Decision Time
covering burma and southeast asia
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Decision Time


By HARN YAWNGHWE NOVEMBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.8


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An impatient regime waits to hear whether the ethnic groups will take part in the 2010 election

A key role in the 2010 general election in Burma can be played by the country’s ethnic nationalities, who are under time pressure to decide whether or not to participate. If they do, they can help to determine whether the result is credible in the eyes of the outside world.

The seven ethnic states, where up to 40 percent of Burma’s population lives, will command about 120 of the 440 seats (110 will be military personnel) in the People’s Assembly and 84 of the 224 seats (56 will be military) in the Nationalities Assembly in the Union Parliament. The ethnic nationalities can also contest 75 percent of the seats in the State legislatures.

HARN YAWNGHWE is executive director of the Euro-Burma Office in Brussels.

For ethnic-based parties that won a significant number of seats in the 1990 elections, the question is whether to stand on principles or to participate and try to truly represent their constituencies. These parties include the Arakan League for Democracy, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the Mon National Democratic Front and the Chin National League for Democracy.

Their choice between boycott and participation is not only a political one, for the struggle by the seven states for self-government encompasses a struggle for ethnic identity.

The ethnic-based parties are not interested in a government role, although they fear marginalization and want a say in how the country is run, especially at state level. Many of them are expected to form or encourage proxy parties to contest the election.

For members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), an umbrella group of ethnic parties, and other organizations that are still engaged in armed struggles against the governing State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the choice is clear:

  • The Chin National Front (CNF) and the Karen National Union (KNU) will continue to fight until the SPDC includes them in the political process and agrees to their demand for self-rule. The CNF can influence contests for about 13 seats in Chin State and a few in Sagaing Division.
  • The KNU can influence contests for about eight seats in Karen State. Its political influence is complicated by the active campaigning undertaken by the various units of the pro-regime Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and other Karen groups that have surrendered to the SPDC. The KNU’s influence is even more tenuous in the mixed Karen-Burman-Mon constituencies of Pegu (about 50 seats), Rangoon (about 60), Irrawaddy (about 50) and Tennassarim (about 12) divisions.
  • The smaller Palaung State Liberation Front, Pa-O Peoples Liberation Organization and Wa National Organization, which broke away from their mother organizations when they agreed to cease-fires or surrendered to the SPDC, will remain in exile on the Thai border.
  • The Arakan Liberation Party, one of several Arakanese organizations opposed to military rule, will also remain in exile.
  • The Lahu Democratic Front could influence the contest for one of the 60 or so seats in Shan State.

The other groups that do not belong to the NDF, such as the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Shan State Army (South), will also continue fighting. With about eight seats in Karenni State and 60 seats in Shan State at stake, however, the attitude they adopt toward the election is sure to influence the outcome.

The situation of the ethnic groups that have cease-fire agreements with the SPDC is complicated by the fact that they are often viewed as allies of the government. They are also lumped together by the SPDC as “peace” groups, which have “exchanged their arms for peace.” The populace in general is not sympathetic to their cause. Some even cheered the recent SPDC action against the Kokang.

These “peace” groups include several that have surrendered to the SPDC or are under government control as militia (or more recently as border guard forces), such as the DKBA.

Others are former units of the Communist Party of Burma in Shan State that mutinied against the party in 1988, like the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army. These groups engaged in business with the SPDC but retained control of their areas.

Recent events have shown that these groups do not always see eye-to-eye with the SPDC.



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