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(Editor’s Note: The Rohingya are not officially recognized as nationals in Myanmar; they are referred to as "Bengali" by many people in Myanmar.)

The transition to democracy that is in progress in Myanmar has showcased Nay Pyi Taw’s quest to prove to the world its credentials of becoming the next Asian tiger economy. And Southeast Asia’s second largest country is endowed with abundant natural resources, only strengthening the states’ chance of joining the league. Nevertheless, though prospects are high, Myanmar faces a lot of challenges. The case of Myanmar shares many similarities with other countries moving towards democratic change and away from authoritarian governance. Myanmar is an ethnically diverse state with various regions celebrating different beliefs and culture. In this context recent tensions between the predominantly Muslim Rohingya and the country’s majority Buddhists are on the rise. Though the world has condemned acts against the Rohingya, the violence has continued, with thousands of refugees fleeing to neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.

Myanmar is part of ASEAN, and has taken keen interest in developments in its fellow member states. And ASEAN, which traditionally staunchly opposes external involvement in the internal affairs of fellow members, created a Myanmar caucus within the grouping to deal with issues related to Myanmar. This was only common sense, as ASEAN could not risk alienating Myanmar due to its proximity and resources. Myanmar will further assume the ASEAN chair in 2014, an important year for the organization. As ASEAN moves towards forming an integrated economic community by 2015, Myanmar will have to provide the crucial push for the organization to do so. Moreover, the ASEAN chairmanship will be a test for Myanmar since opening up. The ASEAN chairmanship will be the first time Myanmar will have a chance to exhibit its ability to handle power in the International system. It will also have to take certain tough measures to uphold the already fractured image of ASEAN.

Myanmar as the head of ASEAN will also have to deal with its internal issues in a comprehensive way. It cannot let consolidation issues affect relations with neighbors. For example, the subsequent influx of Rohingya’s fleeing conflict led to thousands showing up at Thailand’s doorstep, where they were eventually refused entry – an act in violation of not only International Law but also the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights. The challenges of handling such controversial and problematic issues within a greater ASEAN context will have to be dealt with tactfully by Myanmar. Concerning the violence between the Rohingya and Buddhists, Myanmar should take strict action to ensure that it can quell the violence and showcase itself as being a worthy and rightful recipient of the ASEAN chairmanship. There is little that fellow ASEAN member states can do in order to quell the dispute; the responsibility rests firmly with Nay Pyi Taw. If this issue is not dealt with, it could result in another division between neighboring states such as experienced by Thailand and Cambodia surrounding the Preah Vihear temple complex.  

This warrants the question whether ASEAN should look beyond its traditional policy of non-intervention and assist member states in more dynamic and constructive ways. The case of the Rohingya is especially important, as it will have a ripple effect on populations in majority Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and countries with restive regions such as Thailand and The Philippines. In fact, the issue has already started to impact other countries of the region. Two suspects were detained in Indonesia in a plot to bomb Myanmar’s embassy in Jakarta in protest over the lack of action over the issue. Hence, there needs to be a concerted effort on part of states in the region in dealing with this issue.  

Another important issue that will seem to linger in 2014 is the issue of the South China Sea. China, a key player in Myanmar, may use its influence by exerting pressure to not allow discussions on the issue. Though Myanmar may have snubbed China in the case of the Myitsone dam, China’s investments in the country remain significant thanks to years of Western-led sanctions on Myanmar. In the current context, as Myanmar continues to open up its markets for more competition, there is both a chance that China’s influence on Myanmar will lessen and that Beijing will increase its presence in Myanmar as it is a key state for Chinese strategic purposes. Further, reforms in the military will enable Myanmar to take steps to avoid over-dependence from China.   

As Myanmar prepares to lead ASEAN, it will also have to make internal changes that are crucial for the country in the long term. It should seek cooperation from countries that have been through similar political transitions, such as Indonesia. Pro-democracy activism should also continue as there needs to be more momentum to sustain reforms.

Aung San Suu Kyi also needs to move away from the silence she has held over the violence in Rakhine state and work through the government to ensure that there is a peaceful transition in the country. As for ASEAN, it needs to work with leaders in Nay Pyi Taw to ensure that Myanmar does not become a burden but rather an opportunity. Further, in the interest of promoting a balanced approach, more cooperation in Myanmar’s affairs should be encouraged among other players such as India and the United States.

