Sunday, September 6, 2009

Myanmar's ethnic challenges in elections: analysts

BANGKOK (AFP) – Myanmar's military junta may have taken Aung San Suu Kyi out of the picture ahead of elections next year, but it could face an even greater challenge from rising ethnic unrest, analysts said.

The regime has recently stepped up its decades-long campaign against minority groups, with offensives against ethnic Chinese rebels in the northeast in August and Christian Karen insurgents near the Thai border in June.

Civil war has wracked the country since independence in 1948, and while most rebel groups have reached ceasefire deals with the junta, analysts say the army is determined to crush the rest before the 2010 polls.

The offensives have mirrored the ruling generals' efforts to take Suu Kyi off the political stage by sentencing her to another 18 months' house arrest after a bizarre incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside home.

The Nobel Laureate's lawyers launched an appeal against her conviction last week, but with the country's pliant courts likely to do the junta's bidding, the ethnic problem is the next real hurdle for the regime, analysts said.

"This is a very complicated issue. After Aung San Suu Kyi's case, the next big issue is the issue of ethnic minorities," Aung Naing Oo, an independent Myanmar analyst based in Thailand, told AFP.

Military ruler Than Shwe has long made the struggle for the "stability of the state" the main justification for the army's continued dominance over the Southeast Asian nation.

In recent years the regime has been able to reach peace pacts with key ethnic groups, co-opting some to become junta-backed border forces that have taken on their former rebel brothers-in-arms.

But August's outbreak of fighting in Kokang, a mainly ethnic Chinese region of Myanmar's Shan state, showed the tensions near the surface and earned a rare rebuke from Beijing, usually Myanmar's closest ally.

The offensive was a warning to other minority groups thinking of causing disruption before the polls, said Win Min, a Myanmar expert at Payap University in the northern Thai city of Chaing Mai.

Critics have denounced the elections as a sham aimed at legitimising the junta's grip on power, but the influential International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank said recently that the polls could be an opportunity for change.

"These things are happening in the context of the 2010 elections. The Burmese military are showing ceasefire groups that if they don't agree with their plans they are going to fight," Win Min said, using the country's former name.

The new constitution -- pushed through in a referendum in 2008 just days after a cyclone ravaged southern Myanmar -- does not provide the autonomy many groups had hoped for, Win Min added.

"The groups signed ceasefires but in the hope that they would get greater autonomy. But they have been mostly rejected. They would like to wait until after there is a new government to negotiate greater autonomy," he said.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many of the groups, especially the powerful Wa in northern Myanmar, are heavily involved in the drugs trade, often with the tacit assent of the government, analysts said.

"But now the government is using it (the narcotics issue) as a pretext to put pressure on the ethnic groups who don't want to join Burmese security forces," Win Min said.

The ethnic problems could end up with the effective "Balkanisation" of Myanmar, a European diplomat in the region said on condition of anonymity.

"We've never been closer to this than we are now," the diplomat said. "If no political solution is found for these ethnic groups the whole situation is going to implode."

The diplomat said it was "not at all the case" that Myanmar's political problems are just about the situation between Suu Kyi and the regime.

"There are so many questions before 2010, so much that's to be done. I'm sure Than Shwe has no clue how to tie up loose ends."

But the Brussels-based ICG said in a report last month that some ethnic groups which had made ceasefire deals were endorsing political parties that would take part in the polls.

"These groups take a negative view of the constitution but feel that there may be some limited opening of political space, particularly at the regional level, and that they should position themselves to take advantage of this," it said.

"There are increased tensions, however, as the regime is pushing these groups to transform into border guard forces partially under the command of the national army."

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