Baby steps in 'reformed' Burma


Aung San Suu KyiSeldom has there been so much news in the Australian and western media about Burma. In relatively quick succession, we have witnessed arguably the world's most repressive regime after North Korea embark on a series of reforms that has altered its pariah status among western powers.

Burma's icon of democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured) has not only been released from house arrest but has been allowed to stand for parliament, seemingly without hindrance. Other political prisoners have been released although many complain of being followed by the secret police.

Ceasefire talks have begun with the various ethnic armies which have been waging war against the government for decades. This, in Suu Kyi's words, is the most intractable problem of all and has to be dealt with slowly.

I coordinate an Australian Catholic University program that offers tertiary education to Burmese refugees and migrants on the Thai-Burma border. When I visited in January I found that few of these students believed they would be returning home soon.

First, for the Royal Thai Government (RTG), the nine camps strewn along their border with Burma are no longer a priority. The real priorities are the economic aftermath of the floods, the insurgency in the south, the nation's deep political divisions, and the government's survival. The RTG realises that, even if it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, any hint of refoulement against the wishes of the refugees would be counterproductive and could cause more problems for the government.

Secondly, the Burmese government is quoted as saying that they are not ready for the refugees' return at present and have other higher priority issues to resolve first.

Practically, the refugees have little to return to since, in many cases, their villages were burned down, including schools and clinics (if they existed), and their crops destroyed. In addition, the vast areas of conflict are covered with landmines placed by the Burmese military and ethnic insurgents.

UNHCR is talking about 'return with reconciliation' but reconciliation means not just the cessation of violence but the creation of a new society where old animosities between all stakeholders and the government are replaced by less toxic relationships. For these new relationships to take root and generate the growth of a new society will take generations.

NGOs reckon the refugees will be in the camps until the end of 2013 at the earliest. The most complex issue is how the conflicts with ethnic groups are resolved.

It would be inadvisable to put too much weight on the so-called ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union and its armed wing. The meeting took place while I was on the border, and I met one of the negotiators. There is great mistrust between the two sides, and the agreemment merely said that they agreed to further talks in 45 days' time. Troops are to be confined to barracks and, if they move, hostilities will resume.

There was some anger among the Karen with their leaders, some of whom are regarded as out of touch and corrupt and divided among themselves. Some want to continue what has been a lucrative war and others believe peace has to be established for the people's sake. Such scenarios will be found in negotiations with all ethnic groups. In addition, the ethnic groups do not fully trust Suu Kyi who, like most of the generals, is a Burman.

Meanwhile, there are still reports of villagers being abused, killed and displaced in Karen State, and fighting continues in Kachin State with 50,000 people displaced either internally or in camps in China.

Unfortunately, donors, both governments and NGOs, seem to have made up their minds about the future and have reduced funds to the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) to the extent that they have had to cut rations in the camps.

Reforms have led to actions by western powers eager to make Burma a buffer against the growth of Chinese power in the region; and, as a Guardian journalist put it, 'trade will follow the flag'. The US has restored full diplomatic ties, Norway is ending its policy of discouraging investment, and Australia is lifting financial and travel restrictions on certain Burmese citizens.

This is premature. Governments should remember that Suu Kyi does not fully represent all Burmese and that there are vast, intractable problems to be solved for the many ethnic groups who have suffered most from the regime's barbarity and have fought against it for 60 years. These factors should be taken into account before sanctions are fully lifted.

Duncan MaclarenDuncan MacLaren lectures in International Development Studies and is the coordinator of Australian Catholic University's program offering tertiary education to Burmese refugees and migrants on the Thai-Burma border. 

Topic tags: Duncan MacLaren, Thailand, Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi



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Existing comments

Very helpful to have the perspective from an educator who has grass roots experience and knowledge. I would like to think Duncan's opinion is heard by our politicians. thank you Duncan.
Anonymous | 15 February 2012

"Governments should remember that Suu Kyi does not fully represent all Burmese .... " Are you sure? Who told you so? Has she said so? Whilst I would not say that "She represent all Burmese", I'd be cautious about using such sweeping statements.
Bamar | 15 February 2012

Thank you for this report from the border areas where refugees, mainly Karens, have lived for a long time. COnflicts between the Burmese and smaller ethnic groups go back a long time, and resolution of these will no doubt take a back seat to other matters, if Burma goes forward in this liberalization. But if Aung San Su Kyi and her party are returned to power, they will push for swifter reconciliation, I have no doubt.
Rodney Wetherell | 15 February 2012

Thanks for your insight Duncan. You highlight the importance of resolving ethnic tensions if progress for Burmese people is to be truly forthcoming. So often the plight of minority groups is overlooked by developed countries so long as there exists a thin veil of democracy - - let’s hope we are the wiser with Burma.
Carly Hammond ( | 15 February 2012

Just returned from nrth Thailand after having worked with Br Anurak and his CLUMP foundation, to help the displaced Karen people. Thanks for the article
fransje | 15 February 2012


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