Myanmar should be open to face the challenges that a complex system will bring upon it. It should push for a stronger framework to eradicate other problems that have plagued the country in the past such as drug trafficking and the use of its territory by extremist elements from neighbouring countries. Though the military has cracked down on most of the extremist groups that have created havoc in India’s northeast region, it will surely resurface if Myanmar is unable to consolidate conflict in its various regions; and Myanmar’s actions can strengthen ASEAN’s policies on such issues.

Myanmar has long been regarded as a bridge between the two great civilizations of India and China. Its role in security and stability directly impact India, China and ASEAN. Hence, ASEAN should work closely to integrate Myanmar with both these countries, giving it crucial guidance into effectively working the ASEAN agenda of balancing extra-regional presence in the region. This will help ASEAN maintain its centrality and the delicate balance in Southeast Asia that keeps fortune in the region alive. Within this context, the ASEAN chairmanship will be a crucial test for Myanmar’s own move towards democracy and prosperity.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, India. His working thesis is entitled ‘Extra Regional Powers and the Geopolitics of Southeast Asia: A Case Study of ASEAN’. His interests include ASEAN, the regional dynamics of Southeast Asia and Indian Foreign Policy towards Southeast Asia.

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If Sunday’s Bodh Gaya blasts were indeed a fallout of the Rohingya issue, it’s high time New Delhi engaged Myanmar and Bangladesh diplomatically to ensure that Indian territory does not become a battleground

The probe into the recent Bodh Gaya blasts that injured two monks are currently underway and there is yet no definitive conclusion on whether the bombings have any link to the sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. Even so, given the potential regional implications of Myanmar’s communal conflicts since violence first erupted in a year ago, links of the bombings were made to the Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar but with little explanation on what the sectarian violence in Myanmar is about.

Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country, has been witnessing one of the worst spells of sectarian violence in its recent history. What began as a localised sectarian riot in June 2012 in the coastal state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) bordering Bangladesh to its north has now become a nationwide communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. According to government census, Islam is practiced by about 5 per cent (mostly Sunni) and about 89 per cent follow Buddihism, predominantly of the Theravada tradition out of the nearly 60 million population of the country.

A Bengali-speaking community, who called themselves Rohingyas, in the Rakhine State claim they are from Myanmar. However, this claim is not recognised by the Myanmar regime, dominated by the majority Burman who are predominantly Buddhist and hence Rohingyas are not in the 135 list of ethnic groups of Myanmar. The Myanmar regime regards the Rohingyas as “immigrants” from Bangladesh and are deprived of citizenship rights and subjected to various repressive measures.

Rakhine State is the epicentre of the current sectarian riots between the majority ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhists, and the minority Rohingyas, who are Muslims. The situation continues to remain tense due to the growing anti-Muslim campaigns led by radical Buddhist elements in different parts of the country. The death casualties are now in hundreds and several thousands have been fleeing the country to neighbouring countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

The Rohingyas are casualty of three historical circumstances that continue to shape notions of nationalism and national identity. Like other countries in the region, the communal issue in Myanmar is rooted in history. The emergence of new nation-states; the narrowly defined national identity; and lack of concerted efforts on the part of Myanmar and Bangladesh to find a resolution to the long-standing issue have together created what is known as the Rohingya issue. In the 1820s, the Burmese ceded the Arakan coast strip to British India that allowed people from the subcontinent to move into the area. Post-independence period saw creation of new borders but given the porous nature of borders, the movement of people cross-borders continued.

The newly created nation-states in the mid-twentieth century in the region, the task of nation-building based on narrowly defined “national identity” only complicated the situation. In the case of Myanmar, national identity was based on the majoritarian Buddhist culture and the Muslim Rohingyas were seen as opposed to the Buddhist-based identity. Although one can appreciate Dhaka’s position that the Rohingyas are Myanmar citizens and therefore an internal matter of the country, its hand-off policy towards the issue has not helped matters. Dhaka could taken up the matter with Myanmar rather than ignoring it to become a bigger and more complex issue that has returned around to affects its own well-being.

