Ethnic tension and minority perspective on Burmas problems

(contd from previous issue)

While ethnic minorities waited years for a negotiated solution, the military on April 9 announced that it would hold a referendum on the new Constitution on May 10, which would be followed by country-wide general elections in 2010. The Constitution was made public just barely 30 days before the referendum.

With independent or international observers being barred from monitoring the referendum process, use of fraud and coercion has become a great concern. There are reports that citizens have been forewarned to vote only ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum.

The military’s Constitution drafting process was undemocratic. Among others, the Constitution was drafted by hand-picked delegates, excluding the Opposition groups. No debate on the constitutional principles was allowed.

Moreover, 25 percent of seats in both Houses (House of Representatives and House of Nationalities) are reserved for the military. Amendment of Constitution requires the approval of more than 75 percent of votes, which could be construed as a design to perpetuate military dominance.

The voice of the main Opposition party National League for Democracy, which won over 80 percent of parliamentary seats during the 1990 general elections, is virtually silenced. Not the slightest consideration is also given to a federal Constitution drafted by Federal Constitution Drafting and Coordination Committee in exile.

The military has not announced any definitive plan on what to do if the referendum fails. During the 1990 general elections, the military expected to win under a free and fair voting process. The justification for nullifying the results was to have a constitution drawn first. We never know what excuse lies ahead if the upcoming referendum fails.

Even if the State Peace and Development Council is successful in advancing with its proposed roadmap, I am skeptical that it will bring a durable solution to the country’s ethno-political problems.

To ethnic minorities, the struggle in Burma is fundamentally a two-stage process – (a) restoration of democracy and (b) political autonomy. Any democratic set-up sidelining ethnic minorities will not bring an end to decades’ old political imbroglio.

Ethnic minorities have long advocated for tripartite talks involving the military, 1990 election winning parties led by Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic groups as endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly since 1994, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, the international community could consider a similar model of a six party talks on North Korean nuclear issue. Due to geographical proximity, enormous economic and diplomatic influence over Burma, China’s participation is pivotal.

In the absence of a concrete mandate from the UN Security Council, special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s mission has become a symbolic exercise in futility. 

Although it may be naive to even consider it, the swiftest way to bring change would be by military intervention, either by the United States or by the United Nations.

Western sanctions, without cooperation from neighbouring Asian nations, are also not efficacious. The vacuum created as a result of sanctions has been filled by neighboring countries. Conflicting interests of two different approaches – sanction and engagement – will continue to prolong the survival of military regime.

So far, the military regime apparently has withstood pressures from the international community. Change from within the country is also unlikely to emerge without support and cooperation from elements within the military which has governed the country since 1962.

The Burmese Opposition now basically has two choices to make – either to accept the military’s seven-step roadmap as a step toward national reconciliation or take a hardliner stance to remove the military dictatorship by hook or by crook.

A long lasting solution to the conflicts in Burma needs the sincerity, honesty and participation of all ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups should be brought into confidence, and their legitimate demands should be looked into. This process of democratization has to be an inclusive approach.

The writer is General Secretary of Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).