Minority Rights Group International (MRG) warns that the elections in Burma risk increasing ethnic tensions and calls on the…+ LEARN MORE
Main religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Animism
Main languages: Burmese (official language), Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Mon, Chinese, etc.
According to the 2014 government census, Myanmar has a population of more than 51.4 million. It was the first census in over 30 years, and fell short of estimates of 60 million. Populations from certain northern zones of Rakhine State, home to the Rohingya minority, and some villages in the states of Kachin and Kayin were not counted.
It is nevertheless undoubtedly a country of enormous ethnic diversity, containing officially 135 major ethnic groups and seven ethnic minority states, in addition to seven divisions populated mainly by the Burmese majority (also known as Bamar). More than 100 languages are spoken in Burma, mainly from the Tibetan-Burmese language families, but also with a significant number of languages from the Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien and Austroasiatic groups. Burma’s geographic position has resulted in the country attracting settlers from many different backgrounds throughout its long history. Minority ethnic communities are estimated to make up at least one-third of the country’s total population and to inhabit half the land area.
The main ethnic groups living in the seven ethnic minority states of Burma are the Karen, Shan, Mon, Chin, Kachin, Rakhine and Karenni. Other main groups include the Nagas, who live in north Burma and are estimated to number more than 100,000, constituting another complex family of Tibetan-Burmese language subgroups. Other ethnic groups with significant numbers include Pa-O, Wa, Kokang, Palaung, Akha, and Lahu.
Some of the minorities share Theravada Buddhism with the Burmese majority, though there are also substantial communities of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and animists.
Updated September 2017
30 March 2016 saw Burma’s first democratically elected government in more than fifty years, led by the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor and Htin Kyaw as President, take office. The election was seen as an important opportunity to move away from decades of authoritarianism, ethnic division and human rights abuses to a more inclusive and stable future. Although the odds may still be stacked against the NLD, with the military enjoying constitutional privileges to maintain veto power in parliament and the right to take over in a state of emergency, the NLD enjoys significant electoral support and respect. But for Burma’s minorities and ethnic nationalities, the NLD still needs to take a clear stance on minority rights protection and conflict resolution.
Tensions remain high with the Kachin Independence Organisation/Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the largest non-NCA groups, as fighting escalated during 2016 and culminated in the government army’s use of fighter jets and heavy artillery on KIA outposts in October. Approximately 100,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan State from fighting that erupted in 2011, which had broken a 17-year ceasefire. Increased fighting during 2016 between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army South and the government military in northern Shan State saw thousands displaced, their situation exacerbated by the government and military’s obstruction of humanitarian assistance to KIA-controlled areas, leaving many displaced persons without shelter, medicine and healthcare.
Abuses against civilians by the government army in Kachin and Shan States continue to be reported, including extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual abuse, torture, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and forced labour. Both the government and ethnic armies have been accused of using civilians for portering and as human shields. The Ta’ang Women’s Organisation has documented the expansion of military presence in ethnic Ta’ang areas of northern Shan State in 2016, finding evidence of systematic torture and sexual violence by the Myanmar military.
The situation is complicated by the presence of natural resources that many are eager to exploit. Jade is Burma’s most valuable resource, estimated by the international NGO Global Witness at a value of 31 billion USD in 2014, amounting to forty-eight per cent of the country’s official GDP. Very little of that revenue is accounted for, however, and even less goes into the hands of the Kachin locals. Fighting escalated around the Hpakant jade mines in Kachin State in May 2016, just days after the Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation U Ohn Win had conducted an inspection visit. The visit was seen as an assertion of regulatory power by the new government and a threat to those connected to the military that are benefiting from the mine, and demonstrates that in its corrupt current form, the jade mine industry is a both a driver of the conflict and a threat to the peace process. In July 2016, the government announced that no new permits would be issued nor existing ones renewed until a regulatory legal framework is settled, a significant step to reform the jade industry.
Other forms of resource extraction, such as the government’s drive to push through hydropower dams on rivers in conflict zones, also have the potential to sabotage the peace process. A joint statement released in December 2016 by 422 organizations accused the NLD of not adequately consulting communities that will be affected by proposed dams. In particular, five large proposed dams on the Salween River are all in conflict areas in Shan, Karenni and Karen States. The statement further calls for a moratorium on proposed dams until peace agreements have been passed.
