Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September 2014, 12:56 GMT

Myanmar: Political uncertainty pushes out ethnic minorities

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 18 February 2010
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Myanmar: Political uncertainty pushes out ethnic minorities, 18 February 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b7e6517a.html [accessed 18 September 2014]
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.

BANGKOK, 18 February 2010 (IRIN) - A restive political situation in Myanmar has prompted thousands of Burmese refugees to flee to neighbouring countries, and the numbers are expected to grow as uncertainty continues, analysts and aid workers warn.

More than 30 ethnic armed groups have been involved in insurgencies against the central government since 1948, when Myanmar - previously known as Burma - gained independence from British colonial rule.

In the past 20 years, more than a dozen ethnic rebel groups have signed peace agreements with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

But there are fears of renewed fighting as the government tries to force the ethnic armies to surrender their weapons and form a special Border Guard Force under Burmese military control before long-awaited elections this year.

"If the political situation in Burma deteriorates further and fighting erupts, we can expect more than 200,000 new refugees, mainly Shan and Wa," the head of Thailand's National Security Council, Bhornchart Bunnag, told IRIN.

Many of the signatories have resisted this move, including the largest organizations representing the Kachin, Mon and Wa, although some smaller groups have accepted it.

Estimates are rough, but the Wa say they have 20,000 armed soldiers, while the Kachin and Mon have 6,000 and 3,500 respectively.

"At a time when we are trying to accomplish everything through politics, the SPDC wants to do something else," said James Lum Dau, a spokesman for the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO).

Aid workers and analysts say they are bracing for a further influx of thousands of Karen and Mon refugees if fighting resumes.

"The political instability in Burma - with the elections due some time [in 2010] - and pressure on the ethnic armies to disarm, will drive more refugees to seek safety across the border, especially in Thailand," said Win Min, a Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai, in Thailand's north.

Signs of conflict

In August 2009, the Burmese army attacked the ethnic Chinese Kokang, who call themselves the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), near the Chinese border.

The clashes resulted in more than 40,000 Kokang fleeing to China's southern Yunnan Province; activists say most have yet to return, even though the fighting has stopped.

Fierce fighting in eastern Karen State at the border with Thailand in June 2009 forced more than 3,000 refugees to flee across the border for safety, according to the regional office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok.

Nearly all of these refugees are still in Thailand, said UNHCR regional spokeswoman, Kitty McKinsey.

"Right now, UNHCR does not feel conditions exist for the Karen or any other refugees in the nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border to return to their homes in safety and dignity," she said.

Fresh Burmese army offensives are expected against the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) in eastern Myanmar. They have been fighting for autonomy from the central authorities for more than 60 years, and so far have not negotiated a truce.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) - which broke away from the KNU more than a decade ago and agreed a ceasefire pact with the Burmese army - has been forcibly conscripting civilians into its militia in preparation for the new border police force, according to KNU leaders.

"The press-ganging of Karen villagers started early this year and is continuing now the wet season is over," KNU general secretary, Zipporah Sein, told IRIN. "Every village has to provide two soldiers and money for equipment like walkie-talkie radios," she said.

Fleeing conflict

"Successive military regimes have tried to eliminate all the ethnic minorities inside Burma in an effort to purify the population," David Thakerbaw, a Karen spokesman, said.

Muslim ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State, who are considered stateless, typify the extent of systematic persecution faced by ethnic minorities, and have fled in their hundreds of thousands to Bangladesh, rights groups say.

"They are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects," Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Burma researcher, told IRIN.

"The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingyas that they are not wanted or welcome in the country," he added.

Genuine political solution needed

Analysts say the plight of Myanmar's ethnic minorities will not be resolved until there is a genuine political solution, and their rights are recognized.

"The first thing that needs to be done is to allow ethnic people to be educated in their own languages," Suboi Jum, a former Kachin Baptist bishop in Myanmar, told IRIN.

A new constitution pushed through in 2008 guarantees a substantial number of seats for the military government and its allies in national and local parliaments, while marginalizing other political groups, rights organizations say.

And the 2010 national elections - the first to be held for 20 years - are not expected by observers such as the International Crisis Group to be free or fair.

The polls are unlikely to help the process of assimilation or integration of Burma's ethnic minorities, experts say.

"Burma's ethnic nationalities will find it difficult to achieve lasting peace and security without a settlement that guarantees their social and political rights," said Ashley South, a historian of the Mon and an ethnic specialist.

"Socio-political transition in Burma is likely to be a drawn-out process, rather than a one-off event."

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