent of the power is expected to be sold to China. There are serious concerns about the quality and independence of the environmental impact assessment, funded by CPI; a social impact assessment was not carried out (see case study below).

Resource extraction in minority and indigenous peoples' areas has fuelled army land confiscation, property destruction, designation of 'out-of-bounds' high-security areas, militarization and destruction of livelihoods. Both the Burmese army and armed ethnic groups have relied on natural resources for funds, drawing heavily on logging and mining, including gemstone mining. Burma is the biggest producer of jade in the world and the most significant jade mine is in Kachin State, with little of its wealth reaching the people.

The Shwe oil and gas pipeline project is being advanced by the China National Petroleum Corporation along with companies from Korea and Burma and is slated for completion in 2013. Started in 2010, the 2,800 km pipeline will bring gas to China from Burma's western coast. Over 800 km runs across Burma through territory occupied by armed ethnic groups, in Shan State in particular. The pipeline is set to ignite conflict in minority regions, as Chinese workers are brought in to construct it and the Burma military is used to protect it. Widespread land confiscation for the pipeline corridor is leaving farmers jobless and fishing grounds off-limits, contributing to rising migration. Local people are able to secure only low-wage, temporary and unsafe jobs on the project, and are reportedly unable to complain about working conditions or wages without retribution.

A draft land law was proposed in parliament in 2011, but according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), under the law farmers could be evicted to make way for whatever government officials claim to be in 'the national interest'. The law was reportedly drafted without consultation with key stakeholders or land law experts.

The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission was established in 2011, mandated to investigate complaints on human rights violations. But critics questioned whether it is in line with the Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (Paris Principles), if its members – many of whom were generals under the previous military regime – are hand-picked by the state.

The elections did not improve the situation of Rohingya Muslims from Arakan State, denied citizenship on the assumption that most are not from Burma but come from Bangladesh. Thousands flee every year the harsh restrictions and persecution from Burma's government, ending up as asylum-seekers throughout Asia. In December, the government agreed to repatriate 2,500 refugees from Bangladesh on condition that they already have citizenship in Burma, effectively excluding many ethnic Rohingya.

While serious clashes continue in Kachin State and parts of Shan State, late in the year some positive progress was made in peace talks between the government and armed ethnic groups. A new Internal Peace Building Committee was created by the government, which has offered joint political talks with all such groups, an offer not seen during the 60 years of conflict. By mid-December, two major armed ethnic groups had reached ceasefire agreements. For Burma's ethnic minorities, this offered some hope for their future.

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