April 17, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

(Briefing) No Change on the Ground in Ethnic Areas

7 February 2011: (Briefing)There is no disputing that some changes have taken place in Burma. The release of some selected political prisoners, the easing of restrictions on press freedom, the decision to allow Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to re-register and contest the April by-elections etc. are indeed positive moves towards the much needed democratic reform in a country that has experienced over six decades of despotic military rule. These recent moves by Naypyidaw have raised hope for further developments towards greater reforms.

However, these recent developments must be viewed with extreme caution, in the larger context of realities on the ground, especially in the ethnic States. It should be noted that so far the changes have largely been confined to Naypyidaw and Rangoon and have not made any meaningful impact on the country’s ethnic groups who constitute 40 percent of the 50 plus million population.

The systematic violations of human rights against the ethnic peoples continue despite recent ceasefire agreements with many ethnic armed groups. The ceasefires in themselves are only temporary cessation of hostilities between the Burma Army and the ethnic armed groups, which means that the Burma Army – the primary perpetrator of human rights – remains in the ethnic areas. The Burma Army is still actively engaged in offensives against the Kachin Independence Organization in the country’s northern border, despite the executive order by President Thein Sein to stop the offensives. The fact that the Burma Army continues to ignore the President’s order indicates that the Army is constitutionally superior to the President. Under article 445 of the 2008 constitution, the army enjoys complete impunity from prosecution for any crimes or human rights violations.#In this regard, the army, which operates largely in the ethnic areas, effectively operates above the law without any accountability for human rights violations.

At the conclusion of his visit to Burma this week, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma Mr. Tomas Quintana said:

“I remain of the firm conviction that justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth, are fundamental for Myanmar to move forward towards national reconciliation.  During my mission, I made a careful assessment as to whether the National Human Rights Commission could play a role in this regard.  However, considering the lack of independence and the limited capacity of the Commission, it is crucially important that the Government of Myanmar involve stakeholders, including victims of human rights violations, in order to get their advice and views on how and when to establish truth, justice and accountability measures.”#

As long as the Burma Army remains in the ethnic territories, they will be allowed to engage in human rights violations against the ethnic population without accountability for their crimes. And without accountability, the effective protection of human rights and justice for victims of violations will continue to be elusive. Without recourse to justice and effective mechanisms for protection of their basic human rights, the ethnic peoples will continue to flee the country and the problems of refugees will continue.

Despite the changes in the heartland of Burma, human rights group continue to document widespread and systematic violations of human rights across the ethnic States, largely committed by the Burma Army. In its January 2012 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch warned:

“2011 may have been a year for cautious optimism, but there was no measurable decline in serious abuses, and enacting new laws is not a substitute for respecting the rule of law.”#

The recent release of some selected political prisoners failed to give assurance that there will be no political prisoners in the future. This is because all the repressive laws that were used to arrest and imprison prisoners of conscience remain effective. Without repealing these laws, basic rights of citizens will continue to be violated. Returning from a visit to Burma this week, Benedict Rogers, an activist with the Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant observed:

“…Although there is substance, such as the release of political prisoners, much of the change is atmospheric. There is still no institutional, constitutional or legislative change. Laws such as the State Protection Law 1975, which allows detention without charge or trial, the Unlawful Associations Act, banning contact with groups deemed to be ‘illegal’, the Emergency Provision Act, used to silence dissent, and the Electronic Transactions Law, used to stop the distribution of information the regime deems to be detrimental to its security, remain in place, and until these are repealed or amended, and the rule of law developed, political prisoners who have recently been released could be jailed again tomorrow.”#

Moreover, except for a few high profile people, the recent release of political prisoners didn’t include many ethnic prisoners, who were otherwise arrested on political grounds.

Ceasefire arrangements that have been reached with some ethnic armed groups in recent months, including with the Karen National Union, Shan State Army (South), Shan State Army (North), Chin National Front etc. remains extremely fragile and they are not enough to guarantee that the human rights situation in the ethnic States will improve. It will take years before there can be environment in which the ethnic people can live in peace and in dignity, as a Karen leader noted in the New York Times this week:

“We can’t say there’s a cease-fire yet,…We still need to discuss the conditions.”#


The changes that have taken place in Burma in recent months have not reflected the ground realities in the ethnic States. They have largely been confined to the country’s heartland in Naypyidaw and Rangoon. The recent ceasefire arrangements with the ethnic armed groups appear to be motivated largely by the Burmese government’s willingness to have the international sanctions lifted, gain international legitimacy ahead of its ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, draw international economic investment etc, than a genuine will to end six decades of civil war. Human rights group still document the same level of human rights violations across the ethnic territories, which means that conditions are still not safe for the ethnic people to return to their homeland or to remain there without fear of oppression and gross human rights violations. Despite the ceasefires in some ethnic states, war rages on in the country’s northern borders, and the Burma Army, which is the primary perpetrator of human rights abuses, still occupies the ethnic States.

As the Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana this week noted, the recently-established National Human Rights Commission lacks the necessary independence to effectively protect the human rights of Burmese citizens against the Burma Army, which is already accused of committing War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity. The international community, including the United Nations shouldn’t view the recent reforms in Naypyidaw and Rangoon as an indication that things have improved for the country’s ethnic groups who have been disproportionately affected by the consequences of six decades of civil war in Burma.

[email protected]

This briefing was presented to the Geneva-based Assistant Commissioner for Protection, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who is on a visit to Malaysia by the Coalition of Burma Ethnics Malaysia (COBEM), 8 multi-ethnic community-based organizations in Malaysia on 7 February 2012.

Related Posts