Outlook for Myanmar as ethnic tensions continue, country transitions to civilian rule
Myanmar is currently undergoing a process of democratization, begun in 2011 by current President Thein Sein. Myanmar has for decades been ruled by a military junta and until recently was relegated to pariah-state status on the world stage. While the military still wields significant power, there has been a shift towards greater civilian control over government, and an opening to the wider world.
This transition has been welcomed by Western nations including Canada, resulting in the loosening of sanctions as well as increased humanitarian and economic aid. Despite these improvements, serious internal issues remain, especially with regard to government - ethnic minority relations. The government continues to fight ethnic minority rebel groups: the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). These groups fight the government in the border regions near China and Thailand, and seek greater regional autonomy, protection of minority rights and local economic control.
Whereas the Kachin and Karen peoples are recognized minorities under Burmese law, the Rohingya people are not recognized and suffer discrimination as a result. Within Myanmar the Rohingya are widely considered interlopers from Bangladesh. This fact combined with their Muslim faith, results in frequent scapegoatism and violence from majoritarian Buddhist Burmese society.
During the first month of 2015 several important developments occurred involving the aforementioned groups. Fighting between the KIA and the government reignited in 2011; ending a 17 year ceasefire. Currently some 2000 displaced villagers in Hpakant township, Kachin State are trapped due to fighting between the government and KIA. Government forces are not allowing the villagers to flee the violence. This has led to accusations that the army is using the villagers as leverage against the KIA, with some claiming that the army is using human shields in their advances against the rebels. Increased tensions have also hampered ongoing ceasefire negotiations. The National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) stated in Chiang Mai, Thailand that ethnic minority leaders and the government had failed to agree on another meeting.
During January several incidents involving Rohingya have made headlines in Myanmar. On Jan. 12th Thai police intercepted around 100 migrants (majority under 18) crammed into open-top trucks. Conditions in the trucks led to the death of one woman; the accompanying suspected human traffickers fled the scene. Thousands of Rohingya have fled to Thailand, often falling victim of human traffickers who overpack migrants into boats and trucks destined for neighbouring Muslim Malaysia. Rohingya are fleeing from combat in Myanmar and increasing anti-Rohingya sentiments in the general population. In response to widespread violence against Rohingya, the UN has sent a Special Rapporteur to Burma to assess the situation.
A prominent anti-Rohingya voice is Ashin Wirathu, leader of the Islamophobic 969 Movement. Wirathu claims that the Rohingya’s reproduction rate is a demographic threat to the country and has called for their deportation. Similarly Wirathu claims that Burmese women are being forcibly converted, and seeks legislation that outlaws interfaith marriages without formal approval. Originally sentenced to 25 years in 2001, Wirathu was released from jail in 2010 as part of wider efforts to release political prisoners in the country.
In February relations between the Burmese government and ethnic groups continued to remain strained; ranging from inter-group suspicion to outright armed conflict. Currently the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) in Shan State is refusing to cooperate with government authorities with regards to the murders of two Kachin teachers.
The Burmese government is seeking to interrogate two ethnic youths in connection with the murders, yet the KBC insists that said youths will be pressured into signing false confessions. The KBC maintains that the youths are not connected to the murder, and are being targeted as scapegoats. The KBC claims members of government military forces which relocated to the region shortly before the murders are the real culprits.
Recent celebrations surrounding Union Day were marred by a lack of representatives from many ethnic groups estranged from the central government. Union Day celebrates the creation of a single Burmese state in 1947 as well as the Panglong Agreement, which promised equitable treatment for ethnic minorities as well as regional autonomy and income sharing agreements.
The failure of the government to abide by these promises constitutes the raison d'être for many ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar. The government has made conciliatory efforts, signing bilateral ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen rebel groups. Indeed many of those absent were from non-ceasefire groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization, Ta'ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Karenni National Progressive Party.
Whereas the aforementioned ethnic groups are fighting the government, they still constitute recognized minorities viewed as part of Burmese society. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group widely seen as foreign interlopers and discriminated against by Buddhist majority Burmese society. The Rohingya are not recognized as an official minority and inhabit a legal grey zone and eke out a marginal existence.
Recent protests by Burmese nationalist groups have pressured the government into revoking existing ID cards for peoples without full citizenship. This has further disenfranchised the Rohingya, as they will be prohibited from voting once their IDs expire. On March 18th the UN announced that Myanmar is increasingly backtracking on reforms, a worrisome trend in this pivotal election year.
In recent years violence on the China-Myanmar border has intensified as many ethnic groups fighting the government inhabit the border regions. In February the government announced that 130 soldiers had been killed in combat against with Kokang rebels. This restive region has seen many clashes in recent months, and on February 14th - in a rare announcement - the government stated that it had carried out airstrikes against rebels.
Moreover, Burmese President Thein Sein has imposed a three month period of martial law in the eastern regions of Kokang. During February some 50,000 ethnic Kokang have fled to China in order to escape fighting between the Burmese government and rebels. On March 13th Burmese fighter aircraft accidentally bombed Chinese territory - killing four farmers - during their efforts to counter Kokang rebels. This has heightened tensions with China, resulting in Beijing ordering live fire drills near the border at the end March.
Canada’s Involvement in Myanmar:
Following recent democratization efforts, Canada sent its first ambassador to Myanmar in March 2013. In recent years Canada has followed the lead of other Western powers, notably the United States in easing sanctions and re-engaging with the Burmese government. Prior to easing sanctions in April 2014, Canada had the strictest sanctions vis-a-vis Myanmar of any nation. Canada currently works with over 50 Burmese civil society associations, and has earmarked $15.9 million (2010-2015) to help provide basic services to 176,000 refugees in Thailand and over 500,000 internally displaced persons in Myanmar. Canada also provided $6.1 million in humanitarian assistance to Myanmar in 2013. Since 2011 bilateral trade has increased tenfold to $10 million, with Canada importing agricultural products and natural resources from Myanmar. Moreover as of June 2014, Canadian investments in Myanmar totaled $41 million.
Canada should continue to engage with Burmese civil society organizations, yet Ottawa needs to vet its Burmese partners to ensure they are not involved in anti-Rohingya agitation. The emerging civil society in Myanmar has allowed for populists such as Wirathu to voice widely held preconceptions regarding Rohingya. Canada needs to ensure that aid to nascent civil society groups is distributed equitably.
Canada is increasing its trade with Myanmar, purchasing natural resources. It is important that Canadian companies are not purchasing resources from conflict areas. Specifically rebel groups such as the KIA utilize the jade and teak trade to fund their operations.
Canada needs to continue to encourage the Burmese government to reform, yet tie further aid to minority protection. Ottawa must make clear that its support will be withdrawn if anti-Rohingya legislation (deportation, interfaith marriage ban) is passed.
While the Burmese military has released over 500 child soldiers in the last 18 months, Ottawa needs to further lobby the government to fully end the practice, as active recruitment of minors still occurs.
Canada should formally condemn Myanmar's decision to revoke ID cards and attendant voting rights for unrecognised groups.
Canada should also seek to sponsor more Burmese refugees, as ethnic and religious violence increases.