Resources, conflicts, and challenges in Myanmar ethnic communities

Resources, conflicts, and challenges in Myanmar ethnic communities

Forests, productive lands, and resources, but communities need opportunities to process interrelations due to pressures such as conflict of the dams and relocation of people in the Shan State, northeast Myanmar. Photo credits: P Walpole
Forests, productive lands, and resources, but communities need opportunities to process interrelations due to pressures such as conflict of the dams and relocation of people in the Shan State, northeast Myanmar. Photo credit: P Walpole

Than Naing Lin and Zaw Goan

Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country with eight major communities: the Bamar (or Burman), Chin, Kachin, Kayah or Karenni, Karen or Kayin, Mon, Rakhine or Arakan, and Shan. There are many concerns these communities face but we focus on their struggles in ensuring their identity and culture in a Bamar-dominated society, the extraction and development of natural resources in their areas, and the impact of drug abuse, human trafficking, and internally displaced persons, resulting from the conflict between government and ethnic groups.

The 1983 census officially recognizes the existence of 135 different ethnic groups, but there are still some other minor ethnic groups not included in the official list. The diversity of the nation is visible in the distinct culture and language of each ethnic community. As the country shares its borders with China, India, Thailand, Laos, and Bangladesh, some of the Myanmar communities are found also in the neighboring countries.

Struggles around identity and culture

For the last few decades, ethnic groups are struggling to secure their identity and culture. The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census was recently completed, with support from the UN Population Fund and the provisional results released last 30 August 2014, the first nationwide count since 1983. The 2014 census showed that the estimated population of Myanmar is 51.4 million, of which the Bamar constitute 60 percent and the rest of the ethnic groups account for 40 percent. From a statistical point of view, the Bamar are the dominant group in Myanmar.

However, the Rohingya of Rakhine State and parts of Kachin State were not counted because of conflicts, so the population may be more than that. In an article last 22 August 2014 in the Myanmar Times, it was reported that the 47-member Census Observation Mission team warned that the omission of the Rohingya from the count could leave significant holes in data on the marginalised group and that the exclusion of the Rohingya/Bengali population from the enumeration poses serious methodological problems. The team reported that “the resulting undercount will not only have a negative impact on the census results at the state and region levels but also at the national level if the missing population is not included, based on a proper count.”

The Bamar, Mon, Shan, and Rakhine live mainly in the lowlands and the valley while the Chin and Kachin live in the hill areas and depend mostly on shifting cultivation. Prior to the British colonial era, there were already tensions and wars between the communities in the plains and the hill areas. But regardless of the wars over territory, there were cultural and trade exchanges between the communities throughout the centuries. (Source: Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development, Democracy and Human Rights by M Smith, A Allsebrook, and A Sharman, 1994)

One of the causes of the conflict is the effort to impose a single race, culture, religion and language in the entire country. Dr Lian H Sakhong of the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies commented on this policy of “Burmanisation” in the Analysis Paper No 1 of January 2012 titled “The dynamics of sixty years of ethnic armed conflict in Burma.” Dr Sakhong shared that “the Constitutional crisis and the implications of the nation building process with the notion of one religion, one language and one ethnicity are the root causes of internal conflict and civil war in Burma.”

The policy of Burmanisation appears in various forms. In 1960, U Nu, prime minister till 1962, declared Buddhism as the State religion. Though it had little impact to the Christian majority in the Chin, Kachin, and Karen States, the government continues to enforce its policy through different means. (Source: Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future by R Rotberg [editor], 1998)

Article 354 of the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar guarantees freedom of religion but in reality, this freedom is challenged particularly in ethnic areas. Discrimination against religious minorities is seen in rules such as the need for special permission through a complex procedure required to hold church celebrations and construct buildings. There are reports of violence against Christians in the Chin State. More recently, Muslims in Rakhine State face restrictions from authorities in conducting their daily religious practices. (Source: Burma or Myanmar? The Struggle for National Identity by L Dittmer [editor], 2010)

In 1962, General Ne Win imposed Burmese as the national language. Burmese, which is derived from Pali, is used as the official language in Myanmar, though the Mon, Shan, and Rakhine literature developed at the same time as Bamar literature. At present, ethnic communities continue to struggle for space in the media. They have books, journals and newspapers, songs and movies produced in their own language and they speak their own dialect. Many of their elders do not speak Burmese.

Until 1982, ethnic languages were taught in government schools. However, for some unknown reason, the non-Bamar language studies were removed from the State school curriculum. But ethnic leaders on their own find ways to develop their literature. Last March 2013, the Myanmar Times  reported that the government and ethnic leaders are trying to put ethnic languages in the school curriculum once again.

