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Burma’s Biggest Challenges: Civil War and Religious Intolerance

Ethnic Karen civilians take shelter in Myaing Gyi Ngu monastery after being displaced by fighting between a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Burma Army, supported by the Border Guard Force (Photo: Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy)

By Benedict Rogers
October 1, 2016

If all you see of Burma is Aung San Suu Kyi with British Prime Minister Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street, or sitting with President Obama in the White House, or at the United Nations, you might be inclined to think that Burma’s struggle is over and all is well.

But talk to any of the country’s civil society activists or ethnic or religious minorities and you will quickly realize there is still a very, very long way to go.

It is true that the peaceful transition to a government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, after they overwhelming won the country’s first credible elections in 25 years, is remarkable. But although this civilian, democrat-led government ends decades of direct rule by the military, it in no way ends the military’s power. Under the 2008 Constitution, designed by the military, they control a quarter of the seats in Parliament and three key ministries in government: home affairs, border affairs and defense.

This makes solving Burma’s two biggest challenges—ending decades of civil war and addressing deep-rooted religious intolerance—extremely difficult. Last month the State Counselor convened a major peace conference with representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities, known as a “21st Century Panglong.” Named after the conference held by her father, independence leader Aung San, in Panglong, Shan State, in 1947, it is another attempt to address the political grievances of the country’s diverse ethnic nationalities and begin a process of political dialogue.

The original Panglong conference established a federal system for the country, but the promises made were abandoned after Aung San was assassinated the following year. That principle, of a federal system giving the ethnic nationalities autonomy and equal rights, remains at the heart of the solution to the country’s conflicts.

Yet while the politicians talked peace, in Kachin and Shan states the Burma Army continued to attack civilians, and in recent weeks new reports of violence in Karen State have emerged, despite there being a ceasefire in place since 2012.

On the issue of religious intolerance, which is at its most extreme in Arakan State, where the Muslim Rohingya suffer a campaign of severe persecution from militant Buddhist nationalists and the military, Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her silence. Yet last month she surprised many by establishing a nine-member advisory commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to investigate the causes of the conflict and seek solutions—something several international activists had been calling for. The response from the Arakanese nationalists and those close to the military was one of fury.

One of the consequences of both the ethnic conflict and religious intolerance has been a humanitarian crisis in parts of the country. Over 120,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced by fighting, and over 130,000 Rohingya are living in dire conditions in more than 40 camps in Arakan State. Over recent years, thousands more have fled the country.

The internally displaced people in Burma are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, but are suffering from two problems: firstly, the government restricts humanitarian agencies’ access to parts of the country, and secondly, even in the areas they are able to reach, international agencies are now cutting provisions.

Last week, reports emerged that Burma Army soldiers prevented trucks containing a month’s supply of rice from the World Food Programme (WFP) from reaching a camp in Kachin state, and in the previous month, the military blocked a vehicle carrying medical supplies for four camps, provided by the United Nations.

At the same time, reports have emerged that the WFP is cutting food aid to displaced Rohingya in Arakan State. This is apparently part of a plan to phase-out relief assistance in parts of the state.

Cuts in aid in some areas and blocks on aid access in others combine into a recipe for an already serious humanitarian situation to spiral into a crisis. In July, Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma said, after meeting internally displaced peoples, that she had heard of their “daily struggles to survive.” She expressed concern about the “extensive difficulties in accessing and delivering aid,” even though such assistance “provides a lifeline to communities.” In Arakan State, she noted, access can only be approved “through a cumbersome procedure,” and in Kachin State “humanitarian access is shrinking.” The conditions of the internally displaced peoples’ camps she witnessed “remain poor.”

There is a desperate need to begin to address the root causes, which involves ending the conflict, confronting hate speech and working for reconciliation—and, in the case of the Rohingya, restoring their citizenship rights which were stripped from them in 1982. But no one can pretend that it will be easy, particularly given the military’s continuing power.

Yet there is an even more urgent task, which requires the immediate attention of both Aung San Suu Kyi and the international community: stop the block on aid, end the cuts, and ensure that no one starves to death simply on account of their race or religion. It is doubtless that Aung San Suu Kyi has a complex political tightrope to walk, but she is the only person in Burma with the moral and political authority to make this happen; in her government, she is the only decision-maker. She must now lift the aid restrictions and ensure that those displaced receive the aid they need to survive.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specializing in Asia, working for Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He is also the author of Burma: A Nation At The Crossroads, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, and A Land Without Evil: Ending the Genocide of the Karen People.

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