[lg policy] Myanmar’s new govt unveils strategy for peace with ethnic groups

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Apr 1 15:13:33 UTC 2016

Myanmar’s new govt unveils strategy for peace with ethnic groups
John Draper, Peerasit Kamnuansilpa
Special to The Nation April 1, 2016 1:00 am
Myanmar’s incoming civilian government this month announced plans to
introduce a Ministry for Ethnic Affairs. The creation of this ministry,
together with the appointment of a Christian vice-president for this
Buddhist-majority country, seems calculated to reduce the number and
severity of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. It coincides with a major and
related Unicef-backed initiative to create a Myanmar National Language
Policy (NLP). Aung San Suu Kyi
<http://www.nationmultimedia.com/search/?keyword=+Suu+Kyi>'s National
League for Democracy won power in November's elections at the expense of a
slew of not just junta but also ethnic minority regional candidates. The
NLD is well aware of this and also of the history of armed conflict between
the Myanmar state and ethnic minorities desiring more autonomy, such as the
Karen. Hence its moves to focus on ethnic affairs.

The response to the planned new ministry has so far been generally
favourable, with Upper House lawmaker Je Yaw Wu, from Kachin state and
representing the National Unity Party, coming out in favour on the grounds
it is crucial for national reconciliation and addresses the historical
lobbying of ethnic lawmakers. Meanwhile, only the most extreme of Myanmar's
ultranationalists have opposed the appointment of the ethnic Chin Henry Van
Thio to the vice-presidency, with the Buddhist monk-led Patriotic
Association of Myanmar not protesting the move.

Crucial to the success of an Ethnic Affairs Ministry are likely to be
activities supportive of a plural, federal structure, such as those of the
task force responsible for the Unicef-backed language policy, which
includes a foreign academic as facilitator together with the Myanmar Civil
Society Strengthening Programme (Pyoe Pin); the Nyein (Shalom) Foundation,
a civil peace-building movement; and the Thabyay Education Foundation. This
advocacy coalition is engaged in dialogue with parliamentarians, Education
Ministry officials, and many language and culture committees associated
with diverse ethnic groups.

Since 2014, the task force has been operating to develop the Myanmar NLP in
close cooperation with the Education Ministry under Unicef's "Language,
Education and Social Cohesion" initiative. Core legislation to support the
initiative includes the Comprehensive Education Sector Review to transform
Myanmar's education system, announced in 2013, the 2015 version of the
National Education Law, and a 2015 Ethnic Rights Law. Together these
provide a nurturing framework for using education and the mother tongue in
peace-building in Myanmar.

The Myanmar NLP initiative is a pragmatic attempt to address years of
unresolved questions. It focuses on the national and official language,
international languages and ethnic minority languages, seeking a secure
role for each. While a key aim is to contribute to peace and guarantee the
language rights of all groups, it also fosters national communication,
international economic and diplomatic links, improved standards of
literacy, and equity for communication-disabled children such as the deaf
and visually impaired. This broad focus has widespread appeal and shows
that a language policy can be created to meet international obligations,
promote the national language as a cohesive factor, overcoming decades of
conflict linked to language and culture differences. This appeals to a wide
range of interests including those concerned with economic and education
development and subsequently enhanced life choices for all Myanmar's

The initiative is labour intensive and oriented towards building peace
through dialogue between erstwhile enemies. It has involved 20 facilitated
dialogues nationwide, together with several subsidiary research projects,
multiple direct consultations and site visits, interviews, observations and
professional training workshops. Myanmar also held the Mandalay Conference
in February, bringing together hundreds of delegates to present papers,
participate, and consider the NLP initiative's consultation, dialogue and
specialist input phases.

One of the main outputs of the Mandalay conference will be the first draft
of the National Language Policy, which will consist of principles, policy
aims, and implementations plans targeted at the township level, which will
require approval from the Ethnic Affairs Ministry as well as other
government ministries and agencies. The draft is due to be published later
this year, followed by further consultation and dialogue phases, with the
NLP being developed along with bottom-up state policies in Kayin, Mon and
Kachin states. The end result may be a flagship piece of legislation for
the new Ethnic Affairs Ministry. It may also facilitate moves towards
establishing Myanmar as a genuine federal union complete with revenue
sharing along ethnic lines, as first demanded by the country's ethnic
minorities in 1948 when the country won its independence.

The transition to a civilian, democratic government which is determined to
resolve ethnic differences under President Htin Kyaw was recently welcomed
by the Shan State-based Ta'ang National Liberation Army, which is still in
conflict with the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, and with other armed
ethnic-based groups, such as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army
and the Arakan Army.

These groups see grounds for hope in the fact that Suu Kyi
<http://www.nationmultimedia.com/search/?keyword=+Suu+Kyi> and the NLD are
directly targeting the core reasons behind decades of conflict within
Myanmar by seeking to engage with the country's ethnic minorities and
promoting factors necessary for national socio-political cohesion -
linguistic, cultural and educational human rights. While the previous
government did recognise the plurality of ethnic races that exist in
Myanmar - 135 according to a 1988 ruling - the Tatmadaw frequently embraced
military rather than peace-building resolutions to Myanmar's internal
conflicts. Moreover, the focus on an NLP via the Mandalay Conference
presents a clear breakthrough. According to Bertrand Bainvel, Unicef
representative to Myanmar, "In countries like Myanmar, promoting and
managing the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, languages and religions,
needs thoughtful consideration to society, with the question of education
and language policy at its core."

In recognising the centrality of ethnic affairs to socio-political
stability, the incoming Myanmar government is wisely following a path
already trodden by some of its Asean
<http://www.nationmultimedia.com/search/?keyword=+Asean+>neighbours, such
as the Philippines and Singapore. It is also setting an example for other
Asean <http://www.nationmultimedia.com/search/?keyword=+Asean+>countries,
such as Thailand, which is yet to address these underlying causes of
conflict despite two years of military government-mandated "reconciliation".

*JOHN DRAPER is an analyst and lecturer at the College of Local
Administration, Khon Kaen University.*

*PEERASIT KAMNUANSILPA, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of
Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.*
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