maandag 10 juni 2013

Burma Policy Briefing: Access Denied

Access Denied

Land Rights and Ethnic Conflict in Burma

Policy briefing - 8 May 2013
TNI & Burma Centrum Netherlands
The reform process in Burma/Myanmar by the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein has raised hopes that a long overdue solution can be found to more than 60 years of devastating civil war
Burma’s ethnic minority groups have long felt marginalized and discriminated against, resulting in a large number of ethnic armed opposition groups fighting the central government – dominated by the ethnic Burman majority – for ethnic rights and autonomy. The fighting has taken place mostly in Burma’s borderlands, where ethnic minorities are most concentrated. Burma is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Ethnic minorities make up an estimated 30-40 percent of the total population, and ethnic states occupy some 57 percent of the total land area and are home to poor and often persecuted ethnic minority groups. Most of the people living in these impoverished and war-torn areas are subsistence farmers practicing upland cultivation. Economic grievances have played a central part in fuelling the civil war. While the central government has been systematically exploiting the natural resources of these areas, the money earned has not been (re)invested to benefit the local population.

Read full beriefing following this link:

Conclusions and Recommendations
  • The new land and investment laws benefit large corporate investors and not small- holder farmers, especially in ethnic minority regions, and do not take into account land rights of ethnic communities.
  • The new ceasefires have further facilitated land grabbing in conflict-affected areas where large development projects in resource-rich ethnic regions have already taken place. Many ethnic organisations oppose large-scale economic projects in their territories until inclusive political agreements are reached. Others reject these projects outright.
  • Recognition of existing customary and communal tenure systems in land, water, fisheries and forests is crucial to eradicate poverty and build real peace in ethnic areas; to ensure sustainable livelihoods for marginalized ethnic communities affected by decades of war; and to facilitate the voluntary return of IDPs and refugees.
  • Land grabbing and unsustainable business practices must halt, and decisions on the allocation, use and management of natural resources and regional development must have the participation and consent of local communities.
  • Local communities must be protected by the government against land grabbing. The new land and investment laws should be amended and serve the needs and rights of smallholder farmers, especially in ethnic regions

maandag 29 april 2013

BCN-TNI seminar report

Read the latest briefing by TNI and BCN 
While there have been undeniably positive trends in Burma over the past year, these have not yet been translated into ethnic peace and justice. 

An uncertain political era has begun, bringing both opportunities and new challenges in quick order. Many needs can be listed and, ultimately, political solutions must be agreed.
But for this to be achieved, it is vital that ethnic issues are prioritized at the centre of national politics; activities are broadened at the community levels to strengthen the participation of civil society; and transparency about peace strategies and initiatives is made a bedrock for all political, military and economic actions by the different sides.

In February, TNI-BCN hosted a two-day seminar, involving ethnic groups from different regions of Burma/Myanmar,1 on the theme “political reform and consequences for ethnic conflict”. Those participating included 28 representatives from Burmese civil society, parliament and armed opposition groups.2

The seminar took place at a critical time. The reform agenda under the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein has continued to gain domestic momentum and international approval. The socio-political landscape is undoubtedly more dynamic and open than in March 2011 when President Thein Sein assumed office. Over the past year international leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have visited Burma, while Thein Sein has been received in countries around the world, including China, Belgium, Norway and other European states.

On the ground, reform is at an early stage, and livelihoods and security remain unstable in many communities. Ethnic conflicts and military practises from the past continue, while new upheavals are occurring during a time of uncertain political and economic change. Hopes remain that Burma faces a better future. But over a thousand lives have been lost in violence since the Thein Sein government came to power, and a further 200,000 civilians have been internally displaced. As in other political eras since independence in 1948, the main casualties are ethnic minority peoples.

The seminar focused on four main areas: peace talks and ethnic conflict; political parties and civil society; economic developments in the borderlands; and the international community. In addition, it was recognised that state failure continued during previous times of constitutional change (1948, 1962, 1974 and 1988). Transition from decades of military rule remains uncharted territory for all parties and stakeholder groups. For these reasons, frank and inclusive discussions are considered vital if needs and grievances are to be addressed and Burma is to achieve a democratic era of peace and justice for all.
The spread of ethnic ceasefires with the government was welcomed. But confidence in peace initiatives and reform is being tested by worrying trends and events. These include offensives by government forces (Tatmadaw) in the Kachin and northern Shan states; continued militarization in many ethnic borderlands; Buddhist-Muslim communal violence in the Rakhine state and other areas; and land-grabbing on a disturbing scale. In consequence, humanitarian needs remain immense and, in several areas, internal displacement has continued to rise.

