The international community has never paid proper attention to what happens in ethnic areas of Burma. The Burmese army’s attacks against civilians – even the shooting and killing women and babies, and the mortar bombing of schoolchildren in Karen state – are ignored by media and diplomats. The focus is almost exclusively on what happens in Rangoon, and what happens with Aung San Suu Kyi.
For the past few months it is the so-called elections due in November which has dominated the agenda. Who will stand, who will boycott? Will there be more political space, and will Than Shwe retire?
And while the international community focuses on this, once again very little attention is paid to what happens in ethnic areas, and the very real danger of the dictatorship breaking ceasefires and plunging the country into increased civil war.
At Burma Campaign UK we have been warning of this danger for years. Some argue that the danger is small, but even so, the humanitarian and human rights consequences are so serious that no chances should be taken.
Burmanisation has been the policy of successive dictators in Burma. They don’t see ethnic diversity as something to celebrate and encourage; instead they want one nation and one blood.
Burmanisation policies are pursued in different ways, from repressing the teaching of ethnic history, language and culture, right through to military attacks against civilians. Some of these are so serious that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma has called for them to be investigated as possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The elections due in November are about one thing only: continued dictatorship with a civilian face, with the brutal and corrupt military and business elite remaining in power. A key part of the election plan is a final solution to what they see as the ethnic problem: armed ethnic groups must be crushed once and all.
Armed ethnic groups play an important role in defending ethnic people from military attacks and human rights abuses. Many also provide services such as health and education. Also of critical importance is the role they play in preserving their culture. For all these reasons, the generals want to destroy them.
Those groups that signed ceasefire agreements with the junta have been told to become Border Guard Forces. But what it will mean in practice is the surrender and assimilation into the Burmese army. Those groups which have not signed ceasefires can expect an escalation of attacks.
With these armed groups destroyed, there will be no havens in Burma where ethnic culture can survive. We will see the slow process of Burmanisation which has taken place in other parts of Burma take hold across the whole country.
At the National Convention to draft the 2008 constitution, every proposal to protect ethnic culture and diversity by allowing some kind of autonomy or federal government was rejected by the dictatorship. Military officers are guaranteed by the constitution to be the ministers of border affairs, home affairs and defence, and are selected by the head of the military, not the new parliament. These are the three key ministries which will control what goes on in ethnic areas. The 2008 constitution not only guarantees contained dictatorship, it guarantees an end to ethnic diversity in Burma.
The international community’s indifference to what happens in ethnic areas is shocking. For years they have largely ignored military attacks against civilians, even though they break international law. There has been no serious effort to persuade the generals to end these attacks, negotiate a ceasefire, or bring those committing these crimes to justice. Look how little attention has been paid to the Karen National Union’s recent announcement of a one-day ceasefire on International Day of Peace as a sign of its willingness to negotiate and end conflict. No effort has been made by the UN to seize this opportunity to try to kick-start dialogue to bring peace to eastern Burma.
Some governments even argue that we must wait and see what happens after the elections – whether the ‘new’ government releases Aung San Suu Kyi, for example – before deciding to support a UN Commission of Inquiry. This is effectively arguing that as long as Aung San Suu Kyi is released it is okay for the Burmese army to continue to rape, torture and execute ethnic civilians without these crimes even being investigated.
Now the international community largely ignores the risk of increased conflict. The dictatorship’s demands that ceasefire groups surrender or face military attacks risks plunging the country into conflict, which will have serious national consequences and which will spill over into neighbouring countries. Where are the urgent missions by the UN and others to try to persuade the generals not to go ahead with this plan?
Than Shwe is pushing ahead with his final solution for ethnic people in Burma. The armed wings of ceasefire groups must either join the Burmese army or face military attacks. Their political wings will operate, if allowed to at all, in one of the most restricted political environments in the world, with no power or influence. Armed groups which have not signed ceasefires also face increasing military attacks, and a new constitution granting no real protection to ethnic people means Burmanisation will continue.
The international community cannot continue to ignore what happens to ethnic people in ethnic areas of Burma, not only on a moral basis, but also on a practical basis. There will not be peace, democracy and stability in Burma if the rights and aspirations of ethnic people continue to be suppressed.
On paper the UN and others are committed to tripartite dialogue as the solution to solving the problems in Burma. In practice what few efforts are made to persuade the generals to enter into real dialogue pay only lip-service to ethnic participation.
Once the elections are over, and the international community can no longer hide behind the lie that elections will bring change to Burma, there must be a revived UN-led effort to secure dialogue which leads to national reconciliation, democracy and human rights. And this time, ethnic representatives must be at the core of that effort, not sidelined. The alternative is Than Shwe’s final solution.
Zoya Phan is International Coordinator at Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography is published as ‘Undaunted’ in the US and ‘Little Daughter’ in the rest of the world.