ETHNIC CONFLICT AND THE CHALLENGE OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN BURMA

 

Martin Smith

 

 

 

OVERVIEW

 

(i) The Changing Political Context and Dilemma of Engagement

The peaceful and lasting solution to the long-running ethnic conflicts in Burma is, without doubt, one of the most integral challenges facing the country today. Indeed, it can not be separated from the greater challenges of social, political and economic reform in the country at large. Since the seismic events of 1988, Burma has remained deadlocked in its third critical period of political and social transition since independence in 1948. However, despite the surface impasse, the political landscape has not remained static. During the past decade, the evidence of desire for fundamental political change has spread to virtually every sector of society, and, at different stages, this desire for change has been articulated by representatives of all the major political, ethnic, military and social organisations or factions. That Burma, therefore, has entered an era of enormous political volatility and transformation is not in dispute.

Serious doubts, of course, continue to dog how and when any reform process will be brought about to the satisfaction of all Burma's long-suffering peoples -- and this remains a central dilemma for international NGOs. But for those looking to the longterm and hoping for peaceful change, it is immediately significant that, since 1988, the new political climate has been reflected in a number of initiatives, which -- in one way of another -- have engaged all the key protagonists. Military rule still predominates but, despite the lack of consensual progress, the very nature of these exchanges or contacts marks a notable change in the pattern in Burmese politics from the "Burmese Way to Socialism" era of General Ne Win which preceded it. Equally important, as further evidence of the changes underway, the door has also been opened to a growing cast of international organisations and actors, who have also begun to engage with different elements and communities within broader Burmese society. All such developments were virtually unthinkable just a decade ago.

By contrast, during a quarter century of Ne Win's isolationist rule (1962-88), national political and economic life had ossified and, in many respects, could be separated into two different -- although overlapping -- socio-political arenas: the Dry Zone, Irrawaddy plains and other lowland areas where the Burman majority mostly live, and the ethnic minority borderlands. In the major towns and Burman heartlands, Ne Win's military-backed Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) attempted to build up a monolithic system of government which would, it was intended, radiate out from Rangoon into the ethnic minority states. Meanwhile, in the deep mountains and forests of the borderland periphery, over 20 armed opposition groups controlled, under their own administrations, vast swathes of territory and continued to reflect an often changing alignment of different political or nationality causes. Simplifications can be made here, too, for although the politics often appeared complicated, most such groups espoused just one of two major ideologies -- either communism or federalism based on a loosely Western democratic model.[i]

The BSPP was to collapse almost without trace during the pro-democracy protests in 1988, but Ne Win loyalists reasserted military control through the takeover of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in September that year. This triggered one of the periodic but complex periods of shake-up and re-alignment in Burmese politics, which also saw the emergence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). The result is a pattern of political and social transformation that is still continuing. Most recently, for example, the SLORC restructured the military government to re-emerge itself last month as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The political impasse thus remains, but what is immediately striking in the post-1988 scenario is that, on paper at least, the end goals of the leading actors and parties for the first time appear remarkably similar. As in many other countries around the world, much of the ideological dogma of the Cold War era has been abandoned. Instead, although the issue has hardly been broached, all parties profess to support change to a "market-oriented", "open-door", "multi-party" system of "democratic" government, all of which are elements that are generally considered essential building blocks in the development of civil society. Furthermore, in apparent acknowledgement of the failures of the past, all sides have pledged to pay greater attention, in Burma's future constitution, to the political, cultural, economic and social rights of Burma's ethnic minority peoples, who make up an estimated third of the country's 47 million population.

In reality, of course, many observers would argue that, whatever the rhetoric, the real struggle in Burmese politics over the past decade has been for control of the transitional process -- and this has yet to be resolved. In particular, it is frequently noted how, during this period of deadlock, the Burmese armed forces have only continued to grow and increase domination over many aspects of daily life.[ii] To concentrate on this alone, however, would be to underestimate just how much the internal political context and structures have been changing within Burma. A titanic battle of wills is underway in which all sides, through different tactics and exchanges, have been attempting to put their views on to centre stage.

As evidence of such changes, two events stand out: the 1990 General Election and the ethnic cease-fire movement in the country's borderlands. In the former case, organised by the military government, the election was overwhemingly won by the NLD with 82 per cent of the seats; strikingly, too, not only did ethnic minority voters support the NLD in many parts of the country, but candidates from 19 different ethnic minority parties won the second largest block of constituencies. In the eyes of voters, therefore, the country had given a clear mandate for democratic change. Subsequently, the SLORC, proclaiming the duty of "national politics" to broaden the debate, announced a hand-picked National Convention, including representatives from seven other "social" categories (as well as MPs), to actually draw up the new constitution, but, in the eyes of the world, a clear marker of democratic hopes and intent had been laid.[iii]

However, in actually recharting the socio-political environment in the field, the second development has been equally significant: the cease-fire movement in the ethnic minority war-zones. Here there were no central government elections, but, also instituted by the SLORC government, today this movement has spread to include the majority of armed ethnic opposition groups in the country (see appendix). Indeed, in tandem with the government's "open-door" shift to a market-oriented economy, the very existence of these cease-fires has marked a major change in the political and social context of daily life and relationships within the country. In fact, not only is the NLD, which has been subject to many obstructions, currently barred from the National Convention after a series of disagreements with the SLORC, but representatives of several cease-fire parties have, by contrast, actually been continuing to attend.

In examining recent history, then, this much is easy to document and analyse. But adjudging where such developments will lead Burma and its different nationality peoples on the road to social and political progress, let alone the modern concept of "civil society", is a very different and infinitely more difficult task. This is not only a dilemma within Burma. In the international community, too, there remain continuing disagreements over whether such goals as social progress, human rights, economic advancement and human or sustainable development -- all of which are considered bed-rocks of civil society -- can really be achieved until there is, first, substantive political reform. Recent experiences, for example, in South Africa, Eastern Europe or Indonesia all provide important models for comparison, but, in the final analysis, experience the world over has demonstrated that much has hinged on the actions of the peoples and protagonists themselves. There is, as such, no prescriptive model. As David Steinberg has recently written: "Clearly in the polarization between isolation or engagement, investment or abstention, both poles can be 'correct'."[iv]

Such differences of opinion over social and political priorities are already having a critical impact within Burma. For example, while Burma's oldest armed ethnic opposition group, the Karen National Union (KNU), has consistently argued against any cease-fire without a political agreement (and, in part result, fierce fighting has again erupted with the Burmese armed forces in southeast Burma during this year), other armed ethnic opposition groups, including former KNU allies such as the Pao National Organisation (PNO) and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), have decided to place cease-fires and the establishment of "peace through development" first. After decades of inconclusive warfare, not only do such groups regard development and social welfare as the first priority for their peoples, but they also believe or hope that such peace will eventually prove the foundation for reconciliation and reform.[v]

Similar contradictions also exist on the economic front, which is usually regarded as another main element in the development of civil society in any democracy. For example, while Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD have argued in support of international trading boycotts until there is substantive political reform, the state-controlled media has repeatedly denounced the NLD for allegedly holding up the progress of the nation.[vi]

Inevitably, such a debate also embroils foreign businesses and development agencies, and this division of opinion is already marked in a number of ethnic minority areas, notably in the Tenasserim Division in south Burma. Here the KNU has opposed the construction through Karen-inhabited areas of the Yadana gas pipe-line, which is a joint venture between Total (France), Unocal (USA), PTTEP (Thailand) and the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. In response, Total claims to have embarked on over US$ 6 million of "socio-economic initiatives", including health and development programmes, with the aim of increasing community "self-sufficiency" and with respect for local "customs" and "culture".[vii] Indeed, not only is the pipe-line Burma's single largest foreign investment project, but, save for the UNHCR's very different resettlement programme for Muslim refugees in the Rakhine state, Total's community programmes are probably the single largest such "integrated" development venture in any minority-inhabited region today. In a once forgotten corner of Burma, the longterm implications are immense.



(ii) Realities on the Ground: Weak State and Strong Societies


The entrance, then, of foreign agencies -- whether inter-governmental, non-governmental or business -- raises further difficult questions over priorities in reform and development, especially where the notion of "civil society" is included. Historically, the timing is striking, and
Burma is certainly not alone. For as Mark Duffield and other public policy academics have noted, since the ending of the Cold War there has been an explosion of interest and involvement by inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations (mostly Western) in "conflict resolution" in divided countries or societies. Here, while "dialogue" is usually encouraged on protagonists, the primacy of development and humanitarian relief are often principally involved, and it is often for such reasons of "crisis" or "need" that different international agencies have first become engaged.

