Thian Uk Thang and Saw Than Myint did not join in the celebrations last week after the National League for Democracy’s emphatic victory in the by-elections. A few days after the results, sitting on the first floor of a building in the city’s Pa Zn Duang Township, they were busy preparing for an “important” meeting. A long table was set out; mattresses were bought to make sleeping arrangements for out of town delegates; a desktop computer was on, with sheaf of papers lying around.

It was the office of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the biggest ethnic force in parliament. The party was about to host a gathering of the Nationalities Brotherhood Forum (NBF) — an alliance of five ethnic parties — to discuss elections and their future course of action.

Mistrust

Reacting to the NLD’s sweep, Mr. Myint, treasurer of the SNDP, said, “We congratulate them. It is a democratic force.”

During her campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi called for “reconciliation” with ethnic groups to bring an end to a long-standing conflict. NLD’s patron and Ms. Suu Kyi’s political advisor, U Tin Oo, had told The Hindu that they plan to work with the other smaller ethnic parties in parliament to push their agenda of reform.

Mr. Myint’s response, however, was more mixed. “We are willing to collaborate with any party that supports our agenda. But SNDP has no plans of an alliance with any Burman party. In the past 60 years, Burman parties have always lied on ethnic issues.”

But wasn’t Ms Suu Kyi, who has reached out to ethnic groups and even invited its leaders home, different? Mr. Thang, who is the secretary of the Chin National Party (CNP), chipped in, “We respect her, but we can’t trust her. After all, she is Burman too.”

Nothing perhaps illustrates the divide in Myanmar’s society than that statement. While both the military and democratic parties are predominantly Burman, many argue that a more fundamental gulf is that between the Burmans and the “nationalities” — Kachin, Chin, Shan, Rakhine, Karen, Mon, Kayah and other ethnic groups. Talk to any ethnic leader; their tone is bitter, list of grievances long, mood aggressive, and references littered with ‘betrayal’ over past events.

“In 1947, the Panglong Conference led to the creation of the Union of Burma, and that had promised us federalism with autonomy and right to secession. But they backed out. We again signed ceasefire agreements in the 90s, but they never gave us political rights,” said Mr. Thang, the Chin leader. He referred to the “cultural discrimination” where only “Burman symbols” are “national symbols”; and the “lack of any representation” in cabinet, military, bureaucracy, judiciary, media. While the Constitution of 2008 makes way for regional assemblies, ethnic leaders emphasised these were “powerless” as the chief minister is selected by the centre and state legislatures barely meet.

Oo Hla Saw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) told The Hindu, “There are gas lines being made from our province to China. Chinese and Burmans are making millions of dollars. But Rakhine people are not getting a penny.”

So what is their main demand? “Equality, real federalism, autonomy, and right to self determination,” asserted Mr. Myint, the Shan leader.

The peace agenda

To fulfill their agenda, some ethnic groups like the SNDP, the CNP and the RNDP have decided to take the parliamentary route. Others like the Karen National Union (KNU), engaged in the world’s longest running war with the Myanmar regime, have decided to finally enter ceasefire agreements and initiate talks as a result of the government’s peace initiative. On Saturday, President Thein Sein met KNU representatives in what is being considered a landmark event.

But there are still others still waging an armed rebellion — particularly the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighting in the north-eastern Kachin State. The conflict has resulted in displacement of thousands of people. Emphasising that reconciliation with ethnic groups was a key government agenda, President Sein’s chief advisor, Ko Ko Hlaing, told The Hindu, “While the government has asked for a ceasefire before political talks, the Kachins want a political settlement before ceasefire. That is not logical. Unless there is a ceasefire, there will be no trust.”

Analysts point out that resolving the ethnic issue will be Myanmar’s biggest challenge now. An overwhelmingly Burman dominant polity will resist sharing power; the demand for federalism still evokes fears of disintegration; and there is enormous diversity within the ethnic groups themselves. But as Soe Myint, editor of Mizimma, an online news and opinion site, put it, “This is a major opportunity. For the first time, the government is reaching out and even held talks outside the country. All parties realise its importance for long-term peace and democracy.”

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