Ethnic conflict in Burma demands 'renewed focus'

Nov 24, 2009 (DVB), International involvement in Burma's domestic crises has to date had little effect on resolving ongoing ethnic conflict in the country, an influential British think tank said yesterday.

Furthermore, pressure from the ruling junta on armed ethnic groups to transform into border guard forces could "bring renewed instability to Burma", according to a report published by Marie Lall, associate fellow at Chatham House.

While the United States has only recently announced it will begin dialogue with the junta after years of sanctions and isolation, Burma's regional neighbours have long practiced a policy of engagement with the regime.

Yet neither isolation nor engagement has resolved conflict between the Burmese army and the country's multiple armed ethnic groups; conflicts that pre-date Burma's independence from Britain in 1948, Lall said.

"An understanding of the ethnic conflicts, the political significance of the ceasefires and the economic and political seesawing between ethnic minority groups and the army is essential to understand Burma's political future," she says.

The report follows in the wake of a shift in US policy to Burma, with Washington announcing recently that it would begin dialogue with the junta.

Yet Burma observers have claimed that the international community, including the US, is not placing enough emphasis on the plight of the country's 135 ethnic groups, many of whom are marginalized by the majority Burman government.

"I think the international community is not so aware that the [ethnic] conflict is really the basic problem in Burma; it's not democracy, or against military rule," said Harn Yawnghwe, senior advisor to the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC).

"If the problem of the ethnic nationalities cannot be resolved, then you are not going to solve Burma's wider problems."

He added however that the US was beginning to show signs of an appreciation of the importance of the role that ethnic conflict plays in Burma's instability, "and they seem to be saying that you need to resolve it, so I think that is the right step".

The conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese government has stretched over six decades, and is thought to be one of the world's longest running.

Lall also pointed to an outbreak of fighting between Burmese troops and an ethnic Kokang group in August this year as an example of the fragility of ceasefire agreements that 18 of the country's armed ethnic groups hold with the government.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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