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Burma's Ethnic Minority Issue:

No Easy Solution

Finally released from 19-months of house arrest in May, Aung San Suu Kyi has given little away as to the content of the talks she had with the military negotiators prior to her release. With Burma's (Myanmar) future hanging in the balance, the Nobel peace laureate's record on fighting for democracy and her advocacy of human rights within the country are evident for the entire world to see. However, her position on the ethnic minority people's issue and the controversial question of how to deal with the flood of opium, heroin and meta-amphetamines from the country is less clear.

"Some Burmese political scientists opine that even Suu Kyi may continue the policies implemented by the military to suppress the rights of ethnic minorities," states Hideyuki Takano, the author of the recently released book "The Shore Beyond Good and Evil: A Report from Inside Burma's Opium Kingdom." Takano's book takes us in behind the "Poppy Curtain," into the land of the Wa people, a minority group led by Pao Yuchang and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). This group has recently branded as the largest opium (the raw material for heroin) producer in the world by the US State Department.

Any future government in Burma (Myanmar) will have to at the very least come to terms with the vast, half-million strong military that has ruled the country with an iron grip since General Ne Win's 1962 coup. The course of this relationship will also dictate the course of the nation's future.

Aung San Suu Kyi's father, the national hero General Aung San himself, negotiated the Panglong agreement in 1947, which recognized many of the minority groups rights and opened the door to independence for these groups. Sadly he was assassinated before he could implement the agreement and the ineffectual democratic leaders that came after him presided over a period of turmoil during which the military felt too much was being given up to these minority groups. Fearing disintegration and chaos the military took over and 40 years of oppression followed.

The minority issue has always been a very sensitive and complex one with the military government. With around 135 ethnic groups officially listed by the government alone, "the ethnic conflict plaguing past and present Yugoslavia promises to recur in Burma" points out Takano. The military government in 2000 re-negotiated a cease-fire with the Wa and some other opium producing guerrilla groups, which had been in effect since 1989. They also arranged for the surrender and subsequent collaboration with the leading drug lord Khun Sa and his large Mong Tai Army in 1996. According to Takano, the military has tacitly approved of and increased their involvement in the narcotics trade run by these groups over the years.

All this means that the policies and approach adopted by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) to deal with these complex challenges will undoubtedly shape any agreement reached between the parties in the future. The shape of the final agreement could also herald a new period of turmoil and another round of hardships for the people of this conflict torn country. Takano concludes, "Presently, Burma sits on a pressure cooker. As the pressure increases, the lid will explode." (June 29, 2002)

"The Shore Beyond Good and Evil: A Report from Inside Burma's Opium Kingdom" by Hideyuki Takano, Kotan Publishing, ISBN 0970171617, 277pp, $23.95.

Burma & Minority Group Chronology



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