Despite the government’s apparent efforts at conciliation with many ethnic minorities, the precarious situation of Burma’s embattled minority Rohingya Muslim population shows no sign of improving. Rohingya in recent years have been the target of vigilante attacks and mass violence, encouraged by the Buddhist nationalist organization 969, but authorities have been slow to take action to protect the community. Indeed, many attacks have occurred with the apparent complicity of officials and security forces. In October 2016, for instance, attacks on three border posts in Maungdaw district in northern Rakhine State that left nine officers dead set off retaliatory military operations. The government blamed the attacks on a Rohingya militant group.
Government security forces responded disproportionately to the killings by conducting violent village sweeps, including the use of helicopter gunships, burning buildings and summarily killing, raping and torturing civilians, including children. Tens of thousands in these restricted areas were denied aid and many remained displaced months after the attack. These events were the worst since the massive 2012 violence against Rohingya, which many have called crimes against humanity that could amount to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized for maintaining a weak stance toward the crisis, even denying that abuses have taken place, including those during autumn 2016. In August 2016, Suu Kyi created a nine-member advisory committee to look into the Rohingya situation, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Disappointingly though, Annan said the commission will not conduct human rights investigations but will instead focus on conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance and development. At the end of 2016, the government initiated another commission to investigate the 9 October attacks and subsequent reports of security forces abuse. Headed by a former army general and with no Muslim or Rohingya commissioners, the commission subsequently concluded that no genocide or religious persecution had taken place.
The persecution of Rohingya, while loaded with strong ethnic dimensions – community members are frequently vilified as ‘Bengalis’ – also has a religious dimension. The religious freedom of Muslims has also been targeted under the new government. Two Muslim interfaith activists, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt, who conducted a well-publicized interfaith peace visit to the KIA and a humanitarian mission to Chin State, were charged in April 2016 for illegally crossing into India and associating with banned organisations. They were sentenced to two years with labour for each charge, in what many have called an intimidation tactic for their peaceful activism.
In 2017, the situation facing Rohingya worsened dramatically. By early September over 70,000 Rohingya had left Burma for Bangladesh within just a few days, due to renewed violence. The government blamed the situation on the armed opposition Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which it said had killed 12 government officials in attacks on police posts on 25 August. The government also alleged that ARSA had been setting fires in Rohingya villages during fighting. But independent human rights monitors reported that Burmese military together with armed citizens were attacking villages across Rakhine state. Survivors described victims of all ages, including children, having been killed. Soldiers reportedly also opened fire on Rohingya as they tried to flee across the border. Protecting and assisting Rohingya civilians became difficult as the government also denied access to UN aid agencies. By the end of September 2017, nearly half a million Rohingya had fled the country and tens of thousands had been displaced inside Burma, with the UN condemning what it considered to be a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. Over 20,000 mainly ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslims had also been displaced, due to the actions of either ARSA or the Burmese military.
Updated September 2017
Myanmar, or Burma as it was known before 1989 until a coup d’état led to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) assuming power, is the largest country in mainland South-East Asia and a meeting point for numerous population groups, being bordered by the People’s Republic of China on the north-east, by Laos on the east, by Thailand on the south-east, Bangladesh on the south-west and finally by India on the north. It has a very diverse environment, with snowy mountains in the north, a tropical climate in the south and major transnational river systems on its territory, such as the Mekong and Salween.
Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, and was governed under a democratic parliamentary system under Prime Minister U Nu until 1962, although it was under a military ‘caretaker government’ between 1958 and 1960. After a military coup in 1962, General Ne Win took over, ruling until 1988. During General Ne Win’s military socialist regime, the 1947 Constitution, which had outlined an essentially federal structure for independent Burma, albeit one dominated by the centre, was replaced in 1974 by a new Constitution which created a more centralized state and withdrew many of the provisions guaranteeing rights for some of the country’s ethnic minority groups.
The people of Burma eventually challenged the repressive regime of General Ne Win in 1988, when demonstrations swept through the capital Yangon (Rangoon), and for a time it looked as though the people’s will would prevail and democracy would be established. However, the army regained control in September 1988 and cracked down on the democratic movement, putting hundreds of people in jail and ushering in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) as the government of Burma. In 1989 it changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in English.
The SLORC quickly promised elections, but the results of the election held in 1990 gave a landslide victory to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of independent Burma’s founder, Aung San). The SLORC not only disregarded these results, but cracked down on the victorious National League for Democracy and sought to impose its absolute control over the country. It prevented any elected national assembly from convening and continued to hold the main leaders of the National League for Democracy under house arrest, despite increasing international pressure for their release and for the recognition of the election results.