Criticisms are not always publicly expressed by government, opposition and international representatives involved in peace talks. But difficulties are deeply felt among communities and civil society groups on the ground. Sentiment has been growing that peace initiatives are topdown, military-based, non-transparent and often excluding the voice of the local people.
As a result, there is little consensus about the prospects of peace initiatives underway. For while the notion of an “inclusive process” under the “Union Peace-making” initiative of President Thein Sein is being promoted, the reality is rather more complex in the field. Ceasefire talks have taken place through different government approaches to different ethnic groups; there is no over-arching strategy nor national agreement on reform schedules and goals; the Myanmar Peace Centre is regarded a government project that does not reflect non-Burman peoples; business rather than politics and communities is the focus of many ceasefire activities; international agencies have different interests and priorities; and, in several ethnic regions, Tatmadaw officers appear to be continuing longterm strategies of military pacification and “regional clearances” of their own.

Against this backdrop, two different tracks have emerged towards a nationwide peace process: a government initiative, coordinated by U Aung Min, and an ethnic-based initiative by armed members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). A first meeting between the two sides was held in February 2013. But many difficulties lie ahead. Controversial issues include political dialogue, national inclusion, Tatmadaw agreement, economic policies, demilitarization, humanitarian access and the resettlement of displaced people, including an estimated 150,000 refugees (mostly Karen and Karenni) still living in Thailand.

To improve understanding, a popular suggestion is that there should be an ethnic peace centre as part of efforts to broaden civil society involvement and national focus on the ethnic cause. Any successful peace process must be anchored in the community. But, for the moment, the perception remains that government and Tatmadaw leaders are in no hurry, with a “hidden agenda” as they bid to strengthen central control; they prefer to continue dealing with different ethnic groups differently; and, with few exceptions, officials are more focused on bedding in the existing political system and status quo before the next general election in 2015.

A similar sense of frustration over ethnic progress exists among ethnic political parties in the new parliamentary system. In general, greater unity is being achieved through ethnic parties in such networks as the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation. A consensus is growing towards federal goals similar to those of the UNFC. There has also been increasing inter-action between ethnic parties, armed ethnic groups and civil society in many parts of the country, especially in the Karen and Shan states. All support the ideal of parliamentary politics. However the criticism is widespread that the present political system and state legislatures do not represent ethnic needs or causes; ethnic parties are unable to promote real discussion or decision-making on critical challenges facing their peoples; and there is no indication as to how armed ethnic groups, their territories and goals can be incorporated in the new political system. Federalism remains a controversial issue.

A further concern is that Burman-majority parties, which dominate the parliamentary system, do not adequately understand or reflect the aspirations and requirements of ethnic minority peoples who make up an estimated third of the population. Ethnic groups are especially critical that Burman-majority parties – whether the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) or opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) – have appeared reluctant to speak up or independently intercede on the violence in the Kachin state and other ethnic borderlands. To try and rectify these failings, proportional representation or the agreement of the NLD to single “ethnic democracy” parties standing for elections in the ethnic states is being mooted. For the moment, however, both the USDP and NLD appear to count on “split” votes among parties in ethnically diverse areas. This greatly favours the prospects of nationwide Burman-majority parties in the “first past the post” system in the country’s elections.

Despite these differences, all sides recognise that constitutional amendments are essential if the present political system is to be made to work and truly represent all peoples. In particular, ethnic political parties want to establish a federal system that guarantees their political, economic, socialcultural and religious rights. Furthermore, the reservation of a quarter of all seats in the legislatures for Tatmadaw appointees is an undemocratic anomaly that requires reform agreement between political and military leaders. But there is presently little expectation of major constitutional change before the next general election in 2015. In the meantime, there are concerns that ethnic politics will continue to be eclipsed on the national stage. This would be a historic mistake. As in previous political eras, the marginalisation of ethnic interests will only sustain grievance and conflict, further perpetuating the risk of state failure.

