The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Community Insecurity of Ethnic Minorities in Myanmar

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on November 15, 2010

On 7 November 2010, Myanmar held its first election in 20 years. Media attention has always been centered on the credibility of the elections and fate of the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Ethnic tensions, which are a crucial issue has  often been overlooked. A day after the election, more than 10,000 people fled to Thailand to escape the clashes between government troops and ethnic Karen insurgents, which escalated  as a result of an anti-election protest. The antagonism was aggravated by the cancellation of voting in some areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. This decision reflects the junta’s policies to marginalize ethnic minorities, which consequently threatens their community security. The insecurity has fuelled ethnic conflicts, which further threatens the security of the ethnic communities themselves.

Community security, one of the seven components of human security, aims to preserve the traditional values or identities of a certain group of people and protect them from ethnic or sectarian violence. According to the 1994 Human Development Report, community refers to a group of people who share common characteristics, i.e. ethnic origin, cultural identity, religious belief, etc. When the shared characteristics are under threat, the community is insecure.

Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country with over 135 ethnic minority groups which include  the Chin, Rakhine, Karen, Mon, Shan, and numerous other peoples. These ethnicities have varying languages, cultural and historical traditions, and religious beliefs. However, the military government has adopted policies, which aim to homogenize minority cultures and histories under the Burmese ‘national’ identity. For instance, all Chin language publications are required to be translated into Burmese and submitted to censorship before dissemination. The Rohingya are not even allowed to repair their crumbling religious buildings. Christian Karens have been forced to convert to Buddhism. The junta have also squeezed the political space of the minorities. Before the election, the Union Election Commission dissolved several ethnic political parties.

The 1947 Panglong Agreement was an attempt to provide autonomy and self-determination for minorities and foster mutual trust among ethnic groups. However, the Panglong spirit did not last long. The suppressive policies have pushed the minorities to continue their struggles for self-determination since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. In early Novemeber 2010, leaders of ethnic armed groups had a meeting in Mae Hong Son to discuss strategies to topple town the military government.  As a consequence of the protracted fighting and counter-insurgency operations, tens of thousands of people have been displaced as IDPs or refugees in neighbouring countries. The displaced people face physical and food insecurity and severe human rights abuses. A report on food security and internal displacement by the Burmese Border Consortium suggests that IDPs in eastern Myanmar are significantly vulnerable to food insecurity.

The repressive ethnic polices, the protracted insurgency/counter-insurgency fighting, and threatened community security of ethnic minorities have formed a vicious cycle. A durable solution to these thorny problems hinges on more inclusive policies and genuine engagement between the government and the ethnic groups.


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