 

Once again, however, as recent experiences from Rwanda to Cambodia have shown, there is nothing prescriptive about such measures. The simplistic divisions of the Cold War may be disappearing as different models for national development, but the new result is very often a great deal of individual agenda-setting by different organisations, where the perspectives and language brought to bear on problems can say more about the different organisations than the actual situation on the ground. In such countries of crisis, questions of humanitarian relief, aid or human rights, including the right to life and the right to development, frequently have to compete alongside new buzzwords, such as "complex emergencies", "corridors of peace", "culture of dependency", "human development" or, more recently, "Asian values". In short, different international organisations with different remits may well find themselves working on different sides or through different institutions or protagonists in a conflict. Such is frequently the case in Burma today.

It is to reconcile such obvious differences that the subject of "civil society" has most recently been brought in, but as Mark Duffield has warned:

In both development and transitional thinking, civil society has become a central concept. This development is all the more interesting given the absence among aid agencies and donor governments of any consensus regarding what civil society is and how it works. At best, it is an ill-defined space between the family and state in which plural civic institutions hold sway.[viii]

 

The debate is still continuing, but, amongst international agencies, two trends or mooted solutions are becoming clear. In the humanitarian or development world, emphasis is placed on the working practices of agencies themselves, including working at the "grass-roots" level wherever possible (if feasible, through local partnerships), with such longterm aims as "capacity building", "social mobilization", "participatory planning" and community "enhancement" or "empowerment". In effect, while avoiding political alignment with the state alone, agencies are trying to work within the presumed space that Duffield has described. Information sharing, too, with other agencies is also desired so that the broader picture of needs can be kept in view. And, in many respects, these are the patterns of engagement which are already developing for agencies working in or around Burma. Indeed, pressure for such practices underpinned the exceptional decision, in May 1992, of the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to begin a review of its country programme so that future projects would be limited to critical humanitarian and "basic human development initiatives" at the "grass-roots level".[ix]

These, then, are the kind of working practices that agencies have already evolved. But many recipients and observers are beginning to find that, devoid of socio-political context, such practices are not enough. As a result, a second trend of analysis, highly relevant to Burma, is also emerging amongst aid workers and political scientists, who have become frustrated at the seeming inability of the international community to achieve positive results -- despite generally good intentions -- in many of the more intractable crisis regions of the world. Recently outstanding in this respect have been several countries in the Balkans and Central Africa, where locals and more knowledgeable observers have decried the international tendency to overlook the local dynamics or causes of suffering and conflict, which may be very individual, but to loosely generalise in a language of "emergency" and "chaos", where the agendas are too often simplified by aid agencies or driven by media headlines.

Instead, a number of observers now argue that the first priority should be to look at institutional and social problems from the ground up, by focusing attention on the diverse peoples who live in such countries and by gaining a greater appreciation of the depth and vibrancy of their cultures, as well as their problems, as they exist in the field. Perhaps not surprisingly, immediately paramount in such an analysis are usually two common features -- ethnic conflict and the weakness of the state -- which, although complex, have to be individually confronted according to the circumstances in each country. This, of course, is very easy to say, but as John Ryle, Save the Children Fund consultant for Africa, has recently warned those looking for simple solutions: "Each of these conflicts emerges from a particular history in which the pattern of colonial heritage, community politics and state formation or non-formation is quite distinct....generalisations are dangerous."[x]

 

So are there any lessons in this for international NGOs with a working interest in Burma? Certainly, there are -- especially in ethnic minority areas and for those proponents of civil society who support the notion of institutional pluralism, human rights and community bridge-building as ways to encourage and stabilise reform. The correlation between the development of civil society, on the one hand, and the role of different political, social, governmental, religious or economic institutions, on the other hand, is hardly an exact science. But beyond the day-to-day headlines, as John Ryle has explained, there usually lies a historic malfunctioning between the development of equitable state and community relations. Again, such has long been the case in Burma.

Thus, away from theoretical models, any discussion of civil society in Burma has to take cognisance, at some stage, of the ethnic and political realities on the ground. Moreover, given the scale of conflict and bloodshed in the past five decades, it needs to be recognised that reform and social transformation are longterm processes and will undoubtedly be a challenge for any government that comes to power in Rangoon in the coming years. Many areas of Burma today are suffering a devastating social legacy from the war and destruction that have continued, virtually uninterrupted, since independence in 1948.

So finally in this overview, it is important to highlight, from the perspective of civil society, some of the particular problems and characteristics in the deep socio-political crisis that has developed in Burma. For while it is generally true to say that, in the past decade, Burmese politics have come to be dominated by three key blocks -- the Burmese armed forces or "Tatmadaw", the fledgling democracy movement headed by Daw Suu Kyi, and the diverse armed ethnic opposition -- such distinctions can not be regarded as absolute divisions, and especially not where the development of civil society is contemplated.

In recent years, for example, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly supported the call for "tri-partite" dialogue as a pragmatic first step out of the current impasse. But this does not then mean that democracy can not also be a main aspiration of the Tatmadaw or the ethnic opposition nor that there can be no ethnic minority representatives in the Tatmadaw or NLD. Indeed, from the perspective of civil society, the very reverse may be true; as civil society develops in Burma, if democratic institutions and practices are to survive, all the many different social, ethnic and political factions or institutions in this most ethnically diverse of countries will have to share and respect common values. All sectors of society must be engaged - even the Tatmadaw. As Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, present-day academic and former Shan armed opposition leader, recently wrote: "Top generals will have to learn how to deal with military pluralism and, by extension, with societal pluralism. What Burma needs is not political order by command, but by negotiation, accommodation and bargaining between and among all segments, groups and sectors in society."[xi]

Similarly, where ethnic minority communities are concerned, the short-hand division between "black" (insurgent-controlled), "brown" (no-man's land) and "white" (government-controlled) will, one day, have to be abandoned. Inhabiting half the land area, minority communities are not a marginal but an inseparable part of Burma's ethnic mosaic; indeed, few large regions of the country can be considered truly mono-ethnic. Current battle-lines or ethnic designations of territory, therefore, can not be regarded as definitive where the development of civil society is concerned -- and certainly not in areas such as humanitarian relief, education or the provision of basic health-care.

Nearly 200,000 Shans, for example, are estimated to live in the Kachin state while over 100,000 Kachins live in the Shan state.[xii] Here, too, there exists one of the most complicated ethnic and insurgency situations in the world. Well into the last decade of the 20th century, over a dozen armed ethnic opposition groups have continued to control different areas of the state, from where they still vie for authority with the central government in Rangoon. It is important to remember, therefore, that, as elsewhere in the country, it is to this backdrop of unresolved conflict that many of the grave issues have arisen which so concern the international community today, including extrajudicial killings, forced relocations, the opium trade and, more recently, the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. Such human rights abuses and social crises do not occur in a vacuum.

In conclusion, then, when looking at the complex scale of the problems Burma is facing, it is important to stress, as is the modern trend, the underlying weaknesses of the modern Burmese state and, fifty years after independence, its historic role in generating rather than healing social and ethnic divisions. In this respect, Burma bears many of the characteristics of the phenomenon, much commented on in recent years, known as "strong societies" and "weak state", where post-colonial governments have been unable to achieve -- or countenance -- effective action across all social and ethnic sectors. (This, of course, does not reflect "military power", which the Burmese armed forces clearly possess.)

In the post-colonial world, Burma is hardly alone in facing such an experience, but what is immediately striking in Burma's case is both the predominant role of military organisations (of different colours) in national life as well as the strong ethnic undercurrents in political and social movements. Indeed, in many respects, ethnicity is an ideology in Burma, which has frequently been described by the country's military rulers as the "Yugoslavia of Asia"; this, they claim, would similarly fall apart without their eternal vigilance. In response, minority organisations accuse the mostly Burman leaders of the Tatmadaw of using such pretexts as a guise to try and create an "ethnocratic" Burman state under their sole control.

Thus, in another time of transformation, the question must be addressed as to why, in the past five decades, Burma has had so little success in addressing problems of post-colonial transition. In a land as ethnically diverse as Burma, of course, the local imperative or perception can never be underestimated in understanding local community or ethnic organisation and reaction, but, by any standards, the history of the modern Burmese state is an unhappy one. Yet, in contrast, many different societies in Burma have successfully continued to adapt and survive through the many difficult years. By every criteria of such political scientists as Barry Buzan and David Brown, the evidence of strong societies in Burma -- whether ethnic (e.g. Shan, Mon, Karen), religious (Buddhist, Christian or Muslim), minority nationalist (KNU, KIO) or even business (Chinese, Indian) -- stands in stark contrast to the structural weaknesses of the state which, even in the late 20th century, has still not effectively penetrated into many ethnic minority regions, except as a military force.

As Barry Buzan has written: "Weak states either do not have, or have failed to create, a domestic political and social consensus of sufficient strength to eliminate the large-scale use of force as a major and continuing element in the domestic political life of the nation."

