The Ethnic Crises in Burma/Myanmar: 2010 and Beyond Dilemmas & Opportunities for the International Community

11. Jun 2010

Burma/Myanmar is a very ethnically diverse country, with ethnic minorities comprising about 40 percent of its estimated 56 million population. Burma has been afflicted by ethnic conflict and civil war since independence in 1948, exposing it to one of the longest running armed conflicts in the world. Ethnic minorities have long felt marginalised and discriminated against. The situation worsened after the military coup in 1962, when minority rights were further curtailed. The military government, which now calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has as yet refused to take political demands from ethnic minorities into account, for the most part treating ethnic issues as a military and security issue.

The international community has focused on the struggle of the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become an international icon. The ethnic minority issue and the relevance of the cease-fire agreements have had less focus. Support for these groups to develop their regions has also been minimal, creating great frustration and disappointment among ethnic minority community leaders.

The Ethnic Crises: 2010 and Beyond

2010 is set to become Burma’s most important and defining year in two decades. A general election has been scheduled by the SPDC that could well determine the country’s political landscape for another generation. Half way through the year, after disappointing election and party laws, rejection by part of the ethnic and democratic opposition of the SPDC’s election plan and the growth of tension between the regime and the main ceasefire groups, optimism is fading.

However, the opposition itself is divided on how to respond to the challenges the 2010 elections are posing. For many ethnic minority organisations the elections are the only political process in the country, which they feel cannot afford to ignore. Apart from running at the national level for an upper and a lower house, some ethnic minority parties especially see opportunities to run for regional parliaments and the future role they can play in influencing policies on a local level. These ethnic minority organisations also take a long term view on the elections, and ask the international community not to ignore and reject them because of their participation.

For Burma’s military rulers, the election is only one element in a long-term process to secure a new system of military-backed government in the country. The SPDC is also concentrating on other political goals, including the pacification of armed ethnic opposition forces, the build-up of pro-military parties, the capital move to Nay Pyi Taw and the development of a new economic system based on close trading ties with Asian neighbours.

The challenges facing Burma’s different ethnic groups and parties are complex. The polls and introduction of new system of government are creating a timeline that is forcing all ethnic stakeholders to assess their political positions. Throughout 2009-2010 tensions steadily rose, affecting political parties, ceasefire and non-ceasefire forces, religious-based groups and different community organisations. Equally critical, the ramifications of the 2010 election are unlikely to be political alone but have urgent consequences for the humanitarian and economic landscape.  Ethnic politics are not a remote or peripheral border issue but have long been integral to the failure of the post-colonial state.

Burma’s political landscape has long been fragmented and divided. But in essence, there are three major areas by which the election can be judged in bringing potential solutions (or problems) to the country’s crises: political, ethnic and economic. They are closely inter-linked and, unless there is inclusive progress in all three fields, precedent strongly warns that Burma’s troubles will only continue.

The political challenges include the construction of a democratic system of government that guarantees human rights for all. The ethnic challenges include conflict resolution and humanitarian progress in the most impoverished regions of the country. And the economic challenges include equitable participation, sustainable development and progress that will bring benefits to every district and people in the country.


The one-day seminar has been conceived as an expert meeting, where a maximum of 30 to 40 participants are expected to take part to the presentations and discussions. All the participants will be invited on the basis of their familiarity with the issue and will come from different backgrounds; namely, academia, ministries, politicians and NGOs.


The seminar aims at taking a close look at the most significant recent developments concerning ethnic conflict in Burma/Myanmar and possibilities and dilemma’s for the international community to respond.

It will be structured around four main sessions, each of them with a distinctive focus, but at the same time all related to the main questions of how the political situation in Burma/Myanmar is expected to develop in the near future, what it’s impact will be on the ethnic issues and how the international community could respond to these developments, especially concerning the opportunity to support demands and needs of ethnic groups in Burma/Myanmar.