FEATURE. Historic vote due to take place in Burma in 2010 risks being a show election legitimizing the military Junta · Fresh clashes expected between the Burmese military and the separatist Karen rebels, harshly repressed by the Government · The Junta rejects federalism or autonomy for minorities.
In theory, 2010 should be a historic year for Burma. According to the military Junta which rules the country, legislative elections are to take place for the first time in twenty years. But there are fears that Burma is going to see nothing more than a show election that would legitimize the 2008 Constitution that the Junta approved in a referendum without guarantees held soon after the Nargis cyclone swept through the country, leaving more than 100,000 dead.
The country's numerous minority communities - some of which total millions of people - once again find themselves affected by the lack of democracy. As Asian Studies specialist David I. Steinberg told Irrawaddy, the polls will enable part of the military to "dress in mufti" and run for political office. Even if opposition voices are heard, they will not be able to question the very nature of the state.
But decentralization or federalism, a solution demanded by many of Burma's minority groups, is completely incompatible with the current military regime, Steinberg suggests. "Although Burmese constitutions note the protection of local cultures," Steinberg says, "rhetoric has no relation to the reality of cultural conformity so effectively required." The fact that ethnic minorities are excluded from power and have no chance of gaining any sort of representation has been confirmed by the Junta itself. Its second-in-command, Maung Aye, thinks that "Myanmar would disintegrate under federalism." Aye says that if more autonomy were granted, "the country [would] break up into pieces." He attributes the poor quality of life of the peoples in border areas not to their lack of a political voice but to the "impact caused by armed insurgents," referring to the Karen rebels.
The Karen people and armed conflict
Burma is a country of vast ethnic diversity, but three communities are particularly numerous: Shan (9%), Karen (7%) and Rakhine (4%). Other groups that could be mentioned include the Mon, Chin, Kachin, Karenni and Nagas. Most of these peoples have historically responded to Burmese oppression by taking up arms, although the Junta has recently signed peace deals with some of them. The Shan and Karen, on the other hand, are the targets of a military offensive that is harsher than ever, forcing thousands to flee to Thailand or go into exile in Western countries.
The Karen National Union (KNU), the political organization representing the principal Karen movement since 1947 faces tough times as a result of the military offensive. Its Secretary General, Padoh Mahn Sha, was killed in 2008, and in the summer of 2009 the armed wing of the KNU, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) lost most of its military bases, triggering a flood of refugees and displaced persons. During this offensive the Burmese military was supported by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Buddhist wing of the Karen movement which split after opposing the Christian leadership of the KNLA.
Although the conflict has now entered a guerrilla phase, it is still very much alive in Burmese society. A bomb attack in Karen State, eastern Burma, killed seven people in December 2009. The bombing took place during celebrations for Karen New Year and all the victims were from the Karen community. The Junta, however, blamed the KNU for the attack. The rebels rejected the accusations in a press release, claiming not to be a terrorist organization and restating their policy of not targeting civilians. The KNU maintains that the attacks were instigated by the military regime in order to "fracture the Karen community and also their relationship with other ethnic nationalities."
The issue of refugees
Large numbers of those caught up in the conflict have been forced into exile, usually after spending time in refugee camps on Burma's borders or in Thailand. Reuters recently reported that humanitarian agencies working in the camps were preparing for new waves of refugees after the elections planned this year, which will no doubt see the military exert further pressure on the rebel groups.
The Thailand-Burma Border Consortium has been working to improve conditions in the refugee camps located on the Thai-Burmese border since 1984. The organization estimates [pdf] that there are approximately 131,000 people currently living in tents along the border. The Karen represent the largest proportion, at 61%, significantly more than the Karenni (17%), Tenasserim (7%) and Mon (5%).
Staying with statistics for the time being, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which works on issues relating to displaced populations, 74,000 refugees living in Thailand emigrated to a third country in 2009. Of these, almost 80% (57,000) had come from Burma and almost all were of Karen ethnicity. The rest were predominantly Hmong from Laos, some of whom have recently been deported back to Laos by the Thai government.
The destination countries for the thousands of Karen and other refugees include the United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland and Ireland. Significant Karen communities already exist in these countries and they are destined to grow and grow unless the conflict between the Burmese army and the Karen people comes to an end.
Images: Group of refugees in a camp on the border between Burma and Thailand (Chris Lom/IOM). Map of Burma with Karen Province shown in yellow. There is a major concentration of Karens in the north and south of the province along the Thai border.