Publisher: The Mainichi, Japan
Story date: 16/11/2011
LAIZA, Kachin State, Myanmar Democracy is on the march in Myanmar, or so it seems at first glance. The administration of President Thein Sein has recently released hundreds of political prisoners, included more civilians in the hardline military government, and has made reconciliatory moves toward the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, even as Thein Sein earns the world's praise and the ASEAN chair for 2014 for finally moving his country in a more democratic direction, Myanmar's minorities are seeing even greater repression. Already, more than 20,000 people belonging to these minorities are now refugees.
Early on the morning of Oct. 16, just four days after the much-publicized release of about 200 political prisoners, 47-year-old minister Jangma Awngli was at his church in the village of Namsan Yang, home to some 9,000 of the Kachin minority in Kachin State, on the Chinese border. He was preparing for his Sunday sermon when soldiers burst into the building, grabbed him by both arms and rammed his forehead into the concrete floor.
"Where are the weapons?" they demanded. "Where are the landmines buried?"
The soldiers were sweeping through the village and breaking into people's houses in search of members of the Kachin militia. The government troops granted no quarter, killing four and putting the village to the torch.
"Why are we being attacked like this?" an angry Jangma asked me when I spoke to him in the border town of Laiza.
In early November, I set out with a guide to visit the ruins of Namsan Yang, some 5 kilometers north of Laiza. We passed through the lines of the Kachin militia and, coming to a rise, we could see the charred remains of Jangma's church about 1.5 kilometers away. My guide was scanning the area with binoculars when his face suddenly drained of color.
"Government soldiers are looking this way," he said. "They might shoot us."
We headed for a camp in a logging area some 10 kilometers from Namsan Yang, where about 5,000 villagers who had fled the assault were now living under blue tarps stretched over bamboo frames. So far, they have seen no international aid.
"We couldn't plant rice this year," says 56-year-old Mwihpu Roi, who fled Namsan Yang with his daughter's family and now shares a small room with nine people. "How are we supposed to live now?"
About 70 percent of the population is ethnic Burmese, with the remaining 30 percent divided among over 130 ethnic groups. These have been grouped into seven large tribes divided between seven states on Myanmar's borders. These minority ethnic groups have been pushing for autonomy since the country's independence from Britain in 1948.
At the root of these movements is the widely revered General Aung San, father of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who was instrumental in leading Burma out of the British Empire. Assassinated in July 1947 less than a year before his country became formally independent he also signed the February 1947 Panglong Agreement with the frontier peoples granting them administrative autonomy within the new Burma.
However, successive administrations looking to harvest the rich natural resources in these frontier states have refused to recognize the rights of the ethnic minorities. By 1997 the government had agreed to ceasefires with most of the minority resistance movements pressing for implementation of the Panglong Agreement, granting the border people's local taxation rights and other concessions. However, armed conflict broke out again this year, with the Kachin militia in the thick of the fight.
"The government has suddenly started implementing a lot of support for the Burmese majority," says the Kachin militia's Vice Chief of Staff Sumlut Gun Maw, speaking from the border town of Laiza. "If the global community lifts the economic sanctions on Myanmar, the government army will get much more powerful, and the pressure on the minorities will get very severe.
"We believed in General Aung San," he continues. "His daughter Suu Kyi, on the other hand, is the leader in the fight for democracy for Burmese, but maybe not for the minorities." In other words, Sumlut suspects the world-famous democracy leader has thrown aside her statements for the protection of the minority peoples as she moves closer to the government.
I also met with Suu Kyi in Yangon. She praised the government's release of political prisoners, but when I asked her about the ethnic minorities, she said that she wanted to speak to their leaders but had trouble getting in touch with them.
And so as the fighting between the government and the minorities intensifies, a cold wind also blows between those besieged frontier peoples and the primarily ethnic Burmese pro-democracy movement that battled so hard to break the iron-fisted rule of Myanmar's dictatorship. (By Atsushi Iwasa, Mainichi Shimbun)
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution