Summary: Myanmar entered 2013 with a lot of hope on aspects related to political reconciliation and conflict resolution. However, the problem of internally displaced people and the exodus of Rohingyas due to ethnic strife in the sensitive Rakhine state, has taken a different dimension altogether. More than 13,000 Rohingya people took to the high seas using rickety boats in order to find a safe haven in neighbouring countries in 2013. Of these, more than 500 have lost their lives due to starvation and dehydration in the two-month journey – raising alarm bells at the United Nations (UN). On the economic front, MPs of various opposition parties have severely criticised a recent draft budget that allocates more than one-fifth of the total monetary share towards defence spending. On the positive side, the government held a meeting with a conglomeration of rebel groups in North Myanmar and not only discussed plans to chart out a framework of political dialogue, but also discussed mechanisms of distributing developmental funds in the impoverished ethnic regions. Finally, the US and Myanmar has agreed to resume joint efforts to fight illicit drug trade from the world’s second largest producer of illegal opium after Afghanistan.
Government-rebels reconciliation talks
As the process of Myanmar’s reengagement with the world intensifies, the government is seriously attempting to resolve conflicts with different ethnic factions. Minister of the President’s Office Aung Min and other officials met rebels in the northern city of Chiang Mai for peace talks with the leader of opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, offering help in negotiating an end to the ethnic conflict in the country. Representing different ethnic groups was the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) that includes members of the Kachin rebels among a dozen other minority groups. The long Insurgency in the northern Kachin state has been most lethal and complicated for the government to deal with. Terming the talks as “frank and friendly”, rebel leaders stated that the UNFC and the Myanmar government have agreed to map out a framework and timeline for the political dialogue. The two sides have also agreed to meet for another round of discussions within the next two months. Reflecting the seriousness with which the government and the rebels are taking the conflict resolution, the talks have been welcomed and encouraged widely by the international community. The two sides, for the first time, also discussed how local and international aid projects could be implemented in the country’s impoverished ethnic regions. The projects would focus on humanitarian aid, development of agriculture, livestock and fisheries in ethnic regions, as well as implementation of health and education programs for minorities. The developmental project, if implemented properly, could bring much needed development and relief to the war-torn and isolated ethnic regions.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has reached tentative ceasefires with a number of ethnic rebel groups since taking power in early 2011. But several rounds of talks with the Kachin rebels have failed to reach a breakthrough. Not so surprisingly, there have been reports indicating that Kachin officials have been quietly critical of the meeting, dismissing it as a mere meet-and-greet situation – so much so that they haven’t sent any senior representatives from Kachin State. The government held fresh talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in China earlier in February, with both sides agreeing to try to reduce military tensions and continue dialogue. The Kachin who are fighting for greater autonomy, however, have been demanding more political rights if the negotiations are to move forward. There has been a massive displacement of people from the Kachin state since June 2011 when the fragile 17-year ceasefire between the KIO’s armed wing and the Myanmar government broke down. With tensions escalating from December 2012 to the extent that the government used air strikes against the KIO rebels, any consolidated peace map looks like a distant possibility. Although the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in January following the air strikes, the KIO have accused the military of violating it.
UN urges action to prevent boatpeople tragedy in Bay of Bengal
Serious concerns have been raised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) about the growing number of deaths of Rohingya people of Myanmar’s Rakhine state who set out on boats to other countries in search of safety and better lives. The refugee agency raised the alarm and called on regional governments to do more to prevent further tragedy on the high seas. Several thousand people are believed to have boarded smugglers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal since the beginning of the year. Mostly men, there have been reports of women and children also being ferried out of Myanmar on rickety boats. According to the UN refugee agency, more than 13,000 people took the high seas of which about 500 people have already lost their lives, due to breaking down of boats, capsizing, or to health related problems. In a recent incident this month, about 90 Rohingya people died of dehydration and starvation during a journey that lasted almost two months. More than 30 survivors were rescued off Sri Lanka’s east coast. Earlier in February, around 130 people originating from Myanmar and Bangladesh were also rescued at sea by the Sri Lankan navy. UNHCR is seeking independent access to the survivors to assess their situation and needs.
Ethnic violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state has been going on from June 2012 between different communities. Some 115,000 people, the majority of whom are Rohingya, have since been uprooted. Most continue to be internally displaced within the Rakhine state, while others, as described above have resorted to smugglers to help them flee their country. About 1,700 people have arrived in recent months on the southern coast of Thailand, where the government has granted them six months temporary protection until solutions can be found. In order to assess their situation the UNHCR teams are talking to the men, who are held in detention facilities, and to the women and children who are in government-run shelters. Furthermore, an estimated 1,800 people have arrived in Malaysia since the start of the year. The tragedies demonstrate the need for a coordinated regional response to distress and rescue at sea. UN has facilitating discussions between interested governments and international organisations, at a regional meeting on irregular movements by sea, that will be held in Jakarta in March.
Massive military budget criticised by MPs
Myanmar’s opposition lawmakers have expressed dissatisfaction with a proposed budget worth US$ 1 billion for the military in the coming fiscal year, and have criticised the lack of transparency in military spending. The government had submitted a draft budget to the Parliament earlier this month that gave the military a lion’s share of public funds – granting its more than one-fifth of the total budget. According to some MPs, the massive defence spending continues to impose an enormous economic burden on the country and prevents it from tackling other important issues such as poverty alleviation, education, healthcare, and other basic indicators of development. Adding on to the concern is the lack of transparency in the way the armed forces use this money. The proposed budget allocates just 4.4 per cent of government funds to education and 3.9 per cent to healthcare.
The military junta that handed over power to the current government in 2011 spent significantly less than this on public welfare, while routinely awarding itself 40 to 60 per cent of the national budget. Lower House MP Daw Dwebu, from the Unity and Democracy Party (UDP) of the Kachin State, approached the Defence Ministry to ask for details of how it plans to use the money. The response was far from clear as the military brass tried to justify the budgetary allocation in the name of building a modern Tatmadaw (armed forces) – without explaining how exactly the money will be distributed. Nai Banyar Aung Moe, a Lower House MP from the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, was reported to have said that the demand for excessive defense spending shows that Myanmar is still largely in the clutches of military rule that lasted for decades. Interestingly, there has been a conspicuous silence on this issue from the leader of opposition Aung San Suu Kyi – a fact that has been missed on other MPs.
Myanmar, US to cooperate in fighting narcotics smuggling
In another positive development, the US and Myanmar signed an agreement to resume cooperation in fighting narcotics after a gap of nearly nine years – the last joint survey on opium was held in 2004. The two sides agreed to restart joint opium poppy yield surveys early this year and cooperate in counter-narcotics training. Expressing his pleasure on the collaboration, US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell called the Agreement another step forward in US-Myanmar relations. The survey on poppy yields would provide better information about poppy cultivation and production in the country and help counter-narcotics efforts tremendously. According to the UN, Myanmar is world’s second-largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, accounting for about 25 per cent of global poppy production. It has traditionally been considered a part of the Golden Triangle that includes Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. US aid for Myanmar’s anti-drug efforts has been limited since the military took power in 1988. However, relations between Myanmar and the US have improved dramatically since retired Gen. Thein Sein took office as president in March 2011 and instituted a range of political and economic reforms.