Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ENC chairman urges UN’s Nambiar to address ethnic issues in Burma

Wednesday, 02 November 2011 21:26 Thomas Maung Shwe

(Mizzima) – Speaking at a press conference in Thailand on Tuesday, the secretary-general of the Ethnic Nationalities Council, Dr. Sui Khar, urged the UN Burma envoy Vijay Nambiar to address the status of Burma’s ethnic nationalities.

Sui Khar, who also serves as a senior leader in the Chin National Front, a non-ceasefire armed group, described the position of Burma’s ethnic minorities as being central to the county’s ongoing struggle for democracy and stability.

The secretary-general of the Ethnic Nationalities Council, Dr. Sui Khar Photo: Mizzima

Sui Khar said his message to Nambiar continues to be “without incorporating the issue of ethnic nationalities your mission will never be fulfilled.” The call for Nambiar to become more involved in Burma’s ethnic issues coincides with the special envoy’s current visit to Burma, his second this year.

ENC advisor Professor Lian H. Sakhong, who joined Sui Khar at the podium, expressed disappointment that Nambiar’s stated itinerary did not include any meeting with representatives from opposition ethnic political parties or ethnic armed groups.  Referring to Nambiar’s track record, Sakhong told the assembled gathering in Chiang Mai: “I strongly criticize the way he conducts Burma issues from the highest office of the U.N.  They should be more serious about ethnic issues.  Of course there were elections, but there is still fighting in Kachin State, still armed conflict in Karen State, still problems in Shan State.  Why can’t they see? Because they are closing their eyes.”

The criticism of Nambiar’s handling of the Burma portfolio was made at the launch of the latest ENC report on the situation of ethnic minorities in Burma titled “Discrimination, Conflict and Corruption: The Ethnic States of Burma.”  The stated aim of the 98-page booklet is to “examine the lives of those people living in ethnic areas from their perspective.” Written by researcher Paul Keenan, the report contains excerpts of interviews with 53 individuals who are from ethnic or religious minorities.

Those sympathetic to the cause of Burma’s ethnic nationalities will not dispute the report’s stark conclusion: “Sixty years after independence, life for the ethnic peoples of the country has declined markedly. While conflict has played a major part in this inertia, government policy has consistently sought to maintain the status quo of keeping non-Burman people at the lowest levels of society, uneducated, ill-treated and abused.”

The ENC report: "Discrimination, Conflict and Corruption: The Ethnic States of Burma."

The report quotes from a wide cross-section of Burma’s diverse ethnic minorities including the often-overlooked Muslim community in Karen state. A man of Bengali heritage told the ENC interviewer:

“I have seen ethnic discrimination. I want to talk both of ethnic and religious discrimination. Some of the villagers are ethnic Karen, and some are Karen-Burmese-Bengali, and Karen-Paoh-Bengali but their religion is Muslim. We can all speak Karen fluently, but we are seen as Muslim. Most of the places have a notice-board that says, ‘Muslim Not Allowed in this place.’ We can buy something in a Karen shop but Karen are not permitted to buy something at a Muslim shop. And then, although ethnic Karen can buy houses or farms of Muslims, Muslims are not permitted to buy the possessions of Karen.”

The report also contains a detailed narrative explaining how the ethnic question was dealt with during Burma’s immediate post-war period that marked the lead up to independence in which Burma’s left-wing nationalist liberation hero Aung Saw concluded a potentially far reaching agreement with ethnic leaders at Panglong  just months before his assassination.

As the report noted following Aung San’s death, his successor the mercurial U Nu retreated from many of the concessions given to ethnic minorities that his close friend had previously made at Panglong.  U Nu’s conflict-filled term as Burma’s first and arguably only democratically elected prime minister ended shortly after his 1961 decision to declare Buddhism Burma’s national religion.

Whether Burma’s new period of parliamentary rule will lead to an eventual transition to something more democratic remains a hotly contested issue. The conclusion of the report states: “While the current government has been seen to be reform minded and is praised for attempts at ‘reinvigorating the economy, reforming national politics and improving human rights,’ such acclaim fail to acknowledge that what reforms undertaken so far will affect very little of the population.”

Leave a Reply