The key issue, then, remains whether the recent actions taken by the leading political protagonists in Burma -- and, indeed, the notions of civil society -- will create the space needed for real "domestic political and social consensus" to emerge. It is in this complex environment that international NGOs have recently become engaged in both Burma and the ethnic minority borderlands.

 

 

CEASE-FIRES AND RECENT EVENTS IN ETHNIC MINORITY REGIONS

 

It is with such perspectives in mind, of a post-colonial state in internal conflict and crisis, that recent events in ethnic minority areas of Burma need to be regarded. From one region of the country to another, while general health or social characteristics may often be constant, the actual situation or tensions on the ground can be significantly different. This may be as much due to local protagonists, institutions or parties as to social factors, such as the opium trade, the continuing movement (and displacement) of peoples or the current state of fighting.

This presents an immediate dilemma for international organisations entering such long-divided regions. For, at such a time of transition, it is by no means clear which parties or institutions will develop and grow -- and which institutions, in contrast, will stumble and fall. The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), for example, which is increasingly the military government's preferred vehicle for social and political action, was formed as recently as September 1993 but, with government patronage, has already grown to several million members. Similarly, while the once powerful Communist Party of Burma (CPB) has collapsed, Burma's strongest armed opposition force, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), was only formed in 1989 but has over 20,000 well-armed troops today.

Finally, in ethnic minority regions the human dimension can never be ignored. In many areas, decades of war, human rights abuses and confrontation have created a climate where nothing is ever certain, as many citizens have found to their cost. The desire for peaceful change may be widespread across the country, but the sad fact is that, for the moment, fear, opportunism and survival have all too often been the key motivations for action rather than reconciliation and reform.

To follow the cease-fires, then, a great deal of history needs to be condensed. The peace movement, in fact, began almost by chance in northeast Burma in 1989, following a series of ethnic mutinies from the CPB, which was, at the time, Burma's oldest and largest insurgent force. During 1980-81, under the former BSPP government, there had been peace talks between the government and CPB as well as with the Kachin Independence Organisation in northeast Burma, but the last major round of countrywide peace talks had, in fact, been as long ago as 1963-64, shortly after General Ne Win assumed power. In the long years since, despite the perennial strength and extensive "liberated zones" of insurgent forces, the possibility of further peace talks was consistently ruled out by the central government which, instead, described armed opposition groups by such terms as "bandits", "opium smugglers" or "racist saboteurs", who were only to be "annihilated".[xiii]

By the end of the 1980s, however, the mood was very different -- especially after fierce fighting broke out after the SLORC assumed power in September 1988. Armed opposition movements had been noticeably quiet during the dramatic events that swept the country in mid-1988. This was partly due to their remoteness (the democracy protests were largely urban-based), but it was also by design; both ethnic and communist leaders had warned of the dangers of trying to exploit the Burmese army's difficulties during such a time of political awakening. The subsequent arrival of an estimated 10,000 students and other democracy activists (most of whom were Burmans), seeking sanctuary in armed opposition territory after the SLORC takeover, only acted as further confirmation of the changing political landscape. However, to the anguish of leaders and communities on all sides, over a thousand lives were lost in the bloody battles that erupted, especially in CPB, KIO and KNU-controlled territory where many democracy activists had fled. While central Burma was in crisis (and the democracy movement was newly emergent), it was therefore in ethnic minority regions that the greatest violence had now transferred.[xiv]

Clearly, all sides -- including the Burmese armed forces and the ethnic opposition -- had their own reasons for now considering cease-fires, and these were to subsequently come from two major blocks: those of former allies or defectors from the CPB, many of which still support the establishment of "autonomous zones" on the China model, or members of the 11-party National Democratic Front (NDF), which, established in 1976, has long advocated the formation of a federal union of Burma.

The first to make cease-fires were five (subsequently four) breakaway armies from the CPB, spearheaded by the United Wa State Party in the eastern Shan State, all of which agreed truces during 1989. Correctly sensing their unwillingness to fight on at such an uncertain time[xv], the initial approaches had been made by Lt-Gen. Khin Nyunt, the SLORC secretary-one and military intelligence chief. However, little-noticed, the socio-political sub-text was already changing, and an important go-between role was played by the former insurgent leader and, today, powerful businessman, Lo Hsing-han, who was able to liaise and convince kinsmen of the possibilities of peace and development in the Kokang region, where the first CPB mutinies had occurred.

Equally important, despite a series of approaches from NDF members, the CPB mutineers rejected their political advances. Indeed, in September 1989, the main force of an important NDF member, the Shan State Progress Party, which had been close to the CPB in northern Shan state, also made a cease-fire agreement. It was a timely reminder of the historic lack of unity amongst what is loosely described as the "ethnic opposition".

The fall-out, then, from these first cease-fires was to set in train a number of unpredicted consequences. Whether by design or not, one of the most significant was the newly "legalised" nexus between the Burmese armed forces, armed ethnic opposition groups and business interests as well governmental institutions and, ultimately, local community groups. This was to set a precedent for future cease-fires as well as fundamentally change the basis of the economy in many border regions. Previously, under the Burmese Way to Socialism, much of the local trade was insurgent-controlled, and there was a flourishing trade in everything from cattle, precious stones and opium to luxury goods and medicines.

Now, however, for the first time in decades, the pattern was set for all legal trading relationships in the border regions to be brought "inside" the country. From the frontier with Bangladesh to the borders with Thailand, gaining control (or, at least, a physical presence) has become a key priority of the post-1988 military government, and four additional regional commands have been established in border areas in the past two years.

This has had the most profound consequences, both at home and abroad. Firstly, with border regions increasingly within its ambit, the SLORC/SPDC government has been able to build on its intention to end Burma's international isolation and formalize official trading and political relations with its different neighbours. Neighbouring governments, too, have positively responded, especially China and Thailand, which had previously tolerated or even quietly supported armed opposition groups along their borders. Burma's admission into ASEAN in July this year is only the most obvious manifestation of such a change.

However, secondly, and equally important from the perspective of civil society, in the past eight years the central government has been slowly "legitimising" or allowing new economic, political and social networks, which have been slowly coming to life inside all the ethnic minority borderlands. The permission, for example, for both UN agencies and international NGOs to visit or even work in these once forbidden areas is simply another manifestation of these broader changes, which would scarcely have been feasible without cease-fires and the new perspectives from Rangoon.

At this stage it should be stressed that, back in 1989, only the most rudimentary agreements were made and, in effect, there were no political discussions at all. For example, it was agreed that, in this transitional period under the SLORC, the cease-fire forces would be allowed to keep their arms and territory until Burma's new constitution was introduced. But these were deliberately skeletal terms which, perhaps because of their simplicity, satisfied both sides. Nevertheless, further details were also discussed, including the government's introduction of health and development programmes in ethnic minority areas. Notably, as early as May 1989, the SLORC's much-publicised Border Areas Development Programme (BADP) was first announced, with eight to ten million inhabitants, in 14 different minority regions, predicted to come under its mandate.[xvi]

As an interim measure, varying subsidies and supplies were also donated by the government until the different forces could become self-sufficient. In this regard, the complex question of opium production, which is the main cash crop in these areas, was also discussed and, although different protagonists have subsequently disagreed over specifics, it was mutually agreed to take a longterm view on the problem of abolition and, instead, work on a ten-year programme, also involving the help of UN agencies, to phase in different crop substitution projects. This, of course, has subsequently become one of the most critical areas of international concern, attracting particular criticism from governments in the West which have recognised that in some areas, opium production has, in fact, continued to rise.[xvii]

In effect, then, the five cease-fire agreements in 1989 set a precedent for the further cease-fires which were to come. Equally important, although there have been frequent predictions of break-down, all five have, to date, survived through the eight years since, despite a plethora of obvious day-to-day problems. Moreover, the very existence of these cease-fires along the China border has had an immediate impact on armed opposition movements elsewhere in the country.

In strategic terms, the first impact was felt by insurgent organisations in adjoining areas. These, for the first time, came under enormous pressures not only from their own peoples to consider cease-fires but also from the Burmese army, which no longer had to guard its rear. Once again, subsequent events were to reveal a new mood in the country -- this time within the National Democratic Front.

After 1988, recognising the unpredictable environment, a number of NDF groups had also privately argued for the proposal of peace talks, notably the late KIO chairman, Maran Brang Seng, and the PNO chairman, Aung Kham Hti. Other NDF members, however, and most especially the Karen National Union, were keen to concentrate on the expansion of armed opposition forces in Burma's borderlands, particularly through the formation of the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB, established November 1988), which included student, trade union, Buddhist and other pro-democracy groups that had sprung up during the anti-government protests in 1988. Subsequently, another well-publicised front, the National Council Union of Burma (NCUB), was also set up, which joined together the DAB and the National Coalition Government Union of Burma (NCGUB), consisting of a dozen MPs (mostly NLD) who had won seats in the 1990 election.

