Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2017, 13:52 GMT

Myanmar's ethnic problems

Publisher IRIN
Publication Date 29 March 2012
Cite as IRIN, Myanmar's ethnic problems, 29 March 2012, available at: [accessed 15 December 2017]
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.

Mutual distrust, power struggles and tension over the hoarding of resources, including gold, gems and timber, have characterized the long history between the rulers of Myanmar - primarily of Burman background - and the many other smaller ethnic groups that comprise this Southeast Asian nation of more than 50 million.
According to the last official census in 1983, the Burman accounted for 69 percent of the country's population.
Each ethnic group regards the protection of their individual languages, customs, culture and natural resources important to their national identity. At the same time, the government has steadfastly believed that a "crisis of the minorities" - internal conflict among Myanmar's sizable minority communities, which make up one-third of the population - could undermine the country's stability.
Now, a shift in government discourse and a recent string of cautious ceasefires have prompted people to wonder whether peace will last this time and what it will bring to participants in the longstanding civil conflicts, how it will affect the regional refugee crisis, and what it will mean for the recent relaxation of restrictions and a more open Myanmar.
Until the 2010 presidential election, the military government had shown few concrete signs of addressing ethnic grievances, resorting instead to brutal crackdowns, which earned international rebuke and sanctions from potential donors. IRIN offers a brief overview of the complex ethnic mix that Myanmar hopes to meld into a flourishing modern state.

Main ethnic groups

Ethnic group Proportion of population Location
Karen     7 percent Karen State in eastern Myanmar bordering Thailand
Kachin     1.5 percent Kachin State in the north, bordering China
Karenni 0.75 percent Karenni State, on the border with Thailand
Chin 2.5 percent Chin State in western Myanmar, bordering India
Mon 2 percent Mon State in southern Myanmar
Rhakine 3.5 percent  Arakan State in western Myanmar
Shan  9 percent Shan State, bordering Thailand
Wa 0.16 percent Wa Region, on the border with China
0.15 percent Northern townships of Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh

Main armed groups
Karen – The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) took up arms in 1949, almost immediately after the British left Myanmar, making it one of the oldest rebel armies in the world. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU).
Kachin – In 1961, after a coup led by General Ne Win - variously prime minister, head of state and chairman of the ruling party from 1958 until 1988 - the Kachin rebels formed the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
Karenni – The Karenni Army (KA) was created after the Burmese government incorporated Karenni State into the Union of Burma in 1951. Karenni leaders argued they had not agreed to incorporation. The KA is the military wing for the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
Chin – The Chin National Front (CNF) was founded in March 1988 as a coalition of several Chin opposition groups to push for greater autonomy.
Mon – The New State Mon Party (NSMP) established an armed wing that has fought the government since 1949, when military forces entered Mon territory.
Rhakine – The Arakan Liberation Army (ALA) was first set up with the help of the KNU in the 1950s but it became defunct after most of its leaders were arrested. In the 1970s it reassembled, but is still one of the smallest ethnic armies.
Shan – The Shan State Army (SSA) was formed in 1964 as Burmese military began to move into Shan State. The SSA later split into two factions, creating the Shan State Army-North, which signed a ceasefire with the government in 1964, and the Shan State Army-South, which continued to fight the state until an initial ceasefire in December 2011.
Wa – The United Wa State Army (USWA), created after the fall of the Community Party Burma in 1989, is one of the country's most powerful ethnic armies and receives military resources, infrastructure and support from neighbouring China.
Splinter groups – As various leaders have left major armies and created new militias, some have signed ceasefires with the Burmese government and enjoyed freedom to trade with neighbouring countries, including the Karen (Democratic Buddhist Army, Karen Peace Council Kokang, Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army) and Kachin (New Democratic Army and Kachin Defence Army).
Why have they taken up arms?
Before British forces pulled out in 1947, they attempted to unite Myanmar's various "nations". With British officers as witnesses, many ethnic groups signed the Panglong Agreement, intended to be binding on the post-colonial administration, which would guarantee ethnic rights and self-determination, and the inclusion of minorities in the democratic process.
Aung San, a leader of the Burman ethnic group, who had led the country to independence (and was the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi), and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin negotiated the agreement. However, Aung San was assassinated soon after and the Burmese military began its slow advance into the ethnic states to rule by force.
Many ethnic groups took up arms to protect their states from Burman rule, demanding autonomy, ethnic rights and an inclusive democracy.
Their demands have remained unchanged. According to Lama Gum Hpan, a KIO "Central Committee" member, the Kachin fighters have always stood by the Panglong Agreement. "To this day we wish for the Burmese government to honour the agreements made in 1947," he told IRIN.
In the run-up to the 2010 elections of the nominally civilian government in power, a proposal for a border guard force was drafted, which aimed to include ethnic groups in the state army – and called for their disarmament.
Nearly all the ethnic armies refused and several ceasefires faltered. 

Why have ceasefires failed?
Burmese dissident media have compiled a list of ceasefires dating back more than two decades between the government and major rebel groups as well as splinter movements.
Recent peace deals – still in their early stages – have been inked: the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) signed in December 2011, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and New Mon State Party (NMSP) in February 2012.
This has not stopped clashes. The Burmese government has blamed persisting army incursions on communication problems between the seat of government in Nay Pyi Daw and frontline troops at least 500km away. The central government ordered its troops to halt fighting on 12 December 2011 but a number are still firing.
"This is war. They [Karen rebels] will continue to fight until they can see that the Burmese government is actually trying to achieve peace," said David Tackapaw, "foreign minister" for the KNU.
He maintains that historically there has been "a lack of genuine will by the Burmese government to listen to the KNU's demands for ethnic rights and self determination for the Karen people", and said they are dealing with a military that sees the ethnic problem as a military issue, not a political issue.
Lama Gum Hpan, of the Kachin Independence Organization, said although the government has recently made overtures, the rulers are not interested in finding a political solution to the problem. "We are not interested in ceasefires; we want to find long-lasting and durable solutions to the ethnic oppression in this country."
In June 2011, a 17-year ceasefire between the two sides collapsed following efforts by the government to incorporate numerous armed ethnic groups into a single border guard force.
Will current talks succeed?

Despite faltering peace on the frontlines, rebel leaders from the Myanmar's ethnic armies have noted change in the government's willingness to engage.
In a recent speech to parliament reported in local media, Myanmar President Thein Sein said long-time enemies have the same goal: "The expectation of ethnic groups is to get equal rights for all. Equal standards are also the wish of our government."
Discussing the ongoing conflict with the Kachin, Thein Sein said: "Fighting will not stop by pointing the finger of blame at each other. Ceasefires are first needed on both sides for political dialogue… We all have to work so our ethnic youths who held guns stand tall holding laptops."
Analysts note most ceasefires are in nascent stages and have a long way to go, but if the government can control its military, a thus-far elusive peace with ethnic rebels is within reach.
Tackapaw, of the Karen National Union, said ceasefires have been negotiated too quickly and with too few conditions to guarantee long-term change.
What about the region's refugees?

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