Understanding the role of ethnic minority political opponents and activists in Myanmar prompts a rethinking of the human rights situation in the country and the appropriate strategy for improving it. First, the analysis should acknowledge the wide extent of popular opposition to the Myanmar government, and emphasize the need to ensure that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, and other political opposition groups--including those founded by ethnic minorities--are able to participate meaningfully in the coming elections. As illustrated in this report, among the government's political opponents are ethnic minorities who perform similar work, and toward similar aims, as their ethnic majority Burman counterparts in the country's urban centres and central regions. Second, it should expand the international community's understanding of the aspirations of Myanmar's ethnic minorities beyond the oft-cited context of armed groups, and refocus international attention on ensuring that the needs of Myanmar's ethnic minorities are included in any discussion of the country's human rights situation and any resolutions thereof.
The elections again highlight the challenge that has confronted--and confounded--every government since independence more than 60 years ago: ensuring the assent, or at least compliance, of Myanmar's ethnic minorities. For most of the last six decades, Myanmar's authoritarian rulers have used a combination of force and negotiation to this end, with the balance firmly on the former rather than on any political or economic incentives. In the context of the upcoming elections, the government has alternately encouraged and warned ethnic minority political organizations to take part, with most remaining undecided or noncommittal.5 Myanmar's government is struggling to ensure that those represented by armed groups still fighting with the army are either defeated or "brought back into the legal fold" before the elections.6 The army and its allies have waged concerted offensives against several armed groups (and civilians), from the Karen, Shan, and Kokang ethnic minorities.7 As a result nearly 5,000 Karen, 10,000 Shan, and over 30,000 Kokang were displaced during 2009 and the Kokang's armed militia, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA)8, was defeated.9
The offensive against the MNDAA is significant in the context of the Myanmar government's newest strategy of converting the existing armed ethnic groups that have signed ceasefire agreements into Border Guard Forces (BGF) under tatmadawcommand, in exchange for pay, perks, and official legal status. Nine groups have agreed, while six have refused. The Kokang had not agreed. The elections will further clarify whether the aspirations of Myanmar's ethnic minorities will be represented by armed insurrection or through political action.