Human Rights, Forgotten Wars, and Survival: Burma's Indigenous Peoples


Ethnic conflict and human rights abuses against Indigenous Peoples or specific ethnic groups in East Timor, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda have captured the attention of the international community in recent years. The plight of indigenous ethnic minorities in Burma has received comparatively little attention. Burma is home to one of the world's longest-running civil wars, the victims of which have overwhelmingly been civilians living in rural areas. Every year, hundreds are killed, tens of thousands displaced, and the livelihoods of many more destroyed by the Burmese army. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Arakanese, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and other ethnic groups have sought asylum in neighboring countries, as refugees or illegal migrant workers. Widespread displacement, combined with government efforts to force fully assimilate ethnic peoples, has led many to fear for the survival of their unique languages, cultures, and traditions.

Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a succession of military governments. It currently has one of the worst human rights records in the world. In 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power after violently suppressing a nationwide pro- democracy uprising. The regime held elections in 1990 but refused to recognize the results after the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel

Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. In 1997, the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but has yet to change its policies of political repression, halt human rights abuses, or enter into dialogue with the opposition. Thousands of political prisoners remain in Burma's jails and opposition activity is effectively banned. Additionally, despite Burma's wealth of natural resources, the country is among the least developed in the region due to decades of economic mismanagement. Only one in four children advance beyond primary school, and even basic health care is unaffordable for many families. In this issue, Brenda Belak documents the effects of human rights abuse, economic stagnation, and a lack of social services on Burma's ethnic women.

All of Burma's peoples suffer severe political repression and must cope with high inflation, unemployment, and demands for forced labor. However, for the ethnic peoples the situation is compounded by destruction at the hands of Burma's army. Burma's civil war started just months after the country's independence from Great Britain in 1948, and over the last 50 years dozens of opposition groups, most representing ethnic peoples, have taken up arms against the central government. The Burmese army has responded to ethnic insurgency with brutal campaigns designed to eliminate all sources of civilian support the opposition. As detailed in Kevin Heppner's article in this issue, these campaigns have been characterized by the destruction of villages, burning of food stocks, execution of those suspected of supporting the opposition, arbitrary taxation, rape, and torture. Campaigns against the ethnic opposition have destroyed the social and economic fabric of rural farming communities.

Burma has one of the most diverse populations in Southeast Asia, with 135 indigenous cultures and languages. Members of the largest group are referred to as `Burmans', while all citizens of Burma, regardless of ethnicity, are known as `Burmese' nationals. Ethnic Burmans have traditionally occupied the central lowlands of the country. Burma's southern coastal areas and the mountainous terrain ringing the central lowlands make up half or more of Burma's territory and have traditionally been occupied by other indigenous ethnic groups. These ethnic peoples include the Akha, Arakanese, Karen, Kachin, Lahu, Lisu, Mon, Naga, Palaung, Shan, and Wa. There are no accurate figures on the relative size of Burma's ethnic groups; the last census to ask questions about ethnicity was conducted in 1931 by the British colonial government. In subsequent population counts, the Burmese government avoided questions on ethnicity in order to downplay Burma's ethnic diversity. In this issue, the terms `ethnic peoples', `ethnic minorities', `ethnic nationalities', and `indigenous peoples' will be used interchangeably to describe the non-Burman Indigenous Peoples of Burma.

Burma's Indigenous Peoples represent a wide range of cultures and traditions, from the ancient Buddhist Mon kingdoms in the south to the complex interrelated clans of the Kachin in the far north. Burma's mountainous terrain has contributed both to the relative isolation of each ethnic group and to the evolution of distinct cultures and languages. Even today, encounters with the Burmese army are the sole form of contact with outsiders for many of Burma's ethnic communities.

Members of indigenous groups assert that since the military coup, the Burmese government has been carrying out a deliberate policy of "Burmanization" -- attempting to create a culturally, religiously, and linguistically homogenous "Burmese" nation. Pointing to atrocities like the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of villagers from their native lands over the last five years, many refugees and opposition leaders allege a policy of annihilation or "ethnic cleansing." The only language officially permitted in schools is Burmese, although this policy is not always strictly enforced at the village level and some ethnic groups have succeeded in establishing their own school systems where indigenous languages are both taught and used as the language of instruction. Many communities have found ways to maintain their traditions even in the face of repression and displacement, as Sandra Dudley documents in her article on the Karenni.

While many of Burma's opposition groups have entered ceasefires with the Burmese government, conflict continues, particularly along the Thailand-Burma border and (sporadically) along Burma's border with India. The ceasefires are merely unwritten agreements on territorial control and contain no political provision for the resolution of Burma's underlying conflicts. Furthermore, ceasefires do not guarantee freedom from human rights abuses. Increasing environmental degradation and high rates of deforestation also pose a threat to ethnic communities, many of whom have traditionally occupied thinly populated areas where they have both protected and relied upon forest resources.

Although they originally sought complete independence, most of Burma's ethnic opposition groups now call for a federal union granting a degree of autonomy to each state. In recent years, cooperation between Burman and ethnic minority opponents of the military has increased, with calls for a "tripartite dialogue" between the military, the NLD, and the ethnic opposition. Ethnic opposition groups are increasingly active in publicizing their situation internationally, including sending representatives to the UN and other international fora. Christina Fink's article examines the complex history of Burma's ethnic opposition movements and their relationship with the mainstream Burman opposition.

The situation in rural Burma continues to attract comparatively little attention for several reasons. Due to strict military control, it is almost impossible for journalists, aid workers, or international observers to gain access to the areas where the worst abuses take place. Regional politics also play an important role in diverting international attention from Burma. Burma joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, and the group has since been reluctant to join European and North American critics of the Burmese regime. This silence stems both from ASEAN's principle of "non-interference" with the internal politics of member countries and from a desire to gain access to Burma's valuable natural resources. Burma's armed ethnic opposition once formed a convenient buffer between Thailand and Burma and received tacit support from the Thai government. In recent years, however, Thailand has cultivated closer ties with the Rangoon government and placed strict control over the movements and activities of Burmese refugees and dissidents in Thailand.

The sheer complexity of Burma's political landscape, with its myriad opposition groups -- some in cities, some based in remote border areas, some advocating non-violence, some armed -- precludes easy description or analysis of the situation. Observers have tended to differentiate between the aims of the "ethnic opposition" and the "pro-democracy" opposition. Such differentiations are misleading. Both movements, while having somewhat different constituencies, share the same fundamental aims -- human rights and democracy for Burma. Furthermore, recognition of the rights of ethnic peoples is fundamental to lasting peace and stability. Only concerted efforts to dispel generations of mistrust, combined with a guarantee of political, cultural, and economic rights for all of Burma's citizens, will provide the basis for democracy and economic development. The SPDC claims that the war is ending and that economic development is at hand, but most of Burma's citizens face a different reality. While Burma's long civil war may slowly be ending, there has been no transition to democracy, no resolution of Burma's underlying political tensions, and no real peace in rural Burma.

One of the most important developments over the last ten years is the increased effort by many ethnic groups to make their voices heard and publicize the atrocities committed by the Burmese army. The younger generation has recognized the importance of putting information before the international community, and we have seen a burgeoning of publications (including websites) on the situation of Burma's ethnic nationalities. For the future peace and stability of Burma, we hope these voices will be heard.

References & further reading

Chin Human Rights Organization:







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