Myanmar (also called Burma) is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Asia. Since independence from Great Britain in 1948, it has also been one of the most strife-torn. For the past seven decades, armed conflicts have continued in many parts of the country that are yet to reach a peaceful conclusion. In recent years, the main struggles have been concentrated in the ethnic borderlands that surround the central Irrawaddy plains. Since 2012, too, a new ceasefire process has been in place between the government and a diversity of ethnic nationality forces. Progress, however, has been slow and, for the moment, there has been no breakthrough moment of change.

Displaced villagers from Karen

The costs to the country and its peoples are incalculable.

Over the years, many communities have suffered devastating consequences. Politics have become deeply militarised, many families live in poverty, and the country has the highest incidence of malaria, HIV and TB in the sub-Asian region. Myanmar currently stands below Bangladesh and Cambodia at 145th out of 176 countries in the UN Human Development Index, and fewer than one in five young people finish high school. Damagingly, too, Myanmar is also the second largest source of illicit opium in the world after Afghanistan. Drug addiction is rife in a trade that has long flourished to the backdrop of conflict.

Since the government of President Thein Sein took office in 2011, there have been new initiatives to bring peace and reform to the country, but the legacies of conflict remain. Ceasefires have been agreed in Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan territories in the Thailand borderlands, but there are still over 100,000 refugees (mostly Karen and Karenni) in official camps in Thailand, where over two million people from Myanmar are estimated to be working legally or illegally in the economy. Many villagers also remain internally displaced in the hills.

Villagers from North Rakhine

Meanwhile new sufferings and displacement are occurring in other parts of the country. Since 2011, over 100,000 civilians – mostly Kachin, Kokang, Shan and Ta’ang – have been displaced from their homes after ceasefires broke down in the Kachin and northern Shan States. Most recently, over 700,000 Muslim refugees, a majority of whom identify as Rohingya, have fled from the Rakhine State into Bangladesh in scenes that have shocked the world. Myanmar is not a land at peace.

For the moment, there appear to be no quick or easy answers to the country’s socio-political challenges. Ethnic minorities constitute an estimated third of the 53 million population and inhabit all the borderland territories with neighbouring countries. Since independence, political conflicts have also continued among the Burman-majority people as well. Following a 1962 coup, the country was under military rule for a quarter of a century as the national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, sought to impose central control. Student-led protests in 1988 revived the struggle for democracy. Military government, however, was to continue for another two decades. Many democracy supporters were held in detention and the universities spent long years closed.

Despite this impasse, the desire for peace and democracy has remained strong. This determination to see peaceful change continues today. Hopes reached a high-point in 2016 when the new National League for Democracy government, headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, initiated a 21st “Panglong Century Conference”. This is a symbol for inter-ethnic unity that all the country’s peoples can relate to. It was at the historic Panglong meeting in 1947 that the principles were agreed for ethnic equality upon which the modern Union of Burma was founded.

During the past year, however, political progress has been faltering. Not all ethnic parties have been included in the Panglong process, military operations are continuing in several parts of the country, and reform has yet to begin of the 2008 constitution that reserves considerable powers for the Tatmadaw. In many communities, grievances have also been growing over land-grabbing and the exploitation of such natural resources as timber, jade and gold. Myanmar’s natural resource potential could be a considerable boon in supporting economic change. But the perception is widespread that local peoples are not benefiting during a time of supposed national peace-building.

Hope is not lost. In many respects, the current crises facing the country’s peoples are long-standing challenges that have always needed to be addressed. Optimism can still be found in the energy of a younger generation of citizens who are seeking new ways to support national reconciliation, raise living standards, and provide humanitarian outreach to the most vulnerable and needy.

During the past six years, new health and education networks have been spreading in the country, and organisations such as Prospect Burma now have offices on the ground. Against this background, research and understanding have been increasing on many long-neglected issues, independent media are emerging, and community-based activism is coming back to life. Compared to earlier decades, these mark important steps forward in the struggle for peace and democracy.

There is no room for complacency, however. As communities seek to recover from decades of conflict, there are still many parts of the country where different nationality peoples are yet to enjoy peace. Myanmar’s conflict crises have always been political at root. At present, initiatives for national reconciliation are continuing on two paths: ‘parliamentary’ and ‘ethnic ceasefire’. But until they are brought together, inequalities and a lack of political inclusion will continue.

In the meantime, Prospect Burma will continue to support education and programmes for national reconciliation and socio-economic progress that we believe are the building-blocks of peaceful change. The present challenges cannot be underestimated, and it is vital that outreach and opportunity are provided to all of the country’s peoples equally. Ethnic conflict is integral to the failures of the post-colonial state.