Aung San Suu Kyi's most difficult task is to unite all the Burmese peoples

If Burma is ever to prosper in peace, its races and tribes need to be stitched together – Ms Suu Kyi is the only hope

The brutal three-sided fight in Burma’s northern Shan State, involving two ethnic militias as well as the national army, the Tatmadaw, underlines the vast challenges confronting the National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi, that will take power at the beginning of April.

One of the main achievements of the outgoing government of President Thein Sein was the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) last October. But its impact was lessened by a nasty and well-resourced war that is still in progress between the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese minority in Shan State, and the Burmese army; and between the Kachin people and government forces further to the north. I’ve been told there were some 400 separate ethnic militias dotted around the country which were outside the remit of the NCA. 

The Ta’ang, the principal victims in the present dispute, are one of the many dozens of ethnic minorities who have never settled their differences with the Burmese state. Related to the Mon, the earliest inhabitants of Burma, and the Khmer of Cambodia, they are Theravada Buddhists, but cherish their linguistic and cultural differences. And they were not signatories to the NCA – which may explain why serious hostilities have opened up between them and the Shan forces. 

Senior figures from Ms Suu Kyi’s party endorsed the NCA and ethnic peace must be the new government’s top priority. Given its solid majority in parliament, the NLD government will want to chart its own course; working closely with the army will be abhorrent to a party that suffered so much at the military regime’s hands. But it has no alternative: the army continues to control all the relevant ministries: home, defence and border affairs.  

The choices are stark: instant stalemate, or wary progress. If Burma is ever to prosper in peace, its races and tribes need to be stitched together, protecting and enhancing the rights of the minorities without sacrificing the integrity of the whole. Ms Suu Kyi, who obtained broad support from ethnic minorities  and the majority population in November’s election, is the only person with a hope of succeeding in this epic task. She will need all the help, in expertise, encouragement and money, that the international community can give her.

‘The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom’, by Peter Popham, is published by Rider

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