2014_09_30_Editorial_Photo2Longest civil war

Myanmar has experienced the longest civil war in history. Its main reason is the feeling among the ethnic communities that they are not given equal rights and autonomy required to preserve their culture. From the time of independence in 1948, Burmese culture and literature were constantly promoted and prioritized by the government. (Source: The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia by D Brown, 2004)

Some authors argue that its tenacious nationalism ignores ethnic rights, traditions and culture and that it has created most of the problems in the country. They add that ethnic leaders have long felt marginalized and discriminated against by the central government, and have taken up arms against the government. The armed fighting between the military government and the non-Bamar ethnics in the non-Bamar areas is caused, among others, by this feeling. The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), in its Issue Brief No 221 of June 2013 by CS Kuppuswamy titled Challenging the Reconciliation Process: Myanmar’s Ethnic Divide and Conflicts, reported that the combined strength of the armed rebels of all ethnic groups is estimated at 45,000.

The British colonial government wanted to give independence separately to the Bamar and the ethnic communities and argued that the Bamar and uphill ethnics are quite different and that the British regime was governing them with different systems. However, General Aung San endeavored to get independence and on 12 February 1947 and the Panglong Assembly of the Chin, Kachin, and Shan leaders reached an agreement to get independence together. On 19 July 1947, Aung Sang was assassinated. After independence, the subsequent governments ignored the Panglong Agreement.

Extraction and development of natural and mineral resources

Myanmar is endowed with varied natural and mineral resources whose extraction and development create ethnic conflicts. In the IPCS Special Report 131 of August 2012 by Medha Chaturvedi titled Myanmar’s Ethnic Divide: The Parallel Struggle, it was mentioned that the non-Bamar ethnic communities live in the mountainous areas and occupy 60 percent of the land where most natural resources such as teak, other hardwood, and minerals like oil, gas, gold, and jade are found.

According to the first edition of the Myanmar Economic Monitor that the World Bank released in November 2013, 70 percent of national exports, or about 10 percent of Myanmar’s Gross Domestic Product in 2012-2013 came from gas, oil, coal, jade, gems, metals, and wood. Natural gas export alone is estimated to have reached $US 3.6 billion.

Government undertakes the major extraction of these resources but the ethnic states are left underdeveloped compared with the Bamar ethnic regions. For example, local people living near a hydro-dam do not get electricity and people near government projects are forced to leave their villages and sell their land for minimal compensation, according to the report prepared by Burma News International and launched last October 2013. The report, Economics of Peace and Conflict, can be viewed and downloaded at Myanmar Peace Monitor.

The government uses the army in taking over the land in these resource areas. For example, the Yadana Natural Gas Pipeline Investment Project that started in the early 1990s to transport gas through a pipeline from the Andaman Sea to Thailand is one of the world’s most controversial natural gas development projects. Serious allegations of human rights abuses by security forces and the National Army have been reported and elevated to the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation. There were reports that Mon communities were dispersed by a massive National Army presence during the construction of the gas pipeline.

Similarly in Kachin State, the Shwe twin gas and oil pipelines crossing to Yunnan, China lies along the route where there is fierce fighting between the Myanmar armed forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and where refugees are caught in the middle. The area also abounds with precious stones and in recent years, most armed clashes occurred around the areas where natural resource extraction and mega hydropower projects are undertaken. Massive and unsustainable logging of timber, lack of management have resulted in environmental degradation.

Environmental groups and activists protested the construction of the Chinese-backed massive 3,600 MW seven-dam project located at Myitsone, which is the source of the Irawaddy River. Concerns focused on the irrevocable damage to the river and surrounding landscape, with benefits accruing only to China and not to the local population. President Thein Sein suspended the project in September 2011, but the suspension is contingent on his tenure as president which is until 2015.


In 1996, Myanmar was considered the biggest producer of opium, estimated at 250 metric tons of opium gum. At present, Myanmar is the second largest opium producing country in the world and has 25 percent of the estimated global production. (Source: The International Drugs Trade by G Arnold, 2005)

Local farmers and access to agricultural technology, Shan State, northeast Myanmar. Photo credits: P Walpole
Local farmers and access to agricultural technology, Shan State, northeast Myanmar. Photo credit: P Walpole

Most of the drugs are traded in the world market, passing through China and Laos via the Golden Triangle, before continuing to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries and reaching the rest of the world. Opium is produced mainly in the Shan State.

