Burma’s prospects for a democratic transition will be determined not by world-famous democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but “on the country’s troubled periphery,” says an on-the-spot observer.
The country’s “ethnic relations are literally fundamental, not only to Burma’s democratic progress, but also to its very viability as a nation-state.”Sebastian Strangio writes in the New Republic:
The state’s conflict with the Kachin Independence Army has been the most violent, but it’s just one of many ethnic conflicts raging within Burma’s borders. The country’s perennial ethnic tensions—a sort of glitch in the hardware of independent Burma—remain a key challenge to the current reform drive. Since the British quit the country in 1948 after decades of ethnic divide-and-rule, it has been in a state of near-constant civil war between the ethnic Burmese-dominated military and the minority groups occupying the mountainous periphery. Over the decades, these ethnic conflict zones have remained a country apart from the sun-kissed plains of lower Burma: an outlying belt of bloody conflict and rampant rights abuses that is largely concealed from the outside world. For a country of Burma’s diversity—around 40 percent of the population belong to minority groups, most of which only came under central control in modern times—ethnic relations are literally fundamental, not only to Burma’s democratic progress, but also to its very viability as a nation-state.
There have been some “small flickers of progress with some restive ethnic groups,” Strangio writes. Recent ceasefires signal that the government has abandoned its old “policies of confrontation” with ethnic groups, according to Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group:
It’s true that these recent events represent the sort of progress that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but many ethnic leaders remain skeptical about Thein Sein’s current charm offensive. And they have reason to be cautious, given the troubled history of the last round of ceasefires. In the 1980s and early 1990s, more than a dozen ethnic armed groups, the KIA included, signed ceasefires with the Burmese government, lowering their weapons in exchange for local autonomy. But instead of laying the groundwork for a lasting peace, these agreements were little more than glorified power-sharing arrangements between the government and local elites—stop-gap deals that left Burma’s structural flaws untouched.
With Western investment on the horizon, the Burmese government is now pressing hard for a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin resistance that it can present to Western nations as proof of “progress” on the ethnic issue, the KIA’s head negotiator, Sumlut Gam, told me. He’s hesitant, though. “They want us to sign a ceasefire agreement quickly, but we want to make a political dialogue and sign a more permanent kind of agreement,” he says. Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership (a network of pro-democracy groups) agreed. “If these ceasefires are just rushed in and pushed to the point where development project aid or special economic zones or foreign investors are brought in, there will be far more human rights violations,” she says.