Myanmar has a myriad of challenges to democratic reform and economic development. At the top of the list must be its deep-seated and long-standing ethnic and religious conflicts.
Over a range of issues, experts agreed fairly consistently, in a virtual conversation I co-led on the Future of Myanmar for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Aung San Suu Kyi and others gave briefings recorded at the WEF’s 22nd East Asia Forum, in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in early June.
With 135 different ethnic groups, Myanmar has no single ethnic issue. Almost 70 percent of the 60 million people are ethnically Bamar or Burmese. Another 9 percent are Shan, and 6 percent are Karen, with other main groups being Kachin, Chin, Shah, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah (Karenni). Viewed along religious lines, almost 90 percent of the population is Buddhist, with Christians and Muslims comprising 4 percent each.
The ethnic issues are long-standing. In 1947, at the historic Panglong Conference, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San reached a historic agreement with ethnic leaders based on equal opportunity and autonomy for ethnic minorities, self-determination for member states, and later secession for the Shan and Karenni peoples. It established the foundation for an independent Union of Burma in the post-British era.
But other majority Bamar politicians took a dim view of the Agreement. Their vision was for a unitary Burma, with a single Burmese culture and Buddhist religion. Five months later, one of them assassinated Aung San. The Panglong Agreement was never implemented. In 1962, Gen. Ne Win took control in a military coup, and a Buddhist, Burmese-dominated military government has engaged in civil wars and allegedly presided over human rights abuses against ethnic minorities ever since.
Since the 1962 coup, the government and ethnic groups have signed (and violated), many ceasefire agreements. Most visibly, in June 2012, after the start of the reform process, a 17 year old ceasefire with the Kachin, in the North, broke down. (Although more recently, in May 2013, the government signed another cease-fire agreement with them).
The persistent challenge is that despite many cease-fire agreements, to date, they have not led to political dialogue. Talks need to happen on demilitarization and redeployment of troops in key areas, as well as institutional solutions that seek to afford ethnic minority rights.
Underlying all of these ethnic conflicts are two contested visions of Myanmar’s future: first, a Myanmar governed by a Burmese, Buddhist majority. Second, a Myanmar governed under “the spirit of Panglong:” a truly federal system that affords ethnic groups equality and rights of autonomy and gives member states of Burma rights of self-determination and political autonomy.