With this unsettled history, the initiation of political reforms in 2010 in Myanmar has provided space for different communities to vent their grievances against each other. As the country heralds into a new phase of political freedom, there is a strong nationalist wave led by the rightwing Buddhist monks targeting the Rohingyas, in particular, and Muslims in general, as a “threat” to the country’s national identity, akin to the post-independence years.

The rise of rightwing Buddhist forces with their anti-Muslim campaigns and the Myanmar government’s inability to curb violence have invited criticism from the international media. Importantly, the unending communal violence threatens the country’s future course of political reconciliation which is critical for the establishment of an inclusive system as the democratisation process stands at the crossroads. The Myanmar government needs to demonstrate that it is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of every person, irrespective of religion or ethnicity.

As the Rohingya question in Myanmar hangs in a limbo, there are other serious and immediate concerns emanating from this conundrum. Reports about radical groups among the Rohingyas establishing links with global terror groups sympathetic to the cause are plenty in the recent months. Initial reports on the Bodh Gaya blasts have suggested that a Pakistani-based terror group could be involved. Earlier, the two men were arrested in Jakarta who had tried to target Myanmar’s embassy. This point to the fact that the issue is creating radical and desperate groups to counter the rightwing Buddhist forces in Myanmar.

The likelihood of these terror links may grow with unabated violence and sections in both sides adopting extreme communal positions. In this context, sharing of information on nexus between radical groups remains critical for security and stability of the region. The agreement to share information about the Bodh Gaya blasts between India and Myanmar during the recent Foreign Office Consultation meeting needs to be viewed from this perspective and not Delhi’s connivance with Myanmar as alleged by some radical groups.

Inside Myanmar, the need of the hour is for moderate Buddhist monks to get heard. Unlike the radical Buddhist movement led by hardliner monks, such as Wirathu, who advocates anti-Islam campaigns, there are also monks who oppose the movement. Gambira, who became renowned for spearheading the 2007 uprising against the military regime, is one such moderate voice. As Buddhist-Muslim tension rises, the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, many of whom follow Christianity as their religion, would be watching with a sense of wariness as the new Buddhist nationalist wave will have long-term repercussions on its relations with the majority Buddhist community.

It is premature to surmise that the Bodh Gaya bombings signal the beginning of Buddhist rightwing versus radical Muslim fundamentalist groups in South Asia. Hence, the likely direction of the phenomenon remains unclear, though the incident is perhaps the first sign of a new anti-Buddhist campaign in the region. Whether the Bodh Gaya bombings are found to be linked to Myanmar’s sectarian violence or not, the perpetual communal tension in Myanmar is doing no good for the country’s future. An early resolution to the issue is in the interest of the country and the region at large.

Multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic diversities are the cornerstone of every society in South and Southeast Asian nations. Often ethnic and religious complexities have manifested themselves into dangerous proportion with strong regional security implications. Several of Myanmar’s neighbours have been struggling with radicalisation and they could share their experiences with Myanmar in dealing with such phenomenon, but Myanmar needs to take upon itself the responsibility of finding a lasting resolution to the sectarian violence sooner than later.

(K Yhome is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

This article first appeared in The Pioneer  on July 13, 2013.

The Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque which sits opposite the Buddhist Sule Pagoda in central Yangon. (Photo: Hintha / Wikipedia)

Communal tensions are rising in Myanmar almost to a point of frenzy. This development is dangerous. It will—if not checked—lead to loss of more innocent lives and threaten to derail the process of democratic change in Myanmar.

Myanmar is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and secular nation. In 1947, Myanmar was founded upon solid principles of democracy and liberty including religious freedom and gender equality. In fact, Myanmar was far ahead regarding woman’s rights even compared to today’s standard. Women pilots were serving in the Air Force well before women in other countries were allowed to enlist as auxiliaries in the military.

History provides a cautionary lesson. When led astray from those founding principles, Myanmar and its people descended into 50 years of dictatorial rule and destitution. Now, barely three years after emerging from decades of dictatorship, misguided calls to hostile actions against people of Muslim faith reverberate, and every Myanmar citizen must resist them resolutely.

The proposed ideas of U Wirathu and his ‘969’ movement to boycott Muslim businesses and restricting marriage of Buddhist women to men of Muslim faith are unconstitutional and ill-conceived.