SLORC convened a National Convention to begin the task of drawing up a new constitution in January 1993, but restrictions on its activities and other interferences by the military junta led to the NLD walking out in late 1995. The SLORC also dealt with several long-standing minority insurgencies along its borders in the 1990s, negotiating ceasefire agreements that ended fighting with most of them apart from the Karen. The main Karen National Union base at Manerplaw was captured by the Burmese military in spring 1995, but without any final peace settlement.
Against this backdrop, the SLORC also attempted to ‘rebrand’ itself in November 1997 and adopted the name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), though this was widely considered a cosmetic change as the leadership remained essentially the same.
Reports of massive human rights violations continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Sanctions against Burma by the European Union, the United States and other countries were intensified during this period, with the State Peace and Development Council placing Aung Suu Kyi again under house arrest in September 2000 until May 2002, when she was ‘released’ with some travel restrictions. She was taken into house arrest again in May 2003 where she remained until 2010.
The SPDC announced in 2003 a seven-step ‘roadmap to democracy’. On 17 February 2005, it reconvened the National Convention in order, among other things, to finish writing a new Constitution. Excluded from it were the main pro-democracy parties, including the National League for Democracy, and allied ethnic parties. Over 20 ethnic groups that have negotiated ceasefires, however, did take part. The National Convention adjourned again in December 2006, with a draft reportedly nearing completion. It was reconvened in July 2007 in what the SPDC said was the final round and was concluded in September 2007 with a written Constitution still lacking. In October 2007 the military junta formed a new committee to address the task as part of its ‘roadmap to democracy’.
In May 2008, a draft Constitution was finally presented to voters in a referendum widely condemned by the opposition and international human rights groups as a sham. The new document enshrined military control over the government, guaranteed enough seats for the military in parliament to block any further constitutional reform without the military’s assent, and excluded Aung San Suu Kyi. The referendum, announced as having received over 92 per cent approval with 99 per cent voter turnout, was accompanied by police harassment, official review of citizen’s ballots, revision of ‘no’ votes to ‘yes’ votes, and other severe irregularities. Further, the referendum came less than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, and especially its Irrawaddy Delta. Voting in the hardest hit areas was postponed until 24 May, but that did not prevent the junta from announcing the results of the referendum on 15 May.
In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the government failed to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of victims, blocked international aid efforts for weeks before easing some restrictions, and pilfered portions of the international assistance intended for victims. One month after the cyclone struck, UN estimates placed the number of dead at 78,000, with 56,000 still missing. Two million people were still in need of relief. With the Irrawaddy Delta providing two-thirds of Burma’s rice harvest, long-term food security was also a major concern, especially in light of skyrocketing world food prices.
In 2005, the government started moving its operations away from Yangon (Rangoon) to a remote jungle location near Pyinmana, its newly designated capital city, officially named Nay Pyi Taw Myodaw (‘Royal City of the Seat of Kings’) on 27 March 2006.
In November 2010, Burma’s first general elections in two decades were held. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won the elections, but many saw the elections as a sham, with the regime doing everything in its power to ensure victory. The number of political prisoners doubled in the years leading up to the poll, all media outlets continued to be censored, international media and election observers were barred and voting was cancelled in several regions where ethnic minorities predominate. The main opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), did not register for the election in protest of its strict rules.
Burma convened its first parliament in over 22 years in January 2011. In March, Thein Sein was sworn in as President, officially dissolving military rule. The government eased restrictions on media, permitted the creation of trade unions, and passed a law to allow peaceful assembly and protest. It also reached out to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released significant numbers of political prisoners and pledged to prioritize minority issues. But these reforms did not necessarily translate into genuine progress. While 17 out of the 22 ethnic political parties won at least one seat in the election (15.7 per cent of available seats), the conduct of parliamentarians is governed by laws criminalizing comments that are considered a threat to national security or the unity of the country, or in violation of the 2008 Constitution.
Relationships between Thein Sein’s government and ethnic nationality armed groups remained tense throughout his presidency, and in some cases, degenerated. In March 2011, the military broke a 22-year ceasefire with the Shan State Army-North in March, mobilizing an additional 3,500 troops. By June, the 17-year ceasefire with Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was breached. Fighting in Burma’s northern Kachin State peaked in January 2013, when the military launched a full-scale land and aerial assault on the ethnic rebel stronghold in Laiza, killing civilians and forcing thousands from their homes. Increasing militarization in Kachin State led to an increase in human rights violations, including the Burma military’s continuing use of rape as a weapon of war.
