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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Burma’s economic development hinges on ethnic conflict resolution

By: Sai Wansai
Tuesday, 07 August 2012

One couldn’t help but sympathize with President Thein Sein in his deliberation to push the country through democratic process, which the government termed as “Discipline-flourishing Democracy”.
Sai Wansai

After a little more than a year in power, the President’s plate is full and it seems to be piling up even more, before he could reduce or tackle his pressing workload, in a workable, practical sense.
Issues that need urgent Presidential attention could be listed roughly as armed ethnic conflicts, sectarian unrest, press freedom, student activism, farmers’ grievances and economic development.

Sectarian unrest

Recently, he is confronted with the Rohingya issue, which reached its height last weekend as the jailed Islamist cleric Abu Bakar Bashir threatened to wage war if Thein Sein government continues to harm Muslim Rohingyas, reported Bangkok Post, on 03 August. According to the report, the letter addressed to President Thein Sein was delivered to Burmese embassy in Jakarta last Monday, 30 July.

Apart from the threats from fundamentalist quarters, the international community is voicing concern over the ongoing violence in Arakan State and human rights abuses against Rohingya.

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein’s “solution” for sectarian unrest in Arakan State by deporting Rohingya to a third country or relocating them to refugee camps has been taken as a nonsense, non-starter or lack of pragmatic approach by the international community, including the UN.

According to the latest Altsean report of July 2012, the ongoing unrest displaces at least 104,000 people in Arakan State. The majority of IDPs live in challenging conditions in camps described as “open air prisons.” Armed ethnic conflicts

On the ethnic conflict front, the armed internal conflicts in Kachin and Shan States continue unabated. While the conflict in Kachin State goes on for the 13th straight month, the Burma army’s offensive against the Shan State Army (SSA) North and the Shan State Army (SSA) South are also in full swing.

According to SHAN reports, two recent clashes had taken place between the attacking Burma Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA). One on 30 July 2012 at Loi Ye, Namzang township, which is ongoing, and another on 31 July 2012 at Nawng Lerh, Mongpan township. The SSA was said to have sent a protest letter to U Aung Min, Naypyitaw’s chief negotiator, according to its leader Lt-Gen Yawdserk.

On 3 August 2012, sources coming from Namzang said the Burma army had brought in more than 100 reinforcement troops and heavy weapons to Loi Ye to chase the Shan State Army (SSA) out from the mountain range. 

On 1 August 2012, Lt-Gen Yawdserk, Chairman of Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), writes to President Thein Sein urging him to order implementation of the cooperation against drugs agreement reached at the 19 May Union level meeting. The Shan State Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) had reportedly told the RCSS coordinator Sai Harn in June that nothing could be done without the cooperation from the Burma Army.

Concerning the sent letter, RCSS/SSA spokesman, Major Lao Hseng said that if the Burma army offensive continues even after the formal compliant to the President, it could be taken as either the Burma Army  refuses to obey presidential directive to observe truce or the government, in collaboration with the military, is playing tricks against the SSA. If this is so, the signed truce will be just worth a piece of paper, he said.

It is a clear indication that the ceasefire is on the verge of collapsing.

The latest armed engagement counts, as of early August, between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups that have signed ceasefire with the government are as follows:

Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA)       27 times
Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA)               24 times
Karen National Union (KNU)                                                               2 times
Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)                                       1 time

As for the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) that has yet to reach agreement, it has already fought 1,640 times since the 1994 ceasefire was violated by the Burma Army on 9 June 2011, reported Irrawaddy.

In an interview with the BBC, on Monday 06 August, Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) Deputy Secretary Mr. La Nan said that the   armed engagement escalated following the departure of the UN special human rights envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana. He added that the President Thein Sein’s recent meeting with the 14 or so political parties, where he mentioned the importance of ending the armed ethnic conflicts, was just for international consumption and that it was totally different with what was happening on the ground. He said that the Burma Army has ordered its commanders to eliminate the KIA and those commanders, who refused to fight, were expelled or transferred.

RCSS/SSA noted that the reason the clashes that have taken place even after ceasefire agreements were signed, was because the Burma Army did not cease its military activities, especially “area clearing” and “area control” operations.

Meeting  the President

Meanwhile, according to Kawli Media website, on 04 August, Hkun Htoon Oo, Chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and Sai Nyunt Lwin, his secretary met with President Thein Sein, together with 13 other political parties in Naypyitaw on Saturday.

According to Sai Nyunt Lwin, the SNLD has touched on the issues of refugees, including their reintegration into the society through the planned population census; nation-wide ceasefire and reconciliation process; and the teaching of ethnic languages in concerned ethnic states.

