In fact, political transition from military dictatorship to democracy began with the (albeit flawed) general election held in Burma in November 2010. This gradually saw Burma become a more open country after long period of isolation, and to some extend has accommodated civilians to claim their rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and so on. Government moves such as releasing political prisoners and, initiating political dialogue with ethnic armed organizations as well as public protests, and farmers demanding their rights on the streets in major cities without the brutal crackdowns of the past - have attracted international attention to this tentative process of political transformation in Burma that transformation is without doubt, committed with irreversible mean.
The gradual political transformation has also seen many international organizations welcomed into the country to participate in development sector, a growing public awareness in term of human rights, economic, environment and other kinds of program through conducting civic education training and the return of prominent political activists from exile. This new openness has created job opportunities, and an increase in civil participation in socio-economic and decision-making process which in turn has helped to strengthen democratization.
Notwithstanding the visible changes which took place in the major cities in central Burma like Rangoon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, these have not extended to ethnic areas like Chin State, especially to people living in remote, rural areas. There, people are still bound by an atmosphere of fear, with little access to healthcare or education. INGO intervention to provide humanitarian assistance, work in development sector and raise public awareness rarely reached beyond urban areas in the centre of the country. People from remote areas of Chin State are still struggling with their daily survival due to the denial of development and the lack of basic infrastructure such as transportation and, communication, as well as scarcity of water and electricity supplies. These ongoing challenges can arguably be attributed to discrimination, government neglect, and related human rights abuses.
Chin State: Blessing in Disguise?
Chin State is recognised as the poorest state in Burma with the second lowest literacy rate according to UN Development Program, in a report in 2014. It is situated in the mountainous area of western Burma, bordered by Rakhine State in to the south, Bangladesh to the south-west, and Sagaing and Magway Regions to the east. Its total population is under 500,000 and 85% of the population is Christian, according to the results of the 2014 national census. Many political activists have said that poverty in Chin State is severe for two main reasons. Firstly, the denial of development projects in Chin State by the successive military due to lack of natural resources in Chin State, which make it of little interest. Secondly, discrimination, as it is the only Christian majority ethnic state in predominantly Buddhist Burma. Despite being the poorest state under military rule, there was no concrete development plan for the well-being of Chin people put forward under President U Thein Sein government, and its status quo has been continued under the current de-facto civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Hundreds of Chin songs, old and new, composed about Chin State and its people, include the lyric, “Even though our soil and land do not produce natural resources, we will make Chin State rich and strong through education and qualified human resources.” Today, it seems that dreams and wishes of Chin composers remain a dim and distant reality.
The said ‘blessing in disguise’ seems true in that Chin State is the only state in Burma that does not produce natural resources in a country which is known as one of the richest in natural resources in Southeast Asia. Control over rich natural resources like jade have been a major driver for long-running armed conflicts in the country. Compared to other ethnic states in Burma, Chin State and its people have not been subjected to the same intensity of conflict (although they have endured pervasive human rights violations), and today enjoy a relatively more peaceful life in terms of armed conflict in most parts of the state. But, people do not feel safe due to abject poverty, their daily struggle for survival, development neglect, the lack of education and healthcare provision, and other basic human needs. Peace does not simply mean the absence of armed conflict, it also means both mental and, physical peace, and external and internal peace.
New Government and the 100 Days Plan
I recently had the opportunity to give human rights training under a federalism and democracy project initiated by the Chinland Development and Research Society (CDRS) in four townships of Chin State, namely Matupi, Tonzang, Falam, and Mindat Township. During the training, participants had the chance to explore the challenges they are facing in their communities.
After the NLD swept to victory in the 2015 general election with landslide and formed its government in early April 2016, public expectation for development opportunities increased. People hoped that socio-economic status would be improved under the new NLD government for whom they enthusiastically voted. Perhaps the greatest expectations arose from within the Chin community, especially people in remote areas, who hoped that basis infrastructure such as transportation, telecommunication, electricity and water supplies, and better education would reach them soon.
Our training coincided with the end of the new government's 100 Days’ plan, and the participants complained that the newly-elected government is not much different from the previous one in terms of tackling the issues they raised in public meeting with the new Chin State government. The participants says that the new government promised to work on roads and streets reconstruction destroyed by landslide and to improve certain level of water shortage and support the insufficiency of school teacher in our villages within the 100 days.
One of the village heads in Matupi Township said, “When they (the Chin State government) met us in Matupi, we raised our issues, and most of us called for the speedy initiative of re-construction of roads destroyed by landslides, providing school teachers in our villages, addressing water scarcity and the other issues such as better transportation, communication, electricity and government loans for cultivation. But up to now, no bull-dozers or government road-construction workers have come to help us. Everything still remains the same, although the 100 days’ plan gets over.”
