07/15/2016, 17.45
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Ministry for Ethnic Affairs brings hope for peace to Myanmar’s minorities

For decades, the country’s minorities have been victims of persecution and violence, after unfulfilled promises of federalism and autonomy. The new NLD-led government is set to start plans for “peace, development and sustainability”. Doubts remain however about minorities’ effective participation in the peace process.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Since independence in 1948, when they were not ignored, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities were persecuted by the country’s military rulers and its semi-civilian governments; at least until last November.

With the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in last year’s elections, Myanmar’s minorities can now have some hope. As ministry devoted to minority affairs has been set up within the new NLD-led administration.

However, for critics and sceptics, there is still very little that is concrete, and nothing to show how it will shape government policy.

Since the Panglong Conference of February 1947, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have been waiting for a system that would give them equality with the country’s ethnic Bamar majority whilst ensuring their integration into the nation.

So far, this has yet to come; pledges of federalism and autonomy never materialised. Power remained centralised, held by ethnic Bamar. In many minority areas, tensions turned into conflict, and in some cases, outright civil war.

This is why the NLD, during the election campaign, insisted on the peace process in these areas, which allowed it to show a strong performance among minorities at the ballot box.

After the election, the new administration decided to create a Union-level Ministry of Ethnic Affairs under the National Race Protection Law adopted by parliament in February.

"A Ministry of Ethnic Affairs is of vital importance for the future of the Union, which needs peace, development and sustainability," Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw told lawmakers a few days before the NLD government assumed power in late March.

Still, several ethnic minority leaders have raised concerns that the ministry’s ability to contribute to the peace process and other issues important to minorities will be limited. The ministry has for now only two departments for ethnic literature and culture and the protection of ethnic rights.

For ethnic leaders its primary focus should be peace and reconciliation, but that is not within its mandate.

For Dr Tu Ja, head of the Kachin State Democracy Party, it is essential for its credibility that the ministry take a role in the peace process.

“The minister needs to have a strong political background and he should participate in the peace process and other ethnic affairs. The main problem for ethnic minorities is peace,” said U Aye Maung, head of the Arakan National Party.

And Nai Thet Lwin, the new Minister for Ethnic Affairs and deputy chairman of the Mon National Party, fits the bill. However, some observers suggested that Nai Thet Lwin’s lack of familiarity with ethnic armed groups may pose a barrier to involvement in the peace process.

In a country of about 135 ethnic groups, peaceful coexistence has always been a struggle, especially with the central government, which is dominated by ethnic Bamar.

In the past, the ruling military junta used an iron fist against the groups least amenable to central control, like ethnic Kachin, who live in their homonymous state on the border with China in the north, and more recently, ethnic Kokang in Shan state, where the president imposed a state of emergency.

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