It is a well-known fact that there is a widespread anxiety and anger in Buddhist communities. This anxiety and anger drives the growing support for U Wirathu and his 969 movement. The threat perception in regard to Islam and its impact on Myanmar’s society cannot be simply dismissed as primordial hatred or psychologized as self-victimization as if it were a matter of a collective psychological development disorder. To avoid a further escalation and overcome this crisis, it is important to acknowledge the existence of anger and anxieties in Buddhist communities and to understand the underlying economic, social, and cultural problems. Only when the root problems are understood, can they be factored into sustainable, peaceful, and political solutions.

Threat Perception in Buddhist Communities

The threat perception emanates obviously from long-standing communal grievances. Top among them is the notion of forced conversion of Buddhist women to their husbands’ religion when they marry Islamic men; hence the recent call for a law that would restrict Buddhist women from marrying a Muslim man.

The conversions are believed to be effected by social and economic pressures on Buddhist women who marry men of Muslim faith. Since Islamic law does not recognize or allow interfaith marriages, non-Muslim women are denied the right to marital property and inheritance once in the event of divorce or death of the husband.

Under British colonial rule, Islamic law took precedence over Buddhist customary law in Myanmar and thus women of Buddhist faith were losing out on their spousal rights provided by the Buddhist law unless they converted to Islam. In fact, the Braund Committee Report on the Buddhist–Muslim riots in1938 cited this very issue as an underlying cause of the clashes. This injustice to Buddhist women was remedied by the Buddhist Women Special Marriage and Succession Bill, enacted in 1939 and a similar law under the Burmese government of U Nu in 1954. Many women may be ignorant of their rights under existing laws and thus may give in to undue pressure to convert.

What seems also to feed into the anxiety is an increased visibility of Islamization as more Muslim communities appear to be less inclined to integrate into Myanmar society than in the past. There is the perception of a proliferation of mosques, an increasing number of women in hijabs and burqas, men in kurtis (long shirts), long beards and prayer caps not only in larger cities but also in rural villages. This perception is acknowledged by a Myanmar Muslim cleric who recently came forward to call for a better integration of Muslims in Myanmar. He lamented that some Muslim communities contribute to the fear of Buddhists by hanging ‘786’ signs (not commanded by the Koran) and building more madrassas and mosques in villages than are necessary and often in competition with one another.

Some grievances strain rationality but are nevertheless widely prevalent. For instance, it is believed that Myanmar Muslims take their business only to Muslim-owned shops, easily distinguishable by their ‘786’ signs. What made matters worse is that it became received wisdom among the Buddhists that the number 786 when added (7+8+6=21) came to 21, denoting Islam’s intention to take over Myanmar by the 21st century. The belief in numerology explains also the popularity of U Wirathu’s 969 movement designed as a countermeasure to 786.

The examples of Malaysia and Indonesia also loom large in the minds of many Myanmar Buddhists in their perception of threat from Islam. Though much of the history of these regional neighbors may not be known, it is nevertheless a common knowledge among Myanmar Buddhists that the population of these countries was once overwhelmingly Buddhist and Hindu before the arrival of Islam. They are therefore invoked as examples when people engage in conversations about the necessity to defend Buddhism and their way of life.

As reliable government data and statistics are missing, and systematic political and sociological research has been hampered by decades of isolation and official neglect, these perceptions are usually readily dismissed by international commentators. However, this does not change the fact that for many Myanmar citizens these observations and grievances are a reality indicating a disturbing demographic shift.

Name and Shame strategy does not work

International media, human rights organizations and single issue advocates have so far manifested a stunning ignorance for the complexity of both the Rakhine and the Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in the rest of the country. They have failed to pay attention to underlying causes and the social, economic, historical and political contexts, and have instead relied on the snapshot impressions of advocates and activists. By doing so, it has become nearly impossible for the international public to understand the conflicts as anything other than an expression of primordial hatred or a clash of cultures.

Early on, media outlets and organizations have made moral judgments and adopted a uniform conflict narrative that stigmatized and stereotyped the conflicting parties. They applied a binary code in their reporting that defined good and evil, victim and villain, which reminded of the default coverage of Myanmar politics over the past two decades.