Almost all remote Chin villages face shortages in school teachers. In many villages in Chin State, many primary schools have only one or two teachers to cover grade 1 to grade 5. According to the Myanmar Education Department, for the past five years Chin State has had the lowest matriculation pass rate (Grade 11), essential for students to progress to university education.
One villager explained, “We have only two teachers in our primary school. They have to teach from Grade 1 to Grade 5. They always feel tired, and having to take two or three classes at the same time does not support the students' learning or produce qualified students. We are asking the government to provide more school teachers and hope that it will happen soon.”
According to UNDP stastistic, Chin State stands on the lowest access of Children in higher education in Burma. Many students have to quit their studies due to the need to move to a different village or the nearest town to attend middle or high school. Another ussue is the language barrier. In Chin State, mother-tongue dialects vary from village to village and town to town. The Chin National Conference, held in Hakha in November 2013 calls for the Union government to give 80% of education authority to State Government and initiate mother-tongue learning education in Burma.
One high school teacher with more than twenty years of experience explained, “Even though we are diverse in language, it is important that school teachers in the villages are from the local people. It will help the children to continue school. In reality, language diversity is not the major reason for students to quit school because students of Grade 2 and 3 can understand local dialects since our dialects differ only a little from place to another place. The problem is children are at very risky to move another place and they are afraid to study in the certain place where they live separate from their parents."
Salai Ro, one of a Matupi youth leader who was present at the public meeting with the government ain Matupi expressed his deep disappointment at hearing the Minister for Communication and Transportation’s response to the demand for more qualified school teachers in Matupi.
“The minister suggested that parents should send their children to study in Monywa and Rangoon if they want them to pass with matriculation distinction and gain qualifications. In Rangoon and Monwya, there are many boarding and private schools with qualified teachers, so that your children can pursue their preferred major at the university.”
The Minister’s response invoked Salai Ro's anger, and he doubts whether the new government can tackle the development needs of Chin State over the five-year term. He said that everybody know that schools in central Burma are much better than in Chin State, but questioned how parents can afford to send their children there when they even barely afford to send their children to boarding school in in Matupi which is ten times cheaper than in Rangoon.
The lack of basic infrastructure such as transportation, communication, electricity and water supplies have a major impact on Chin families in remote area. Women are particularly affected, as according to their traditional gender roles they are expected to be responsible for meeting the basic survival needs of the family.
One of the elders from a village in Matupi Township explained, “Since there is no electricity, there is no choice, but to cut trees for firewood. When it comes to dealing with cultivation for our survival, women have to struggle with fetching water, and carrying logs for firewood. We know cutting trees damages the environment but we have no choice.”
The Chin State government census 2014 on livelihood states that 93.7% of Chin families rely on firewood.
Many villagers face water shortages, mostly in winter and summer seasons. Even though many villages have water pipelines through the support of UN agencies, many are old and damaged while many said the supports do not provide adequate water supplies due to the insufficiency of pipeline and management costs.
“Some NGOs come and provide us with support for long-term cultivation, for us to move from shifting cultivation to permanent farming, but we cannot implement it fully due to the lack of monitoring and follow-up support," said Pu Kil Mang, from a village in Matupi Township. “We can survive from farming products and could even make money because we have a lot of land for cultivating rice and corn. But the problem is that there is no market place in our community and since we don't have transportation, we can't easily access markets and we have to sell with very low prices,” explained Pu Kil Mang.
Civic education to promote human rights and strengthen democracy
It is very important to deliver human rights education to people in remote rural areas, so that they have a chance to better understand their basic rights, and stand up to liberate themselves from fear and fight for their rights. Even though the trainings were short and I could only cover the basics of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the participants showed great interest and came up with many questions.
Our training went well despite the disruption from members of the Police Force and the Military Affairs Security in Matupi Township. At this political juncture, it is so important that public awareness events such as human rights and other political, economic and other trainings be encouraged under the new government, so that strengthening democratization and the rule of law in Burma can be achieved without delay.
One the last day of the training in Falam Township, one of the elders approached me, shook hands with me and said, “My son, I am so thankful to hear your talk. I have become to understand that change is in our hands. I used to believe that US and UN military intervention would happen if Burma failed to initiate democratic change. I understand now it is not true at all. I am sure I will share your teaching with my community.”
A 65 years old participant continued his words of thanks with kind and enthusiasm.
“Please keep sharing your teaching to others. I know there are many people who do not know their rights like me. Now, I am 65. I don’t want others to be ignorant like me. I will pray for you and God bless you!”
Without public awareness about education and human rights, development will be whistling in the wind. Sustainable development and civic education have long been hampered by the violation of basic human rights perpetrated by successive military regimes. Only if development, civic education, and education policy are strengthened, will all citizens in Burma be able to fully enjoy their basic human rights. Good governance and the rule of law could be achieved through informed citizens first and foremost. Sustainable peace, development and stable democracy seem to be achieved with informed citizens in today context of Burma.