Ethnic minorities make up about a third of Burma's population of roughly 50 million. Ethnic minorities live throughout Burma, but are concentrated mainly in the seven states and divisions named after the Shan, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Rakhine ethnic groups. National identity cards, which all Burmese must carry, and passports generally indicate the ethnicity of non-Burmans, either explicitly or through the use of personal titles in ethnic minority languages rather than in Burmese.
Circumstances of history have contributed to the difficulty of party and government efforts to unify the nation. Over the past millennium, three dynasties dominated by ethnic Burmans succeeded for relatively brief periods in imposing their political authority over the area within the boundaries of the modern political state, and at times these dynasties expanded to the east and west considerably beyond those perimeters. Not until the Union of Burma was formed in 1948, however, had all the diverse peoples within its ill-defined borders formally been brought together in a single, if somewhat tenuous, federation.
The government has a contentious relationship with Burma's ethnic groups, many of which fought for greater autonomy or secession for their regions after the country's independence in 1948. At the time of independence, only Rangoon itself was under the control of national government authorities. Subsequent military campaigns brought more and more of the nation under central government control. Since 1989, the regime has entered into a series of ceasefire agreements with insurgent groups, though a few armed groups remain in active opposition.
Signed by General Aung San and representatives from the Kachin, Shan and Chin communities in February 1947, the Panglong agreement promised these groups a fair amount of autonomy over their own affairs in exchange for their support for Burma’s independence. This agreement allowed for a large degree of self-governance and the option to withdraw from the federation after a decade. That agreement forms the legal basis for demands for self-governance today. Aung San’s death just months later brought an end to the dream of Panglong, as his successor U Nu never fully implemented the agreement, in particular the promise of local autonomy.
For 60 years, the army has battled diverse ethnic insurgencies. These ethnic minority insurgent groups have sought to gain greater autonomy, or in some cases, independence from the dominant ethnic Burman majority. The Government justifies its security measures as necessary to maintain order and national unity. However, most major insurgent groups have reached individual accommodations which provide varying levels of stability and autonomy from central government control. In 1989 the SPDC began a policy of seeking cease-fire agreements with most ethnic insurgent groups along the borders.
The Government reinforces its firm military rule with a pervasive security apparatus led by the military intelligence organization, the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI). Control is buttressed by arbitrary restrictions on citizens' contacts with foreigners, surveillance of government employees and private citizens, harassment of political activists, intimidation, arrest, detention, and physical abuse.
The authorities continue to regard the Muslim and Christian religious minorities with suspicion. Moreover, there is a concentration of Christians among some of the ethnic minorities against whom the army has fought for decades. Religious publications, like secular ones, remained subject to control and censorship. Those residents unable to meet the restrictive provisions of the citizenship law, such as ethnic Chinese, Arakanese, Muslims, and others must obtain prior permission to travel.
Following the breakdown of its cease-fire with the separatist Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in 1995, the army began an offensive in 1996 against the KNPP that continued through year's end. As part of its campaign to deny the guerrillas local support, the military forces forcibly relocated hundreds of villages and tens of thousands of Karenni civilians. In central and southern Shan state, the military forces continued to engage the Shan State Army (SSA), a remnant of Khun Sa's narcotics-linked former Mong Tai Army, and began a campaign of relocation against the villagers in the region. Many thousands were forcibly removed from their villages. There are credible reports of retaliatory killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed by the army against civilians.
The Karen National Union (KNU) is the largest single insurgent group that continues to fight against central government rule. In 1997 cease-fire talks between the KNU and SLORC broke down and were followed by a the SLORC offensive that pushed the KNU out of its last strongholds in Karen state. As a result, over 20,000 Karen civilians fled to Thailand. The Government denied responsibility for attacks on Karen refugee camps in Thailand that were carried out by the DKBA. However, according to credible reports, the DKBA receives military support from the Government.
