The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Decision Time

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. They are particularly reluctant to give up their privileges and be integrated into the Union of Burma under the conditions spelled out in the SPDC’s 2008 Constitution.

The Kokang area may have one seat and the Wa-controlled territory about three seats, while Mongla will straddle two constituencies in Shan State and will not even have the status of a “Self-Administered Zone.”  The Wa are especially unhappy that they would effectively lose control of their area even though they have been designated a “Self-Administered Division” under the new Constitution.

Groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization, the New Mon State Party and the Shan State Army (North) were previously ethnic nationalist independence movements. They agreed to cease-fires with the SPDC in order to find a political solution. But after nearly 20 years with no political concessions, they now have to go back to armed struggle or convert their armies into border guard forces and participate in the 2010 election.

The problem is that if they participate, there is no guarantee that the SPDC will give them the minimum level of autonomy that they want. If their hopes are unfulfilled they are expected to break their cease-fire agreements and return to armed struggle.

This will be a very messy business because the SPDC is unlikely to target ethnic troops, going instead for the “soft” option—the civilian population. If this happens, it will lead to the destruction of villages and towns, large numbers of displaced people and a flow of refugees into neighboring countries.

The ethnic groups still fighting the SPDC are aware that an attack on any one of the cease-fire groups is also an attack on all of them. They are unlikely to stand by and let the SPDC annihilate any major ethnic cease-fire army that has a political agenda. Widespread fighting would erupt across the nation.

However, the SPDC may be confident that given its superior fire power and troop strength it can destroy any armed opposition from ethnic armies.

The borders of Burma—whether with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos or Thailand—are extremely porous. Various ethnic nationalities can be found on both sides of each border and any instability in Burma would affect neighboring countries.

Instability, however, would not bring about positive change and would further entrench the concept that might is right. The SPDC may in fact be trying to provoke showdowns with the ethnic forces in order to have an excuse to postpone the 2010 election.

The SPDC is in a win-win position. If it can coerce the ethnic nationalities to participate in the 2010 poll, it can show that the election is inclusive and thus legitimate. If a significant number of ethnic groups decide not to participate, the SPDC can postpone the election because of instability and continue to rule the country.

While pro-democracy advocates may have up to 15 months to decide whether to participate in the election, the ethnic nationalities do not have that luxury. The October deadline to transform their armies into border guard forces has already passed. The regime is impatiently waiting for their decision—whether to cooperate or return to armed struggle.

The KIO and others are trying to avoid a return to armed struggle by negotiating with the SPDC to retain their arms while agreeing in principle to both the border guard force and the election. SPDC Chairman Snr-Gen Than Shwe has the final decision here.

Assuming that the cease-fires hold and the 2010 election takes place as planned, what can be expected?

It is clear that the SPDC will not tolerate a challenge to its power.  If the ethnic nationalities do not want a return to armed struggle, the question is will they—political parties, armed cease-fire groups, non-cease-fire groups and civil society—be able to mobilize their people effectively enough to ensure that their voices are heard in the new limited political set-up under the SPDC’s Constitution?

The cease-fire groups will also have to campaign hard to convince their people that participating in the 2010 election is the best option. Those not convinced can be expected to form splinter groups that don’t take part in the election.

Over the past 20 years, the SPDC’s policy has been to separate the political parties and the armed groups from the populace. If the ethnic nationalities can neutralize this policy, if they can truly represent their constituencies and work to meet the needs of their people, they still stand a chance.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |