Parliament snubs ethnic harmony bill

Burma’s parliament has voted against a proposal that would urge the new government to work towards building stronger relations with the country’s marginalised ethnic groups.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will head the government, due to be officially instated on 1 April, but the overwhelming presence of former military generals and a very much pro-junta ideology has begged the question of whether it will break with a past in which ethnic minorities have faced rampant state-sanctioned persecution.

“When the parliament speaker asked whether to approve [the proposal] or not, there were both agreements and disagreements among the MPs,” said Hpone Myint Aung, a parliamentary representative for the National Democratic Force (NDF). “So they decided to vote, and the turnout was 106 votes in favour and 520 against.”

He added that of those who voted on Friday last week, “only around 100 [were] non-military representatives”. The USDP, whose senior ranks include powerful former junta ministers such as Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Htay Oo, swept around 80 percent of the vote in last November’s elections and, added to the more than 300 pre-appointed army officials, leads an overwhelmingly military-dominated parliament.

Burma is home to around 135 different ethnic minorities, largely grouped in the country’s seven border states where conflict has stretched over decades. The regime’s war with the Karen National Union in the country’s east has lasted more than 60 years and is thought to be the world’s longest-running.

Attempts last year by the government to assimilate the 18 or so ethnic armies that agreed to ceasefire deals into the Burmese army has largely met with failure. Only a small handful have agreed to become Border Guard Forces, while those that refused have been the target of threats and small-scale skirmishes with the Burmese army.

But it is the civilians in these areas that take the brunt of the predominantly Burman junta’s attempts to rout ethnic armies, and perhaps the ethnic minorities themselves: what appear to be state-sanctioned abuses such as rape by Burmese troops of ethnic women, as documented by various rights groups, has led some observers to accuse the regime of an attempted ‘Burmanisation’ of the minorities. 

Conflict in the volatile border regions had led to the internal displacement of more than half a million in the country’s east alone, while close to 150,000 refugees, mostly Karen, live in camps along the Thai border.

The parliamentary proposal was submitted by Banya Aung Moe, an MP from the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, one of 22 ethnic parties that competed in the elections. Another MP who voted in favour of the motion said that it’s rejection means there “will be no chance to discuss the issue of peace with ethnic armed groups”.

Meanwhile, the parliament also voted to make official its denouncement of international sanctions on Burma, with USDP members claiming that the policy of a number of Western nations was behind the country’s slow development.

The prospect of an amnesty of political prisoners to appease the international community was mooted by some opposition MPs but made no ground against opposition from the USDP.

Burma’s Minister of Finance and Revenue, Hla Htun, said the country was losing some $US2.5 billion every year to sanctions, which necessitated the need to sell its vast reserves of gas to neighbouring states, despite only 20 percent of the country having access to electricity. Critics have said however that the vast majority of the finance generated from energy sales have gone towards lining the generals’ pockets.

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