The ‘name and shame’ strategy of international media, activists and human rights advocacy groups has not contributed to a de-escalation of tensions, but has further polarized and hardened the positions of the parties involved. A case in point is the latest coverage of U Wirathu in TIME magazine. While the demonizing of U Wirathu has sensationalized the conflict situation for the consumption of an international readership, it has deepened the fault lines in communities in Myanmar and roiled the passions. The government has already decided to ban TIME in Myanmar out of fear that it could cause further communal clashes. Such a tense atmosphere makes it even more difficult for voices of moderation and reconciliation to be heard.

In this context, the ‘Rakhine map incident’ comes to mind as it has also arguably contributed to an ethnic and religious mobilization and eventual escalation of the Rakhine conflict last year.

On November 6, 2010, the BBC published on their website a map that depicted Muslim immigrant communities, which call themselves “Rohingyas”, as the only population representing Rakhine State. The map had omitted the majority of ethnic Rakhine as well as Muslim communities that identify themselves as Rakhine Muslims and Kaman. The map incident sparked an outcry among the Rakhine and a virtual war on social media sites. The misstep of the BBC to literally write the Rakhine out of history and out of the map and seemingly place the Muslim population in Rakhine collectively under the contested, politicized category ‘Rohingya’, became an epitome for poorly researched and biased media coverage.

It also enhanced a long-held resentment among the ethnic Rakhine of being culturally and politically disempowered and marginalized, not only as a minority within Myanmar but also as ethnic group regionally and internationally. While Rohingya groups overseas had built a good rapport with the international media for over a decade and gained support with international NGOs and advocacy groups, the ethnic Rakhines as well as Rakhine Muslims and Kaman had failed to do so for a variety of reasons, and found themselves excluded and voiceless in a globalized world of single-issue advocacy and lobbyism.

BBC’s careless approach to the Rakhine conflict, which is one of the most convoluted and protracted conflicts in Myanmar, is a cautionary tale regarding the widespread tendency in international media and the human rights community to focus on a single issue while ignoring the history, context and complexity of the wider conflict. It appears that they adopt and promote the most skillfully marketed conflict narrative, which often happens to be the one presented by the most vociferous and well-funded advocacy groups.

Intentionally or unintentionally, the focus on single issues causes often more division on the ground, contributes to an increase of identity politics and a fragmentation of larger social and political movements. This is lamentable, especially in a political environment as exists currently in Myanmar where full democracy has not been realized. In such an environment a more unified, political movement across religious and ethnic lines is needed to push for major political reforms tackling fundamental problems such as poverty, social and economic injustice, cronyism, land-grabbing, the lack of rule of law, to name but a few.

The foregoing examples of biased reporting are not unique to Myanmar. The International Council of Human Rights Policy based in Geneva has pointed to widespread failures in the coverage of human rights issues in a study of 2002 and published a catalogue of recommendations for good human rights reporting.

However, as governments and politicians all over the world are adapting and developing their responses to counter human rights reports, advocates have likewise escalated their rhetoric by using more frequently threatening terms with legal significance such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’. Yet, this strategy is in the end more polarizing than mitigating the problem, as the current communal tensions in Myanmar show.

Assertive leadership required

It was Niccolo Machiavelli who warned of procrastinating on imminent problems, as these will never disappear but grow bigger “until they have gathered strength and the case is past cure.” The situation in Myanmar is not “past cure” and political solutions can be found. The tense situation however calls for more assertive leadership from both the government and the opposition, much more than what has been witnessed so far.

All leaders of the government and the opposition should make clear in repeated statements to the public that mob violence, discrimination on religious grounds, and hate-speech are not acceptable. Myanmar is a secular, multi-ethnic state and accordingly freedom of religion is guaranteed by its constitution.

It has been reported that in the wake of Rakhine and Meikhtila clashes, religious leaders have already come together for interfaith prayer meetings either sponsored by the government or on private initiatives. These are very important initiatives, however, in the face of widely known sectarian grievances that have fueled the conflicts, they are not enough.

