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As new era dawns in Myanmar, ethnic conflicts remain a challenge (+video)

The ethnic Kachin did not get a chance to vote in Sunday's historic parliamentary by-elections due to an ongoing civil war. 

By a correspondent / April 2, 2012

In this photo taken on Feb. 13, a Kachin soldier guards a frontline position in Laiza, facing off against Myanmar government troops about 9 miles from the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization, the area controlled by the Kachin in northern Myanmar.

Vincent Yu/AP

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Yangon, Myanmar

As voters up and down the country went to the polls Sunday in parliamentary by-elections seen as a key step towards democracy in Myanmar, ethnic Kachin citizens in the North were denied the chance to join in.

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The postponement of the vote in three Kachin constituencies because of fighting acted as a reminder of the biggest obstacle on Myanmar’s path to normality – the civil war that the army has been fighting off and on with ethnic rebels almost since the country won independence 65 years ago.

Though the nominally civilian government that took office a year ago has signed truces recently with a number of rebel armies, Kachin Independence Army soldiers have been clashing with government troops since last June, following a failed effort to integrate them into a national border force.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, some into neighboring China, adding to the estimated half million people who have been displaced in recent decades by the various conflicts. Another 150,000 refugees live in camps in Thailand.

The Myanmar government has signed on-again, off-again ceasefires with armies belonging to the Kachin people in the north, the Shan and Karen in the east of the country, and the Mon in the south, among others, since the late 1980’s. They have generally left the rebels in administrative control of the areas they occupy.

But never have the rebels and government resolved the fundamental political questions of how much autonomy the ethnic minorities should enjoy, how much control they would have over the gold, gems, and timber on their lands, and how influential they could be in national politics.

The army, which ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years before handing power last year to a quasi-civilian government dominated by former generals, has long made “national unity and solidarity” its key watchword. For decades it has imposed that vision on minority groups at gunpoint in brutal military campaigns that earned it local fear and hatred.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, ran for Sunday’s elections on a platform of “national reconciliation” and campaigned in minority areas in ethnic dress. But her party is dominated by ethnic Burmese, who make up about 70 percent of the nation’s population; when the official results are known, the NLD’s performance in ethnic areas where the vote was held will offer an indicator of how widely the party is trusted by minority voters. On Monday the party claimed to have won all the minority seats it contested except one, in Lashio, where vote counting was still underway.

No matter how much progress the government makes in opening up the economy, allowing democratic freedoms, and restoring Myanmar’s international reputation, “the key to stability and democracy here is an answer to the ethnic question,” says a European diplomat. “And there is still a big question mark over that.”

Editor's Note: Our correspondent in Yangon could not be identified for security reasons. 

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