05/01/2014, 00.00
MYANMAR
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For Catholic activist, Myanmar's constitution, the Rohingya and Kachin are still unfinished business

by Francis Khoo Thwe
Benedict Rogers, East Asia chief for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, looks at the situation in the Asian country a year before it holds elections. He calls for the military to pull back from Kachin territory and slams the dehumanisation of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Instead of democracy, the talk is about easing the chains of repression. The chance of constitutional amendments remains slim.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - "The Burmese government has started peace talks several times, whilst its armed forces launched attacks against Kachin" rebel outposts. Instead, "Talks are based on trust and even the military, and its generals, must be part of this process," said Benedict Rogers, East Asia chief for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

A journalist, Burma expert and human rights activist, the London native who converted to Roman Catholicism last year in Yangon cathedral, spoke to AsiaNews about Myanmar's long road towards reforms, which began when President Thein Sein took office at the helm of a partially civilian-led administration after decades of military rule.

The country faces many unresolved issues, ranging from the Rohingyas tragedy in the western state of Rakhine and the clashes with ethnic Kachin in the north on the border with China, to calls for further reform to the Constitution and greater democratisation.

If left to fester, these issues could undermine the overtures of the past two years, which saw the partial release of political prisoners, greater openness for the press and foreign NGOs, the partial removal of Western sanctions and the involvement in the country of international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

At present, there is some movement in the right direction. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) recently requested a meeting with the government, now set for 10 May, to ease tensions between the two sides after deadly clashes in the past several weeks. Similarly, the leaders of many of Myanmar's 135 or so ethnic groups met in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to jumpstart their own cease-fire talks.

"For a peace process to start" in Kachin, all "attacks must stop first," Benedict Rogers told AsiaNews. At the same time, the military "must pull back or at least reduce its troop level in ethnic areas".

As for the status of the Rohingya Muslim minority, that remains an open question. Not only are they still stateless, but they are subject to brutal persecution by Buddhist Rakhines. The situation is such that even Myanmar Vice President Sai Mauk Kham acknowledged that unrest in Rakhine State is no longer an exclusively domestic issue, but has wider ramifications and requires international assistance.

In such a case, "to deny any human being not only the nationality of the country where he was born, but also to deny him or her the identity they choose", as is the case in Myanmar's census process, "is inhuman."

The whole thing will take a long time to solve, for it is deep rooted. To that effect, the activist wants the Myanmar government to protect the minority and bring to justice those who perpetrate acts of violence against them. It must also counter hate speech and promote understanding, allow international organisations to play a role in investigating recent anti-Rohingya violence and make serious efforts at including both Rohingyas and Rakhines in dialogue and reconciliation.

Despite the daunting task, the last two years have had some "positive aspects", the CSW activist noted. "However, these do not by themselves represent democracy." Instead, "They represent simply a loosening of chains (not the removal of chains), or to put it another way, moving from a tiny cage in which the prisoner could not move, to a much larger cage in which the prisoner can walk around, [and] breathe a little more easily."

Thus, the country and its people continue to face a number of challenges and unresolved issues. The existence of political prisoners and arbitrary arrests, sectarian intolerance and violence, as well as land grabs are among those that are most likely to fuel hatred.

At the same time, for Rogers, the chances for constitutional reform to enable opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president in 2015 seem very slim.

Nonetheless, "I hope that with sustained international pressure, the sceptics could be proven wrong," the activist said. "Certainly if 2015 elections are to have any legitimacy, the constitution must be reformed."

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