Decades of ethnic conflict and human rights abuses have darkened Myanmar’s long and rich history. Also known as Burma, Myanmar obtained its independence from the British Empire in 1948. Since then, ethnic tensions have prevented stability within the country. What is, arguably, one of the longest-running civil wars in history has seen the majority Buddhist Burman, or Bamar, group assert its dominance over the more than one hundred ethnicities that also reside within the country’s borders.
Tensions with the Kachin
The Kachin is one of the ethnicities locked in this civil war. The Kachin are Christians who live in Kachin state, Myanmar’s resource-rich north. In 1994, the Kachin Independence Organization (“KIO”) and the Burmese government signed a ceasefire that divided the state into government-controlled and KIO-administered areas. Nevertheless, tensions between the two groups intensified after 2008. The Kachin Independence Army (“KIA”) rejected a government proposal that would unite all rebel forces into a Border Guard Force under the control of the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw. The government’s exclusion of the Kachin from participating in the 2010 general elections further contributed to this growing hostility. On June 9, 2011, government forces officially broke the ceasefire after launching a major offensive against the KIA. Since then, systematic clashes between the Tatmadaw and KIA have continued.
President Thien Sein’s government, which in 2010 replaced the military junta that had been in power since the 1962 coup, has been in talks with some, but not all, armed ethnic groups, including the KIA, to draft a country-wide ceasefire agreement. However, the ongoing conflict between the government and the rebel groups, and the ethnic minorities’ deeply-rooted mistrust of the government, have complicated the process.
A coalition of sixteen armed ethnic groups, including the KIA, drafted an agreement reflecting the ethnic minorities’ interests. However, the government and the groups continue to disagree over some of these amendments, including the armed groups that should be included in the ceasefire. The most recent peace talks were scheduled to take place in late August, and both the government and the ethnic groups hope to sign a formal ceasefire before the general elections in November.
The protracted violence has had a detrimental impact on the civilian population. Experts estimate that over 100,000 Kachin have fled to neighboring areas or into China. Many of the displaced live in camps that do not have adequate water, shelter, food, or healthcare. The violence has made it difficult for humanitarian aid groups to reach those in need. Both the government and KIA have also committed serious human rights abuses in Kachin, including the recruitment of child soldiers, child labor, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence.
Discrimination against the Rohingya
Long-standing hostility between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya have further exacerbated Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis. The Rohingya predominantly reside in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, and have arguably done so for generations. Their origins, however, remain largely in dispute, with the Buddhist majority asserting that the British “illegally” invited them into the country when they opened the borders between Burma and Bangladesh in the late nineteenth century. The government has consequently denied the Rohingya citizenship, as well as other rights, such as access to education, right to work, freedom of movement, and the right to practice their religion.
Discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya has grown with the rise of extreme Buddhist nationalism spurring an increasingly violent anti-Muslim movement. The most recent violent clashes between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority began in June 2012, in response to the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Rakhine Buddhists killed dozens of Rohingya, and forced thousands to flee their homes. The government largely tolerated such persecution, and effectively confined and segregated at least 140,000 Rohingya in displacement camps, allegedly to protect them from further violence.
Rampant violence and discrimination have also forced thousands of Rohingya to flee by boat to neighboring states. These “boat people,” however, are no more accepted in these countries than in Myanmar. Those who do survive the perilous journey end up in detention camps, and often lack adequate access to food, water, shelter, or healthcare. Others fall prey to human trafficking networks, are often forced to work under squalid conditions, and are even tortured. The government denies that the Rohingya are fleeing the country because of persecution and discrimination.
Ongoing violence, discrimination, and persecution of the Kachin, Rohingya, and other ethnic groups prevent both short-term and long-term stability in Myanmar. Without addressing the concerns of the minority population, Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis is not likely to end anytime soon.