In this reform vacuum, ethnic groups and local communities have become extremely concerned over the pace and style of economic change under the Thein Sein government, often involving Asian investors and business favourites of the ruling elite. The view is widely held that economic designs are behind many government strategies towards ethnic groups, including recent offensives in the Kachin and Shan borderlands. The China-backed Myitsone dam project in the Kachin state is currently suspended. But other major projects, such as the oil and gas pipelines from the Rakhine state to China and the Dawei Development Project with Thailand, are continuing, and displacement and the lack of local consultation or benefit are increasingly the source of unrest and protests among community groups. Many ethnic organisations believe that there should be a moratorium on further economic projects in their territories until inclusive political agreements are reached.

Economic resentment also risks fuelling communal tensions, including with Indian and Chinese minorities, that have been reflected not only in Buddhist-Muslim or “Rakhine-Rohingya” violence but also in inflammatory exchanges on the internet and in local media. In fact, security repression of protests at the Letpadaung copper mine – a joint-venture between Tatmadaw and Chinese state-owned companies – has warned that concerns over non-consultation, displacement, the exploitation of natural resources and enforced economic projects are not simply an ethnic minority affair. It is vital therefore that transparent and inclusive decision-making processes over economic policies are prioritized at both the national and local levels. Longoverdue attention needs to be paid to the economic basis of ethnic grievance and conflict.

Finally, while the entry of international donors and agencies into Burma’s ethnic politics is generally appreciated, ethnic groups often feel that they are pursuing their own agendas and/or repeating the same errors as the government. They appear to have no common strategy or end-goal; it is often hard to understand their focus or ways of working; sanctions are being dropped and human rights issues, for long the Western priority, appear to have been downgraded; and they have not had influence in dealing with such crises as government offensives in the Kachin borderlands, Buddhist-Muslim violence, and the continuing trends of land-grabbing and economic marginalisation. Rather than prioritizing ethnic and political realities today, they seem more focused on economic engagement with Nay Pyi Taw and hoping to build up President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi as reformist leaders for the long-term.

Over the past year, a general structure has developed among the different international peace efforts. These include the Norway-backed Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, Euro-Burma Office-supported Working Group on Ethnic Coordination and Japan’s Nippon Foundation. For all, their main gateway to the country is through the Myanmar Peace Centre, which is widely regarded a government extension. Meanwhile China remains the most dominant international actor, engaging directly with both the government and ethnic opposition groups. As demonstrated by China hosting recent talks in the Kachin conflict, Chinese stakeholders are likely to continue working hard to ensure their pre-eminent position for a variety of economic, regional and security reasons that are quite different to Western agendas and perspectives.

In this changing landscape, ethnic groups often feel trapped between different Burma government and international interests. They thus hope that, in the coming year, domestic and international understanding of ethnic needs and interests are broadened. As they point out, ceasefires of varying kinds have already existed in Burma for over two decades now. The challenge is to move forward to nationwide agreements that will bring about inclusive and lasting peace. “Third party” support could be very helpful. At the same time, international actors must pay greater attention to the economic impact of investments in the borderlands. Developments that will benefit the people have always been wanted. But, despite the spread of ceasefires, perceptions of exploitation and exclusion have been increasing during the past year, and this could become a very regressive trend if urgent attention is not paid soon.

In summary, while there have been undeniably positive trends in Burma over the past year, these have not yet been translated into ethnic peace and justice. An uncertain political era has begun, bringing both opportunities and new challenges in quick order. Many needs can be listed and, ultimately, political solutions must be agreed. But for this to be achieved, it is vital that ethnic issues are prioritized at the centre of national politics; activities are broadened at the community levels to strengthen the participation of civil society; and transparency about peace strategies and initiatives is made a bedrock for all political, military and economic actions by the different sides. Experience has long taught that ethnic marginalisation and “divide-and-rule” will lead to failure. Only by keeping ethnic challenges in clear view can confidence build among the peoples in Burma’s reform process, leading to the democracy, peace and equitable development that have long been overdue.

1. In 1989 the then military government changed the official name from Burma to Myanmar. They are alternative forms in the Burmese language, but their use has become a politicised issue. Although this is changing, Myanmar is not yet commonly used in the English language. For consistency, Burma will be used in this report. This is not intended as a political statement.