The President said that while the exiled or refugees Shan population could be two to three hundred thousands, the count for the whole country is some three millions and that population census is the way to go for the development of the country.

Regarding his peace initiative, the President iterated only vaguely that the government will act according to the wish of sixty millions citizens and that with patience and trust peace could be achieved.

In an interview with RFA, on 04 August, Sai Nyunt Lwin also said that the President mentioned about a conference, similar to Panglong Conference of 1947, with Panglong spirit among all ethnic groups. However, no time frame was mentioned, according to Sai Nyunt Lwin.

Perhaps the most disheartening response on the issue of ethnic languages was that the rejection of teaching them in government-run schools. As an example, the President argued that Shan is not the only race residing within Shan State and that all races within the Shan State should work out among themselves first. The same goes with the Chin State, where even two villages don’t speak the same language. But, nevertheless, he said that teaching outside the schools would be allowed.

Press freedom, student activism and farmers’ grievances

To other pressing issues evolving around press freedom, student activism and farmers’ grievances are also social time-bombs, which have to be tackled carefully.

The government’s stepping up restrictions on press freedom, even though it promise to end all media censorship, is not doing good to its reform process.

The weekly news journals The Envoy and The Voice Weekly were suspended indefinitely, due to the publishing of a controversial interview given by USDP MP Aung Thein Lin to a Chinese newspaper and a story on a possible cabinet reshuffle and a satirical cartoon respectively.

In early July, the regime pre-empted the planned commemorations of the 50th anniversary of 7th July, 1962,  massacre of students in Rangoon, by  detaining more than two dozen ABFSU members in Rangoon, Mandalay, and several other locations across the country. Among those detained were several activists who were released from prison in January under a presidential amnesty, according to the Altsean, July report.

The report said that on 7 July, the regime released all the activists detained the previous day. Defying the regime’s intimidation and harassment, the ABFSU conducted ceremonies in Mandalay to commemorate the anniversary of the 1962 crackdown. In addition, about 300 people attended a commemorative event.

Meanwhile, the heightened awareness of their rights has prompted the restless farmers to step up protests over the confiscation of their land, during the era of two military regimes, the SLORC and SPDC.

Although the government continues to prosecute farmers on charges of encroaching on land that the authorities confiscated from them, the National Parliament approved a proposal introduced by USDP MP Tin Htut on 4 July to form a commission tasked with investigating land confiscation complaints.

Priority-setting crucial

As could be seen, President Thein Sein’s reform achievements are rather mixed. While freedom of expression and democratic rights are partially being allowed in Burma Proper, human rights abuses in ethnic armed conflict areas continue to be the order of the day.

Speaking in Naypyitaw on 03 July, at the first meeting of the Union-level Peace Committee, President Thein Sein addressed some top government officials that ending ethnic conflict is the key to rebuilding the nation, and economic development is only possible under such circumstance.

The Altsean report of July writes:

“From 26-29 June, Asia Development Bank (ADB) top official Stephen Groff visited Burma where he met with President Thein Sein and several regime ministers. Following the visit, Groff concluded that even if Burma’s economy grew at 5-6% a year, it would take 30 years for Burma to reach Thailand’s current level of economic development. On 1 July, in its ‘initial sector assessments’ of Burma, the ADB painted a grim picture of the country’s current state:

• About 25% of the population lives in poverty.
• About 75% of the population does not have access to electricity.
• In rural areas, 75% of children end their education during primary school.
• Road density is about two kilometers per 1,000 people, compared to an average across Southeast Asia of 11 kilometers per 1,000 people.
• Burma has an average of 18 vehicles per 1,000 people, compared to an average of 370 per 1,000 people in Thailand.
• Urban infrastructure is “below acceptable levels” without proper drainage, sewage, or adequate waste management.

And as such, the regime should prioritize the achieving of durable ceasefire nation-wide and managing the sectarian unrest in the first place

The SNLD, in its recent meeting with the President has offered to help to solve the problematic ceasefire agreement with the SSA; while U Aye Tha Aung of Rakhine League for Democracy pointed out that it is unacceptable that the Burma Army make peace with some ethnic groups and at the same time waging war at the others. He said nation-wide ceasefire should be the way to go.

No doubt, the President has the “political will” to do it, otherwise he must not have put out a directive to stop offensive against the KIA. The problem of the disobedient commanders in the field aside, he should earnestly explore other various means on how he could rein in on them, so that durable ceasefire could be observed. Otherwise, we all will have to endure a long wait for real reconciliation and economic development to happen.
The contributor is the General Secretary of Shan Democratic Union (SDU) - Editor

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