The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
COMMENTARY
Make Minorities Part of the Solution
By AUNG NAING OO Tuesday, May 1, 2001

As Rangoon remains silent on calls for a "tripartite dialogue", Burma’s ethnic minorities continue to push for greater involvement in efforts to resolve the country’s troubles. Since October last year, the Burmese military junta has been holding talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As we all know, however, other than occasional statements from visiting foreign dignitaries and spokespersons from the junta and the National League for Democracy (NLD), no tangible results have been reported from this dialogue. Although no one could possibly hope for a speedy settlement in a short period of time, the near-total silence has created frustration and suspicion among many political establishments, in particular those of the ethnic nationalities. The first to break the silence was the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), a loose umbrella organization comprising ethnic and pro-democracy groups. They demanded an expansion of the talks. Their call was politically correct yet realistically untenable. The question therefore is: Will the military regime broaden the talks any time soon? The answer is no. This may not matter much for the exiled pro-democracy groups, with their limited role and capabilities. But it does for ethnic minorities. Because as much as the junta and the NLD, they are part of the answer to the problems in Burma—and they are being left out of the loop. Making things more difficult for the ethnic groups, the NLD is said to have sidelined the importance of minority issues. Although the party is well aware of the importance of ethnic issues, it appears to consider them secondary to democracy. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi often speaks out against injustices inflicted on the ethnic peoples by the regime, and last year the party even declared its intention to write a federal constitution that would grant a greater degree of autonomy to ethnic minorities such as the Karen. However, given the fact that the party is dealing with a regime that does not favor ethic minority rights, it may have decided that it is too early to raise the issue. Moreover, the NLD may believe that any effort to resolve Burma’s complex and volatile ethnic conflicts under the current circumstances would be futile, given the continued dominance of the military. Considering the fact that nearly four decades of military rule have served only to exacerbate the country’s ethnic problems, there is a certain amount of truth in their reasoning. Ethnic political parties and armed groups have called for what has been known as a "tripartite dialogue"—between the junta, pro-democracy organizations including the NLD, and ethnic nationality representatives from both legal and armed groups—along the lines initiated by the opposition groups and in accordance with United Nations resolutions. In a letter to the Burmese junta in June 1998, four leading ethnic leaders representing four ethnic parties echoed the call. They contended that dialogue was the only way to overcome all problems facing the country. Interestingly, however, prior to the first visit of the UN envoy Mr. Razali Ismail last year, Khun Htun Oo, the president of the Shan National League for Democracy, changed his previous stance and said that he would endorse a bilateral negotiation with the Burmese regime. This seems to be in conflict with the policy of the armed organizations that have adhered to the principle of a tripartite dialogue. Nonetheless, a realistic reading of the situation in the country might have triggered Khun Htun Oo’s apparent change of heart. In general, the junta’s policies on the ethnic question are known and it is abundantly clear where they stand. The generals are anti-federalists and opposed to ethnic rights. The Tatmadaw used the ethnic card to take over power in 1962. The creation of seven states under the 1974 constitution was to give ethnic nationalities a false sense of federalism. From their point of view, army personnel have shed blood, fighting "ethnic insurgents" for over half a century. The Tatmadaw is the "father" who must watch over the "squabbling (ethnic) siblings", lest the country disintegrate into pieces. In short, the junta is not ready to acknowledge the role of ethnic groups in Burmese politics. Not surprisingly, foreign countries with a strong interest in Burma are concerned that ethnic politics may disrupt the process that seems so fragile and uncertain. Like other protagonists in the drama, they have a valid point. But putting ethnic concerns on ice will not solve the problems in Burma either. It is unlikely that Daw Aung San Suu Kyu or the military junta will be able to devise a formula that will give complete satisfaction to the ethnic groups. Federalism may be acceptable to everyone but neither democracy nor federalism will solve the ethnic problem. Ethnic nationalism will always remain. Under the present circumstances, however, ethnic groups may welcome a conditional solution. In order to find that solution, it would be wise for those involved in the talks in Rangoon to allow ethnic groups to join in the discussions at the earliest date possible. Their inclusion in the talks—both in the current dialogue and in the "new" National Convention—is the key to finding that solution. Although significant progress cannot be guaranteed, the move will please the minorities greatly and generate trust among the communities, which is instrumental in the implementation of any outcome of the talks. The ethnic problem is just as critical as the need for democracy, perhaps even more so. Wars have been fought, and precious resources and lives have been wasted in disputes over ethnic rights and freedom. The military policy of "divide and conquer" might have worked for a period of time. But the Tatmadaw, the NLD or any other future Burman leadership will always walk a fine line over this. For the moment, silence in this dialogue may be golden, but that may not be the case in the near future. Without any hint as to where the talks are going, and above all, without any indication of when ethnic nationalities can be included in the negotiations, the ethnic groups’ suspicion will only grow as to whether participants in the Rangoon talks are sincere or simply seeking yet another "Burman solution." The NLD and the junta must both be prepared to accept the fact that if ethnic nationalities are considered to be part of the problem, they must also be regarded as part of the solution. Aung Naing Oo is an independent political analyst living in exile.

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