Can Burma’s president persuade army to end ethnic war?
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Can Burma’s president persuade army to end ethnic war?

On 1 March 2012, President of Burma (Myanmar) Thein Sein delivered a speech at Parliament in the capital Naypyitaw. The president started his speech by saying that his government is a turning point to a historic beginning for the next generations and the ‘extent of success, stability and durability of the transition process of the present government’ will become the legacy for future succeeding governments.

Thein Sein said Thursday that his government will make available comprehensive reforms that have been set in motion over the last year. The government will make an effort to encourage disbelievers at home and abroad that it is beyond doubt faithful to democratic reforms.

He said: “If we compare our situation with the current global situation, our democratization process is a successful transition which the people can take as a model with great admiration. Who deserves credit? Not only the government, but also all the stakeholders including political parties, civil societies, members of the houses, the judicial pillar, the fourth estate media, national race leaders, and the armed forces have been harmoniously taking part in the respective sectors to reach this situation.”

However, in an exclusive interview, Nation Group Editor in Chief Suthichai Yoon asked the Lady whether the reform process in Burma is irreversible.

Burmese democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, responded: “I do not know whether the army is behind the reform. We do not know where the army stands in regard to the reforms and I’ve always said that until we know that the army is solidly behind the reform movement, we cannot say the process is irreversible.”

After nearly one year in office as head of a military-backed civilian government, his speech to the parliament has come out by saying changes consist of release political prisoners, signing cease-fires with ethnic armed rebel groups, easing limitations on the media and opening a talk with key opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since then, Thein Sein has run a few remarkable changes that has taken aback some journalists who closely watch Burma. Those changes include freeing political prisoners, signing cease-fires with armed rebel groups, easing restrictions on the press and opening a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The president also said that as Burma is a Union, the participation of all national races in the nation-building process on equal terms is an obligation. He said misunderstandings and doubts appear due to a lack of close relations among ethnic tribes. The president emphasized that Bamar is also one of the nationalities of the Union similar to Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.

“The aspiration of the national races to share the rights among all and enjoy equality is also the desire of our government,” Thein Sein said.

If it is true, people will welcome the presidential statement. On the contrary, the respective ethnic minorities have constantly demanded for their self-sufficiency since 1948. But successive governments in Burma use military might to govern ethnic minorities. If one looks back to 1960-61, many leaders from ethnic states criticized the flaws of the constitution as well as the government’s failure to acknowledge the political autonomy of the ethnic minorities.

The ethnic groups accused the central government of not allowing the representatives of ethnic states to handle their own affairs in areas of the economy, judiciary, education, customs and so on. The central government ruled the ethnic areas as vassal states.

The president explained the issue concerning battles in the Kachin State. He said that he ordered the armed forces to terminate all military offensives or attacks except self-defense purposes. According to his comment on Kachin warfare, the remaining skirmishes will not end just by pointing a finger at one another. Both sides ought to stop all hostilities to start a political dialogue. There must be mutual assurances and pledges to end all hostilities, he said.

“It is the duty of our government and the Kachin leaders to fulfill the aspirations and hopes of the people,” Thein Sein underlined in his speech.

On the other hand, several ethnic leaders including the Kachin leadership asserted that they don’t have faith in the planned 2010 election where they are likely to have limited opportunities which is not likely to create a genuinely peaceful federal union; Burmese armed-forces take 25 percent of all seats and also seize an additional 77 percent through junta-backed parties.

In such a parliament, dominated by the military and former military, ethnic representatives have little or no chance to drive the autonomy and equal rank issues. In addition, even dependable ethnic representatives have no opportunity to occupy enough seats in the military bloc monopolized-parliament to form an effective coalition.

So, many analysts consider Thein Sein’s view on ethnic issue is still far from pragmatic process. As the major responsibility is in the hand of the government, he should not lay the blame on the ethnic rebels, especially on the Kachin Independence Organization.

Without addressing and honoring the ethnic people’s demand for self-determination, the military-based Thein Sein government may not stop political and civil strife in ethnic regions. In reality, ethnic people’s demand for equal rights is not a new one but was stated in the 1947-Panglong agreement.