November 15, 2010
Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from a two-decade long house-arrest is cause for celebration for both the people of mainland Burma who have long been subjected to authoritarian rule and the ethnic minorities seeking independence or autonomy for over 60 years. But there is a need for cautious reactions given that the military junta’s move does not reflect a change of heart, but desperation to seek international community’ endorsement of the apparently rigged November 7 election and leniency over an armed offensive that is soon likely to begin in ethnic areas.
The military regime has been under tremendous international pressure since 2007, when Buddhist monks joined and led anti-government protests over a sudden removal of fuel subsidies in the country, officially known as Myanmar. The government’s crackdown that followed caused hundreds of deaths, including that of monks, as well as severe international criticism. And the decision to hold the election – first since 1990 when Suu Kyi’s party gained victory but the military instead of giving control to her put her under arrest – was part of a public relations exercise.
However, since the international community and rights groups rightly called this month’s election rigged and a sham, the junta had to win them over with something far bigger. This is why Suu Kyi, who has deservingly been the central figure of the struggle for democracy in Burma, was released. According to reports, military representatives first offered to release her under certain conditions but she refused to accept them. Yet, the military decided to let her go – unconditionally – desperate as it was to improve its image.
But it was six days after the election.
The election was held at a time when there were no experienced politicians. Suu Kyi and over 2,200 democracy activists were in jails, and hundreds of others had to flee to neighbouring countries in the previous years. The political prisoners have not been released, and nor is there a word from the generals whether they will be set free. Even if they are released, none of them will be part of the new regime, which will be controlled by military in civilian clothing.
The constitution – adopted by an apparent rigged referendum in 2008 – reserves 25 percent of the seats in the parliament for military’s representative and empowers the military to suspend civil liberties and legislative authority in the interest of “national security.” Also, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is the largest party that contested the polls and will soon claim an overwhelming victory. This means amending the constitution – which will require approval from at least 75 percent of the members of parliaments – is a distant dream.
So the junta first secured its place in the constitution as well as the parliament and then set Suu Kyi free. The military generals hope that with the news of Suu Kyi’s release the international community will overlook the allegation of gross electoral manipulations and accept the election results. The military leaders also want the international community to ignore the soon-to-follow major military crackdown on ethnic minorities.
While the media and the international community have thus far focused their attention on Suu Kyi – who deserves it – they have neglected the suffering of ethnic minorities, including Christians, who are caught in crossfire between armed groups and the government forces.
Several factors – such as non-holding of the election in many parts of ethnic states and the recent procurement of combat-helicopters by the Burmese Air Force (BAF) – have indicated that the new regime controlled by the military will try to finish off the ethnic struggle. And the release of Suu Kyi further confirms this fear. For the military leaders could not have failed to see the high risk they face from the ethnic communities after Suu Kyi’s release.
Suu Kyi will unite ethnic minorities – an effort her father Aung San, head of the interim Burmese government then, stared by holding the Panglong Conference in 1947 for the unity of ethnic nationalities. He was assassinated the same year. Now Suu Kyi intends to hold a second Panglong Conference with the same objective. This will surely make the military leaders nervous. Some experts fear an assassination attack on Suu Kyi.
The junta seems in no mood to dialogue with minorities to bring about national reconciliation. The constitution they have framed over-stresses on non-disintegration of the Union, which does not mean reconciliation to say the least. Moreover, it makes state administrations highly dependent on the federal government – for example, resources in states will be under the control of the Union. And most ethnic states are rich in resources.
Before the election, the military regime had asked all ethnic armed groups to join the military-controlled Border Guard Force. But many of the groups refused to merge.
Tensions have begun in ethnic minority states – also in areas controlled by ceasefire armed groups. According to reports, the Burmese army intensified its operations in ethnic states around the election time and ethnic armies have formed a loose coalition and taken positions for a possible war with the Burma Army. During the election week, fighting between some of the armed groups and the military personnel erupted in several states, including in Karen, Kachin, Karenni and Mon. As a result, thousands of people from these states fled to Thailand side of the border.
Most ethnic minorities live in states bordering Thailand, India and China. They make up around 30 percent of Burma’s 53.4 million people, and have been asking for independence/autonomy since Burma’s independence in 1948. They say the British had promised them the right to self-rule. In recent years, their struggle has mainly been against Burman, Buddhist nationalism adopted by, and the authoritarian centrist rule of, the Burmese regime. Close to 70 percent of Burma’s people are estimated to be ethnic Burman, mostly Buddhist.
The ethnic Chin and Kachin people are predominantly Christian. And many of the Karen and Karenni people are also Christian. There are armed groups in Chin, Karen and Kachin states as well (though not all residents are armed), and the junta sees all Christians, and their religion, as a threat to its dominion.
If a war breaks out between ethnic armies and the Burmese forces, as feared, civilian casualties could be alarmingly high. Therefore, Burmese army’s apparent plan to attack minorities must be exposed and prevented.
It is time not to give any concession to the military leaders of Burma in response to Suu Kyi’s release, but to continue to lobby all concerned organizations and blocs, including UN bodies, the ASEAN, the European Union and the governments of the United States, India, Thailand and China, to avert the gathering storm in ethnic states.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the RLC CEO Godfrey Yogaraja. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.