The fierce rioting in Arakan state and ongoing fighting in Burma’s north suggest the country’s “ethnic problem” – namely, the apathy of the military (and evidently some Burmese) towards those not from the Burman majority – is far from being solved. The unrest over the weekend in several townships in Arakan state, where Buddhist and Muslim communities continue their savage attacks on one another, is the worst seen since rioting first broke out in June.

It’s easy for the international community to consider each battle an isolated event – that means they can avoid acknowledgement of the role that the government’s ultra-nationalist mentality has played in all this, and thus continue to fawn over Thein Sein and his cabinet. But it is the government that continues to attack Kachin civilians in the north, and which is rallying Burmese to demand deportation, and worse, of the Rohingya (and as of two days ago, Kaman Muslim) in the west.

So in that context, where all the evidence points to a deeply unstable situation with regards to Burma’s many ethnic minority populations, the UN’s call this week for work to begin on planning the repatriating of some 150,000 Karen from camps in Thailand is alarming. (Ironically, it’s the same figure that OCHA now counts as displaced in Kachin and Arakan).

Burma Arakan conflict

A house is seen engulfed in flames in Sittwe, Burma last month during sectarian violence involving Rohingyas and Arakan Buddhists. Pic: AP.

First up, Karen state itself remains a conflict zone, although fighting has dramatically reduced since a nominal ceasefire was signed with the Karen National Union (KNU) earlier this year. Both the Free Burma Rangers and Karen Human Rights Group, who know the situation there inside out, have said recently that Burmese troops continue to supply their camps with weaponry and personnel. All the talk of an end to fighting in Karen state should be contrasted with the modern-day reality of life in Kachin state: the period following the signing of a 1994 ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army was marked by greater militarization of the state than had occurred during the war, and look how well that’s now served the Burmese army.

The KNU is currently amid a crisis, having dismissed three top figures due to their warming relations with the government. The group is split into two factions, thus meaning the prospect of lasting peace in Karen state is now further away than six months ago. Is the UN fully aware of this, and the fragile situation the refugees will return to? Landmines still litter the landscape, and Burmese troops, part of an institution whose actions elsewhere in the country remain as debased as they were in Burma’s darkest days, continue to roam.

Karen state might have seen a reduction in fighting, but what’s key to this saga is that the mindset of the army, which is taught to consider ethnic minorities as subhuman, remains firmly intact. Events elsewhere in the country should be seen as the manifestation of a mentality that can surface anywhere in Burma, at any time, and which political reforms alone won’t break.

To be sure, the UN will have been pressured by the Thais to do something with the refugees. Norway too, with its Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, has eagerly sought to make Karen state habitable for returnees, and thus has added a glean to a situation that probably doesn’t deserve it.

James Lynch, from the UN refugee agency, had acknowledged that, “Conditions for the repatriation may not be in place,” and cited landmines, shelters and a lack of a peace agreement among the region’s many ethnic groups, according to the Bangkok Post. “But we still should think about the preparations.”

It’s a strange thing for the same person considering the return of thousands of refugees to then admit the dangers of carrying through with repatriation.