Such developments, however, while well reported in the international media, were essentially border politics and had limited impact on the actual state of the conflict inside. Indeed, not only were many minority inhabitants unaware of such movements, but many minority leaders and communities were rather more focused on the implications of the 1990 general election, in which ethnic nationalist parties, after over a quarter century of banishment, were now legally allowed to stand.

Thus, with the NDF and DAB both hesitating, the Burmese army was quick to sense this vacuum and, although leaving the door to peace talks open, during 1990-91 launched sustained offensives in northeast Burma, especially in Pao, Shan, Palaung and Kachin-inhabited areas, in which hundreds of villages were relocated or destroyed. Other military operations were also launched in northwest Burma, which fuelled the gathering exodus of over 250,000 Muslim refugees from the Rakhine state into Bangladesh. Despite its severity, this "stick and carrot" approach appeared to work, providing the backdrop to a succession of cease-fires by NDF forces in early 1991 -- firstly by the KIO's 4th Brigade in northern Shan State (which defected from the KIO to establish a new "Kachin Defence Army") and then the Pao National Organisation and the Palaung State Liberation Party in quick succession.

By early 1992, therefore, the socio-political landscape in ethnic minority regions was rapidly changing. Military rule continued, but the 1990 election result had signified a massive victory for the NLD and also ethnic minority parties, most of whom were allied in the United Nationalities League for Democracy which was supported by 65 MPs. Already open contacts had been established between some of the victorious parties and cease-fire armies that had opened business and liaison offices in the towns. In addition, although controversial, the Border Areas Development Programme was now well underway, and, for the first time in decades, representatives of several UN agencies (especially UNDP, UNDCP and UNICEF) were being allowed into a number of districts in the long-forbidden hills.

Quietly, too, the SLORC was preparing for the National Convention, which was to draw up the principles for Burma's new constitution, the country's third since independence. To this backdrop, as a counter-balance to the NLD, the support of different ethnic nationality parties -- both cease-fire groups and those that had stood in the election -- was something that a number of government officials initially thought that they might be able to foster; this, however, was not to work out exactly as planned.[xviii]

To try, then, and accelerate the cease-fire process, in April 1992 the SLORC unexpectedly announced that the Burmese army was halting all offensive operations against armed ethnic opposition groups in "the name of national unity". This followed hundreds of casualties on both sides in one of the most publicised battles ever in the history of the country's long insurgencies: the unsuccessful offensive to capture the joint KNU/DAB headquarters at Mannerplaw. Subsequently, the Burmese army did remain on front-line patrol and sporadic fighting occurred, but, in many areas, the levels of day-to-day violence dropped to their lowest levels in decades. Indeed, as another warning of the unpredictability of ethnic conflict in Burma, it was in two new areas that most of the new violence was reported: in the Rakhine state, where fall-out from the flight of the Muslim refugees was still continuing, and in the southern Shan state, where the 15,000-strong Mong Tai Army of the "opium kingpin", Khun Sa, was isolated and briefly went on the offensive.

Subsequent events are still the subject of much conjecture, as the remaining NDF parties failed to agree on any concrete platform or strategy towards peace talks. Many veteran leaders recognised that the SLORC's April announcement was significant, since it laid the negotiable basis for a "nationwide cease-fire", something that they had themselves long advocated. In reality, however, the situation was very different from one ethnic nationality area to another, and this owed much to the different strengths and supporters of the different parties and armed forces, as well as the different sentiments in the local communities.

Probably the most effective and united movement towards a cease-fire occurred in northeast Burma, where leaders of the Kachin Independence Organisation had long argued for dialogue and a peaceful solution to the civil war; the dilemma always had been over how to bring this about. Significantly, too, as in 1980-81, the peace movement here was under-pinned by a cross-community approach in which church groups and leading Kachin figures in government-controlled areas were also involved. Thus, not only were such movements able to play an important "go-between" role, but the question of peace was not just a topic of debate between the Burmese army and KIO, but the discussions were also keenly followed in other sectors of Kachin society, including the towns and villages or amongst business people and government servants.

 

In many ways, then, the depth of this prior discussion has probably reflected the greater energy behind the cease-fire movement in Kachin areas where, despite many cautions, perhaps the widest array of humanitarian, development and educational projects has been initiated following the 1994 military truce. Here a particular concern was the feeling that, while the KIO and Kachin people continued the political fight, other ethnic groups, especially Chinese, were coming in to take over business and trade under the SLORC's "open door" policy.

Other ethnic forces based around the Thai border, however, were not so convinced, and although in 1993 the SLORC said that it was prepared to meet a joint delegation together with Kachin, Mon, Karenni and Karen members of the NDF, the different opposition groups could not unite on tactics. Thus in February 1994, following its expulsion from the DAB, the KIO, which was probably the NDF's strongest force, became the next armed opposition group to agree a cease-fire with the SLORC.

Once again, a cease-fire in northeast Burma was to have a major impact on the military-political balance elsewhere. Not only did the remaining armed opposition forces now begin to hear doubts from amongst their own peoples, but those in the Thai border area began to come under serious pressures from the authorities in Thailand which, by this stage, was wanting to admit Burma into ASEAN. With growing numbers of refugees (around 100,000) and illegal migrants (over 500,000) from Burma, many Thai officers openly questioned why, unlike the UWSP or KIO, local ethnic forces could not agree cease-fires with the Burmese government.

After decades of being regarded as "buffer zones" by the Thai authorities, the armed ethnic opposition was thus for the first time being seen as a hindrance to peace and development in the region. Here the new talk was of trade and commerce, infrastructure-building and power generation that crossed international frontiers. Already, despite the objections of opposition voices, unbridled trades in logging and fishing had developed between new military-backed business networks emerging on both sides. In southeast Burma, armed opposition groups were now under threat of being bi-passed.

At this critical moment, the credibility of the KNU took a severe blow when several hundred Buddhist Karen troops, led by a local abbot, broke away to agree a cease-fire with the SLORC and set up the rival Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in the Paan area. Their initial allegation was of anti-Buddhist discrimination by some of the KNU's predominantly Christian leaders (most Karens are, in fact, Buddhists), but the end result has been the loss of the KNU headquarters at Mannerplaw and a desultory campaign of inter-Karen conflict which, to the concern of the international community, has also seen the DKBA attack and burn down a number of Karen refugee camps in Thailand.

Thus, in 1994-95, the cease-fire movement began to gather momentum again, although this time, it should be stressed, that the different ethnic minority forces were far more reluctant and cautious. None the less, a number of cease-fires were quickly agreed, including the Kayan New Land Party, Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front and Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organisation, all of which had previously been close to the CPB, and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), which were Thai border-based members of the NDF. Unlike in the KIO case, broad-based and effective local liaison between these groups and the military government presented a problem, except in some of the predominantly Christian communities of the Kayah-Shan state borderlands, where an important role was again played by the local church.

The SLORC also received an added bonus in January 1996 when the maverick, Shan-Chinese leader Khun Sa virtually delivered his Mong Tai Army over to the Burmese army in a surprise ceremony at his headquarters at Homong in southwest Shan state. This many Shan nationalists saw as more of a surrender than cease-fire between military equals, and it was widely recalled that, like the Kokang leader Lo Hsing-han, Khun Sa had twice served in the 1960s and 70s as a local "Ka Kwe Ye" militia commander on the government side; Khun Sa, like Lo Hsing-han, had also served time in government prisons, but the little-admitted fact is that, in the complex twists and turns of Burma's insurgent world, at the front there are commanders who have always played both sides.[xix] By now, however, there was little time for analysis: cease-fires were becoming commonplace around the country -- and being made on a variety of very different terms.

The KNU, too, which was now badly weakened by the DKBA split, also became engaged in a protracted series of peace negotiations during 1995-96. These, however, broke down at the end of the year when the KNU, sticking to its longtime demand for a "political settlement first", rejected two Burmese army demands: that the KNU "enter the legal fold" and renounce the "right to armed struggle". Subsequently, in early 1997 the KNU's Seventh Day Adventist chairman, Bo Mya, hosted a much-publicised Ethnic Nationalities Seminar at the village of Mae Tha Raw Hta where the partipicants issued a declaration in which the KNU announced, amongst other things, its support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD and its intention to bring down the military government.

Few observers, then, were surprised when fighting quickly resumed, but, with the KNU now weakened by surrenders and defections, few predicted the speed of the Burmese army break-through. During 1997, remaining KNU permanent base areas have been falling one after another. Once again, however, the main victims have been the villagers caught in the cross-fire, with over 20,000 new refugees attempting to flee into Thailand, where the authorities have recently begun to forcibly prevent any more people trying to cross. But the plight of civilians is undoubtedly worse back in the war-zone in Burma. Tragically, after five decades of armed conflict, local community leaders estimate that in the Karen state alone as many as one third of the one million plus inhabitants are now displaced from their homes -- either in refugee camps or exile in Thailand, internally displaced in the hills, or forced to move into the towns or government-controlled camps. Peace, reform, reconciliation and the creation of civil society in such a divided community is, for the moment, clearly an imponderable task.