In conjunction with the military's campaigns against the Karen, Karenni, and Shan insurgents, it was standard practice for the Government's armed forces to coerce civilians into working as porters in rural areas in or near combat zones. According to testimony collected by international human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) from refugees, the men--and sometimes women and children as well--who were forced to labor as porters often suffered beatings. On occasion, they died as a result of their mistreatment by soldiers. There were reports that soldiers raped some female members of ethnic minorities in contested areas.
In regions controlled by insurgents groups such as the Shan state, or in areas controlled by groups that have negotiated cease-fires with the Government such as the Wa territory, there are credible reports that these groups engaged in narcotics production and trafficking. In combat zones or in areas controlled by ethnic minorities, the insurgents subjected civilians to forced labor. Antigovernment insurgent groups were also responsible for violence, including deploying land mines and conducting ambushes that caused both civilian and military deaths. The SSA insurgents committed retaliatory killings, rapes, and other atrocities against civilians. Karen National Union troops reportedly are led by child soldiers.
Cease-fire agreements helped to curb armed conflict. Burma's military government had reached cease-fire agreements with as many as 17 of the country's rebel groups. Many of the agreements were reached in talks with officials led by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. He was ousted in 2004 and placed under house arrest. In late May 2005 two of Burma's ethnic Shan rebel groups joined forces - one breaking a cease-fire with the military government - as they stepped up their struggle for an independent state. The move raises fears of renewed violence in Burma if other rebel cease-fire agreements break down. The Shan State National Army, or SSNA, and the Shan State Army agreed to join forces. The agreement between the two rebel groups ended the SSNA's decade-old cease-fire pact with Burma's military government. The SSNA accepted a cease-fire in 1995 on the condition that its troops could keep their arms. But Burma's military in early 2005 called on the Shan to disarm. In February 2005, to add pressure, the military government arrested several Shan leaders and charged them with treason.
Since the military government came to power in late 1988, at least 17 anti-government major ethnic armed groups and over 20 small groups were claimed to have returned to the legal fold by signing respective ceasefire agreements with the government. Under the government's fifth step of its seven-step roadmap announced in 2003, a multi-party democracy general election is to be held in 2010 in accordance with the 2008 new state constitution to produce parliament representatives and form a new civilian government. The 2008 new state constitution prescribes that all the armed forces in the union shall be under the command of the Defense Services.
In 2009, the regime began pressuring ceasefire groups to join a Border Guard Force (BGF)--an integrated unit of Burma Army and ceasefire group soldiers, with Burma Army soldiers occupying the key positions; no major ceasefire group has agreed to these demands. In June 2009 the Burma Army and its affiliate, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, launched an attack against the Karen National Union. In August 2009 the Burma Army defeated the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an ethnic Kokang group, in an offensive in which thousands of people fled to China and the Burma Army destroyed a weapons and narcotics processing facility in the Kokang region. In the wake of the November 2010 elections, the Burma Army launched a series of attacks against armed ethnic groups in Karen and Shan States. In June 2011, fighting broke out between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army in northern Burma’s Kachin State with clashes continuing as of August 2011.
President U Thein Sein's peace offer was extended in August 2011. By early 2012 a total of 12 armed groups had respectively signed preliminary peace agreements with the government at state or central levels. Under the president's peace offer, peace making is being carried out in three phases -- the first phase is to ceasefire, set up liaison offices and travel without holding arms to each other's territory; the second phase is confidence building, holding political dialogue, implement regional development tasks in terms of education, health and communication; and the third phase is to sign agreement for eternal peace in the presence of the parliament represented by nationalities, political parties and different walks of life. At the end of 2012, the government had reached preliminary cease-fire agreements with all major armed ethnic groups except the KIA in Kachin State, where armed conflict continues and escalated in December. Although peace talks are taking place, there seems to be no end in sight in the war against the ethnic rebels, especially in Kachin State and the Shan State. The President Thein Sein Government reached a truce with the Shan State Army (SSA), but the Burma Army was reluctant to accept the agreement.
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