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

Political reforms in Myanmar: What it meant for ethnic minorities

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on June 19, 2012

Recent political reformsin Myanmar have generated strong interest and excitement around the world and understandably so. After decades of military rule, the country has finally warmed up to the idea of political reforms. Its first attempt at political reforms occurred in 2008 when the ruling military junta adopted a new constitution which allow for the establishment of a nominally civilian government with 25 per cent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military. This was followed by a general election in November 2010, the first in 20 years. Unsurprisingly, it was won by the regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Following this election, the military junta was officially disbanded and power was transferred to a new civilian government headed by President Thein Sein, a former general. Mr. Thein Sein’s government has since freed a number of political prisoners and made overtures to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi who was released from house arrest in 2010 and was subsequently elected to Parliament in April 2012. The international community has responded positively to Myanmar’s fledgling democratic transition. Leaders such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have all paid visits to the country in order to normalise relations and invest in Myanmar’s vast, largely untapped, natural resources.

However, one central issue still remains to be addressed–the question of ethnic minorities. Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and has experienced a complex set of conflicts between the central government and ethnic minority groups. Ethnic grievances, and the resultant conflicts, are due mainly to the non-fulfillment of the promises of autonomy. At a conference in Panglong on 12 February 1947, representatives from ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Kachin and Chin, fearing domination by the majority Burmans, agreed to join the newly established Union of Burma in return for promises of full autonomy in internal administration. This demand was enshrined in the Panglong Agreement which declared that “full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas is accepted in principle”. This promise of autonomy however suffered a serious blow following the assassination on 19 July 1947 of Aung San, founder of the Union of Burma and one of the chief architects of the Panglong Agreement. The subsequent emergence of a military junta in the 1960s further dented any hope of autonomy for ethnic minorities. Civil wars ensued and more than 130,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of it.

The military junta always maintained a hard line approach towards ethnic minorities and their armed groups. Its attempt at finding solutions to the conflict were limited to signing ceasefire agreements. But ceasefire agreements do not offer a lasting solution as they are easily broken. Myanmar’s true and lasting peace hinges on resolving the issue of ethnic minorities. And the ongoing political reforms have yet to address this central issue.

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