Since the end of formal military rule, Burma has witnessed the rise of a Buddhist nationalist movement, resulting in increasingly common attacks against the beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State. This violence has spread to a number of Burma’s cities, resulting in religious segregation and increased marginalization of non- Buddhists around the country. The government passed a series of laws referred to as the “race and religion” laws in 2015 that have been criticized for directly targeting religious minorities, Rohingya in particular. They include the Religious Conversion Bill and the Monogamy Bill, Population Control Law, and the Interfaith Marriage Law.
The year 2015 marked a milestone for Burma as it held its first openly contested general election since the end of 50 years of military dictatorship. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, achieved a landslide victory, securing 77 per cent of seats in parliament and ousting the military-backed ruling party. But this historic moment was overshadowed by religious and ethnic frictions fuelled by a Buddhist nationalist movement that is playing an increasingly destructive role in the country’s politics, as well as millions of ethnic and religious minorities prevented from voting in the November poll, either as a result of conflict or discriminatory electoral rules.
The denial of the rights of many minorities in Burma, and the continuing conflicts between the government and numerous minority groups mobilized by elites who may or may not be accountable to the constituencies they seek to represent, have roots that go back to the broken promises and unfulfilled expectations from the time of the creation of the country after the Second World War. Even before Burma became a fully independent state, one of its founders, Aung San had concluded in 1947 what is now known as the Panglong Agreement with representatives from the Shan, Chin and Kachin minorities. The Agreement included various autonomy rights for minorities – as equal partners in the new Union – and contained their acceptance to cooperate with his government.
The Panglong Agreement was a good initial starting point, though it contained a number of weaknesses, not least because many minorities such as Karen and Mon were not signatories. The potential of the agreement remained unfulfilled as, a few months later in July 1947, Aung San was assassinated by political rivals.
A Communist rebellion soon after independence in January 1948 threatened the survival of Burma’s civilian elected government under Prime Minister U Nu. With the support of the fledgling Burma Army – and especially that of minority units within this army – the civilian authorities were able to hold back the Communist threat, but distrust and eventually hostility between some of the minority communities and government quickly developed. While many minorities in the 1940s and 1950s were receptive to a union that respected their rights and acknowledged the country’s ethnic diversity, an increasingly significant percentage became disillusioned as their rights were eroded over the years. A number of them came to believe that only by armed struggle could these rights be guaranteed. Resenting the unfulfilled promises and perceived increasing Burmese domination of the army and government, minorities such as the Karen and others began holding demonstrations and increasingly demanding some form of independence or federalism. A number of incidents, and the inability or refusal of the government to respond to these demands, quickly led to armed violence, so that by 1949, as political violence swept the country, the government faced uprisings from the Communists and a number of minorities, including the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Pao and Rakhine.
The situation was to worsen dramatically a decade later when General Ne Win first seized power in 1958–60 in a military coup, then again in 1962. The results for minorities were tragic, as the military not only entered into a cycle of increasing repression against all opposition, but also moved towards policies and practices which identified more and more with the Burmese Buddhist majority.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, minority groups increasingly rose against the regime and, by the late 1970s, over a dozen armed groups opposed the military regime, most of which involved minority-based armies controlling much of the hill territories near the country’s land borders. In 1976, nine of these groups united to form the National Democratic Front (NDF) alliance. Other minorities in the north-east of the country, especially the Wa and Kokang, also joined with the insurgent Communist Party of Burma that, between 1968 and 1988, was backed by neighbouring China.
Mass uprisings throughout much of the country in 1988, led by university students and Buddhist monks, were violently suppressed, with many Burmese pro-democracy activists fleeing to minority-controlled areas. While General Ne Win stepped down, he was replaced in power by a handpicked group of military officers in September 1988 which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the predecessor of the currently ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
The sad legacy of the military junta’s role since Burma’s independence has been the elimination of the limited local minority autonomy and of any significant minority leadership in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw (Burmese army); the refusal to recognize education beyond fourth grade in schools in local, non-Burmese languages; discriminatory policies, which resulted in disadvantage or exclusion of minority peoples in public service employment; arbitrary confiscation of land, especially in minority areas; and discriminatory exploitation of natural resources. All of these policies, combined with the brutal tactics of the military junta, have resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis with several hundred thousand people being forced to flee, especially minority groups such as the Shan and Karen. The latter have seen as many as 20 per cent of their populations either displaced internally or becoming refugees in neighbouring Thailand.
