A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Burma/Myanmar

Burma/ Myanmar (12, 347) (FY 2015 18,386)

The world’s longest running civil war plagues Burma also known as Myanmar, a country the size of Texas with over 200 different ethnic groups and languages—many of which feature different alphabets. Sixty percent of the population belongs to the primarily Buddhist Burman ethnic group. With the remaining 40% split between many other ethnicities and sub groups within those groups. For example the Chin ethnic-group can be further divided into Chin-Hahka, Chin-Falam, Chin-Matu, and so on many of whom cannot understand each other. While Myanmar is 80% Buddhist, Christian minorities primarily of the Chin, Kachin and Karen people and the Rohingya Muslim minority exist in large number. Additionally Burma’s steep green hills and mountains contain valuable natural resources like jade, gold, timber and hydropower. Burma also has rich soil leading to areas of rural agriculture. Like India, Burma is a former British colony comprised of numerous natural enemies with complex histories and relationships. In 1942 during Japan’s expansion in WWII Japan invaded Burma, then a British Colony, and came to occupy the country in part with help from the Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA received military training, weapons and promises of an independent Burma from Japan in exchange for their aid in defeating the British. In 1945 Britain regained control of the region with help of the Anti-Fascist People Freedom League (AFPFL) formerly the BIA who, in short, doubted the promise of independence and grew weary of the mistreatment of Burmese soldiers. Major General Aung San, a lifelong activist, career soldier and politically connected rallied for a free Burma. He belonged to the majority Burman ethnicity and grew popular and went to London to work on an agreement for an Independent Burma. Political opponents however denounced him as “a tool of British Imperialism.” During a executive council session Aung and six of his colleagues were assassinated. U Saw, a political rival with Japanese ties was later executed for his part in the killings. With steps in place to secure a free Burma, independence came in 1948, but without a clear or popular leader. At this time each ethnic group was given the opportunity to secede and form their own nation. However, the Burman ethnicity with a majority and unilateral control of the military, politics and commerce wanted to remain a single nation to keep the vast resources under their control. U Nu, a trusted associate of Aung San became the Prime Minister. Though highly respected, the early government struggled to remain free and independent clashing with communist and ethnic-minority groups. The young economy struggled and his administration’s efforts failed to alleviate the tension as the standard of living plummeted. After a decade in control, in 1958 he resigned and General Ne Win took over. However the 1960 election put U Nu back in power when his party won the most votes. General Ne Win enjoyed the power of the government and in 1962 staged a coup establishing a military government and imprisoning U Nu. General Ne Win initiated, “The Burmese Way to Socialism.” The military government oppressed the average person, pillaging and seizing as desired. The generals begin a time of institutionalized rape and forced labor of non-majority ethnicities. Due to his ties to communism and blatant disregard for human rights the United States and other world powers raise sanctions against Burma crippling the already struggling economy. Ethnic minorities formed militias to fight against the military junta. Over the years these militias have had shifting alliances, leadership and name changes. Of particular interst are the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), The Arakan Army, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, Kuki National Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang Liberation Army and Zomi Revolutionary Army—all of whom have yet to sign a peace agreement. Additional military groups who have disbanded or signed treaties include All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Liberation Army, Chin National Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karen National Defence Organisation, Karen National Liberation Army, Karenni Army, Mon Nathional Liberation Army, National Democratic Alliance Army, Pa-O National Liberation Army, Shan Sate Army, United Wa State Army, Wa National Army, along with many more. General Win’s government could not simultaneously fight all fronts made especially difficult in the jungled mountainous areas without strong infrastructure. To fund the militias, groups turned to black market trades with China, and begin trafficking in heroin, methamphetamines and humans. As the economy faltered the government likewise turned to trafficking to fund the enduring wars with militia groups. In 1981 Ne Win relinquished control to retired general San Yu and stayed on as chairman of the party. In 1982 a law designated that people of “non-indigenous backgrounds” are “associate citizens” This law barred all non-ethnic Burmans from public office and spurred ethnic violence, retaliation and oppression of minorities. In 1987 currency devaluation and economic disarray led to anti-government riots. In response, the government killed thousands. In the uproar martial law went into effect and the government arrested thousands of people and political opposition including Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San. In 1990, amidst the cries for elections the Opposition National League for Democracy won an election by a landslide, but the military refused to relinquish power. During this time Internally Displaced People camps became isolated, and supplies could not reach the camps leading to starvation, deplorable medical conditions and widespread suffering. Burma entered a series of cease-fire agreements in name alone between the government and militias. In the early 2000s the movement began to regain popularity uniting behind Aung San Suu Kyi as she won her Noble Prize. In 2011 the military government under Thein Sein attacked the KIA in Kachin State renewing dormant fighting. Democracy began to take root and the peace process gained steps. In October of 2015 Thein Sein signed a nationwide peace pact the month before the first legitimate election was held since the coup of 1962.  In March of 2016 Htin Kyaw as a proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi who is not allowed to hold office as she has children who are foreign nationals, was sworn in as the first democratically elected government since 1962. In peace talks and uniting the numerous ethnic groups, militias and populations Aung San Suu Kyi did not secure equal rights for all ethnicities. Namely the Rohingyas in Rakine state, the Muslim minority were not granted full rights and remain “associate citizens” unable to vote or hold office. The Rohingyas have been described as the world’s most persecuted people. Refugee camps full of Burmese were scheduled to close, the urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia were scheduled to return as well as those who fled to the West in Bangladesh. However, these repatriations have been put on hold as violence persists. Aung San Suu Khi denies the violence and refuses to condemn the religious and ethnic persecution. Global outcry has denounced Aung San Suu Kyi even calling for her to be stripped of her Noble Prize. She remains popular with many groups for initiating democracy even at the expensive of few ethnic groups. Though no longer the sole governing power, the military retains strong influence and independence, at times challenging the budding democracy. Some of the fiercest fighting occurred in Kachin state where disturbances continue to pop up. Ethnic militias remain weary of disbanding and giving up autonomy and resources to a centralized government. We should see the number of Burmese resettled in the U.S., and global refugees decrease in the coming years though not disappear until the ethnic and religious violence completely ceases. The adage “if there is not justice for all, there is no justice at all” aptly applies here.

UNHCR Page on Thai Refugee Camps

Times Magazine Article “Inside the Kachin War Against Burma”

Asia Times Kachin War Explodes Myanmar’s Peace Drive

BBC Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi (note this does not address new criticisms of the controversial leader)

BBC Profile: Myanmar Timeline

Conflict Map of Myanmar

NPR: Rohingya Families Flee And Suffering in Myanmar for Bangladesh

CNN Myanmar’s Hidden War

Myanmar and the Karen Conflict: The Longest Civil War You’ve Never Heard of

Times Magazine: Burma’s Transition to Civilian Rule Hasn’t Stopped the Abuses of its Ethnic Wars

Burma Backgrounder from endgenocide.org

Britannica Sun Aung

Britannica U Saw

Britannica U Nu

Indianapolis Monthly Kaw Lah’s Story


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