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Myanmar’s Ethnic Powder Keg

PRAGUE – Two years have passed since Myanmar (Burma) held its first general election after more than two decades of military dictatorship. The popular vote was hailed as an important step in the country’s transition from military to civilian rule, and the economy has made impressive strides under President Thein Sein’s civilian government. But, if the country cannot resolve its long-running ethnic conflicts, all of this progress could be undone.

Troubled relations between Burma’s government and its ethnic minorities constitute a serious obstacle in the country’s path to stability and prosperity. Indeed, Burma’s recent history has been plagued by ethnic violence and protracted conflicts with government forces, particularly in Karen, Shan, and Kachin states.

Many of Burma’s ethnic minorities – whose members comprise almost 40% of the population – have long been subjected to persecution and mistreatment. As a result, they often harbor anger and resentment toward the government, with some even taking up arms in resistance. There is a real danger that opponents of Burma’s transition could exploit these tensions, fueling ethnic conflict in order to derail reform efforts.

While Sein has signed cease-fires with ten ethnic armies since becoming President, more durable settlements are needed to ensure lasting peace. And two particularly violent, long-standing ethnic conflicts remain far from any resolution at all.