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BURMA: U.S. Mission’s Meeting with Ethnic Minorities Signals Hope

BANGKOK, Nov 5 2009 (IPS) - The United States government’s diplomatic foray into military-ruled Burma made early inroads into an area sealed off to United Nations envoys in recent years—meeting the country’s oppressed ethnic minorities.

“We met with seven to eight representatives of ethnic minority groups in Rangoon,” Scot Marciel, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said Thursday during a meeting with diplomats, academics and journalists at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “They expressed their concerns about (the 2010) elections and how the government will treat them militarily.”

“We are committed to begin a dialogue with the government, the (Burmese) opposition and ethnic groups,” added Marciel, shortly after he and U.S. assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell ended a two-day visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar. “The purpose of such dialogue is to move towards national reconciliation.”

The visit by Campbell and Marciel, from Nov. 3 to 4, was the first in 14 years by high-ranking officials from Washington. Madeline Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was the last to do so in 1995.

The U.S. government’s approach towards Burma is in keeping with the new tone in Washington under President Barak Obama’s administration. Engagement with oppressive regimes to spur political change is one pillar. It is a contrast to the policies of the former U.S. administration under George W. Bush, where a tough line was the norm.

Yet the Obama administration will follow the Bush position on the punitive economic sanctions that Washington has imposed on Burma since the mid- 1990s. “We would maintain the existing sanctions pending progress,” said Marciel.

Marciel played down high expectations of change so early in an “exploratory mission,” which also resulted in meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader, who has spent over 14 years under house arrest, and with Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein.

“We are going into this with eyes wide open. We do not have any illusions,” said Marciel, whose delegation did not meet Burma’s all-important strongman, Senior General Than Shwe. “We did not anticipate our trip to Burma would solve all of Burma’s problems.”

But the encounter with representatives of ethnic minorities—who account for nearly 40 percent of the South-east Asian nation’s 56 million population and occupy 57 percent of the land area—is winning early praise as a “sign of hope.” The hour-long meeting in Burma’s former capital included representatives from the ethnic Shan, Chin, Mon, Arakan and Kachin.

“It was an important meeting for us; we are very hopeful,” said Chin Sian Thang, spokesman for the United Nationalities’ Alliance (UNA), an umbrella group representing 12 ethnic political parties. “We have never had a meeting like this before.”

“For the last two years we were prohibited from meeting U.N. envoys,” added the spokesman, a member of the Chin ethnic minority, during a telephone interview from Rangoon. “This is a sign of hope that we can pursue national reconciliation that involves our communities.”

The last U.N. envoy permitted by the oppressive Burmese junta to meet ethnic representatives of significance was Razali Ismail, a former Malaysian diplomat. But his successor as the U.N. special envoy to Burma, Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, has been barred from such encounters since he took over the job in late 2006.

The ethnic grievances that were discussed with the U.S. envoys ranged from Burma’s 2008 constitution, approved during a flawed referendum, and a planned election in 2010 to the pressure by the junta for the armed ethnic groups to be reduced to border guards under the wing of the country’s powerful military.

“We said we do not agree with the 2008 constitution because the referendum was a sham,” Chin Siang Thang revealed. “The new constitution does not have a single article that offers protection of ethnic groups.”

“Political reconciliation in Burma leading up to next year’s election must include ethnic minorities,” said Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, an umbrella group of Burmese political exiles. “We have always made this case to the U.N. and to other foreign envoys.”

Denying ethnic minorities a place at the 2010 poll “will undermine the military regime’s need towards legitimacy,” added Soe Aung in an interview. “At the last general elections in 1990, which the regime refused to recognise, the ethnic parties won 67 seats in the parliament.”

Burma’s patchwork of ethnic communities offers a daunting challenge to Washington’s diplomatic adventure. The country has over 130 ethnic communities, the largest of them being the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan, who have been victims of gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese military.

Burma’s military has been waging wars with ethnic rebel groups since it gained independence from the British colonisers in 1948. Ceasefire agreements have been signed by 17 rebel groups two decades ago, while five of the larger separatist rebels, like the Karen, have refused to cave in to the junta’s quest to bring the country under its complete control.

“Ethnic relations have been an incredibly complex issue,” says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian who authored the widely acclaimed book ‘The River of Lost Footsteps’. “It will be central in any reconciliation process.”

The meeting with ethnic representatives during this first U.S. mission reveals that “the U.S. administration is mindful of this,” Thant told IPS. “It will be a challenge to address the ethnic grievances and ending the armed conflicts.”

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