Buf­feted by war, Myan­mar eth­nic groups crave peace


Af­ter a life turned up­side down by con­flict, Htan Wang craves peace and se­cu­rity in her Kachin home­land more than any demo­cratic div­i­dend promised by next month’s Myan­mar elec­tion.

Kachin is one of sev­eral bor­der­lands where armed eth­nic groups have spo­rad­i­cally fought the cen­tral gov­ern­ment for nearly 70 years, in the world’s long­est run­ning civil war.

Now 64, the frail grand­mother-of-eight says she was cap­tured by gov­ern­ment troops in 2011 as war swept into her vil­lage af­ter the col­lapse of a long-stand­ing cease-fire be­tween the army and eth­nic Kachin fight­ers.

She re­calls the terror of be­ing caught in a days-long fire­fight af­ter be­ing forced to guide sol­diers through her vil­lage.

“I be­came a part of the war even though I was not hold­ing a gun,” she told AFP, de­scrib­ing how she later es­caped to be re­united with her fam­ily at a dis­place­ment camp near state cap­i­tal My­itky­ina.

Elec­tions on Nov. 8 are be­ing billed as the freest in decades in a coun­try ruled by a junta for much of its history since in­de­pen­dence.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties are promis­ing de­vel­op­ment and greater de­volved power as they try to tap up vot­ers like Htan Wang from eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups who com­prise around a third of the coun­try’s 51 mil­lion peo­ple.

‘Life filled with gun­fire’

Their task in war-weary Kachin mighty one.

At the St. Joseph Maina dis­place­ment

is a camp, of­fi­cials say only around half of those 650 el­i­gi­ble have reg­is­tered to vote as the fine-points of demo­cratic de­bate are over­shad­owed by the more press­ing needs of sur­viv­ing war.

Htan Wang, one of more than 100,000 Kachin civil­ians to have fled their homes over the last four years, has reg­is­tered to vote but is still un­de­cided about which party to choose. Yet she is op­ti­mistic the polls will bring change.

“I think there will be peace af­ter the elec­tion ... How can we go on if life is filled with gun­fire?”

Last week­end op­po­si­tion leader Aung San Suu Kyi vis­ited Kachin, weav­ing around bat­tle zones to con­vince lo­cals the Na­tional League for Democ­racy ( NLD) can de­liver peace and fed­er­al­ism to eth­nic vot­ers.

Wear­ing tra­di­tional Kachin clothes at a rally near My­itky­ina, Suu Kyi in­sisted her party rep­re­sents “the whole union,” or an um­brella force over the eth­ni­cally di­verse na­tion.

She is of­ten seen as an out­sider in eth­nic re­gions as she comes from the eth­nic Ba­mar ma­jor­ity and has also been ac­cused of fail­ing to speak out against con­flict in Kachin.

But Myan­mar’s most fa­mous politi­cian still at­tracts flag-wav­ing crowds.

“If mother Suu wins and can then sign a deal with eth­nic groups, thing will be bet­ter for us. We are hop­ing for it,” said eth­nic Kachin Naing Linn the NLD rally.

The NLD is up against four newly minted Kachin par­ties as well as the rul­ing army­backed Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment party.

‘Real peace, not fake’

Myan­mar’s more than 130 eth­nic mi­nori­ties are mainly clus­tered in a horse- shoe of rugged bor­der­lands with dis­tinct lan­guages and cul­tures.

They have fought for greater po­lit­i­cal au­ton­omy since in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tish rule in 1948 and com­plain of se­ri­ous abuses by a mil­i­tary which has used the con­flict as a pre­text for cling­ing to power.

Around two thirds of the more than 90 par­ties reg­is­tered in the elec­tions rep­re­sent mi­nori­ties, ac­cord­ing to the in­ter­na­tional ad­vo­cacy group Transna­tional In­sti­tute.

In Shan state, which neigh­bors Kachin, and western Rakhine, lo­cal par­ties have built sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ings likely to chal­lenge the NLD.

But their suc­cess could still be hin­dered by fight­ing, which con­tin­ues in Shan states and Kachin’s rugged hills de­spite gov­ern­ment ef­forts to seal a na­tion­wide cease-fire.

“If there is no se­cu­rity the elec­tion can­not be held suc­cess­fully,” said Manam Tu Ja, a for­mer deputy leader of the po­lit­i­cal wing of the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army, which has re­fused to sign the deal.

Peace, say lo­cals, must also bring po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment to a state whose trea­sure trove of nat­u­ral re­sources, in­clud­ing tim­ber and jade, are an im­pe­tus for war and an im­ped­i­ment to halt­ing it.

Civil­ians bit­terly re­call a pre­vi­ous 17-year-cease-fire that un­rav­eled.

Then, the KIA col­luded with the army in ram­pant log­ging and min­ing, en­rich­ing com­man­ders but leav­ing or­di­nary peo­ple im­pov­er­ished, said Tom Kramer from Transna­tional In­sti­tute. “They want it (peace) real, they don’t want it fake,” he said.

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