Thus in conclusion, at the time of writing and depending on where one is standing, a number of very different perspectives can be taken on the current situation in ethnic minority regions of the country. The fighting in Karen-inhabited districts of southeast Burma can be contrasted with the durability, to date, of the cease-fires and hopes for development in Kachin, Palaung and Wa communities in the northeast. In the Rakhine state, too, the resettlement under UNHCR auspices of over 200,000 Muslim refugees from Bangladesh can be contrasted with the anti-Muslim violence that swept several towns across the country earlier in the year -- and, indeed, reportedly reached the Rakhine state again.

A number of the more recent cease-fires have also proven unstable. In 1995, the cease-fire of the Karenni National Progressive Party quickly broke down, following unreconciled disagreements over territory and trade, while, more recently, there have been reports of clashes between Burmese army units and the Kayan New Land Party. Equally serious, major fighting has resumed in southwest and central Shan state where a veteran nationalist faction, the Shan United Revolutionary Army, has rejected the terms of Khun Sa's MTA surrender and is attempting to resume the Shan resistance. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, as a consequence of these conflicts, over 700 villages have been relocated in the Shan and Kayah state borderlands in the past two years alone.[xx] Completing this picture of confusion (and leaving aside the politics of Rangoon), there have also been a number of local splits amongst different opposition militia, including Kokangese, Mon, Karen and Shan, which are too numerous to mention.

Nevertheless, despite this present picture of uncertainty, according to many of those most actively involved in the cease-fire process, this would be to miss the underlying point. Not only are many of the main protagonists and battle-field foes now in dialogue -- and experience from Northern Ireland to Palestine or South Africa has demonstrated how long it can take to lead from cease-fires to reform, but many long war-torn regions are also at their first peace in decades. This, in itself, is seen as an enormous first step. Foreign tourists now travel the road to Lashio, whereas only four years ago the most usual sights were army convoys and Chinese trucks.

Certainly, no one is expecting the next stages to be easy. Given Burma's troubled past, failure can never be ruled out, and, indeed, the real difficulties may have only just begun. Nevertheless, there remains a belief that, if Burma's deep political problems are ever to be resolved, the establishment of peace is a priority, and this must eventually spread to those areas where fighting is still continuing[xxi] so that the vexed issues of ethnic minority rights are addressed in tandem with democracy and greater national reform.

So, as the cease-fire movement edges towards its first decade, questions will inevitably arise over what has actually been achieved in the field. This is an especially important question for international NGOs who are now working or considering working within Burma's complex parameters. Socially and politically, there can be no doubt over need -- only the feasibility of implementation.

The short answer, of course, is that all sides in the cease-fires have agreed to place immediate political problems to one side, including questions of state, while different initiatives are begun (e.g., health, business and education) to try and cement the peace by finding new methods and institutions for effective social representation and progress. This may appear an uncertain scenario for international agencies, who have to decide whether, how and with whom they should engage, but this is the reality that they must confront in whatever part of Burma they become engaged.

There may also be a temptation for the international community to try and create different models or agendas, but as Mark Duffield and John Ryle have warned, in the final analysis, effective actions can only be based upon real understanding of the peoples, situation and problems of state as they exist on the ground. Thus in Burma's case, although the term civil society itself is not much discussed, it is important to recognise that there are different protagonists and peoples in Burma who are now urgently trying, in their own ways, to build confidence and strengthen elements in their own societies with the view to reform. This is a struggle as vital for the future peace and stability of Burma as the more-publicised events in Rangoon. As Nai Shwe Kyin, the 84 year-old president of the New Mon State Party, told a press conference last year after 45 years in the "underground" as an insurgent leader:

We want to establish peace in our country. It is not a time to confront each other because we need national reconciliation. We have reached cease-fire agreements and the next step is political dialogue. We must establish trust. After bloodbaths lasting nearly half a century, we must establish trust with the view that one day reconciliation will come about.[xxii]

 


BURMA'S "OPEN DOOR": ASPECTS OF LIFE IN MINORITY REGIONS TODAY

 

Generalising on particulars of life in ethnic minority regions of Burma today is a very fraught task. As described above, depending on who is talking or which issue or region is being discussed, selective evidence can be used to demonstrate both successes or failures in recent history -- as well as to add fuel to the "politics" or "development" debate over which processes will bring lasting reform. The possible political dimensions, therefore, are many, but they are not the subject of this paper, which, instead, will attempt to describe aspects of life in ethnic minority regions, where there is now the potential -- although not necessarily the right -- for greater international access. In keeping with the analysis in this paper, a particular emphasis will also be given to developments from the ethnic minority perspective, which, after all, is the key to the durability of peace and eventual reform.

So for the uninitiated, travelling around ethnic minority regions of Burma today can be a very puzzling experience. A decade ago, most such regions were officially off-limits from the Rangoon side, but in the former war-zones visitors today will see, in addition to government troops, ethnic forces with a variety of different uniforms or insignia as well as trucks and new businesses bearing many new logos. Such complexities are also reflected in the bureaucracies of government, as well as the many different civilian groups. Indeed, negotiating between the different organisations -- or even ascertaining what may or may not be possible -- is never straightforward.

Not all ethnic minority areas, of course, are war-zones, although many of the same basic difficulties prevail. But in the cease-fire areas, at least, the first practicality to be taken on board is that virtually all the cease-fire agreements have their own differences, and this often has as much to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different military forces in the region (including the Burmese armed forces) as with the character or goals of the different protagonists. The KIO and UWSP, for example, control substantial standing armies as well as large regions of territory, while the NMSP and KNPP, by the time of their 1995 cease-fire agreements, had largely been pinned back to the Thai border where their troops were demarcated scattered "flag" positions, out of which permission is needed to move. (Government forces similarly need permission to enter or cross armed opposition territory.)

However such limitations are not, in themselves, a major stumbling block. Indeed, from the perspective of civil society, the cease-fire forces should only be considered one element in the much more complicated social mosaic. This has long been understood by leaders on all sides, especially ethnic minority groups who have already begun to shy away from such terms as "war-zones" or "cease-fire territories", preferring, instead, the much broader term "war-affected" to describe the broader communities of their peoples. Although long in use, armed struggle is a tactic, not a goal, of most nationalist movements, and it has always been a major source of grief and political concern that many minority communities have become divided way beyond the current front-lines.

Thus, regardless of strength, one of the first and most notable impacts of the cease-fires has been the ability of long-separated communities to openly re-establish contacts and for representatives of formally opposing groups to have access (although conditional) to formally-restricted areas in each other's territory. This includes towns, villages, sea-coasts and borderlands as well as the many natural resources they contain. This, in turn, raises difficult questions over "give and take", but, in the search for peace, all sides initially decided that this was a gamble that had to be taken. In effect, a high-risk strategy had been embarked upon which opponents privately recognise could be far more dangerous to their individual interests than actually continuing the war.

From these initial steps towards peace, then, subsequent developments in "war-affected" areas can be divided into two main categories: the political and the social, both of which have implications for civil society. It is still very early days yet, but, given their marginalisation in the recent past, many ethnic minority leaders believe that a number of important points have already been established for the future.

The first key breakthrough has been that of political recognition, even if tangible or constitutional agreements have yet to be made. Fuelling this desire for respect in the governmental arena has been a long-held belief that ethnic minority communities have often paid the highest price for the general political volatility in the country at large, and this, they claim, has happened on at least four occasions in the past: 1948, 1958-60, post-1962 and 1988.[xxiii]

This time, during what all sides recognise may well be a rare moment of political reorientation, they want, like the Tatmadaw or NLD, to be on the inside of the political process in Rangoon. Certainly, few are prepared to trust their fate to Burman-majority parties. "For the KIO, the most important thing is that we become a legal party during this period of constitutional change," the late KIO chairman Brang Seng told this writer. "We have already lived through three different periods of government since 1961, so we know what it is like to be forgotten. For over thirty years, we have been described as terrorists and opium smugglers, and we have never been recognised."[xxiv] In any transitional process, then, the legal acceptance of nationalist movements, who genuinely represent the aspirations of their people, is a key step in the establishment of civil society, and they are now theoretically able to legally act.

