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World must not forget Myanmar's ethnic minorities

Largely unnoticed by outsiders, junta is brutalizing people at the rural edge

| Myanmar
Escaping Karen villagers, pictured on Mar.28: more than 10,000 members of the ethnic minority have been driven from their villages.   © Karen Teacher Working Group/Reuters

Denis D. Gray is a former Associated Press correspondent. He has reported on Myanmar's ethnic minorities since the 1970s.

The world's attention has been focused on atrocities taking place in Myanmar's central heartland: the towns, cities and villages largely populated by the ethnic Burman majority, where pro-democracy demonstrators, enraged by the Feb. 1 coup, are being gunned down by the junta's forces.

But on the country's edge, ethnic minorities making up about 40% of the population are also being brutalized. The new push by Myanmar's military to target ethnic rural areas has opened up a dangerous front in the junta's bid to "pacify" the population, which has soundly rejected the power grab by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 10,000 members of the Karen ethnic minority have been driven from their villages, mainly in Karen state, as troops burned their homes and crops, torturing and killing some residents. Elsewhere, in a now well-worn template, the junta's forces have mounted sweeps to confiscate land, establish military bases and pilfer resources in ethnic areas, mainly located in the hilly north and east and on the western coastline.

All this violence -- dramatically televised when it occurs in city streets but less graphically reported from the distant hills -- arises from twin tragedies that must both be resolved before the country can emerge from more than six decades of violence and oppression and entrench equitable, democratic rule.

The first involves the struggle between mostly urban Burman pro-democracy forces and the military, which has held the country in an iron grip almost continuously since 1962. The second pits an array of ethnic minority insurgencies against the institutional dominance of the Burman majority. Since Myanmar's independence from the U.K. in 1948, these groups, which have sustained a far greater number of deaths and endured more prolonged suffering than the Burman democracy activists, have sought autonomy or independence.

Among the Karen, Shan, Karenni, Kachin and other minorities, fear of the military has been a daily staple of life for decades. Soldiers have burned families alive, gang-raped women, killed children and drafted men to act as slave-like porters. According to the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, in the last five years up to 10,000 have died, with hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes.

This has been carefully documented by foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations, but with little impact. Difficulty of access has made it hard to capture the kind of images that shake the world's conscience, and the situation is complex and confusing for outsiders.

Rather than attention-grabbing events such as those unfolding in the pro-democracy protests, the war against the minorities has been a slow, grinding affair -- a village burned here, a dozen young men killed there, a relentless repetition of violence largely unseen by the outside world. The insurgents have never achieved either success in negotiations with the government or decisive victories on the battlefields.

Soldiers of Shan State Army take part in the drill in their base near the village of Loi Tai Leng in February 2010.   © Reuters

"There is a feeling of solidarity between the ethnics and the [largely Burman] people in the plains. But they are limited in how much they can do, since they cannot protect their own people in the mountains," said David Eubank, whose organization, the Free Burma Rangers, has provided humanitarian aid to minorities for the past 25 years.

Some young democracy demonstrators have said they now realize how much the ethnic minorities have suffered as the military unleashes comparable violence against them. But such sentiments may not be widespread. The ethnic groups themselves have been unable to forge a true alliance, bedeviled as they are by diverse histories and goals and mutual suspicions.

Also present is a deeply racist, xenophobic streak among Burmans, most evident when many cheered as the military carried out a murderous campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine in 2017. According to the U.N., more than 860,000 Rohingya were driven out of the country in a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," joining 300,000 who had fled earlier to neighboring Bangladesh.

Attempts at national reconciliation proved mostly fruitless during the nearly five years when the country was governed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader deposed in February's coup. Some cease-fires were agreed on with insurgent groups, but turned out to be precarious. After the coup, 10 of these groups collectively refused to recognize the junta. Peace talks are dead in the water.

Seismic and unexpected changes do occur in geopolitics, such as the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the triumph of democracy in Indonesia. In Myanmar, it is possible that the military may split, with a powerful faction joining the pro-democracy movement. The junta's most potent backer, China, may decide that its long-term interests lie in cutting ties with the generals. Perhaps this time around, the international community will impose a sustained squeeze on the regime.

But if Myanmar's history since 1962 is a reliable guide, the world will again fail to prevent the country from plunging into more dark years of military rule. Should the junta prevail, the number of ethnic insurgencies will surely escalate. The end to Myanmar's twin tragedies seems nowhere in sight.

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