Religious freedom means that citizens are free to believe in whichever God or deity in their hearts and heads. However, religious freedom in a secular country like Myanmar also means that religion may not infringe on the freedom of others and dominate public life. Therefore, the government, political and religious leaders must specifically address religious inspired behavior that gave rise to sectarian grievances and tensions. To that end, the government has to initiate interfaith dialogues between religious leaders from the communities on both sides to thresh out the differences and find concrete solutions to allay the fears and anxieties of citizens on both sides of the religious divide. Above all, interfaith understanding cannot be effectuated unless the government ensures the security of all citizens in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

For instance, regarding the issue of interfaith marriage, Singapore provides a viable model. Without going into detail, marriage registries are set up for Muslim couples and non-Muslims separately. Muslim marriages are conducted meticulously in accordance with their religious laws including polygamous marriages. To those who are concerned with forced conversions of non-Muslim women, pre-marital counseling could be required for interfaith couples for the purpose of informing and educating them on pertinent issues including awareness of laws to protect women without infringement on women’s rights.

On the issue of proliferating mosques, madrassas, religious attires and symbols including 786 and 969 stickers voluntary attenuation of behaviors should be negotiated on and once agreed upon, implemented by respective communities.

The government should also address and reform the bizarre system of determining the ethnicity of Myanmar citizens that gives reason for grievance on the part of non-Buddhist citizens in particular of those belonging to Islamic faith. A Myanmar citizen may be of Bamar, Shan, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Chin and other recognized indigenous ethnic heritage. However, the official ethnicity status of a citizen of Islamic faith is determined as “mixed blood” on the citizenship card and arbitrarily categorized as (indigenous ethnicity A, B, or C) mixed with Indian, Pakistani or Bengali blood.

The people of Myanmar have suffered economic deprivation and injustice under decades of military dictatorship. During those years, suppression and exclusionary practices based on ethnicity and religion have been institutionalized in the belief that this would eliminate ethno-religious problems that the nation faced. Fifty years later, we know that those problems have not disappeared. Instead they have intensified and have become more complicated. Actions that again call for exclusion will not cure problems but create new injustices and a whole new set of issues.

Religious strife must not be allowed to dominate the public political debate as it undermines solidarity among Myanmar citizens. Solidarity across religious and ethnic divides is needed to further democratic reforms and gain social and economic justice for all citizens. The Myanmar citizens who have barely emerged from oppressive rule cannot afford to discard basic principles of democracy, liberty, and religious freedom before they have even attained full democracy. Building a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and democratic nation of Myanmar will never be easy and straight forward but to keep it lasting, these principles have to be upheld under all circumstances.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not represent Mizzima editorial policy.

Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein is a former political prisoner and activist. With a background in medicine and public health education Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein has served as professor and dean at a number of American universities.

Dr. Susanne Prager Nyein received her Ph.D. from Heidelberg University in Southeast Asian Studies. She is currently involved in Burma research and has published numerous articles on Burma.

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 UNFC representatives meet with the Myanmar government's Peace-making Committee in Chiang Mai on February 20, 2013. (Photo: Hla Maung Shwe / Facebook)

The Myanmar government has announced that a long awaited all-inclusive ethnic conference will take place shortly, according to ethnic minority sources. It remains unclear, however, how ‘all-inclusive’ it will be and who will attend.

The intended conference was announced not long after a draft ‘Comprehenisve Union Peace and Ceasfire Agreement’ was presented on May 13 to the Myanmar Peace Centre for deliberation by a group comprising: Padoh Kwe Htoo Win (KNU) ; Sai La and Sai Ngeun (Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS/SSA); Harn Yawnghwe, director of Brussels-based Euro Burma Office (EBO); and Hkun Htun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), according to the Shan Herald Agency for News.

The agreement was the result of a number of meetings held by the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC) which is financed and supported by the Euro-Burma Office. The WGEC originally included members of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), but, due to the fact that the agreement had finally been agreed to, the UNFC dissolved its relationship with them.

The agreement—which is likely to be amended and is dated April 8, 2013—contains a number of points:

  1.  A 15-point common principles (including Panglong-style Agreement, non-secession and inclusivity)
    2.    A 14-point nationwide ceasefire accord (including establishment of Military Code of Conduct, Joint Ceasefire Committee and liaison offices)
    3.    A 6-point framework agreement for political dialogue (including setting up of a joint National Dialogue Steering Committee and the holding of National Dialogue Conference)
    4.    A 9-point transitional arrangement (including time frame, empowerment of vulnerable groups and land reform issues)
    5.    Scope of participation (900 participants from government, political parties and ethnic armed movements)
    6.    A 9-point dialogue (including constitutional reforms, security reforms, land issues, drug eradication, IDP/refugee issues, language and cultural nights and media issues)
    7.    Military Code of Conduct (as drafted by the Karen National Union)

While the agreement is the most comprehensive yet and, it is hoped, will form the basis for the all-inclusive dialogue, a number of issues still remain to be addressed. The military code of conduct was discussed by the KNU at an informal meeting with the government and military officials on June 15. While initial indications in relation to its acceptance are positive, the document still needs to be revised and approved by both parties. Many of the other armed ethnic groups have failed to produce Codes of Conduct and it remains unclear if the KNU Code of Conduct can be adapted for all armed ethnic groups.

