Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday dismissed suggestions that anticipated economic progress in the country will resolve its longstanding ethnic conflict problem, saying priority should be given to reducing imbalances and inculcating mutual respect among communities.
"My view is that economic development alone will not resolve the ethnic rights and inequality problems. Some think that all problems can be overcome through economic growth," she told ethnic leaders at a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw.
"If you want to use this argument, then please take a look at the world. The ethnic conflicts in countries with different nationalities are not decreasing because of economic growth," the Nobel laureate and parliamentarian said.
As she spoke, several hundred students seized their campus at the Ethnic Development College in Mandalay, refusing to move to a new location in Sagaing division as proposed by the authorities, sources said.
The protesting students, from various ethnic groups and wearing their traditional attire, want to continue studying at the college in Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city, located 445 miles (716 kilometers) north of the largest city Rangoon. They said the existing college is more convenient and has better facilities.
The students said they will not budge until a resolution is made on the issue. They have refused food from the college authorities and are coping with meals bought using their own funds or from local communities.
Aung San Suu Kyi, at her talks with community leaders, called for greater understanding and respect among ethnic groups, saying the process should begin in parliament among ethnic representatives.
Resolving ethnic conflicts is turning out to be a major challenge for Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein, who has launched political and economic reforms and released hundreds of political prisoners since he assumed power in March last year.
The reforms have led to the lifting of long running sanctions by the international community and economic aid by multilateral institutions.
The International Crisis Group said in a report this month that much of the government’s attention will need to be focused on controlling the country’s multiple internal ethnic conflicts, which it said were a real threat to national stability.
Immediate priorities should be given to “containing and resolving the inter-communal conflict that has engulfed Rakhine state, and reaching a ceasefire in Kachin state," the Brussels-based group said.
Clashes in June and October between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine state left about 180 killed and more than 100,000 others homeless, according to official figures.
Thein Sein's government had signed peace agreements with 10 armed ethnic groups in the country's borderlands, but peace talks with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the military arm of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) demanding greater autonomy, have yielded little outcome.
Burma "must deal with a bitter legacy: in addition to forging a sustainable peace after decades of ethnic conflict and rebuilding a dysfunctional economy, it must come to terms with inter-communal violence and address rising social tensions over grievances both past and present," the ICG report said.
Almost one-third of the country’s 58 million population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khin Moh Moh. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.