Myanmar is one of the ethnically most diverse countries in the world and throughout
its existence as an independent state has experienced a complex set of conflicts between the central
government and ethnic minority groups seeking autonomy. While the world's attention for the past
decade has focused on the struggle between the military government and the political opposition over
national power, these underlying conflicts perhaps represent a more fundamental and intractable
obstacle to peace, development and democracy.
The military capacity and influence of ethnic nationalists has declined significantly
over the past decade. Several groups have entered into ceasefire agreements with the government and
been granted de facto administrative authority over areas under their control. They complement a
number of political parties formed in areas under government control to represent local, ethnic
interests in the 1990 election. There are also a growing number of religious or community-based
organisations that work to further the interests of their communities and have significant local
Many of these organisations are officially banned, and all face severe restrictions
by the military government on their activities. Yet, they are important voices for ethnic minority
groups, particular the large percentage who live in their traditional homelands in the hills and
mountains surrounding the central plain.
The most fundamental grievance of ethnic minorities in Myanmar today is their lack
of influence on the political process and thus on decisions that affect their lives. Like society at
large, they have been disenfranchised by a strongly centralised military state that regards them with
intense suspicion. They have felt the loss of political and economic power even more acutely than the
majority population as both the government and the officer corps are overwhelmingly Burman in make-up
and widely perceived as a foreign force.
Ethnic minority groups consider themselves discriminated against and have openly
accused successive governments of a deliberate policy of "Burmanisation". They feel not only
marginalised economically, but also that their social, cultural, and religious rights are being
While many ethnic groups originally fought for independence, today almost all
have accepted the Union of Myanmar as a fact and merely seek increased local authority and equality
within a new federal state structure. The military government, however, still suspects them of
scheming to split the country and sees this as justification for its repressive, often brutal
policies in minority areas.
Since 1988, most ethnic minority organisations have expressed support for
democracy, seeing this as their best chance to gain a voice in national politics and press for a
redress of their long-standing grievances. But few leaders of the dominant ethnic militant groups are
democrats by persuasion or regard democracy as an end in itself. Their main concern is to secure local
political and administrative authority, further development of their regions, and enjoy the right to
maintain and practice their language, culture and religion without constraints.
The strength of ethnic minority organisations traditionally has been measured
in military terms. The shift in national politics since 1988 and subsequent ceasefires, however, have
transferred the main struggle from the battlefield to the political and administrative arena. The primary challenge for ethnic minority organisations
today is, therefore, to build political and organisational capacity –
individually, and as a group – to ensure that they are not left out of future
negotiations about the future of Myanmar and can continue to represent the
interests of their communities. They also need to help rebuild their war-torn
communities and economies and re-establish a sense of normalcy and confidence
in the future.
The new agenda presents ethnic minority organisations with a number of challenges.
The political space under a strongly centralised military government is very limited and much
historic hostility and distrust remain, not only towards the government, but also towards other ethnic
groups and even within each group. The idea of a common Union cause has little hold on these groups as
their only experience has been of a repressive, militarised state and a forced, centralised nationalism.
Politically, the ethnic minorities are divided over goals, strategy, and other
issues, and have been unable to form any truly effective nationwide or even broadly inclusive fronts.
There is also a great discrepancy between available human and financial resources and needs.
To negotiate and eventually overcome these obstacles requires vision, careful
balancing of objectives and strategies, and significant implementation capacity. First and foremost
perhaps, it requires a genuine commitment to move beyond narrow agendas and build a better life for
local communities and the country at large. Most groups, however, lack these skills. In fact, the
weaknesses and approaches of ethnic minority organisations often mirror those of the central government
and other local authorities.
Many organisations continue to be dominated by soldiers who have little knowledge
of political and social affairs or experience with relevant tools for organisation and negotiation.
They may have significant legitimacy rooted in the struggle for self-determination – or, in some cases,
the 1990 election – but strong hierarchies and top-down approaches mean that links to local communities
often are weak. There is also a dearth of people in these communities at large with relevant education
Over the past few years, some key ethnic minority organisations have begun to face
up to these problems and start on the difficult task of building networks in long-divided communities
and training capable leaders and administrators. Yet, much needs to be done and they are often
struggling against government repression and international indifference.
Bangkok/Brussels, 7 May 2003