Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts: Waiting for the dividend

Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts: Waiting for the dividend

Despite hopes of a nationwide ceasefire agreement, the trust needed for lasting peace remains a long way off

Oct 5th 2013 | HPA-AN

BY THE Salween river in the city of Hpa-an, on a patch of ground the size of a football pitch, the foundations are being dug out for a posh new hotel. This would not get much attention anywhere else in Myanmar. Scores of new hotels are going up in Yangon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities, to cater for an influx of tourists drawn by the country’s recent opening-up. In Hpa-an, however, it is big news.

For this is the capital of Kayin state, one of the poorest of the country’s dismally underdeveloped regions and home to the Karen people, the country’s second-largest ethnic group. For decades they have been fighting an insurgency against the majority Burmans, and Hpa-an has suffered commensurate damage and isolation. Many young Karen have simply left, often for work in neighbouring Thailand. A local doctor estimates that four-fifths of those remaining are killing time on methamphetamines, known locally as yaba. So the new hotel and its promise of hundreds of relatively well-paid jobs stands out as one of the first signs of economic revival.

And if not quite a peace dividend, the new hotel could at least be considered a bit of a ceasefire dividend. Work on it began after a landmark agreement to stop fighting was signed in January last year between the Myanmar government and the main Karen political group, the Karen National Union (KNU), representing its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Officially, it brought to an end the world’s longest-running civil war, begun in 1948 just after Myanmar’s independence. One obvious testimony to the ceasefire is the smart new KNU office along one of Hpa-an’s main roads. It is adorned with photographs of leaders with President Thein Sein and his underlings, all smiles and handshakes, unthinkable only a few years back.

And now come other signs of businesses exploiting the ceasefire to move in around Hpa-an. A new industrial zone has been created, and a textile factory there employs 200 workers. A Malaysian company proposes to build a cable car to the monastery on top of a famously craggy limestone peak, the Zwekabin. And to speed up the arrival of pilgrims and tourists alike, an air route has just started operating between Mae Sot, in Thailand, and Mawlamyine, on the Myanmar coast just an hour’s drive from Hpa-an.

This sort of investment is just what was hoped for from the Karen ceasefire, as well as from 13 similar agreements that have been signed between the government and other armed ethnic groups. The ceasefires are touted as one of the main achievements of Mr Thein Sein’s reforming government, and are crucial to everything else that it wants to achieve. As Aung Min, the minister in charge of negotiating the ceasefires, says, “without peace there is no democracy, and without democracy there will be no development.”

Only two armed groups, representing the Kachin and the Palaung peoples, have yet to sign up. Later this month, the central government expects to sign a grand nationwide ceasefire agreement with every group (with the Kachin and Palaung allowed to join in later). That would probably be Mr Thein Sein’s most important “legacy”, as an adviser puts it.

Myanmar’s previous military governments, however, also managed to sign ceasefire agreements, even if not so formally as the present one. And getting lasting peace agreements with the ethnic groups is a very different matter. That is the real prize that has eluded all governments. To judge by the present politics of Kayin state, it might elude Mr Thein Sein’s as well.

Take the great hotel by the Salween river, for instance. Despite the promise of jobs in a city where more than half the people appear unemployed, most Karen are in fact opposed to it, for the simple but overriding reason that they were not consulted about it. The local Karen member of parliament, the formidable Nan Say Hwa, argues that it was “imposed” on Hpa-an by the governor, a Burman who (as in every state) is directly appointed by the central government in Naypyidaw.

According to Ms Nan Say Hwa, the governor is unrepresentative of the local Karen and “does not listen to peoples’ advice or desires”. And so the way the hotel came into being has come to be seen as symptomatic of the way in which Burmans have always ridden roughshod over the sensibilities of other ethnicities. In this case, had they been consulted, the Karen would have wanted the hotel built elsewhere rather than on a pitch where many of them played football and which is remembered as the spot where the independence hero Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, gave a famous speech before his murder in 1947.

Other new investments in Kayin state have also been negotiated by Burmans over the heads of the Karen. It seems that, for all its ceasefires, Myanmar’s government has yet to learn anything very new politically. Little wonder that, at the KNU office, a KNLA fighter, Major Saw Shee Sho, remains sceptical of the government’s ability to change. “Fighting could be over”, he says. “Or maybe not. Meanwhile, we are keeping our weapons.”

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