2. The seminar followed the Chatham House Rule, which reads as follows: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” See:

This briefing has been produced with the financial assistance of Sweden, the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Bangkok, the Royal Danish Embassy in Bangkok and the Royal Dutch Embassy in Bangkok. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of TNI and BCN and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the donors.

dinsdag 26 maart 2013

Burma Centrum Nederland presenteert:

Brave New Burma

het nieuwe boek van schrijver/fotograaf Nic Dunlop

Woensdag 17 april vanaf 20:00 uur in Perdu, Kloveniersburgwal 86, Amsterdam

Vrijdag 19 april vanaf 17:30 in Reisboekhandel Evenaar, Singel 348, Amsterdam

 U bent van harte welkom bij een van deze bijzondere gelegenheden


17 april: Journaliste en Birma kenner Minka Nijhuis interviewt Nic Dunlop over zijn werk. Daarna toont Dunlop aan de hand van zijn foto’s hoe hij de militaire dictatuur en de transitie in Birma in beeld heeft gebracht.

19 april: Na een korte inleiding van Saskia Kunst, programma co├Ârdinator van Burma Centrum Nederland, geeft Nic Dunlop een lezing over zijn werk.

Nic Dunlop registreerde de afgelopen twintig jaar het leven in Birma onder de militaire dictatuur.
Hij neemt ons mee naar de frontlinies van de burgeroorlog en de bedrieglijk kalme steden; hij bezoekt oppositie-leidster Aung San Suu Kyi en maakt ons deelgenoot van de levens van gewone mensen die proberen te overleven in het voorheen zo geïsoleerde land.

Zijn foto’s en verhalen, samengebracht in Brave New Burma, vormen een indringend portret in beeld en woord van een land dat zich eindelijk ontworstelt aan jarenlange dictatuur.

Nic Dunlop woont en werkt vanuit Bangkok. Zijn foto’s zijn wereldwijd gepubliceerd.
In 1999 kreeg hij de prijs voor Excellence in International Journalism van de John Hopkins University voor zijn succesvolle zoektocht naar Comarde Duch, de commandant van Pol Pot’s  beruchte detentiecentrum Tuol Sleng in Cambodia.
Hij schreef er het boek The Lost Executioner, a story of the Khmer Rouge over.

Nic Dunlop maakte als co-regisseur de film Burma Soldier, een intiem portret van de Birmese soldaat Myo Myint, die zwaar gewond raakte in de strijd in Birma, getuige was van het onrecht dat door zijn collega soldaten werd gedaan, en 15 jaar gevangen zat vanwege zijn activisme als lid van de Nationale Liga voor Democratie, de partij van Aung San Suu Kyi. De film is bekroond met de Grand Jury Prize van het United Nations Association Film Festival en werd genomineerd voor een Emmy Award voor Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing.

 Over Nic Dunlop:
“An outstanding photographer who is also a talented writer.”
– John Ryle, Financial Times

“Nic Dunlop’s pioneering work in Cambodia, documenting the scourge of landmines, is reinforced by the dark grace of his pictures from Burma. They expose the slave labour imposed by the illegitimate regime and illuminate the heroism of Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy comrades.”
– John Pilger

zaterdag 23 maart 2013

Communal violence

In 2002, in the wake of the terrible communal violence in Gujarat, India, writer and social activist Arundhati Roy wrote a powerful essay, which has been lingering in my mind after violence broke out in Rakhine State, and came back forcefully upon hearing the news of the anti muslim riots in Meiktila, Central Burma/Myanmar.
What Arundhati Roy wrote: `… Last night a friend from Baroda[i] called. Weeping. It took her fifteen minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasn't very complicated. Only that Sayeeda, a friend of hers, had been caught by a mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags. Only that after she died, someone carved 'OM' on her forehead.

Precisely which Hindu scripture preaches this?

Our Prime Minister justified this as part of the retaliation by outraged Hindus against Muslim 'terrorists' who burned alive 58 Hindu passengers on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra. Each of those who died that hideous death was someone's brother, someone's mother, someone's child. Of course they were.

Which particular verse in the Quran required that they be roasted alive?

The more the two sides try and call attention to their religious differences by slaughtering each other, the less there is to distinguish them from one another. They worship at the same altar. They're both apostles of the same murderous god, whoever he is. In an atmosphere so vitiated, for anybody, and in particular the Prime Minister, to arbitrarily decree exactly where the cycle started is malevolent and irresponsible. Right now we're sipping from a poisoned chalice—a flawed democracy laced with religious fascism. Pure arsenic.

