SHAN STATE, BURMA — It’s not easy to govern a country emerging from a half-century of military rule, particularly with one hand tied behind your back. After sweeping Burma’s historic elections in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), now faces daunting challenges. It needs to repeal or reform problematic laws, restructure military-dominated bureaucracies, and deal with violent strains of xenophobia and anti-Muslim hatred.
The civilian government must gain control of the defense, border, and interior ministries — all of which are constitutionally reserved for the country’s notoriously abusive military. The plight of 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims, who have long been targets of state-sponsored persecution, deprived of access to basic services, and the right to full citizenship, also requires urgent attention. Seasoned humanitarian workers have described conditions in camps where more than 120,000 Rohingya have been isolated since the 2012 campaign of ethnic cleansing as among the worst they have ever seen.
Perhaps most challenging, however, is the work of uniting a country that has been wracked by civil war since its independence in 1948. Beyond Rangoon and the capital city of Naypyidaw, longstanding armed conflicts persist between the government and various ethnic armed groups. Some of those conflicts are now re-igniting, with devastating consequences for the affected populations.
During a recent trip to northern Shan State, I saw the impact of this renewed fighting first-hand. At the Aung Mingalar Bo Taw Monastery, community leaders and displaced residents told me that a recent military attack had forced 280 of them to flee their village. Soldiers burned their homes and shot at some of them as they ran away. Nang Pwot, 35, said her husband had been detained simply because of a scar on his wrist, leading the military to believe he was a Shan fighter. Efforts to find him have failed despite a local Shan politician’s attempts to negotiate with the military. “We’ve been suffering for 60 years,” one community leader told me. “We’re afraid to go home because of the [military.]”
At a temporary camp in the remote hills of Kutkai township, recent arrivals also told me they ran from their village after the military fired heavy artillery at fighters thought to be hiding among the local population. Although two months had passed since the initial clashes, community leaders were still visibly shaken as they recounted how they hid in the forest for a week and then walked a full day before finally stopping. Now they’re living in makeshift homes. Because the Burmese army maintains a presence in their village and may have mined the surrounding fields and farms, they won’t even think about going home.
It gets worse. A number of displaced people told us that the army is using helicopter gunships against fighters deployed near villages — a recipe for disaster. A video from earlier this year shows soldiers torturing villagers in western Shan State by beating them as they lay on the ground with their hands tied.
The fighting in Shan State and other ethnic states shows no signs of tapering off even as Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD puts together a highly anticipated peace conference. The “21st Century Panglong Conference,” which should occur by the the end of August, references the historic Panglong conference of 1947, which was convened by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and helped lay the groundwork for post-independence Burma. Suu Kyi recently met with members of the armed ethnic groups that signed onto last year’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement to discuss plans for the conference, but the details remain opaque. Notably, representatives from the groups currently fighting the military were absent from this recent meeting, potentially presaging a less than comprehensive plan for peace.
For many observers, measuring the success of Burma’s democratic transition is a matter of gauging the political dynamics in Naypyidaw. But the ultimate success of Burma’s transition will depend on whether its new quasi-civilian government can rein in the military and address the terrible legacies of the country’s multiple, decades-long armed conflicts.
The process will take time. In the near term, Aung San Suu Kyi should ensure that humanitarian aid groups can travel freely to the affected areas, in particular in Kachin and northern Shan State. By impeding the delivery of aid, the Burmese government risks violating international humanitarian law and undermining the support of the ethnic communities that helped bring it to power. The NLD needs to make clear to the military that such measures are not only unacceptable but also unhelpful as the government continues to seek support from international relief groups. The NLD should also make sure that all affected ethnic minority groups are invited to participate in the upcoming conference, not just the ones that signed last year’s ceasefire agreement. By doing this, it will demonstrate a commitment to ending decades of abuse while also making a clear break with the pernicious “divide and rule” tactics employed by the former military regime.
Efforts to define the upcoming peace conference are still underway, so the question remains: How best can these seemingly permanent conflicts and the attendant human rights abuses be resolved? The most important steps are to ensure that the process is inclusive, reaches local communities, and tackles longstanding grievances. This means not only dealing with ongoing fighting and systemic rights violations, but underlying issues as well, including land rights, ownership of Burma’s abundant natural resources, and security for the ethnic communities — something they have never really had.
The United States and other donors can play a vital role by helping ensure the NLD, the military, and the ethnic groups take full advantage of this opportunity and engage in good faith discussions. They need to push for the full participation of civil society, especially of women and the many ethnic groups that have been so central to the country’s peace efforts and political life. And they need to make sure all armed ethnic groups are engaged to the fullest — not just some of them. The future of Burma is about more than building a civilian-controlled government. It is also about ensuring protection, fairness, and justice for all of Burma’s people, including its ethnic minorities.