NAYPYIDAW Myanmar— Imagine for a moment what the United States would look like today if California, Texas, Florida, New York and Michigan had taken up armed rebellion against the U.S. government after World War II. Imagine if the fighting continued for more than six decades, no matter who ran the government, right up until today. And imagine how hard it would be for the federal government to convince investors that, despite the constant risk of armed attack, it was safe to invest in these resource-rich states.
It’s difficult to imagine how the U.S. would function. But this is exactly the situation Myanmar faces today as it begins to transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Myanmar’s military leaders have been praised for the country’s progress since the 2010 parliamentary elections—the first since 1990. Over the past 16 months, Myanmar has successfully installed a new civilian government, increased press freedoms, and released some political prisoners—including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after two decades of house arrest. That I’m here in this previously forbidden capital city—rightly described as “Disneyworld meets Hitler’s Bunker”—is proof of progress.
But until Myanmar’s army finds a way to end the world’s longest-running conflict, against dozens of armed ethnic groups fighting non-stop since 1948, Myanmar will never be a nation at peace.
The problem is, most of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups don’t want democracy—they want freedom. Democracy simply locks in a status quo that has repeatedly led to genocide in this jungle nation, at their expense.
The roots of this conflict go back to the Middle Ages, when one ethnic Burman kingdom ruled the central valley of present-day Myanmar, while separate hill kingdoms—the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Kachin, and Chin—remained independent, each with their own customs, language and religious traditions. While the Burmese monarchy routinely attacked the hill kingdoms, they stayed separate entities.
It remained this way until 1886, when the British conquered the Burmese monarchy and annexed the entire region. Fearful of putting the Burmese majority—which made up about two-thirds of the population—in positions of power, the British colonial administration hired ethnic minorities instead.
When World War II broke out, the ethnic minorities fought for the British, while the resentful Burmans sided with Japan. As the war tilted toward the Allies, many Burmans switched sides.
After the war, the hill tribes expected Winston Churchill to reward their loyalty by making them independent territories. But Churchill lost the 1945 election to Clement Attlee, who invited the Burmese General Aung San to London and agreed to grant all of Burma independence instead—putting ethnic minorities at the mercy of the Burman majority.
Minorities protested that Aung San, an ethnic Burman, did not speak for them. Wanting to avoid the post-war violence of India, Aung San convened a meeting with ethnic groups in the small Shan town of Panglong. There, he promised an equal power-sharing agreement and pledged that ethnic tribes could opt out of the union ten years after independence if the benefits failed to materialize.
It never happened. A few weeks later, Aung San was assassinated. The “Panglong Agreement” never found its way into the new constitution, and the new country found itself in an ongoing civil war.
Burman leaders convened another constitutional convention in 1962, proposing to unite Myanmar while assuring equal representation in national assemblies. The enraged military launched a coup during the convention, and successive military juntas have engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign deep in the jungles ever since.
Promoting the slogan, “one race, one language, one religion,” ultra-nationalist military leaders have sought to rid Myanmar of non-Burmans. Over a million civilians have been displaced. Ethnic groups are unable to teach or speak their own languages in government-run schools. Groups that have signed cease-fires with the military are still subject to religious persecution, land grabs, forced labor, and worse.
As the world has applauded progress in central Myanmar, renewed fighting has broken out in hill areas. While writing this article, I received an urgent email from a friend living along the Thai border, who writes, “Just got a call from the main resistance commander in Northern Karen State. The Burmese Army is on the march. The Karen are already out-gunned 100:1 and now Burmese Army units have gotten resupplied and are pressing. Ethnic minorities are still being killed. We need to get the “Jungle Truth” to the U.S. government.”
This is no way to build a democracy.
It is very difficult to attract badly needed foreign investment to a country that knows nothing of the rule of law. But it is impossible when the threat of violence remains. The ethnic enclaves of Myanmar are the ones richest in the kinds of natural resources that investors crave. Yet as the Chinese have found while trying to build a pipeline across ethnic areas and into China, repeatedly enduring armed attacks—a third of the country right now is still unsafe for business.
The government knows it. In recent months, it has formed a high-level negotiating team and authorized local state governments to engage in peace talks with rebels. Each week brings news of a new cease-fire: some hold, some don’t. There is great hope here that after April’s parliamentary elections, the U.S. will lift two decades of economic sanctions.
In this new era of good feeling, the U.S. can’t allow ethnic minorities in Myanmar to be swept under the rug.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, has called for a second Panglong Conference. The U.S. should work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to insist that a conference takes place before Myanmar assumes the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014.
The U.S. should insist that the killing stop before large-scale aid dollars start. All parties must reach a cease-fire, and implement a five-year roadmap establishing a federalist system that allows ethnic areas to self-govern according to their own languages, customs, faiths, and traditions. Through the World Bank and IMF, the U.S. should work aggressively to ensure that ethnic enclaves are reintegrated—politically, socially, and economically.
Then, and only then, will Myanmar be not just democratic—but free.