US Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has warned the Burmese government of Thein Sein not to intensify attacks on the ethnic rebel stronghold of Kachin state in the north of the country. This follows a series of government air strikes against insurgent positions.
Burma has been rightfully praised for its rapid political transformation in the past couple of years, since the military junta that had ruled the country with repressive force, finally ceded control of the levers of power. Whilst many Western analysts questioned the genuineness of Burmese reforms, the release of prominent political prisoners (most notably Aung San Suu Kyi) has convinced the EU and the USA that normalising ties with the former pariah state is no bad thing.
One perpetual barrier to continuing Burmese development remains and that is the myriad ethnic conflicts and insurgencies that plague large swathes of the country. Although many insurgent groups have negotiated ceasefires with Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, internal conflict is always just around the corner in Burma. In particular, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) continue to plague government outposts in the north and southeast of the country respectively.
Like many states brought into conception by the bonds of imperial rule, modern Burma is a mosaic of ethnic groups. In addition to the majority Bamar people (68% of the population), 134 ethnic minorities are recognised by the government. Many of these peoples descend from independent tribal polities that carved out a solitary niche of existence for centuries before being subsumed into the Chinese, British and Japanese empires. Whilst the various ethnic groups were united in opposition to imperialist rule, many were traditional foes. Thus, on the gaining of independence, internal conflict was quick to erupt.
As with nearly every state in Africa, and countless others created by colonial overlords from disparate regional groupings, a majority ethnic group seized control in Burma and assigned its people the major positions in the military and political structure of the new state. Despite Burma’s ongoing reform process, the Kachin and Karen rebels continue to believe that their identity and ability to progress is being undermined by the Bamar.
With former junta generals maintaining vast economic control over Burma, it is understandable that the rebel insurgents do not respond to Burmese reform the same way the West has. Foreign investment and a lifting of sanctions may benefit the Bamar but not necessarily all Burmese. The resource-rich lands of ethnic minorities continue to be subsumed for the benefit of the “state”, which is often interpreted as the Bamar and their ominously invisible military benefactors.
Colonialism can be understood to have played a contradictory role in the history of internal ethnic conflict across the globe. Colonial power was such that it enabled physical and political control over vast populations and in many cases restricted ethnic conflict for the benefit of the imperial overlord. At the same time, colonial powers created multiethnic states from a variety of tribal polities that were for centuries never united under one flag. Additionally, through “divide and rule” tactics that weakened a concerted challenge to imperial rule, colonists created the conditions for increased ethnic resentment that naturally spilled over into the independence era (see my recent post on Sudan for another example).
Most of the world’s ethnic conflicts have their roots in the colonial era and for country’s such as Burma, whose leaders appear to possess a determined desire for change, they remain a major hurdle to development.