Myanmar: Aid to the Border Areas
Myanmar: Aid to the Border Areas
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Asia 4 minutes

Myanmar: Aid to the Border Areas

The desolate political stalemate which has prevailed since the military suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988 continues unabated.

Executive Summary

The desolate political stalemate which has prevailed since the military suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988 continues unabated. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remains in custody, and there is no sign that the National Convention reconvened in May 2004 will produce any meaningful change. Without movement on these two fronts the new way forward advocated by ICG in its last Myanmar report[fn]ICG Asia Report N°78, Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?, 26 April 2004.Hide Footnote  -- steering a course between sanctions and over-eager engagement -- will have few attractions for the international community.

As difficult as the existing political environment continues to be, there are, however, some actions that can and should be taken to help a limited and particular part of the country known as the Border Areas. This report, which should be read in conjunction with earlier ICG reporting on minority issues,[fn]See especially ibid, but also ICG Asia Report N°32, Myanmar: The Politics of Humanitarian Aid, 2 April 2002, and, for additional background on ethnic minority groups, ICG Asia Report N°52, Myanmar Backgrounder: Ethnic Minority Politics, 7 May 2003.Hide Footnote  lays out in detail why these areas are different and discusses how expanded international assistance could be implemented without strengthening the present oppressive government.

The report argues that such assistance could not only help consolidate lasting peace in the Border Areas and lay the foundations for a more open, democratic system. It could also reduce refugee flows and the dangers from cross-border threats such as the spread of drugs and AIDS, and environmental damage from deforestation.

The remote, mountainous areas along the borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, largely populated by ethnic minorities, have long suffered from war and neglect, which have undermined development. They are desperately poor though they contain more than a third of the country's population and most of its natural resources. They also link it to some of the world's fastest growing economies. The prospects for Myanmar's peace, prosperity and democracy are, therefore, closely tied to the future of these regions and their mainly ethnic minority populations.

While the international community focuses on the need for regime change in Yangon, it has tended to disregard the need to integrate ethnic minority communities into the broader society and economy. Foreign aid for the Border Areas should be seen and pursued as complementary to diplomatic efforts to restore democracy and help unite the long-divided country.

Until recently, development of the Border Areas was hindered by the many insurgencies. The fighting closed minds to local cooperative solutions and reinforced underlying social and economic problems. However, since 1989, ceasefires have proliferated between the military government and former insurgent groups. Although these are neither in effect everywhere nor have they yet developed into genuine lasting peace, they have had a significant impact at elite as well as grassroots levels. In conjunction with new, though flawed, government development programs in previously neglected areas, they are one dimension of the military regime's strategy that supports longer-term reform. Border Areas development thus is a rare instance where there is some convergence of interests within a highly polarised and conflict-ridden environment.

The ceasefires have normalised life in many previously war-torn areas, allowing people to work and travel relatively freely again. There has also been a decrease in the most severe types of human rights abuses in these areas although violations still occur. Governance structures are extremely weak, however, and other forms of structural violence persist, often compounded by new exploitive and unsustainable economic practices by the former combatants.

Many villages are still inaccessible except by foot or river and lack both government services and access to markets. Population growth, worsened by conflict-induced movements, has put increasing pressure on already marginal lands, and deforestation is taking its toll. The Border Areas thus face a series of inter-linked crises, which, if allowed to fester, could undermine any progress in the country for decades to come.

The difficult political and operational environment in Myanmar greatly complicates the task, but donors have for too long ignored the needs of the mainly ethnic minority groups who inhabit the Border Areas. This has not only delayed improvements in human security and welfare but also lessened the prospects of genuine national reconciliation and meaningful political reform, which ultimately depend on social justice and empowerment of these marginalised communities.

ICG recognises that governments that place their faith in sanctions and other measures to isolate the military government and achieve regime change may find it difficult to provide developmental assistance to the extent this requires some cooperation with representatives of that regime. Some donors may also take a different view about the extent to which such assistance can be provided effectively to local people and through their institutions without strengthening the repressive government in Yangon.

But despite otherwise strong differences over strategy and tactics, developmental as well as humanitarian help should be supported by all the main protagonists inside the country as well their friends abroad. Although the linkages between peace, prosperity and democracy are complex, international help for the Border Areas provides an important organising principle and practical means for their realisation.

Their long history of civil conflict, social and economic backwardness, and ethnic minority composition are indicative of deep seated problems. Special measures over many years, regardless of who or what system is dominant in far away Yangon, are required if these communities are to become capable of equally contributing to and benefiting from the state.

Yangon/Brussels, 9 September 2004

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.