Two years have passed since Myanmar held its first general election after more than two decades of military dictatorship. The popular vote was hailed as an important step in the country’s transition from military to civilian rule and the economy has made impressive strides under Burmese President Thein Sein’s civilian government. However, if the country cannot resolve its long-running ethnic conflicts, all of this progress could be undone.
Troubled relations between Myanmar’s government and its ethnic minorities constitute a serious obstacle in the country’s path to stability and prosperity. Indeed, Myanmar’s recent history has been plagued by ethnic violence and protracted conflicts with government forces, particularly in Karen, Shan and Kachin states.
Many of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities — whose members comprise almost 40 percent of the population — have long been subjected to persecution and mistreatment. As a result, they often harbor anger and resentment toward the government, with some even taking up arms in resistance. There is a real danger that opponents of Myanmar’s transition could exploit these tensions, fueling ethnic conflict in order to derail reform efforts.
While Sein has signed ceasefires with 10 ethnic armies since becoming president, more durable settlements are needed to ensure lasting peace. And two particularly violent, long-standing ethnic conflicts remain far from any resolution at all.
The northern state of Kachin — which is rich in natural resources and serves as a vital transport route to China — has experienced fierce fighting since a 17-year truce between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) collapsed in 2011. In January this year, the military reportedly deployed gunships and fighter jets in a push to shut down KIA headquarters in Laiza. The conflict has displaced more than 75,000 people.
While previous rounds of negotiations between the government and resistance leaders, held in February and March, have been unsuccessful, the two sides have agreed to resume talks later this month. The stakes are high; another failure could reignite civil conflict and all but destroy any remaining hope for reconciliation.
Ethnic tensions are also running high in the western state of Rakhine. The relationship between the majority Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya has long been a tinderbox. The Rohingya are not recognized by Burmese law and face official discrimination and harsh treatment, including virtually impenetrable barriers to citizenship as well as forced labor.
In June last year, tensions erupted when a Rakhine mob, reacting to the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men, killed 10 Muslims who had no connection to the incident. Violence quickly spread across the state, displacing thousands of people. While the government has managed to restore order, its heavy-handed, discriminatory approach has weakened prospects for peace.
Despite the great strides that Myanmar has made in the past two years, the specter of ethnic conflict continues to haunt the transition to democracy. If the government does not make genuine progress soon, the international community’s enthusiastic support for the country’s reform efforts will likely dissipate, compromising future efforts at negotiations and jeopardizing Myanmar’s democratic prospects.