What shall we do? What can we do?

We have a ruling party that's haemorrhaging. Its rhetoric against Terrorism, the passing of POTA[ii], the sabre-rattling against Pakistan (with the underlying nuclear threat), the massing of almost a million soldiers on the border on hair-trigger alert, and most dangerous of all, the attempt to communalise and falsify school history text-books—none of this has prevented it from being humiliated in election after election .…

Within hours of the Godhra outrage, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal[iii] put into motion a meticulously planned pogrom against the Muslim community. Officially the number of dead is 800. Independent reports put the figure at well over 2,000. More than a hundred and fifty thousand people, driven from their homes, now live in refugee camps. Women were stripped, gang-raped, parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children. Two hundred and forty dargahs and 180 masjids were destroyed—in Ahmedabad the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the founder of the modern Urdu poem, was demolished and paved over in the course of a night. The tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Ali Khan was desecrated and wreathed in burning tyres. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, hotels, textiles mills, buses and private cars. Hundreds of thousands have lost their job.
A mob surrounded the house of former Congress MP Iqbal Ehsan Jaffri. His phone calls to the Director-General of Police, the Police Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) were ignored. The mobile police vans around his house did not intervene. The mob broke into the house. They stripped his daughters and burned them alive. Then they beheaded Ehsan Jaffri and dismembered him. Of course it's only a coincidence that Jaffri was a trenchant critic of Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, during his campaign for the Rajkot Assembly by-election in February.
Across Gujarat, thousands of people made up the mobs. They were armed with petrol bombs, guns, knives, swords and tridents. Apart from the VHP and Bajrang Dal's usual lumpen constituency, Dalits and Adivasis[iv] took part in the orgy. Middle-class people participated in the looting . …

The leaders of the mob had computer-generated cadastral lists marking out Muslim homes, shops, businesses and even partnerships. They had mobile phones to coordinate the action. They had trucks loaded with thousands of gas cylinders, hoarded weeks in advance, which they used to blow up Muslim commercial establishments. They had not just police protection and police connivance, but also covering fire.
While Gujarat burned, our Prime Minister was on MTV promoting his new poems. It took him more than a month—and two vacations in the hills—to make it to Gujarat. When he did, shadowed by the chilling Mr. Modi, he gave a speech at the Shah Alam refugee camp. His mouth moved, he tried to express concern, but no real sound emerged except the mocking of the wind whistling through a burned, bloodied, broken world. Next we knew, he was bobbing around in a golf-cart, striking business deals in Singapore. …

At the Goa meeting of the BJP's national executive[v], the Prime Minister of Secular, Democratic India, Mr. A.B. Vajpayee, made history. He became the first Indian Prime Minister to cross the threshold and publicly unveil an unconscionable bigotry against Muslims, which even George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld would be embarrassed to own up to. "Wherever Muslims are," he said, "they do not want to live peacefully."  Shame on him.
But if only it were just him: in the immediate aftermath of the Gujarat holocaust, confident of the success of its 'experiment', the BJP wants a snap poll. "The gentlest of people," my friend from Baroda said to me, "the gentlest of people, in the gentlest of voices, says 'Modi is our hero.'"[vi]

But in India if you are a butcher or a genocidist who happens to be a politician, you have every reason to be optimistic. No one even expects politicians to be prosecuted. To demand that Modi and his henchmen be arraigned and put away, would make other politicians vulnerable to their own unsavoury pasts—so instead they disrupt Parliament, shout a lot, eventually those in power set up commissions of inquiry, ignore the findings and between themselves make sure the juggernaut chugs on. …’

Obviously, there are a lot of differences between what happened in India in 2002, and what is happening in Burma/Myanmar since the end of 2012. But still, let’s hope and pray and – most importantly – let’s work towards a Burma that doesn’t copy the flawed democracy of its big neighbor, with its violent outburst of communal hatred condoned by those in power, and it’s terrible social injustices.
full text of Roy’s essay:

[i] Baroda is a town in Gujarat
[ii] POTA – Prevention of terrorism Act, adopted in 2002, extending powers of prosecution against those suspected of being terrorists.
[iii] Hinduist inspired civil organisations
[iv] Casteless hindus and tribal people
[v] This meeting took place not long after the riots in Gujarat
[vi] Narandra Modi is still chief minister of Gujarat and a possible candidate for PM in the upcoming national election