Ethnic Politics in Burma: The Time for Solutions

TNI-BCN Burma Policy Briefing Nr 5

14 February 2011

Following the shake-up of Burmese politics last year, the country's military leaders now face the challenge of introducing a new system while ethnic tensions and exclusions remain.

Burma remains a land in ethnic crisis and political transition. In 2010 the military State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) laid out the landscape for a new era of parliamentary government. In 2011 the authorities face the challenge of introducing the new political system. Ethnic divisions and political exclusions, however, are emerging in national politics, threatening a new cycle of impasse and conflict.

Ethnic peace and political inclusion are essential if Burma is to overcome its post-colonial legacy of state failure. Since independence from Great Britain in 1948, political and ethnic strife have continued through all eras of government. The social and humanitarian consequences have been immense. Burma is one of the world’s poorest countries, with population displacement, drug-related problems and infectious disease rates disturbingly high in the ethnic borderlands.

A critical moment is approaching. A new political system is being introduced, and progressive decisions can yet be made. But uncertainty is increasing. Will the new government be the SPDC in new guise or will it be a platform from which ethnic peace and multi-party democracy can truly spread? The stakes could not be higher. The decisions made by Burma's leaders in the coming year could well decide the country's future for a generation.

Key points

  • An inclusive endgame has long been needed to achieve national reconciliation. But political and ethnic exclusions are continuing in national politics. If divisions persist, Burma’s legacy of state failure and national under-achievement will continue.
  • The moment of opportunity of a new government should not be lost. It is vital that the new government pursues policies that support dialogue and participation for all peoples in the new political and economic system. Policies that favour the armed forces and military solutions will perpetuate divisions and instability.
  • Opposition groups must face how their diversity and disunity have contributed to Burma’s history of state failure. If they are to support democratic and ethnic reforms, national participation and unity over goals and tactics are essential. All sides must transcend the divisions of the past.
  • As the new political era begins, the international community should prioritise policies that promote conflict resolution, political rights and equitable opportunity for all ethnic groups in national life, including the economy, health and education. Continued repression and exclusion will deepen grievances – not resolve them.
Nr 5 -
February 2011
In: Ethnic Politics in Burma: The Time for Solutions
16 pages
ISBN/ISSN: 2214-8957

Recent publications from Burma Project

Bouncing Back

TNI's indepth examination of the illegal drug market in the Golden Triangle, which has a witnessed a doubling of opium production, growing prison populations and repression of small-scale farmers. This report details the failure of ASEAN's 'drug free' strategy and the need for a new approach.

Ethnicity without Meaning, Data without Context

The 2014 Population and Housing Census is the most significant ethnic and political boundary-making exercise since 1931, however its colonial-era designations and simplifications are likely to raise ethnic tensions at a critical time in the peace process.

From Aspirations to Solutions

Hopes remain that, through political negotiation, democratic reforms will be achieved which lead to just and inclusive solutions. But as the countdown to the 2015 general election begins, concerns are growing that essential reforms will not be delivered.

Burma’s Ethnic Challenge: From Aspirations to Solutions

“Important steps have been made in national reconciliation during the past two years. But promises and ceremonies will never be enough. The long-standing aspirations of Burma’s peoples for peace and justice must find solutions during the present time of national transition.”