Myanmar Backgrounder: Ethnic Minority Politics
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 influence.
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 suppressed.
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 and experience.
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