Hopes were once high that Myanmar’s transition to semi-civilian government in 2011 would be accompanied by the settlement of its decades-old conflicts with its ethnic minorities. However, many of the country’s insurgencies have escalated since then, plunging the north back into renewed civil conflict. As things currently stand, government forces are battling various ethnic armed groups – including Kachin, Kokang, and Palaung movements – resulting in heavy losses on both sides and the displacement of up to 200,000 civilians in Shan and Kachin States.
A growing Southeast Asian refugee crisis largely involving Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has strong echoes of the humanitarian disaster on Europe’s doorstep. International observers have similarly called on Myanmar; refugee destinations such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia; and regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to face up to the challenge, as the European Union finally appears to be doing with its own crisis.
At first glance the Southeast Asian situation appears more easily managed: both the origin and intended destinations of the refugees are in the same region, and the main countries concerned are all members of ASEAN. This could theoretically provide the opportunity for a more coordinated response. The story is made more complex, however, by a history of limited official commitments to human rights in the region—and to refugees’ rights in particular—coupled with a traditional ASEAN policy of non-interference in member states’ domestic policies.
With one year remaining before Myanmar’s general election there is growing concern, both internationally and domestically, that the reform process is at best beginning to stagnate and at worst rolling back in some critical areas.
The recent high profile and rare roundtable talks by President Thein Sein involving the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the military (Tatmadaw) and ethnic groups seem to have been little more than a public relations move to massage international concern over the pace and direction of reforms ahead of the East Asian Summit in Naypyidaw.
On September 30, Myanmar’s parliament approved the government’s proposal to accede to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The proposal to accede to this convention, which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons and which Myanmar had signed the year of its inception, was submitted to parliament by Thant Kyaw, deputy minister for foreign affairs, who stated that “Over 170 countries have already ratified the BWC. All ASEAN countries have except us.” Later, he added that Myanmar’s accession would demonstrate its commitment to abide by nonproliferation rules.
A recent peace initiative in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State could play a key role in poppy eradication in a country which is the world’s second largest opium producer, experts say.
“It’s a very important milestone,” Jason Eligh, country manager for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Myanmar, told IRIN explaining a new plan to wean farmers off poppy in rebel-controlled areas. “It demonstrates a good starting point in developing trust.”
The plan, involving the Burmese government and its military, an armed ethnic group in Shan State, and UNODC, will allow survey staff into Shan State, responsible for 90 percent of the country’s poppy cultivation.
Despite past government efforts to rid the country of poppy, the rate of cultivation has steadily risen over the past six years, experts say.