Myanmar’s ethnic minorities under the spotlight as UN envoy visits

As UN envoy Razali Ismail prepares to make another visit to Myanmar Friday, his first since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in May, ethnic minority groups are hoping the diplomat will this time secure a breakthrough for their cause.

Myanmar’s minorities are not involved in the ongoing national reconciliation talks between democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which began in October 2000.

Razali is credited with brokering the secret talks, which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says have moved beyond an initial "confidence-building" phase and are ready to broach the issue of democratic reform.

But the minorities, who make up one third of the military-run country’s population of 50 million, want their voices heard too.

Pro-democracy parties representing all seven major ethnic groups have now assembled an informal coalition known as the United Nationalities Alliance (UNC).

"Our objective in forming this alliance is to prepare for the eventual tripartite talks," says Khun Tun Oo, spokesman for the alliance and chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

"Considering the social, economic and political woes Myanmar is presently facing, not to mention the still-to-be-solved ethnic minority issue, the sooner tripartite talks start, the better."

All the parties except the SNLD were deregistered after the 1990 elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a sweeping victory never recognised by the junta.

The UNA is scheduled to meet with Razali on August 4, when it will ask him to help the parties win reinstatement, Khun Tun Oo says.

"These parties must on their part try their best to get reinstated if they are to take advantage of the military’s promise to give all political parties more freedom of movement in the future."

Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged the need for minorities to be involved in drafting a future for the impoverished country.

"The important thing is to bring them to the negotiating table for an amicable solution," she said several weeks after her release at an event attended by Shan, Mon, Chin, and Arakanese leaders.

When the NLD leader visited Mon state last week, her first trip to a minority region since ending 19 months under detention, thousands turned up to support here wherever she appeared, attesting to her broad appeal.

"So far we have complete confidence and trust in Aung San Suu Kyi herself and I hope she does not get side-tracked in this respect by others around her," Khun T Oo says.

International rights groups are also calling on the SPDC and the democratic opposition to broaden their dialogue to include at minimum the concerns of ethnic minorities.

In a July report, Human Rights Watch also urged Razali to take up the plight of the country’s Muslim community during his visit, and detailed a spate of attacks on the community and the steady erosion of religious freedom.

Problems facing other minorities were highlighted in two other reports by rights groups in recent weeks, including one which alleged the military systematically used rape as a weapon of war in southeastern Shan state.

Amnesty International also accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out a reign of terror in minority regions which has forced many to flee their homes for neighbouring Thailand.

The regime has vehemently denied the allegations, and in a tartly worded statement this week said a smear campaign was being mounted ahead of Razali’s eighth visit to Myanmar.

"There has been a series of allegations thrown at the government of Myanmar recently for a) racial discrimination b) religious intolerance c) forced labour, torture, rape etc, just in time before Mr. Razali’s visit to Myanmar," it said.

"Let us wait and see what these elements will come up with next … I believe while cooking allegations in a hurry they forgot to mention in their smear campaign list ‘Myanmar’s Secret Production of Weapons of Mass Destruction’."

Ethnic insurgencies have plagued border areas since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948. By the end of the 1990s, the junta had signed cease-fire accords with 17 ethnic groups, but some rebel armies continue to fight Yangon’s rule.

The UNA believes it can bring even these disparate groups into the fold for talks.

"We want to talk to the cease-fire groups as well as with the armed groups currently engaged in conflict with the government … to seek common ground, a common policy and approach to the tripartite talks," Khun Tun Oo says.

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