Addressing Burma’s parliament for the first time, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called Wednesday for better laws to protect the rights of ethnic minorities in the country amid ongoing armed conflict between the groups and government troops.
Voicing her support for a proposal by a lawmaker from the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to uphold ethnic minority rights, Aung San Suu Kyi said broader guarantees for ethnic equality were key to the country’s transition to democracy.
“I urge us parliamentary members to discuss the protection of ethnic minorities' rights by creating and amending laws as needed, and I hereby support U Ti Khun Myat's proposal,” she said, referring to the Shan state representative for the USDP.
The laws are needed if the country is “to become a truly democratic union, based on equality as well as the Panglong spirit and mutual respect,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the chairman National League for Democracy (NLD).
The 1947 Panglong Conference involved negotiations between the government and ethnic minority groups, setting the stage for Burma’s unification as a republic upon its independence from Britain.
In order to protect ethnic minority rights, Burma's laws need to go farther than preserving languages and cultures, Aung San Suu Kyi said, noting that minority groups suffer above-average poverty rates.
The address to the regular session of lower house of parliament in Naypyidaw was her first since she was elected a member of parliament in a landmark by-election in April, after having spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest by the ruling military junta.
Before her election, the 67-year-old Nobel Laureate had called for a “second Panglong Conference” and said ethnic minority issues would be among her top priorities in office.
When the NLD threatened to boycott parliamentary sessions earlier this year, she said she decided to join the sessions despite a flawed swearing-in oath because of requests from ethnic minority lawmakers.
Burma’s ethnic minority parties, which hold a small percentage of the seats in parliament, represent groups who have long been left out of the military-dominated government.
Her call Wednesday came amid ongoing conflict in northern Burma’s Kachin state, where fighting between government troops and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has forced tens of thousands from their homes.
"The flames of war are not completely extinguished," Aung San Suu Kyi said to parliament.
Aside from Kachin state, where rebels have not reached a truce despite several rounds of negotiations, clashes have been reported regularly in Shan, Karenni, and Karen states.
Since coming to power in March 2011, President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has negotiated ceasefires with several armed ethnic groups, but their leaders have said that ceasefires are just the first step of a process that must include political solutions.
In her address, Aung San Suu Kyi did not mention violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state, which is still reeling from ethnic clashes that killed dozens since June and have left some 90,000 people displaced, according to estimates by humanitarian groups.
The clashes broke out in June between Rakhines, one of the country's recognized ethnic minorities, and Rohingyas, who are considered by Burma to be outsiders and illegal immigrants despite having lived in the country for generations.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.