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Insights on Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the recent electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi

Mar 04, 2016
Insights on Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the recent electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi

Since the end of British colonial rule in 1948, Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been engaged in a civil war with some of the many ethnic minority groups that live on its geographical, political and economic margins. Though this conflict has been interspersed with ceasefires and peace agreements, Myanmar’s civil war is the longest ongoing internal conflict in the world and has created a severe humanitarian crisis.

Ruled for decades by military governments, Myanmar has long adopted a military approach to deal with its ethnic minority problem. However, it has recently taken a giant step towards democracy and many have high expectations for the new civilian government, including the peaceful ending of ethnic conflict.

In November 2015, the Burmese people voted in free and fair elections for the first time in more than 50 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), famed for its leader Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide, and is now in the process of forming its own government. However, the Burmese military still controls 25% of the parliament as well as the three key ministries of Borders, Defence and Home Affairs.

With the power shifting in Naypyidaw (the capital), here are a few things to understand about ethnic groups, their relation to the central government and the newly elected NLD.


Just before independence in 1947, to keep the state unified, the transitional Burmese government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father reached an agreement with all major ethnic groups. Named the “Panglong Agreement”, it ensured that these groups, and their territories, would stay in what was then called the Burmese Union while enjoying political autonomy. After an initial period of 10 years, the ethnic regions would have the choice to stay in, or leave the Union. However, General Aung San, the ‘guarantor’ of the agreement, was assassinated and it was not implemented when independence came in 1948. After that, the central government faced two main conflicts, a communist party rebellion and an insurrection from the Karen ethnic group. Since 1948, Myanmar’s ethnic groups have neither left the union nor have they enjoyed real political representation or autonomy.

In 1962, a military coup put an end to Burmese parliamentary democracy and sparked more armed insurrections from ethnic groups as the military government and its successors followed a policy of Burmanization throughout the country. This meant the promotion of a single religion: Buddhism; a single language: Burmese; and a single culture: Burman. Military juntas refused to establish a multiparty system or a federal government that would have given autonomy and representation to its ethnic groups. Since that time, ethnic minority groups on the periphery of the country have fought the central government to protect their cultures and attain some kind of autonomy.

In recent years, the central government has made an effort to pacify its ethnic regions but the situation is still unstable in many places, and the humanitarian toll that has resulted from these conflicts is substantial. 1 million people are internally displaced and 3 million have found refuge outside Myanmar.

One of the reasons given to explain the Burmese Army’s military response to ethnic minority demands is that it fears that minority autonomy would bring the end of the unity of Myanmar. Since one of the main ‘raison d’etre’ of the Junta is to keep Myanmar unified, it sees ethnic armed groups as a direct threat to the nation and its unity.

With the power of the army receding in Naypyidaw and the rise of the democratically elected NLD, ethnic groups have a new interlocutor to deal with, which might help improve the situation.


It is hard to tell what the fate of the ethnic groups will be under the new government but looking at election results and the relation between the NLD and ethnic minorities might help shed light on what lies ahead.

The newly elected NLD may be willing to negotiate with the ethnic minorities but they will have to be careful not to give too much too quickly. A move that would give too much autonomy to these ethnic states would present a direct threat to the Junta’s unity goal and force it to backtrack on its democratic transition. The army is also particularly worried about the fact that the NLD has only a limited knowledge of the conflicts and of the tumultuous relationships that the central government maintains with minority groups. Indeed, if the NLD were to take over the talks, prior knowledge and deep understanding of party grievances would be essential. However, some might argue that a new and relatively neutral player might resolve issues in which two entrenched belligerents had reached a deadlock.

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s relative silence regarding the persecution of minorities, the NLD still won the majority of seats in ethnic regions. This was due to two things. First, split-voting in ethnic areas due to divisions within the ethnic political landscape where several parties were representing the same minority. Secondly, and more importantly, because the NLD was the obvious protest vote for many members of these minority groups who have either been persecuted or simply abandoned by the central, military government for decades. The NLD actually won more votes in absolute terms than the ethnic parties themselves.

However, the NLD is still a party that is predominantly Burman, the main ethnic group in Myanmar. Minorities have long been weary of this group as they associate it with the central government and the Junta. So, choosing the NLD to represent their interests in Naypyidaw (the capital) is a major step that makes many people uneasy. Moreover, there is a worry that if the NLD somehow reaches an understanding with the military elite, they would present a formidable Burman front that would be very hard for the ethnic groups to negotiate with. And for the ethnic groups still engaged in fighting with the army, like the Shan and the Kachin, this can be an even greater obstacle.

Another worry for minority ethnic groups is that the NLD might have some political power in Naypyidaw but will not have power over the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army). This means that if the NLD engages in negotiations with ethnic groups it may not be able to implement agreements because the army still answers to the military Junta and not to the civilian government the NLD represents.

Thus, even if the NLD does present an alternative for Myanmar’s ethnic groups, they still have many reservations. The NLD may be in a good position to improve Naypyidaw’s relationship with ethnic states but it will have to navigate carefully around the military’s interests. That said, the military elite has shown a real desire to change Burmese politics so hopes remain high. On top of having obvious positive political and humanitarian consequences, a resolution to the conflict would also have a great economic impact on Myanmar. It so happens that conflict areas in Myanmar are often resource-rich and overlap with zones of geo-economic interest for Naypyidaw and its neighbours. Therefore, the easing of relations with ethnic minorities would unlock formidable opportunities for development that, conducted responsibly, could benefit the whole region.

Written by Francois De Nicolay

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