For the present, it should be stressed, any reform or transition process is uncertain. The SLORC/SPDC's chosen vehicle for constitutional discussion, the National Convention, has not formally met for over a year, and not only the NLD but also many ethnic minority parties have not been attending. New "self-administered" zones have been promised for the Wa, Pao, Palaung, Danu, Kokang and Naga, but specific details have not been discussed on most ethnic minority issues. Instead, most attention has focused on the self-proclaimed "leading role in national political life" that the military government has been seeking to preserve for the Tatmadaw.[xxv] Uncertainties also remain over how ethnic forces that are still fighting -- notably Karen and Shan who make up the country's largest ethnic minority populations -- will eventually be brought, like the NLD, into the same reform discussions.

Nevertheless, in many ethnic minority regions of the country, there is undoubtedly a greater freedom of association and mobility within society than recent decades. On a political level, for example, previously divided Kachin factions have now achieved a consensus, while the armed opposition PNO and the Union Pao National Organisation, which won seats in the 1990 election, run themselves in tandem. Similar exchanges have taken place between different Shan parties and organisations, while in northeast Burma four of the cease-fire armies have formed a Peace and Democratic Front to try and broaden co-operation.

Most of these organisations also run schools, hospitals and their own local administrations, and they also interact with other community groups, including business companies and religious organisations. In addition, it should be pointed out, they also liaise, often closely, with different levels of the government, from both local Tatmadaw outposts to different ministries in Rangoon.

However, although elsewhere in the world international NGOs have often become involved in such "crisis" situations through training courses in "political" topics, including democratisation, conflict resolution, institution-building and media-training, this is not a realistic option at present in the field in ethnic minority regions. For the present, the first emphasis must be on humanitarian and development issues, and, in most respects, the military government still prefers to deal with inter-governmental organisations, especially the UN. If any reminder were needed, the extraordinary withdrawal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from Burma in June 1995 (over lack of standard ICRC access to prisoners) demonstrated just how difficult the operating context for NGOs can be.

This, then, leads to the second arena of recent developments: the social. An important element here is the economic, which is not dealt with in detail in this paper. For the moment, with the exception of the Total-Unocal pipe-line and cross-border logging, penetration by international commercial (or development) organisations is relatively little into ethnic minority regions. But suffice to say, economic regeneration is one of the foremost aims of ethnic minority organisations and leaders. Compared to the restrictions of the past, there has been a relative upsurge in business activities, although, as elsewhere in Burma, serious problems remain and many communities are still living at subsistence level. Indeed, a number of cease-fire forces have, to date, been depending largely on revenues from logging, precious stones and other natural resources, as well as the opium trade which still continues to thrive in parts of the Shan state.

However, as evidence of deeper change, cease-fire organisations such as the New Democratic Army on the China border have developed their own hydro-electric plants, while the KIO has re-opened the large sugar-mill at Namti and the NMSP and SSA have both had fishing fleets out on the Andaman Sea. Parallel to these developments, many local entrepreneurs and business-people, who were often important supporters of the cease-fire movements, have set up a host of new companies of their own, although it remains very much to be seen whether the people, in general, become "stakeholders" in the newly emerging economies in these regions. Without capital or development assistance, many communities have already complained that they find it impossible to compete.

Thus it is in the aid and humanitarian areas of social reform that most local or grass-roots energies have been directed -- and it is in this capacity that the few international agencies, to date, have become involved. This has both been through actual presence in the field, including both UN agencies and international NGOs, as well as through funding which has been channeled through local organisations in the community. It is also very striking that, ever since Medecins Sans Frontieres (Nederlands) and World Vision (UK) pioneered the return of NGOs to Burma after 1991, virtually all the agencies that have subsequently followed have mostly operated in the health field.[xxvi] The same pattern is now also emerging in ethnic minority areas.

A pencil sketch of health and humanitarian problems certainly confirms the extent of need:

      decades of constant warfare have devastated many communities; even government leaders have confirmed over one million deaths in the fighting since 1948[xxvii]

      only one third of the country has access to clean water and proper sanitation, little of which is available in minority areas

      Burma has one of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in Asia, rates which are again probably highest in minority areas. For example, in contrast to the already high "national" Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), which has been variously estimated at between 47 and 94 deaths per 1,000 live births in the last few years, doctors in Karen and Shan state war-zones have calculated IMR figures as high as 200-300 per 1,000 live births

      with only one doctor for every 12,500 people, national health care does not even extend to half the area covered by the country's 319 townships - and, again, notably not to ethnic minority areas

      since 1988, Burma has become the world's largest producer of illicit opium and heroin, much of it produced in the Shan state, with an annual opium harvest of over 2,000 tons. Again, the scourge of drug addiction and the attendant social problems are especially felt in minority communities

      HIV/AIDS are increasing at alarming rates, with national estimates of HIV-carriers increasing from near zero to 500,000 over the past seven years. Again, such local problems as intravenous drug use, the migration of sex-workers and other transient labourers are particular factors in the disturbing scale of these problems in many minority communities

      Burma has generated over one million refugees or internally-displaced peoples as a result of the long civil wars

      finally, it is treatable or preventable illnesses, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria, which are the largest causes of unnecessary death and suffering in Burma. Again, though problematical throughout the country, it is often in ethnic minority regions these problems are at their most acute. Few international health teams, however, have penetrated the hills to witness the conditions at first hand.[xxviii]

Briefly, then, in recent years a new start has been made in many minority communities in trying to confront such serious health issues. For aid and development agencies there remain very real problems over accurate information and access to all areas, while in too many areas such underlying causes of suffering, such as armed conflict, forced labour and forced relocations, remain unaddressed.

Nevertheless, in the cease-fire areas, the greater freedom and safety in travel has meant better access for many communities to the facilities (mostly private and expensive) in the towns, while new clinics under the government's BADP have reportedly brought health outreach into new areas, although shortages of medicine are, as elsewhere in Burma, a perennial problem. In another change since 1988, the government-backed NGOs (or GONGOs), the Myanmar Medical Association (MMA), Myanmar Red Cross (MRC) and Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA) have also become more active, but again many of their programmes are town-based, where they work in conjunction with the local Township Medical Officers who, in turn, come under the Ministry of Health. The quasi-political Union Solidarity and Development Association is also being increasingly mobilised for such local health programmes.

 

Meanwhile, many of the cease-fire organisations, as well as religious-based groups (including Buddhists, Christians and Muslims) have begun to launch programmes of their own. Many of these programmes, especially emergency relief, had continued during the fighting, but since the cease-fires much greater emphasis has been given to resettlement, as well as health, skills training and education. In none of these areas has there been a set programme or plan, but different organisations have generally used what resources and means they have at their disposal.

Since the cease-fire, for example, the KIO has resettled, under its own auspices, 10,000 refugees from China and, with the aid of international NGOs, been able to institute the first immunisation programme for children in the hills in recent history. Looking to the future, the KIO has also begun an extensive reforestation programme and earlier this year, for the first time ever, KIO and government military units began a joint opium eradication scheme, destroying over 800 acres of planted poppies. At the same time, in rather more difficult circumstances, the NMSP in southeast Burma has attempted to resettle -- also with aid from international NGOs -- over 8,000 refugees from Thailand, although here economic difficulties, continuing tensions and the recent floods have brought little respite to the sufferings of the Mon people.

Meanwhile, in the towns and rural villages, Christian church groups, in particular, from a number of different denominations, have become increasingly active in both relief work as well as education and training. In addition to power generation, sanitation and well-building, job skills in such industries as carpentry and tailoring are regarded especially important to try and help anchor dislocated communities back in their homes. In response to another urgent need, HIV/AIDS awareness training has accelerated and, with help from different international NGOs (financial as well as training), many at risk communities and sectors of society have now been targeted and reached.

In Christian communities, especially, the understanding and co-ordination with international NGOs has often been easier to establish. Firstly, through past travel and pastoral study trips abroad, many church workers and leaders in Burma are familiar with the care and development contexts of many Christian organisations in the modern world. Secondly, the very organisation of local congregations -- with women's groups, youth groups, children's groups etc. -- makes it much easier to implement different community projects. Indeed, long before Burma's "open door", many pastors and local Church organisations had established different local projects (e.g. Kindergartens) of their own, where a need was perceived in the local community.

By contrast, the involvement of Buddhist groups in this deeply religious land has been more limited. Partly, this is due to the greater political problems in the country at large, where many monks and monasteries have been involved in anti-government protests since 1988; the organisation and practice of the Buddhist Sangha remains a sensitive issue. But partly, too, there is no tradition for Buddhist monks in Burma to become involved in the same array of NGO and development projects as today exists in, for example, neighbouring Thailand. Nevertheless, Buddhist monks do play a pivotal role in many communities, and the general scope of their activities can be expected to increase in future years.

In minority regions, for example, monks from the government-backed "Mountain Mission" have monasteries in all seven ethnic minority states, where, like many Christian churches, they have established dormitories so that orphans and children from the war-zones or remote hills can come to study in the towns. Equally important, although details are still unclear, in the past few years government spokesmen have several times declared that the monasteries should (or can) run local primary schools, a role they once widely performed in the past and have continued in many rural villages.

