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Ethnic Groups In Burma

A peaceful and democratic Burma requires a flexible accommodation among the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Without lasting resolution to questions of local autonomy and national power-sharing, rebellions that have flared and simmered in Burma’s borderlands for over five decades cannot be resolved. And without peace, there is little chance for grassroots economic development that could help reduce the currently massive illicit dug production and trafficking in many impoverished ethnic minority areas.

The lack of a reliable census makes it impossible to more than roughly estimate the composition of Burma’s ethnic mosaic or its total population. Some experts suggest existing population data is skewed, exaggerating the number of Burman, who are the largest single ethnic group. According to available statistics, they comprise about two-thirds of Burma’s approximately 50 million people and dominate the army and government. Most of Burma’s ethnic minorities inhabit areas along the country’s mountainous frontiers. Karen and Shan groups comprise about 10% each of the total population, while Akha, Chin, Chinese, Danu, Indian, Kachin, Karenni, Kayan, Kokang, Lahu, Mon, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rakhine, Rohingya, Tavoyan, and Wa peoples each constitute 5% or less of the population.

Burma has experienced a long history of migration and conflict among various ethnic groups along fluid frontiers, which were finally fixed only during British imperial rule from the 1820s to 1948. Under British control, diverse peoples far from Rangoon were brought under at least nominal central administration. Yet many areas remained effectively self-ruled, with only a thin veneer of imperial oversight. During World War II, while many Burman joined Japan’s fight against British forces, many minority ethnic groups remained loyal to Britain. This reflected a genuine desire for independence on the part of both groups: Burmans struggling to be free of the British colonial yoke, and ethnic minorities wishing to escape Burman domination.

The Union of Burma became independent in 1948 only after extensive negotiations led by General Aung San, who convinced most ethnic minority groups to join the new union. The Panglong Agreement of 1947 outlined minority rights and specifically gave the Shan and Karenni peoples the option to secede from the union a decade after independence. Yet these constitutional guarantees were never fully respected. Almost immediately upon independence, Burma was wracked by a series of brutal ethnic wars that continue in varying intensity to this day.

The principal demands of Burma’s ethnic minorities are to gain genuine autonomy for their home areas and to achieve a significant voice in the affairs of the country as a whole. Few demand total independence as their ultimate goal. Since its 1988 coup, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (or SLORC, renamed the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997), has negotiated cease-fires with most armed ethnic opposition groups and waged fierce assaults against others. Muslim Rohingya people in southwestern Burma were targeted in 1991, and over 250,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh. A new wave of attacks was reported in late 2000.

At least 140,000 more Karen, Karenni, and Mon people from eastern Burma are refugees in Thailand following intense Burmese army offensives since 1984. Many Shan people have been forced to flee army assaults as well. In several areas, there are massive numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), mostly villagers who have fled their homes to escape conscription as military porters or other abuses. The suffering of Burma’s estimated 600,000 IDPs is often far worse than refugees in neighboring countries, who receive at least some outside aid.

In many areas, uneasy truces prevail. Among the earlier cease-fires concluded were with ethnic Wa and Kokang armies, which until 1987 served under the Burmese Communist Party. The Burmese army’s agreements with these groups permit opium cultivation and the right to trade without interference. The result has been a sharp increase in heroin production and smuggling from Burma and a concurrent worldwide rise in heroin use and addiction. These groups are now also engaged in large-scale illicit manufacture of methamphetamines.

Some other ethnic opposition organizations, particularly the Kachin Independence Organization and the Karen National Union, have taken strong stands against drug production and trafficking. The present junta has exploited divisions within and among ethnic groups to bolster its rule. In 2000, the relocation of thousands of Wa farmers into traditional Shan areas has raised tensions and sparked fighting between those groups.

The United Nationalities League for Democracy, an umbrella group for non-Burman political parties formed after the 1988 democracy movement, was revived in January 2001 by exiled politicians. A draft constitution was ratified and executive members were elected. These parties won a combined 65 seats in the 1990 elections and have a strong claim to political legitimacy.The National Democratic Front (NDF), another coalition of ethnic groups, is also striving to promote common positions among ethnic minorities.

Prospects for a democratic, prosperous, and peaceful Burma are dim without a just and amicable settlement of the country’s ethnic conflicts. The junta’s proposed new constitution does little to acknowledge ethnic groups’ grievances. Burma’s democratic opposition has urged serious efforts to address these issues, as ethnic reconciliation and cooperation will be a major challenge for any future Burmese government.

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