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As Burma Opens, Its Minorities Seek Rights, Independence

Good news from Burma: the ethnic Mon minority rallied on Tuesday without any of the violent pushback from the central authorities that characterized similar expressions of democracy in the old days. The Irawaddy magazine reports:

Thousands of ethnic Mon from southeastern Burma celebrated the 66th Mon National Day on Tuesday with traditional Mon ceremonies, entertainment and military-style marches. At the event, Mon leaders again called on the government to recognize their rights and political demands. […]

“We need to fight for our freedom. There is civil war in Burma because there are no equal rights in the country,” said Nai Tin Aung, chairman of the Mon Democracy Party.

Like many other minorities in Burma, the Mon want political autonomy within a federal structure and amendments to the 2008 Constitution so that it better protects their rights.

But just because this rally went off peacefully doesn’t mean all of Burma’s minorities are enjoying the full benefits of the country’s “opening.” The Mon people join other minorities in the quest for autonomy and civil rights, a quest that has frequently turned violent. Last year riots in the western state of Rakhine, home to the long-oppressed Rohingya people, killed dozens and left many hundreds more homeless. In the north, the world’s longest running insurgency, which pits the ethnic Kachin separatists against government forces, continues unabated. The Chin, another minority that signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, are also beating the autonomy drums: “While we Chins have a ceasefire agreement and are preparing for political dialogue, the government broke its promise with the Kachins [rebels] and they fight again—so we have a lesson. We cannot fully trust the government until we see that their words match their actions,” said Thang Nang Lian Thang, a Chin political leader.

Managing the transition for large minorities from repression to equality will be a major test for Burma’s leaders. The fate of many of these minorities impacts neighboring countries: the Rohingya are often considered by Burmese as illegal Bangladeshi migrants, for example, and Kachin fighters operate on the Chinese border, where drugs and weapons proliferate. It’s in the interest of these neighbors—and the US—that Burma stays democratic, but “opening” does not immediately lead to widespread peace and rights and equality for all. This process will take time and could turn bloody along the way.

[Image: Shutterstock]

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