According to the 2013 Southeast Asia Opium Survey of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, opium plantation and production increased in recent years. Both the government and some of the ethnic armed groups are involved in the opium industry. The government’s army claims non-involvement but the local people are saying otherwise. Burma Campaign UK reports that the Myanmar army’s ceasefire agreements with the Wa, Kokang, and some other ethnic armies permit the cultivation and trading of opium without interference and help the armies to procure weapons. The sharp increase in heroin production and smuggling from Burma and the global rise in heroin use and addiction are attributed to this, along with large-scale manufacture of methamphetamines.

Opium production is a profitable activity, but the impact on local people, especially the youth, is devastating. Drugs at affordable prices are easily available and there are many drug users amongst young people in the ethnic areas.

Some ethnic armed groups have taken a strong stand against drug production and use. In 1991, the Kachin leader at that time, Brang Seng, announced that no opium would be grown in his area and took strong measures against farmers violating the ban (Source: Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future by R Rotberg [editor], 1998). These actions had some positive impacts but could not halt all the drug production.

In the publication Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Reference Guide 2014 by Burma News International, it is explained that the government was unwilling to tackle the drug problem because it does not want to disrupt its Border Guard Force (BGF) and the People’s Militia Forces that sustain themselves on this longstanding income source.

Drug production will not stop unless there is peace, stability, and economic development in the states and regions and this needs to be done by the government, the armed forces, and civil society groups together.

Productive environment, development, and electricity, but many peace and social justice concerns need to be processed, Shan State in northeast Myanmar. Photo credits: P Walpole
Productive environment, development, and electricity, but many peace and social justice concerns need to be processed, Shan State in northeast Myanmar. Photo credit: P Walpole

Human trafficking

Human trafficking is a significant problem in Myanmar, particularly in the ethnic areas. Trafficked victims are sent mostly to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and South Korea as forced labor and for commercial sex. Because of the civil wars and poverty, many people go abroad with the hope of getting better employment and many end up being forced to do hard labour or prostitution.

It is learnt that women are trafficked to China, Malaysia and Thailand also for forced marriage, for commercial sex and for forced labor. In 2013, the Department of Social Welfare received 214 repatriated victims – 110 from Thailand and 104 from China.

The 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department stated that the Myanmar government reported the investigation of 100 cases of trafficking, and the prosecution and conviction of 183 offenders in 2013, compared with 120 investigations and 215 prosecutions and convictions in 2012.

But these efforts to prevent human trafficking are not sufficient. Myanmar is not only a source country but is also known as a transit point for trafficked victims from Bangladesh to Malaysia, China to Thailand, and beyond. Myanmar was placed in Tier 3 by the US State Department in 2011, the lowest rank which indicates that the country does not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making advances in prevention and suppression of human trafficking.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

In recent years, Myanmar has encountered severe armed conflicts and inter-communal violence. Most ethnic armed groups had a truce with the government. The KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1994, but broke down on 9 June 2011. Two major reasons are pointed out in the renewed fighting in Kachin State. First, the government demanded that the KIA transform its army into BGF. Second, the government wants to control hydropower projects and natural resources in the state. The recent fighting forced over 100,000 Kachin people to move to IDP camps in northeast Myanmar.

In June 2012, the tension between Muslim and Buddhist Rakhine ethnics led to violence and displaced another 100,000 civilians, mostly Muslims. According to statistics released in 2012, an estimated 400,000 people were internally displaced in southeast Myanmar due to the ongoing conflict and about 142,000 ethnic minority refugees are also living in the Thai-Burma border refugee camps. This is presented in the report Access Denied: Land Rights and Ethnic Conflicts  by the Transnational Institute and Burma Centrum Netherlands.

The issue of displacement has two main causes – land taken over for resource extraction and conflicts. These are interlinked and must be tackled together. Some studies focus on the number of IDPs but more effort has to be made to understand the causes of displacement and ways of dealing with the problem. The refugees have to be brought back from abroad and the IDPs have to be helped to go back to their villages. This is an enormous task, but peace with justice demands that this be done soon.

Accompanying communities towards peace with justice

This paper is an attempt to analyze the contemporary situation of Myanmar’s ethnic communities. They are finding themselves in conflicts and are perceived as a hindrance in building a united country. The persistent conflicts between the government and ethnic armed groups reflect the present problems in the country.

On the ethnic side, leaders are demanding an inclusive political dialogue with the government but neither side has shown interest in involving civilian groups in the search for a solution. In the past, civil society played no role in the political process, but today there is some hope.

The Churches also are taking some initiatives such as when the Bishops of Kachin State made a strong plea for peace with justice in August 2014. Religious and civil society groups need to accept the challenge of working for peace and justice for all the ethnic communities of Myanmar. With that in view, there is an urgent need to look beyond the armed conflicts but also their causes and possible solutions that can take all the communities towards peace with justice.


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