Mon 1 Oct 2012
Filed under: Opinion
It is understandable that Mrs Suu Kyi is adjusting her style as she makes the transition from political prisoner to opposition leader in parliament, but it would be out of character for her to keep a low profile on this important issue for long.
Not so many months ago a meeting between Myanmar’s head of state and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi anywhere outside the Yangon home where she was kept under house arrest for almost 15 years would have been big news. The fact that such a meeting took place last week in New York City, where Thein Sein addressed the United Nations General Assembly and Mrs Suu Kyi was visiting as part of a 17-day tour of the US, is dramatic proof of how far Myanmar has come in such a short time. President Thein Sein was given a warm welcome for his government’s reform agenda, and in his speech to the assembled national leaders he was effusive in his praise of Mrs Suu Kyi, who more than anyone else is responsible for putting Myanmar on the road to democratisation.
But while both Thein Sein and Mrs Suu Kyi were given well-deserved accolades for their roles in making it possible for Myanmar to rejoin the world community after so many years of isolation, their visits to the US have also been marked by tough questions. The ”new” Myanmar faces many obstacles, none greater than resolving the country’s longstanding ethnic tensions.
With at least 135 distinct ethnic groups in Myanmar and eight ”major” groups, tensions are perhaps unavoidable, and these have been exacerbated by many years of harsh repression and human rights abuses under the military junta.
While there has been progress on this front since the general election of November 2010 that put Thein Sein in office, it has been overshadowed by the vigilante violence against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine state and the ongoing fighting in Kachin state between government troops and soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army, which is the subject of an exclusive report in this week’s Spectrum from northern Kachin state near the border with China. As the report makes clear, the fighting has resulted in an increasingly serious humanitarian crisis as from 70-100,000 people have been forced to take refuge at camps for internally displaced people that are facing chronic shortages of basic necessities.
Speaking of the country’s ethnic division earlier this month, Mrs Suu Kyi said: ”We have to learn to live together as a union. We had great hopes that our diversity would be our strength. Those hopes have not been realised. We owe it to the world, to all those who have supported us, to make that change.” However, Mrs Suu Kyi has been the subject of rare criticism because of perceptions that she was trying to avoid the issue by keeping silent about the violence in Rakhine and Kachin states. Asked about this in New York, she acknowledged the criticisms but said she did not want to ”add fire to any side of the conflict”, and implied that it was not proper for her opposition National League for Democracy Party to interfere in the government-run peace process by trying to score ”political points”.
It is understandable that Mrs Suu Kyi is adjusting her style as she makes the transition from political prisoner to opposition leader in parliament, but it would be out of character for her to keep to a low profile on this important issue for long. When she was freed from house arrest in late 2010, she spoke of holding a second Panglong conference to discuss the future of the country’s ethnic minorities. The first Panglong conference was organised in 1947 by her father, General Aung San. Hopefully the promotion of such a conference will be a priority in Mrs Suu Kyi’s very full agenda.
Thein Sein, meanwhile, has been forced into the position of defending his government’s ethnic policies in New York, and the civic group Kachin Alliance organised two demonstrations on Thursday, one outside UN headquarters and the other outside the Burmese Permanent Mission in the city.
On separate occasions in New York, Thein Sein said the government had been in peace talks with the KIA and that he had ordered government troops not to fight with KIA soldiers, but that ”our Kachin colleagues have not reciprocated”. But accounts from various human rights groups as well as Kachin interviewed by Spectrum suggest that government troops are often the aggressors, and some expressed doubt that Thein Sein ever gave the order not to engage with the KIA.
In any case, it has to be accepted that bringing the military under civilian control may not be a straightforward or easy process. Therefore a proposal from the Kachin Alliance that the UN become involved in the peace process and send independent monitors to Kachin state makes good sense and should be endorsed by both Thein Sein and Mrs Suu Kyi.