Thursday, June 18, 2015

Some articles in English.


Tomorrow is the 68th anniversary of Burma’s “Anti-Fascist Revolution Day,” which marks the beginning of the uprising against Japan’s WWII occupation of the country on March 27, 1945. Since the 1970s, however, it has been commemorated as Tatmadaw Day, in honor of Burma’s armed forces.

Although the role of the armed forces in Burma’s colonial and post-independence history has been controversial, this year’s Tatmadaw Day may be an occasion for change. When Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing delivers his speech tomorrow, he may have a different message.

Traditionally, Tatmadaw Day has been an occasion for the commander-in-chief to call on his troops to defend the country against rebel armies and Western neocolonialism. This year, however, there is not much fighting on the ethnic rebel front (with the very notable exception of the conflict with the Kachin Independence Army), and the countries of the West (especially the US and Australia) have begun to renew ties with Burma’s long-shunned military.

During his recent trips to Europe and Australia, President Thein Sein was accompanied by Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win and Joint Chief of Command Gen Hla Htay Win. This fact alone speaks volumes for the dramatic change in the West’s image of Burma’s armed forces since Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power two years ago, ending nearly five decades of direct military rule. Not so long ago, all three men would have been banned from entering most Western countries.

Especially since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy joined the army-backed Parliament after winning in by-elections last April 1, perceptions of Burma’s military have fundamentally changed. Even Suu Kyi—who spent much of the preceding two decades a prisoner of the former junta—has recently spoken of her “fondness” for the Burmese armed forces, which were founded by her father during Burma’s struggle for independence.

What is even more remarkable, however, if the way that many of Burma’s ethnic armed groups have responded to the government’s calls for ceasefires, even as the situation on the ground in many ethnic areas remains far from stable. While there are still many who doubt that a lasting peace will take hold anytime soon, just two years ago it would have been almost unthinkable that the Karen National Union—which has been engaged in an uninterrupted war with the government for as long as Burma has been a modern nation—would ever agree to a truce.

In other words, this Tatmadaw Day could conceivably be the last that Burma’s armed forces—and all the other militias in the country—are forced to fight each other in a seemingly endless civil war. If that is the case, then all of the fighting forces in Burma need to rethink their roles and plan for a future in which war in no longer the norm.

On the occasion of this year’s Armed Forces Day, then, I offer the following suggestions:

1.    All armed groups, including the Tatmadaw, should undergo sweeping reforms that include training their troops to be professional soldiers whose orders ultimately come from the country’s elected civilian government.

2.    All armed forces should devote a significant portion of their budgets to caring for comrades wounded in action and the families of those who fell while fighting.

3.    All armed forces should build monuments to honor those who fought honorably.

4.    The government, Parliament and people of Burma should recognize the sacrifices of all those who died in action, regardless of which side they were on.

It is impossible to calculate how many soldiers have died in Burma over the past 65 years, but we can get some sense of the incredible waste of human life if we consider the fact that the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, one of the smallest armed groups in the country, has lost 1,024 troops since it was formed in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Imagine, then, how many others must have died as casualties of all the armed groups that have fought in Burma since it became an independent nation.

National reconciliation will only be possible when all sides in Burma’s myriad conflicts can begin to recognize that they are not the only victims of the senseless cycle of violence that has dragged the country down for more than half a century.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a former student activist who fled to Burma’s ethnic rebel-controlled areas in 1988. He is now a freelance journalist and writer in exile.


The Irrawaddy.

The ongoing conflict in Kachin State and last year’s deadly clashes in Arakan State have cast a harsh light on one of the greatest challenges facing Burma as its moves toward reform: the need for ethnic harmony.

“Burma needs not only democracy but also ethnic rights,” says Kyaw Kyaw, a commander of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front-Northern Burma (ABSDF-NB), an ally of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), speaking from the KIA headquarters in Laiza.

“’Democracy and ethnic rights must go side by side. Democracy cannot live without ethnic harmony,” adds the former student activist, recalling an ABSDF slogan from the 1990s, when the group allied itself with various ethnic armies after fleeing the crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988.

In fact, this was not only a slogan of the ABSDF, but also of all the groups belonging to the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), formed in Manerplaw, the former headquarters of the Karen National Union. It brought together not only the KNU and the KIA, but also political organizations and ethnic armies representing Burma’s Mon, Karenni, Shan, Pa-o, Palong, Lahu, Wa, Chin and Arakanese minorities.

However, the DAB, which had called for a tripartite dialogue between the then ruling junta, democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities, suffered a setback in 1994 when the KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese army without the approval of other members.

The New Mon State Party and some other groups later followed the KIA’s example in making deals with the regime, but the KNU, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Shan State Army-South continued to fight until last year, when they signed agreements following Suu Kyi’s historic electoral victory in by-elections last May.

Now the KIA stands alone again, this time as the only major ethnic armed groups that is still fighting the Burmese army.

Civil War and Ethnic Rights

For people living in Rangoon, Mandalay or Naypyidaw, it can be difficult to understand the importance of “ethnic rights,” or even what this term means.

But if you visit ethnic areas, particularly those under the control of ethnic armed groups, you will readily understand why they feel a need to fight against the Burmese army, more that 60 years after Burma achieved its independence.

