Hkun Htun Oo (above, second from left), last week received an award from the National Endowment for Democracy on behalf of Burma’s democratic movement at a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. A former prisoner of conscience, who now heads one of Burma’s major opposition parties, he explains on Atlantic.com why minority rights are such a critical and sensitive issue in the country’s tentative transition.
In a country whose very name is a subject of contention — Burma or Myanmar? — I confess that I’m not sure about whether we’re actually witnessing democracy sprout up or not.
I’m almost 70 years old; I’ve grown up and spent my life under military rule; and because of that, I’ve never experienced what it means to have basic democratic rights like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the freedom to vote (under conditions of fair and honest competition), or the freedom of choice generally in many areas of life that people in democratic states take for granted.
The only areas in Burma where you can see towns with electricity, properly paved roads, well-staffed hospitals, industrial zones, universities with qualified teachers, five-star hotels — and no heavily armed soldiers on patrol — are in what’s called pyima, “the main land” in the center and south of the country.
In the remote “ethnic” areas where people from non-Burman nationalities live, and where modern information technologies don’t yet reach deeply, you can breathe fresh air and see mountains; but you can also see children who are malnourished and forbidden to learn in their own native languages in their own local schools. You might also see young women, trying to feed their families, who are being victimized by human traffickers, or citizens who are being displaced, either by force or to escape conflict.
These problems plague Burma’s “ethnic” periphery the way that wildfires plague grasslands in the dry season. There’s been a lot of suffering in the war-torn ethnic states of Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan, but the people there have not given up hope.
Today, we’re seeing some progress toward democracy. But I continue to worry that not all parts of the country will benefit equally from those changes.
President Thein Sein, the leader of the new administration, is trying to secure ceasefire agreements and to sign national-level peace deals with all armed organizations outside of the Burmese Communist Party. But so far, while top officials from both sides discuss the peace process, regional units of the Burmese armed forces have continued to advance on ethnic territories. It’s not a promising sign.
Our national reconciliation process can’t be achieved without dialogue — including political talks. No dialogue, no reconciliation: It’s that simple.
In any form of democracy, freedom of choice has to be a core attribute. Above all, that’s what Burma’s ethnic nationalities long for. The Burmese president has said himself that he wants to see ethnic-minority youths using laptops instead of guns.
So let them choose as they wish.
Hkun Htun Oo is the chairman of Burma’s Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). After receiving a 93-year jail term from the Burmese dictatorship in 2005 for “treason, defamation, and inciting dissatisfaction toward the government,” Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. More
A longer version of this post, translated by Ma Oo, will appear in the October issue of the Journal of Democracy.