An Article by Sanen Marshall published at Brave New World on March 17, 2013
It is worrying sign that as Myanmar begins to open up, the Government continues to persevere with armed aggression against ethnic minorities seeking autonomy within, or independence from, the Myanmar state. While it is true that few governments have traditionally interpreted the human rights principle of ‘self-determination’ as referring to the right to secede, in the case of Myanmar it is the repressive nature of the State that continues to fuel ethnic nationalism. It is also regrettable that while Aung San Suu Kyi remains an important force for political change, the treatment of her person by the Government is now viewed internationally as the key indicator of liberalisation. She has been free from house arrest for more than two years now.
There have also been several processes and laws that have been enacted that make Myanmar look like it is on the road to democratisation. Sadly, this is not reflected in on-the-ground realities for the Kachin, Karen, Shan and other ethnic minorities in the State. Ceasefires have been contracted and broken, mainly through the wanton actions of Myanmar military operating in the remote regions where some of these ethnic minorities live. The situation is therefore desperate. Some segments of these populations have persevered in the path of armed resistance against the Myanmar State. But their capabilities are largely defensive and, even then, not very effective against the power of a conventional army.
An estimated 100,000 Kachin have been displaced since the collapse of a 17-year old truce between the Kachin Independence Army and Government forces in 2011. Many Kachin refugees have been holed up in the mountains for over a year now, waiting for peace, so that they can return home. Refugee camps suffered from the cold, the squalor of dilapidated housing and poor sanitation. In the Arakan state, it is reported that 100,000 people have been displaced by inter-ethnic violence between the Arakan and Rohingya. This has been partially fuelled by repressive Government policies. All this has passed under the radar of the international community which is more intent on watching developments at the centre of the Myanmar state than at its periphery. Tourist arrivals are also up, with many believing that Myanmar has taken the road to democracy at last.
These two realities of a democratic centre and a militarised periphery do not match. But it is only the former that tourists see. It is therefore incumbent on the international community to selectively withhold their engagement with the state of Myanmar until Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are allowed to return to their homeland and the Government returns to the negotiating table. This selective disengagement would go a long way to refocusing global attention to the militarised periphery of Myanmar and not just its touristy centre. Since the international community holds Aung San Suu Kyi in high regard, it should pay heed to her calls for an end to the aggression. In January this year, she declared ‘we, as well as the government, have to ask ourselves whether we understand the goals of the ethnic people and whether we can help them fulfil their goals.’
About the author: Sanen Marshall is a member of International Movement for a Just World (JUST).