Ceasefires and resettlement
Militarily, the SLORC (and now the SPDC) seemed to gain the upper hand in its armed struggle with minority opposition groups after 1988, with ceasefire agreements being concluded with 14 armed minority groups. These truces have not resulted in political settlements to the conflicts underlying half a century of insurgency in Burma. However, they have given civilian populations a respite from the fighting, allowing some communities to recover, and providing the space for ethnic minority civil society networks to re-emerge. Resettlement and development programmes were started in many areas, with international agencies also permitted into areas that had been off-limits for decades. This movement has however been hampered again by state authorities more recently, as a number of international organizations have ceased or suspended activities because of perceived interference or restrictions emanating from the SPDC. The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Committee for the Red Cross suspended or curtailed their activities in Burma in 2006.
A series of bombings between 2004 and 2006 led the SPDC to accuse political and armed ethnic opposition groups of terrorism, and to charge political activists with terrorism offences, despite no clear evidence of any linkage with these events and denial from all of these groups of any involvement.
Forced labour issues in Burma and the SPDC’s lack of cooperation with the International Labour Organization (ILO) brought matters to a head in 2006 and 2007. In March 2006, the ILO Governing Body agreed to consider new courses of action because of the regime’s continual non-compliance with the Forced Labour Convention, and especially the absence of any effective complaints mechanism for accusations of forced labour (previous complaints by individuals in Burma in 2006 had led to their criminal prosecution by government authorities for ‘false reports’ or ‘abuse of officials’). Among the options considered were referring the matter to the International Court of Justice. Following the ILO’s determination to take firm action against Burma, a Memorandum of Understanding was concluded in February 2007 which set up a trial complaints mechanism to allow victims of forced labour to seek redress without having to fear reprisals.
The Saffron Revolution and the slow march towards democracy
Beginning in August 2007, a series of spontaneous demonstrations against the government – initially in protest at the removal of a public subsidy on fuel prices – spread across the country. Bringing together students, activists, members of the Buddhist clergy and others, the ‘Saffron Revolution’ (as the movement became known) represented a landmark moment in the country’s opposition to the military regime. While the protests themselves were brutally repressed and demonstrators thrown into prison, the SPDC announced in their aftermath a number of apparent steps towards greater democracy, including a 2008 constitutional referendum and subsequent national elections in 2010.
Though dismissed by many commentators as merely cosmetic signs of progress – the 2010 election, for instance, was widely seen as fraudulent by international observers and boycotted by the National League for Democracy (NLD)– in the ensuing years further reforms were undertaken in the country – leading up to the country’s first democratically elected civilian-led government in more than fifty years.
2015 elections and victory for the NLD
The holding of national elections in 2015, the first free and fair election in more than five decades, resulted in a sweeping victory for the NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor and with Htin Kyaw serving as President. Hopes were now focused on the prioritization of further democratic reforms and the resolution of Burma’s long running civil wars.
After taking the position as State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi initiated a peace process for almost two dozen armed groups, negotiations that had largely been in stasis transitioning between governments. A Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) had been signed by eight groups in October 2015, but at least ten maintained reservations. Suu Kyi used her first year in office to make ambitious steps in quickening the dialogue process, including pushing through the first “Pangalong 21” conference.
The “Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong”, or Panglong 21 for short, referencing the historic autonomy agreement made by Suu Kyi’s father Aung San in 1947, was held 31 August to 3 September 2016. It sought to be inclusive toward all armed groups including non-NCA signatories, but was largely a symbolic meeting as there was no official dialogue; the government has maintained its stance that political dialogue can only be negotiated with signatory groups. Despite worries about Suu Kyi’s unilateral approach to the peace process, and a lack of women’s participation, representatives from nearly all armed groups attended. Moving forward toward substantive negotiations and having the remaining groups sign the ceasefire will be the true test, however, especially as the situation remained volatile on the ground.
Updated September 2017
Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Asian Human Rights Commission
Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA)
The Burma Fund
Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative
Ethnic Nationalities Council (Union of Burma)
Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme
Human Rights Watch Asia
Chin Human Rights Organization
Women’s League of Chinland
Zomi Re-unification Organization
Kachin Development Networking Group
Kachin National Organization
Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand
Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People
Friends of the Karen: People of Burma
Karen Human Rights Group
Karenni Independence through Education
Karenni News Agency for Human Rights
Human Rights Foundation of Monland
Monland Restoration Council (MRC)
Woman and Child Rights Project (Southern Burma)
Muslims and Rohingya
Arakan Rohingya National Organization
Shan Human Rights Foundation
Shan Relief and Development Committee
Shan Women’s Action Network
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
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