Burma Ethnic Conflict

GOALS: To contribute to peace-building in Burma by facilitating multi-ethnic dialogues and empowering ethnic minority organisations with the knowledge to effectively engage with key national policy debates.

TNI has a unique intimate knowledge of Burma/Myanmar built up over decades, and particular expertise on oft-neglected issues such as ethnic conflict. Combined with our institution’s years of work on global issues of investment, land grabbing and drugs, this means that we are uniquely placed to work with Burmese partners in dealing strategically with both the obstacles and opportunities facing Burma in its time of transition.

Building inclusive discussions

Burma is undergoing the most important time of political change in many decades. Among many urgent challenges, the long-standing ethnic conflict is central. There have been some initial reforms and ceasefires, but an inclusive nationwide peace is yet to be established. In a country in transition, TNI is playing a constructive role in brokering dialogues, providing information and analysis, and sensitising international players to the dynamics of Burma’s transition from military dictatorship.

In 2013, TNI continued its series of seminars on ethnic conflict in Burma, jointly run with the Burma Centrum Netherlands, bringing together civil society, parliamentary and armed opposition groups from different ethnicities. Transition from decades of military rule remains uncharted territory for all parties, and such frank and inclusive discussions are vital if needs and grievances are to be addressed and Burma is to achieve a democratic era of peace and justice for all. The seminars were held in Thailand to ensure that all groups could participate. Feedback from participants indicated that for some it was the first such opportunity to meet and talk with each other.

A series of policy briefings were produced, as well as an in-depth studies on regional investment in Burma’s ethnic borderlands and on the regional drug market in Burma and neighboring countries. These were mainly distributed through the project’s 4,500 member email list, which goes to representatives of civil society, political parties, armed groups, media and the government. Our publications are widely read and respected among all sides in the conflict as well as the international community.

Capacity-building with civil society

TNI also facilitated capacity-building meetings with civil society organisations on the issues of drugs, land and investment. A forum on drugs in Myitkyina was attended by 600 people and another in Lashio by 300. These were the first times such forums had been held in Kachin and Shan States. They created space for a wide variety of representatives from civil society organisations from different ethnic groups to openly raise concerns on drug policy issues with the state government, and introduced the concept of harm reduction and other human rights-based drug policies to a wider audience.

On land, workshops enabled civil society organisations to discuss common problems related to land grabbing as well as formulate a joint call towards government and international community to ensure that new laws and ceasefires do not lead to a surge in land-grabbing. TNI published Access Denied: Land Rights and Ethnic Conflict in Burma, which became a key point of reference. It argued that recognition of existing customary and communal tenure systems in land, water, fisheries and forests is crucial to eradicate poverty and build real peace in ethnic areas, to ensure sustainable livelihoods for marginalised ethnic communities affected by decades of war, and to facilitate the voluntary return of internally displaced people and refugees.

Similar workshops were organised around the proposed investment treaty with the EU, including the implications of inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. 70 civil society organisations subsequently signed up to a petition raising concerns about the negotiations. The European Commission negotiators found themselves dealing with a more informed Burmese delegation subsequent to this.

“TNI is one of our closest and most knowledgable international partners. Our organization is from Myanmar, and the context here is changing fast. The issues are difficult – from new land grabbing and consequences of irresponsible investment to old conflicts in ethnic areas that persist without true peace. Our struggle will be long term – and as much as anything, we need to learn from others’ experiences and build on similar struggles in other places. TNI is the place we often turn to for this.”


Paung Ku Forum, Burma/Myanmar