News / Asia

Post-Election VIolence in Burma Prompts Fears of Wider Crackdown on Minorities

Burmese citizens cross the Moei river as they flee Myawaddy township in Burma's  to Thailand's Mae Sot town, 08 Nove. 2010, following fighting between Burmese soldiers and ethnic Karen fighters.
Burmese citizens cross the Moei river as they flee Myawaddy township in Burma's to Thailand's Mae Sot town, 08 Nove. 2010, following fighting between Burmese soldiers and ethnic Karen fighters.

A day after national elections in Burma, fighting between ethnic Karen forces and Burmese troops is raising fears for a wider government crackdown on minority communities.

It is not clear what started the fighting between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA] and the Burmese army in the town of Myawaddy. But on Monday, 24 hours after the battle started, thousands of people had fled across the border, to the Thai city of Mae Sot.

Achin Sopagya, a resident of Mae Sot, said there were casualties, including two taxi drivers in Myawaddy near the offices of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP].

"Seven people got hurt and I confirm that I heard that in front of the USDP office, two trishaw drivers also died immediately," Achin Sopagya said. "I think because of this so many people escape and I think there is too much tension."

Several ethnic armies have been fighting in Burma for decades for autonomy. Burma's army has been accused of atrocities and human rights violations during campaigns against the militias, while some of the ethnic forces are accused of drug trafficking and smuggling.

Over the past 15 years, some minority groups signed ceasefires with the government, and several took part in Sunday's elections - the first in 20 years. But others remain defiant, in part, because of the government's demand they join the national border guard service.

Human rights activists and militia contacts say recently six ethnic armies agreed to cooperate because of fears of an assault by Burmese forces. Together they command about 60,000 troops.

Khin Zaw Wyn, an independent consultant and author in Rangoon, told foreign journalists in a telephone link up the tensions show Burma's failure to draw ethnic groups into a wider political framework.

"Most worries are the ethnic armed organizations and my feeling is that the whole issue is now being shunted to the next parliament," Khin Zaw Wyn said. "The present regime has shown very clearly that it is unwilling or incapable of solving it you see. So we need able hands and hearts … to bring about genuine and durable settlement."

Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, says the fighting in Myawaddy raises fears of escalating violence.

"Now we've been hearing about the increase of the troops of military regime along the border and preparation of the ethnic groups to protect their rights and preparation of forming alliances," he said. " The consensus is that there will be ongoing conflict between the ethnic groups and the military regime."

Although Burma's government has not said when the election results will be announced, it is certain that people allied with the military will dominate the parliament.

The constitution, adopted last year, allocates 25 percent of the seats to the military, and the two largest parties in the election had military backing. Tough election laws made it difficult for opposition candidates to run, or to get their message out.

Some regional political analysts say the vote may gradually open the government up to new voices and new ways of thinking that could lead to political reform after nearly 50 years of military rule.

Debbie Stothard, the spokeswoman for the Alternate ASEAN Network on Burma, holds no such hope.

"The question now lies in what's going to happen in a post-election scenario," she said. "It's very obvious to us that there's going to be more war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place because the constitution actually legitimizes it, impunity. There's going to be even more constraints on political activities.

Burma's military government says the election is part of its plan to return the country to civilian rule. But the army says it must retain a significant role in the government to be able to prevent ethnic militias from trying to split the nation.

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