NLD-Ethnic Groups Share Common Center – The Irrawaddy

The perceived divide between the “mainstream” Burmese opposition led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) on the one hand, and groups representing ethnic minorities on the other, is “artificial and contrived.”

Karen women leave a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border to return to Burma. About 30,000 Karen entered Thailand in June 2009 to flee fighting between rebel groups and the government. (Photo: Reuters)

Noting that the 2007 protests known as the “Saffron Revolution” were started by monks in Rakhine, Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher on Amnesty’s Southeast Asia team, said that the presence of a substantial number of ethnic minorities in the NLD suggests that the ethnic groups share many common grievances with the Burmese opposition, and see common ground in addressing these issues.

“While ethnic minorities have their own issues with the Myanmar [Burma] government, a shared experience of oppression infuses links between the opposition and ethnic groups,” Zawacki said.

Zawacki spoke at a press conference in Bangkok on Tuesday, launching Amnesty’s report “The Repression of Ethnic Minority Activists in Myanmar.” The document is based on interviews with more than 700 representatives of ethnic groups, with interviews taking place in Bangladesh, China, Thailand and other countries neighboring Burma.

It focuses on the seven main ethnic groups in Burma, those identified as making up a majority in their eponymous state, namely the Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon. Ethnic minorities make up between 35 to 40 percent of the country’s population, with at least 135 ethnic groups living inside Burma. Burmese make up the majority of the country’s people.

Ten political parties have registered to participate in the upcoming election in Burma, according to a junta. However, the NLD and the major parties representing ethnic minorities have not indicated that they will take part.

The junta has ordered that ethnic militias, many of which are linked to political parties, stand down and become part of the state border force prior to the elections.

Burma recently marked its Union Day, commemorating the signing of the Panglong Agreement in 1947. Gen Aung San and leaders of some of the ethnic minorities agreed to establish a form of federal union in which the non-Burmese minorities would have substantial local autonomy. When the military seized power in 1962, it justified the coup by dismissing the Panglong agreement and the federation principle as code for ethnic groups trying to separate from Burma.

The report also discussed the reaction by the Burmese regime to people caught working with media groups. It recounted the 2008 shooting of a 17- year-old Mon boy accused of passing information to exile media groups, saying this type of draconian reaction affected both Burmese opposition and minority groups.

Recalling the lack of information that characterized the 2008 Constitution referendum, with the document published a mere weeks before the vote, without any minority language translation, Zawacki said he doubted that the 2010 elections would be free and fair: “International media and observers must be given access, and the election laws and dates must be published and disseminated widely, well in advance of the polling date,” he said.

However, a lack of international will and monitoring mechanism could stymie any hopes that the upcoming elections will be credible, or will lead to a better relationship between the government and minority groups.

“The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has no investigative power, but we request that it do everything within its mandate to address violations of international human rights law in Myanmar,” said Zawacki.

Southeast Asia and China should frame ethnic relations in Burma with regard to regional stability. After six decades of on-off war between the mainly military governments of Burma and ethnic groups, millions of migrant workers and refugees have flooded into neighboring countries and unless the internal conflicts are resolved, more of the same can be expected.

After recent attempts by the Thai government to repatriate Karen refugees who fled an attack by the junta backed-DKBA last June, Amnesty International urged Bangkok to respect international human rights norms, particularly the principle of non-refoulement.

Like the majority of southeast Asian countries, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 UN refugee convention.

Asked by The Irrawaddy about the looming deadline for Nationality Verification for an estimated 2 to 3 million migrant workers in Thailand, the majority of whom are Burmese, Zawacki said that “it is a real concern to have Burmese minorities go back to their country and register, before they can be allowed to continue to work in Thailand.”

Separately, migrant workers, trade unionists and rights defenders marched to Government House to submit an open letter of concern to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, signed by more than 60 domestic, regional and international rights groups and trade unions. The letter demands an end to threats of mass deportation for migrants and sweeping changes to the government’s nationality verification policy.

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