Burma’s forgotten people

Thein Sein addressing the General Assembly c. United Nations Photo


Earlier this month US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the President of Burma, Thein Sein, to discuss possibilities for democracy. But Burma’s treatment of its ethnic minorities has been somewhat overlooked, writes Aditi Gupta, a researcher for a documentary film company specialising in human rights.

There has been a flurry of excitement in the global media since Thein Sein’s, nominally civilian, government came to power in Burma in March 2011. Sein’s gradual reforms have increasingly been seen as glimmers of hope for a new Burma. Even the US deemed it timely to send Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, on the first state visit to Burma in more than half a century this year. Since then, there have been hints of the start of a détente and possible relaxation of sanctions.

The most optimistic steps towards democracy have been the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the proposed reduction of media censorship and the announcement of new elections. In addition, Burmese citizens are reeling from the shock of being granted the right to protest – a revolutionary concept for the people of Burma.

Behind all the political hand-shaking and optimistic reports, the world’s longest running civil war nonetheless continues with a vengeance. The ethnic minorities of Burma have been fighting for independence from the Burmese military government since 1962 and, as seen from the heavy clashes in June, this war is no closer to its completion. Ethnic minorities make up 40% of the population, and the ruling Burmese majority accounts for 60% of the population.

The main demand of ethnic groups is for regional autonomy to ensure equal rights for all citizens. This, though assured at the 1947 Panglong Conference, has been denied consistently by the government and measures to actively wipe out the dissident ethnic population have resulted in the displacement and ongoing misery of an estimated 1-4 million ethnic people in the mountainous periphery. Due to restrictions on information and the political sensitivities of the government, the actual figure is difficult to ascertain.

Although Sein’s government claims to be civilian in character, the military’s proxy party dominated when the new legislature convened in March, one quarter of seats were reserved for military men and the leadership remains stacked with retired Junta generals.

Displaced people in Burma c. druidabruxux

The Burmese military currently follows a brutal ‘four cuts’ policy that involves the routine destruction of crops, forced relocation, systematic rape, constant threat of death and forced labour of innocent ethnic minority villagers. Those that have fled have either settled in camps along the Thai-Burma border or are hiding in the jungles of Eastern Burma.  With no diplomatic status, they are labelled as Internally Displaced People (IDP), barely surviving without medical provisions. Those that flee across the border to neighbouring countries are often seen as illegal immigrants and are forced to scratch a pitiful living without the protection of the host country’s labour laws.

As well as actively destroying ethnic support systems, the government invests a pitiful amount towards Burma’s healthcare provisions. This renders access to even basic healthcare severely inadequate whilst the government racks up billions of dollars in the lucrative trade of natural gas. In the conflict zones of East Burma, the impact of this ongoing war, high levels of displacement and little to no access to state healthcare systems has resulted in a chronic emergency situation.

Poor health is a direct consequence of this instability and deaths are overwhelmingly preventable. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked Burma’s health care system 190th out of 191 countries. The following year, the government spent over 40% of the national budget on the military and less than 3% on healthcare despite increased rates of malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition. According to a 2008 UNICEF report, one out of every 12 women of reproductive age will die during pregnancy or childbirth.  The child mortality rate is 103 (per 1000 births) and over a third of children in IDP settlements are malnourished.

In response to the policies of the government and the resultant health crisis, community health organisations have mobilised themselves to fill the role of primary caregiver for these neglected people. One of these organisations is the “Back Pack Health Worker Team” (BPHWT) which was established in 1998 by health workers from the Mon, Karen and Karenni ethnic minorities of Burma. The BPHWT is the only example in the world where refugees themselves are returning to their country to provide essential health services in a situation of clear state failure. The BPHWT developed a unique mobile backpack medical system, smuggling desperately needed health care into their country. As international NGOs have been blocked by the government, these community health workers are the only people able to provide this assistance.

Whilst the world looks on in hope on Burma, the ethnic minority people continue lives of fear, far removed from the benefits gained by the reforms. The Burmese army continues to launch major offensives against these ethnic groups, as well as follow their ‘four cuts’ policy.

Dr. Zarni, a columnist for ‘The Irrawaddy’, said, “Because the generals have come to view the conflicts, especially the “ethnic conflicts”, as their main justification to maintain their power structures, they have shown no interest  or political will for establishing genuine and lasting peace. In fact, the generals have turned domestic conflicts into their golden goose.”

As of now, the democratic reforms under way in Burma are more motivated by geo-politics and a desire for international legitimacy than on achieving national reconciliation. The Burmese government has long been wary of China’s looming influence in the region and needs the support of the US as a counter-weight.

Hillary Clinton and Thein Sein earlier this month c. US Department of State

Consequent to the visit of Hillary Clinton this year and the US detente in the foreseeable future, Burma will be compelled to improve the human rights situation in the country as it is a core concern of the US. However, the other concern of the US is primarily the containment of Beijing. As seen from America’s propping up of myriad military governments throughout history due to strategic interests, it is too soon to assume that these changes will be immediate.

The ethnic question cannot be ignored. Although the reforms underway in Burma show signs that the government is softening its grip on the population, the ongoing ethnic conflict provides justification for the government to oppress and exploit millions of its most vulnerable people. Democratisation that is aimed at the majority ethnic Burmese alone will not do, and the international community as a whole needs to push for action to stop these human rights violations.

If you are interested in finding out more about the situation of the ethnic minority population in Burma, look out for the forthcoming documentary “Guerrilla ER” by Soul Rebel Films. This film courageously follows the BPHWT and documents the lives of the people that the Burmese government wants to keep hidden from the world.

Watch the trailer at: http://soulrebelfilms.com/in-production

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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  1. Pingback: Cool Hero of the Day: Aung San Suu Kyi « Cool Revolution

  2. Fascinating article about the humanitarian crisis in Burma and the bravery of the Back Pack Health Worker Team. When will the full film be ready by Soul Rebel Films, Aditi? I’d really like to watch the full film.

    • Hi,

      The film is currently being shot in Burma right now, so it is a work in progress. Probably for the best considering all the changes that are taking place at the moment! Only time will tell if these ‘steps forward’ are just a stalling tactic by the government. The full film should be ready by early next year and will then be entered for film festivals.

      Thank you for your kind comments!

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