Few of these places, however, are accessible to foreigners or even Burmese holding foreign passports. And for ordinary Burmese to venture into any of these areas is to risk arrest and imprisonment under Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, which prohibits contact with organizations deemed to be  threat to state security.

Although most rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements since reforms began in 2011, this law remains in force, ensuring that most Burmese will never risk communicating with ethnic armed groups or even people living within their territories. This is deeply unfortunate, as it prevents people from Burma’s cities from ever gaining an understanding of why ethnic rights mean so much to many of their fellow citizens.

If we look back at Burma’s history, we can see that the country would never have become independent without the common assent of the Burman majority and the ethnic minorities. It was the Panglong Agreement, signed by Gen Aung San and leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin peoples on Feb. 12, 1947 (and commemorated on that day every year as Burma’s Union Day) that paved the way for independence the following year.

It was the failure of subsequent Burman-dominated governments (particularly the military regimes that ruled from 1962 until 2011) to honor this agreement that caused Burma to fall into civil war, according to the KIA and many other ethnic armed groups, who continue to call for a restoration of the “Panglong Spirit.”

Who Cares about Ethnic Rights?

After Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) joined the army-dominated Parliament last year, many people felt that Burma had finally won some democratic rights. But despite this, and despite the presence in Parliament of ethnic minority parties that contested in the 2010 election, it is still far from clear if the democratic rights of ethnic minorities are adequately represented in Burma.

Indeed, the issue of ethnic rights does not appear to be high on anybody’s agenda in Naypyidaw, despite the events of last year. Suu Kyi has been notably silent on this issue, confining her comments on the Kachin conflict, for instance, to calls for both sides to stop fighting.

Traditionally, people in urban areas, including politicians, are reluctant to talk about ethnic rights. They are especially wary of discussing federalism—something close to the hearts of Burma’s ethnic minorities. After half a century of military rule, federalism is seen by many Burmese as a veiled attempt to divide the country.

There are some, however, who have tried to tackle the ethnic issue head on. Recently, the 88 Generation Students group sent a delegation to the KIA stronghold of Laiza to assess the situation there. They also offered to help the government negotiate an end to the conflict, but have so far received no response from Naypyidaw.

The government, it seems, is only interested in moving forward with its own negotiating team, led by President’s Office Minister Aung Min. But even as Aung Min calls for talks, the Burmese army continues shelling KIA positions near Laiza, casting doubt on the sincerity of the government’s desire for a negotiated end to the conflict.

What about the international community? Does it care about the aspirations of Burma’s ethnic minorities?
So far, most foreign governments and organizations seem more interested in keeping up the momentum of political and economic reforms, and have paid little attention to the core demands of minorities. Some have expressed concern about the conflict in Kachin State, but few recognize the underlying causes of the unrest.

For its part, Burma’s military has tried to block any discussion of the issue of ethnic rights by urging the international community to focus on what it calls “terrorist actions and atrocities committed by the KIA.”

All of this bodes ill for Burma’s prospects of reform. Until all stakeholders start working together to achieve meaningful progress in restoring ethnic harmony, the chances of achieving lasting peace and prosperity will be very slim.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a former student activist who fled to ethnic rebel-controlled areas in 1988. He is now a freelance journalist and writer in exile.


Thein Sein Meets Burmese in Norway

Burmese President Thein Sein, left, meets with Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in Oslo on Feb. 26, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Burmese President Thein Sein met with members of Norway’s Burmese community on Wednesday, urging them to return to their native country, while also expressing gratitude to his hosts for supporting his reform efforts.
“The reason I chose Norway to be my first stop is because Norway has helped our people and country in terms of education, health care and support for environmental conservation,” he said during his five-minute speech.
He also thanked the Norwegian government for clearing Burma of the 3 billion Norwegian krone (US $527 million) debt that it owes the oil-rich Scandinavian country.
After decades of isolation, Burma can now begin to rebuild itself with low-interest loans from multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, thanks to Norway and other countries that have forgiven Burma’s debts, he said.
Thein Sein also spoke about his government’s latest talks with the Kachin Independence Army, saying that he aims to go beyond ceasefire talks to begin a political dialogue that would, he said, protect the rights of ethnic minorities under the Constitution.
Speaking to around 80 members of Norway’s Burmese community, he also reiterated his call to exiles to return to their home country to contribute to the task of nation building.
“Wherever you live now, you are all people of Burma. We may not all be the same, but we all have a common love of our country. Therefore it is time to put aside our differences and work for the good of the Union,” he said.
After the brief meeting, President’s Office Minister Soe Thane and Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut took questions from the audience. Soe Thane said the public should support the president because he is leading democratic reforms.
On his three-day official visit to Norway, Thein Sein met with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide and held a press conference after their meeting on Feb. 26.
He will leave from Norway to continue to his 12-day European tour, which which will also include trips to Finland, Austria, Germany and Italy.
During the press conference, he said that his government wants to reduce armed conflict, and is therefore offering peace-building with the ethnic armed groups. His administration has reached  ceasefires agreements with 10 out o 11 ethnic armed groups in less than two years.
Then Sein also “invited Norwegian companies to invest in the energy, information and technology sectors,” according to the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar.
Htet Aung Kyaw contributed reporting from Norway.


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