In addition, the position of the UNFC also remains uncertain. While most members of the UNFC were involved in the drafting of the Framework Agreement the group also seeks separate dialogue as an individual representative of the majority of armed ethnic groups. A number of UNFC leaders have also expressed concerns in regard to its relationship with the WGECand the Myanmar Peace Centre, and some groups feel, due to their size, that they will not be given equal treatment.

Notwithstanding such concerns, many of the groups see the anouncement as a positive move on behalf of the the government, and while there still remains a number of issues to be addressed it is hoped that the framework agreement, and the dialogue can bring the country closer to a substantial peace.

Paul Keenan is Research Co-ordinator at the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies

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  2. Govt, UNFC hold ‘frank and friendly’ talks in Chiang Mai

Wildlife products, including bear paws and gall, various wild cat parts, Loris and deer horn, on sale in Mong La Central Market. PHOTO: TRAFFIC

Wildlife products, including bear paws and gall, various wild cat parts, Loris and deer horn, on sale in Mong La Central Market. PHOTO: TRAFFIC

CONTRIBUTOR - Earlier this month, leading government, industry and civil society leaders descended upon Naypyitaw for the 22nd World Economic Forum on East Asia. With Myanmar poised to take over as chair of ASEAN in 2014 leading up to the charted 2015 realization of the ASEAN Economic Community, the gathering marked a new milestone in Myanmar’s political and regional leadership. But one key issue was not squarely tabled.

As Chair of ASEAN, Myanmar would be well served to address the illegal wildlife trade. It is not only an environmental issue, but has economic, security, and health implications.

This year, the United Nations called illegal wildlife trafficking a serious transnational criminal activity because it has fueled and funded conflicts, terrorism and other illicit activity. Myanmar should focus on this issue or its omission will have grave costs.

Myanmar has some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. Its Northern Forest Complex is the home to elephants, bears, leopards, and hundreds of species of birds. At the core of the forest lies an 8,500 square mile tract—Myanmar’s Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the world’s largest tiger reserve, a place biologically critical in a world where only about 3,000 wild tigers remain. Myanmar also has the most elephants in Southeast Asia.

To protect this biodiversity, Myanmar has an elaborate system of forest laws, which pre-date the military government, and a new government commitment to ban all timber exports starting next year.

In 1994, Myanmar also enacted the Protection of Wildlife and Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Law, which forbids the possession, sale or export of endangered animals or their parts, making such acts punishable by a fine of 30,000 to 50,000 kyat (US$1,000 – $1,667) and /or imprisonment of up to 7 years. Three years later, Myanmar signed the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). In 2010, Myanmar chaired the 5th Annual Meeting of ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Networks, and in 2011 created a national inter-agency Wildlife Enforcement Law Enforcement Task Force.

However, reports suggest significant trade in elephants, Asiatic bears, sun bears, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, cloud leopards, turtles, tortoises, and pangolins from Myanmar to its neighbors. Bears are hunted for their gall bladder and bile, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Big cats’ parts such as whole skins, paws, bones and penises are used for religious amulets, decorative pieces, aphrodisiacs and traditional Chinese medicine.

Moreover, what makes Myanmar a potential hub for regional trade also makes it ideally located as a transit point for the illegal wildlife trade. Myanmar shares porous borders with China, Bangladesh, India, Laos and Thailand. For example, one study by TRAFFIC, a worldwide non-government organization dedicated to monitoring the illegal wildlife trade, found that widespread distribution of big cat parts occurred through markets in Mong La, near the China border and Tachilek, on the Thai border. According to TRAFFIC, in just a 12-day period, researchers found parts from at least 215 bears being openly traded in Myanmar border markets near China and Thailand. Thus despite its wildlife laws, enforcement is at most ad hoc, and of low priority in areas where armed groups control.

