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Further conflict and humanitarian crisis likely if minority groups are excluded from Burma talks

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As international attention focuses on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and prospects for change in Burma (Myanmar), a new report from Minority Rights Group International (1) warns that the country faces further conflict and humanitarian crisis if minority groups are excluded from talks about Burma’s future.

Burma’s ethnic minorities(2), who represent one third of the population, have faced gross and systematic human rights violations under the military government which took power in 1962. Summary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings have occurred on a massive scale. Decades of combat have generated up to 2 million internally displaced people and refugees, mainly from minority communities including the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Shan.(3) Forced labour persists, particularly in the minority Karen and Shan state borderlands, and among Muslims in northern Rakhine state. Thousands of women and children are victims of cross-border human trafficking into prostitution and cheap labour. As MRG’s report documents, the humanitarian situation is most acute in ethnic minority regions: education and healthcare are seriously neglected, narcotics production, abuse and trafficking are rife(4), and Burma currently faces one of the most serious AIDS epidemics in Asia.(5) Local aid workers in the Shan and Kachin states report mortality rates comparable with those in conflict.

However, promises of on-going talks between the government and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), mean a mood of cautious optimism now surrounds Burma. On all sides, voices are calling for solutions, and crucial ceasefire agreements have been made between the authorities and some ethnic opposition groups in recent years. But MRG’s report cautions that optimism is misplaced unless all these groups are included in any future political negotiations, and their needs and concerns addressed. It is also essential that steps are taken to end on-going conflict between minority groups and the military in the Indo-Bangladesh and Thailand borderlands, which continues to result in the destruction of villages, displacement of people and human rights abuses.

MRG’s report calls for consultations between the military government, the NLD and ethnic minority groups to work towards an inclusive Constitution that will provide a framework for the effective participation of all ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in decision-making processes. MRG urges the international community to support the processes of dialogue, political reform and conflict resolution in Burma. Said Mark Lattimer, MRG’s director, ‘The ethnic minority rights that were guaranteed at Burma’s independence have been violated for too long. To ignore them now will only set the stage for future conflicts and injustices that will continue into coming generations.’ ends

For interviews and further information contact the MRG Press Office on press@minorityrights.org.

Notes for editors

  1. Burma (Myanmar): The Time for Change by Martin Smith, 44pp, ISBN 1 897693 59 1, published June 2002.
  2. The report profiles the main ethnic minority groups: Chin, Chinese, Indians, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Naga, Rakhine and Shan.
  3. E.g.: Up to one third of the population of the Karen, Kayah and Shan states have been displaced. There are approx. 135,000 Karen and Karenni refugees in Thailand and approx. 1 million illegal ‘migrants’, many of whom are from minorities. There are estimated to be approx. 100,000 Chin refugees and migrants in India.
  4. Burma is the world’s largest producer of opium (2001 figs); methamphetamine production is increasing – it was estimated 700 million tablets would be trafficked in Thailand in 2002.
  5. 1999 figs estimated 530,000 HIV-infected people in Burma.
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