It is, therefore, into this still evolving array of new contexts that international NGOs must fit in. Initially, as mentioned earlier, it appeared that the government preferred only to allow access to UN agencies. Since 1991, for example, the UNDP and UNDCP have begun pilot crop-substitution programmes in the Shan state, UNICEF and the WHO have both instituted various health and HIV/AIDS awareness projects in a number of targeted regions, while the UNHCR has become involved in the resettlement of the 250,000 Muslim refugees that were returning from Bangladesh.[xxix]

Nevertheless, in October 1994, in apparent line with the opening of the door to NGOs elsewhere in the country, a decision was made by the SLORC to accept "offers" of assistance from international agencies and NGOs in areas covered by the Border Areas Development Programme, "as long as they do not threaten national security and solidarity".[xxx] To date, the majority of foreign NGOs that have established a permanent presence in Burma remain largely Rangoon-based, but in the past three years visits by foreign aid workers to once-forbidden towns such as Myitkyina, Lashio or Loikaw have become almost commonplace. Some have returned to establish programmes (HIV/AIDS education is again a common theme), while others have funded programmes through local community groups on the ground. There is, as yet, no common structure, system or method to be found. Rather, as elsewhere in the world where humanitarian needs are regarded urgent, the first priority is very often to get aid through to the people -- and the practicalities are left to be sorted out later.

Individual aid organisations will, of course, speak for themselves. So to finish with, just as the evolution of engagement has been described, it is necessary to highlight -- from the perspective of civil society -- some of the more pertinent problems or obstacles as they have occurred. This is only a brief summary, but a number of difficult issues have already emerged.

The first is undoubtedly a shortage of trained personnel to implement many aid and development schemes on the ground. In ethnic minority regions, decades of warfare have decimated many communities, disrupting all educational progress. As a result, many organisations and communities in the field are still headed by ageing or inexperienced individuals who, although well-motivated, often do not have the vision or skills for the immense tasks ahead. Education must be revived.

A second major problem is the dearth of accurate information, and most especially information which reflects the divisions in society. Malaria and HIV/AIDs are often picked out as urgent or "fashionable" health issues, but cholera epidemics still pass unreported in the hills, while TB and various water-borne diseases also take a constant toll in human life. Epidemiologists already point out the inherent failures in tackling any such health issues with only access to partial information or from only one side of the community.

This, then, leads to a third major difficulty for international NGOs, and this is what organisations or institutions they should work with or through. As discussed earlier, at a time of political volatility and transition, there are already many institutions and organisations in the field, including government departments, government-backed NGOs such as the MMCWA or USDA, cease-fire organisations and their various departments, church and Buddhist groups, and, finally, headmen and the local village structures themselves. Clearly, there are few clear choices if the notion of civil society, which may be arbitrary, rather than humanitarian need, where lives will be saved, is the priority. Moreover, although there are now a few beginnings, truly independent or single-issue NGOs have yet to become firmly established in Burma away from the patronage or umbrella of the above structures and institutions.

Initially, a number of UN agencies, in line with the requirement of the UNDP's Governing Council to work at the grass-roots' level, chose to work through the government and its preferred NGOs or GONGOs. UNICEF, for example, helped develop a national project on the "Control of HIV/AIDS through Reproductive Health" in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry's three chosen NGOs, the MRC, MMCWA and MMA. Generally such programmes have been regarded as successful and also valuable training in different health practices for Burmese health-workers and institutions. A similar approach was also taken by the UNHCR in the resettlement of Muslim refugees from Bangladesh. Significantly, too, in addition to the MRC and MMCWA, the French NGO, Action Internationale Contre la Faim of France, was brought in to support their work. However, while enhancing the profile of both domestic and international NGOs, criticisms quickly emerged in such minority regions over the UNHCR's choice of its Burmese implementing agencies, especially after refugees complained of the lack of trained medical staff who could speak their language, understand their customs, or were sensitive to the cultures of Muslim women.

More recently, increasing concerns have been expressed elsewhere over the extent to which the MMCWA, MRC and USDA are becoming dominated by the government. It has been reported, for example, that throughout the country the wives of the local government (LORC/PDCs) chairmen are also expected to act as chairpersons of the local MMCWA (although, at the local level, health workers do not necessarily see this as a problem). It is still also by no means clear where the real decision-making and divisions of power lie between different government departments, such as the Ministry of Health, Border Areas Development Programme and Ministry of Social Welfare. That there are many committed officials in all these organisations and departments is not in doubt, but individual support and personal patronage still count for much. Moreover, in the field, local regional commanders frequently have the last say.

It was in response to such concerns that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wrote to Mr Gustave Speth, Administrator of the UNDP, in January 1996, claiming the discrimination that many citizens felt in gaining access to aid and requesting that, in future, UN agencies should consider ways of implementing programmes "in close co-operation with the NLD"; in this way, Daw Suu Kyi argued, the UN would be working with the only organisation in Burma which, through the 1990 election result, had been shown to represent the "will of the people".[xxxi] To such comments, the military government's response was immediately hostile.

However, international NGOs which try to avoid the above dilemmas by turning to other community groups will find other problems that could still be waiting. For example, to date, the government has accepted the pastoral and humanitarian work undertaken by various church-based groups, as long as it is carried out under "evangelical" auspices. Indeed, many army leaders have been openly supportive and praised the work of such groups. However, despite the recent encouragement of monastery schools, a similar degree of social work is not allowed -- and, indeed, may have been deliberately discouraged -- amongst Buddhist groups. At the same time, it should be stressed that most Christian and Buddhist organisations want to progress as they are; not only are there issues of institutional capacity but religious leaders would oppose any agendas outside their remit or which they felt were unsuitable.

Similarly, although many international NGOs have long had cross-border contact with various armed ethnic opposition organisations, some are clearly better supported by their people and more able than others. Since the cease-fires, for example, some organisations have recognised that they have to evolve politically, socially, economically and militarily -- especially if they are to build social bridges within the community; they can not afford to stand still. There are other forces, however, where individual leaders and military commanders have built up personal fortunes by monopolising on trading (including, in some cases, opium), leading the Shan academic, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, to claim that the cease-fire movement represents a new cultural evolution in Burmese politics: a new informal alliance between "warlords" in the "Burman" and "government" spheres (governmental warlords) and those in the "non-Burman" and "non-governmental" spheres (non-governmental warlords).[xxxii]

This, then, finally leads towards to what, in the short-term, may be the greatest difficulty for international NGOs in instituting effective programmes in the ethnic minority regions of Burma. For if aid is given to only one sector, faction or group within such culturally diverse communities, not only can this be politically, socially or religiously divisive, but it could actually fuel even deeper grievances and divisions. This has already been privately acknowledged within many ethnic minority communities, and, in the longterm, it is felt that such problems can be confronted and dealt with. In the meantime, however, insensitive actions by international NGOs could precipitate not heal the divisions.

As one Burmese physician told this writer:

All this talk about communities and NGOs has become a bit of a smokescreen which every side can use. If health standards are really to improve, what is really needed is an integrated approach, where every health agency is energized and health information and techniques are freely shared and acted upon. This is simply not happening at present. Burma is still very socially divided.

 

In a nutshell, then, this is the dilemma which faces international NGOs concerning every area of development and engagement in Burma. Real reform and the establishment of civil society requires that every sector of society is empowered and involved. In essence, this means that state institutions, which are currently weak and underperforming, must be engaged as much as political parties, indigenous NGOs and any institutions of democratic society. There is no country in the world where such varied issues as HIV/AIDS, education or political and economic policy would be dealt with in any other way.

So in conclusion, as this paper has tried to demonstrate, recent history in Burma, including the pro-democracy movement and the cease-fire process, has at last brought many protagonists together or, at least, concentrated minds to think seriously about the future. Hope is alive, but there is still clearly a very long way to go. In the meantime, international NGOs may well find that, if they are realistic and sensitive to the needs of people, they can work at the local level, but it is also vital that they should never lose sight of the bigger picture.



APPENDIX: LIST OF ARMED ETHNIC OPPOSITION GROUPS IN BURMA

 

Cease-fire Organisations (in order of signing) Year

Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang) 1989

United Wa State Party (or Myanmar National Solidarity Party) 1989

National Democratic Alliance Army (eastern Shan State) 1989

Shan State Army/Shan State Progress Party 1989

New Democratic Army (northeast Kachin state) 1989

Kachin Defence Army 1991

Pao National Organisation 1991

Palaung State Liberation Party 1991

Kayan National Guard 1992

Kachin Independence Organisation 1994

Kayan New Land Party 1994

Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front 1994

Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organisation 1994

New Mon State Party 1995

 

Other Cease-fire Forces (but not always listed by government)

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army 1995

Mongko Defence Army (splinter group from MNDAA) 1995

Shan State National Army (front-line status often unclear) 1996

Mong Tai Army 1996

Mergui Mon Army 1997

 

Main Non-Cease-fire Forces

Karen National Union

Karenni National Progressive Party (1995 cease-fire broke down)

Shan United Revolutionary Army (reformed 1996 after MTA surrender)

National Socialist Council of Nagaland

Rohingya Solidarity Alliance

Chin National Front

 

Small Non-Ceasefire Forces

Mergui-Tavoy United Front (ex-CPB, mainly Tavoyans)

National Unity Party of Arakan

Wa National Organisation

Lahu National Organisation


 



[i]. These issues are analysed more fully in, Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993), pp.322-401.

