Hundreds of thousands eek out a miserable existence as the West re-embraces Myanmar. Jane McClenahan reports.
Things are looking up for Myanmar. Following decades of international sanctions, the economy of Asia’s poorest country is growing. Coca-Cola is back after 60 years, Ford has opened a dealership. As the BBC’s chief business correspondent Linda Yueh reported, 28 foreign banks have opened in the past two years.
The country, also known as Burma, has just taken over the leadership of ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Earlier this month, the region’s foreign ministers met for the first time in Myanmar’s ancient city of Bagan. In December 2013, the country hosted the Southeast Asia Games. Gradually Myanmar is being rehabilitated into the South East Asian Institutions and world affairs.
Not bad for a country regarded as a pariah state until only a few years ago.
Yet the new openness obscures continued unrest inside the country. Myanmar’s feared military, the Tatmadaw, has made peace with most of the country’s ethnic groups but several extremely bloody conflicts continue.
The communal violence in Rakhine State has gained international coverage. Meanwhile, in the far North East, the military and the Kachin Independence Army fight on in one of the world’s longest running conflicts. The Kachins want autonomy, the right to self-determination and freedom to use their own language. Due to the remoteness of Kachin State and the difficulty accessing a war zone, events there rarely make world headlines.
Both sides are far from blameless in a conflict that began in 1948 when Burma gained independence from Britain after World War II. Intermittent fighting is punctuated by cease-fires. The most recent collapsed in 2011. In October last year, the two sides signed a “preliminary deal”. Days later it broke down.
Since 2011 the region has spiraled down again into brutal conflict. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been internally displaced or become refugees in India and China. Human rights groups say both sides have committed grave abuses. The BBC’s Sue Lloyd Roberts’s harrowing report on conditions in Kachin can be accessed here. The Kachin Independence Army forcibly recruits boys and girls as child soldiers. Drug use is rampant and sexual crimes by both sides are widespread.
Mark Farmaner, director of the UK-based Burma Campaign Group, says: “Abuses by the Burmese army in the past year are so serious they constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Kachin’s treasure trove of under-exploited natural resources, including jade and gold, could be helping to secure the future for the state’s 1.2 million people. Instead, the resource curse is making each side more desperate to gain the upper hand. The resources are being illegally mined and transported, which prevents local people benefiting. Side industries in drug smuggling, prostitution and kidnapping also have flourished.
The KIA regards itself as the protector of the Kachin people. Many local civic groups no longer agree. Yet the ‘for us or against us’ approach makes it difficult to conduct any rounded dialogue.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomas Quintana, recently commented that peace building in the state is failing due to a lack of grassroots engagement. Quintana says the top leaders are able to reach agreements but those affected on a daily basis are not included in the process.
The international community could use its diplomatic might to push for a lasting resolution to this conflict. Neighboring China is already on board spurred on by its own interests; Kachin borders Yunnan province. China is heavily invested in pipelines and dams in Kachin. A fully operational gas pipeline between Myanmar and China opened in October 2013. A stable, more peaceful Kachin would make operations much easier for China.
The most recent talks between the military and KIA broke down over how to refer to the rebel groups. They are set to reconvene later this month.
Resolving the Kachin conflict would offer the government an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to real change. It would give the region a chance to show its mettle. ASEAN members and others in the international community could help to drive the peace process on by offering incentives for both sides to reach a lasting agreement.