Why is this a problem? From other countries, we know that wildlife crime destroys biodiversity and the services that healthy ecosystems provide. Illegal wildlife trade deprives governments direct revenue from sales of state-managed natural resources and avoids indirect revenue from taxes on private sector exports. It prevents local communities obtaining sustainable livelihoods, with small-scale local poachers receiving but a fraction of the value end-users pay. It can undermine national security because insurgent groups often support their activities via sales of contraband that includes wildlife. It also poses serious threats to health as the transport of wildlife products can spread disease.

These challenges are not unique to Myanmar but occur across Southeast Asia. Thailand and Vietnam, for example, came under scrutiny in March this year at the 16th CITES meeting in Bangkok. Thailand was criticized for failing to properly regulate its national ivory trade, with legal loopholes allowing imported foreign ivory to be passed off as a legal domestic product. Vietnam was told that rhino horn smuggling was increasing across its borders.

These issues are of serious international importance. African countries spend millions of dollars annually on protection efforts, while clashes with heavily armed militant groups cost dozens of rangers their lives each year. But both Thailand and Vietnam are now taking strong measures to address the crisis.

With greater openness, escalating regional demand from China and other ASEAN countries, and realization of the ASEAN Economic Community, the situation is likely to accelerate. Under moves toward economic integration, any inconsistencies in national laws or enforcement will see wildlife criminals moving to exploit the weakest nations in the bloc.

To address a similar possibility, the European Union established a common CITES framework that encompasses all its member states when it was first formed. ASEAN would benefit by adopting a similarly consistent approach to wildlife laws and enforcement.

Thus, as Myanmar assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 and plays a key role in leading the 10-member group toward the ASEAN Economic Community, it should consider the challenges that greater openness can bring, and should steer ASEAN to adopt a strong framework to stop the illegal wildlife trade and ensure it is enforced.

Kala Mulqueeny is the Principal Counsel of Asian Development Bank, and was a Young Global Leader at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Naypyitaw. William Schaedla is Regional Director of TRAFFIC South-east Asia. Traffic is a joint program of the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. http://www.traffic.org

The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the authors.

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Our current systems are inadequate to address the growing risks faced by oceans, such as overfishing, loss of coastal protection and collapsing coral reef ecosystems. At the same time new investment opportunities are flourishing, such as offshore oil and gas, expanding shipping fleets, growing tourism, and undersea mining, as highlighted by the British Prime Minister earlier this year.

At a time when the public sector is coming under scrutiny in many parts of the world for stymieing economic competitiveness, I would argue that only by raising the profile of ocean issues in national agendas and creating a new Ministry of Ocean Affairs do we have a chance of creating the governance structures necessary to protect this vast and essential asset.

This would solve a number of problems. First of all coordination: implementing a comprehensive strategy involving departments and agencies as diverse as fishery protection units, coastguards, tourism authorities, port authorities and research agencies requires a governing body with serious clout—up there with health, finance or education.

Such a ministry would also serve as a centre of excellence for engaging, regulating and enforcing agreements with the private sector, which tends to lead most ocean activities. Lastly, it would be better equipped to influence governance issues beyond national jurisdictions. This is important, for there are many different jurisdictions. As South African Minister of Planning, Trevor Manuel, said in a recent debate at the World Economic Forum, it is an odd situation where the seabed is regulated by the UN’s International Seabed Authority, but the body of water and wildlife above the seabed is less clearly regulated.

Of course, governance structures must also be reviewed at the international level. For example, are regional fishery organizations the right structures for ocean governance or should we be considering regional or even international ocean management organizations?

All these goals are achievable, and some countries are already setting an example of best practice, such as the Scottish government, which created Marine Scotland to provide integrated management of all its ocean-related activities.

Fixing the oceans will not be easy and it will certainly not be quick, which is all the more reason why governments must act with haste to create a single point of accountability before it is too late. In the words of Jules Verne: “We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones”.

Nishan Degnarain is Senior Economic Adviser to the Minister of Finance and Economic Development in Mauritius and a consultant with McKinsey and Company. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Oceans as well as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

This article first appeared on the World Economic Forum blog on June 8, 2013. The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent Mizzima editorial policy.

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