[ii]. See e.g., Andrew Selth, Burma's Defence Expenditure and Arms Industries (Working Paper No.309, Australian National University, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, August 1997).

[iii]. The 702 delegates to the ongoing National Convention, which was first convened in January 1993, included representatives of eight categories: elected MPs, representatives of other legal parties, ethnic nationalities, peasants, workers, civil servants, intellectuals and other specially invited guests. Since 1988, the military government has always distinguished between "national politics", which it sees -- like national security -- as its exclusive preserve, and "party politics", which is the responsibility of democratic organisations and parties.

[iv]. David Steinberg, Burma: Prospects for Political and Economic Reconstruction (World Peace Foundation and Harvard Institute for International Development, WPF Reports No.15, 1997), p.39.

[v]. Reaffirmed the Kachin Independence Organisation in a press release on 16 April 1997: "At this critical moment, the KIO thus trusts that all parties will reflect on the tragic lessons of Burma's recent history, confirm a new commitment to the establishment of trust and national understanding, and find ways to support peace and dialogue as the immediate bridges to heal the divisions of the past."

[vi]. See e.g., New Light of Myanmar, ?

[vii]. Total, Unocal, PTTEP, MOGE, The Yadana Gas Development Project (Paris, 1997), pp.6-7; for a contrasting view, see, KNU Mergui/Tavoy District, Development and the Cry of the People (Mergui/Tavoy, 1994), and, Earthrights International and Southeast Asian Network, Total Denial (Kanchanaburi, 1996).

[viii]. Mark Duffield, Evaluating Conflict Resolution: Context, Models and Methodology (Discussion paper prepared for the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway, May 1997), p.6.

[ix]. See e.g., UNDP, Summary Report: UNDP Assistance to Myanmar (as per GC decision 93/21) (Rangoon, May 1995); Agrodev Canada Inc, UNDP's Human Development Initiative: An Assessment (Ontario, January 1995).

[x]. John Ryle, October 1997 Nuffield Lecture (Oxford), as extracted in The Guardian (London), 22 November 1997.

[xi]. Bangkok Post, 22 November 1997.

[xii]. For an analysis of this issue from the SLORC perspective, see, Aung Min, "Can there be a Kachin republic?", Working People's Daily, 14 March 1993.

[xiii]. See e.g., Smith, Burma, pp.89, 400.

[xiv]. For example, there were hundreds of fatalities of both villagers and combatants during September-October 1988 in non-stop battles after the CPB briefly captured the town of Mong Yang in eastern Shan state and the KNU over-ran Mae Tah Waw adjoining the Thai border. Then in December, 106 government troops were killed and 15 captured in a single ambush by a joint CPB-KIO force near Kongsa, Kutkai district, in the northern Shan state.

[xv]. Shortly after their mutiny, the UWSP made a broadcast on the former CPB radio station aimed at troops on the government side: "Every year the burden on the people has become heavier. The streams, creeks and rivers have dried up, while the forests are being depleted. At such a time, what can the people of all nationalities do?"; Smith, Burma, p.423.

[xvi]. For a brief discussion of a programme which has been much criticised, see, Martin Smith, Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights (Anti-Slavery International, London, 1994), pp.100-2. Subsequently, the BADP claimed 228 million kyats (or US$ 38 million) was spent in the first two years on such projects as road-building, health-care and schools, with 727 million kyats (or US$ 121 million) projected for the next six years. See also, e.g., BADP, Measures Taken for Development of Border Areas and National Races (3) (Rangoon, 1992), which includes descriptions of many minority areas, both cease-fire and non-cease-fire.

[xvii]. See e.g., US Department of State, Plan for Implementation of Section 570 of Conference Report 104-863 to Accompany H.R. 3610 (Omnibus Appropriations Act, 1997), submitted to US Congress 13 June 1997. Notably, US policy towards Burma today seeks progress in three key areas: democracy, human rights and counter-narcotics.

[xviii]. See also, n.3. The National Convention, which is still intermittently continuing, is beyond the theme of this paper. Eventually, like the NLD, a number of ethnic minority parties have either been banned or ceased to attend. Similarly, representatives of some cease-fire groups (e.g. PNO, UWSP) have attended, while others have either not been invited or have stayed away. Nevertheless, from the perspective of institutions and civil society, it should be noted that, as of March 1996, representatives of eight ethnic minority parties, which had legally stood in the 1990 election, were still attending: Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, United Karen League, Union Pao National Organisation, Shan State Kokang Democratic Party, Mro (or Khami) Unity Organisation, Kokang Democracy and Unity Party, Lahu National Development Party, and Wa National Development Party. Indeed, representatives of only two other "legal" parties, the pro-government National Unity Party (ex-BSPP) and the NLD, which has since withdrawn, were also still in attendance. For a discussion, see, Janelle M. Diller, "The National Convention: an Impediment to the Restoration of Democracy", in, Peter Carey (ed.), Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society (Macmillan Press & St. Martin's Press, Basingstoke and New York, 1997), pp.27-54.

[xix]. See e.g., Smith, Burma, pp.333-5, 339-44.

[xx]. Note by the Secretary General, Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (Fifty-second session, Agenda Item 112 (c), 6 October 1997), paras. 75-6.

[xxi]. Only the KNU, SURA and, to a lesser extent, KNPP remain opposition forces of any real size without cease-fires today. However, small Chin, Naga, Rakhine and "Rohingya" Muslim forces (see appendix) also still operate along the India and Bangladesh borders where they act a reminder of the historic scale of ethnic discontent within the country.

[xxii]. Reuters, 2 October 1996.

[xxiii]. i.e., post-independence in 1948, during Ne Win's Caretaker Administration of 1958-60, after General Ne Win seized power in the 1962 (when many of the government's Burman opponents, including both the CPB and later the deposed prime minister U Nu, waged armed struggle from ethnic minority lands), and, finally, after the pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

[xxiv]. Martin Smith, "Burma at the Crossroads", Burma Debate, November/December 1996, p.12.

[xxv]. It has already been announced, for example, that 25 per cent of all seats in the future parliament must be reserved for military candidates. See also, n.3 and n.18.

[xxvi]. By 1995, for example, at least 15 NGOs had representatives or programmes in the country. Not all had Memoranda of Understanding and some later left or were rejected by the SLORC, but amongst other NGOs reported to be present were: Action Internationale Contre la Faim, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, Australian Red Cross, Bridge Asia Japan, Care International, Groupe de Recherche et d'Echanges Technologiques, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Federation of Eye Banks, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Leprosy Mission International, Medecins du Monde, Population Services International, Sasakawa Foundation, Save the Children (UK) and World Concern. Most only arrived in 1994-95.

[xxvii]. In 1989, in the first ever public admission of the scale of loss of life, the then SLORC chairman, Gen. Saw Maung, announced the true death toll in fighting since independence "would reach as high as millions, I think. It really is no good." He also revealed that 28,000 families in Burma were receiving pensions for soldiers that had been killed since 1953 and 40,000 for disabled veterans. On the armed opposition side, there is no exact data at all; for a discussion, see, Smith, Burma, pp.100-1.

[xxviii]. Many of these statistics and issues are analysed more fully in Martin Smith, Fatal Silence? Freedom of Expression and the Right to Health in Burma (Article 19, London, 1996).

[xxix]. See e.g., Return to Myanmar: Repatriating Refugees from Bangladesh, Information Bulletin, June 1995.

[xxx]. Smith, Fatal Silence?, p.119.

[xxxi]. Smith, Fatal Silence?, p.119.

[xxxii]. Letter to the Editor, Independence: The Shan Herald Agency for News, Vol.144, 20 July 1996, pp.33-4. Other critics have suggested parallels to the discredited Ka Kwe Ye militia programme of the 1960s and 70s, but government spokesmen are quick to reject this, arguing that this time all cease-fire forces are able to engage in "party politics".

 

This paper is one of four presented at the conference 'Strengthening Civil Society in Burma. Possibilities and Dilemmas for International NGOs' organised by the Transnational Institute and the Burma Centrum Nederland on December 4 and 5, 1997 in the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam.