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Burma's ethnic groups nervous about reform
South East Asia Correspondent Zoe Daniel on Burma's continuing ethnic divide

First to Burma, where the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament has been welcomed around the world and already led to the relaxation of some sanctions by the United States.

The Burmese government has been pushing hard for sanctions to be lifted as a reward for recent dramatic political reforms.

But as the US and others consider the next step, the continuing ethnic tensions and outright conflict remain a key outstanding issue.

South East Asia correspondent, Zoe Daniel, reports from Rangoon.
ZOE DANIEL, REPORTER: Burma has been waiting so long for change. Over the years it has become more and more dilapidated.

The late legend Aung San and his iconic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, have been symbols of hope.

But democracy has been more a dream than a realistic aspiration for most households.

All of a sudden, though, doors are opening, and now everyone's trying to work out whether real change is actually coming for all of the people of Burma.

Nai Ngwe Thein is 89. The son of a politician, he was a candidate in elections in 1960 and 1990. And, like most people here, he's a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nai Ngwe Thein is from the old guard of the Mon ethnic group which refused to stand candidates for the by-elections. However, he says that the Mon will work with Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League For Democracy now that they're entering the Parliament. The key for them is constitutional change.

NAI NGWE THEIN, MON NATIONAL DEMOCRACTIC PARTY (Translation): Once Aung San Suu Kyi sits in the parliament and pushes to change the constitution, for national reconciliation and development of the country, we will support her from outside parliament.

(Footage of soldiers)

ZOE DANIEL: There are more than 135 ethnic groups in Burma, grouped into eight main ethnic races. For years the country has been rife with civil wars which have been used as an excuse by the Government to rule with an iron fist.

(Footage of village life)

Most ethnic people live in desperate poverty and historically have had few rights. They want to be included in the political process. And they're seeking an improvement in things like Government healthcare and education in ethnic areas, as well as an end to fighting.

(Footage of cheering at Aung San Suu Kyi Press conference after victory)

Aung San Suu Kyi sees reconciliation as a clear priority. An eventual complete relaxation of sanctions will rely on peace in ethnic areas and an end to tactics used by the Burmese military that have been previously described as war crimes.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI , OPPOSITION LEADER (April 12, 2012): We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era where there will be more emphasis on the role of the people in the everyday politics of our country. We also hope that we will be able to go further along the route towards national reconciliation.

ZOE DANIEL: The desire for constitutional reform is a key similarity among all of the ethnic representatives that we meet. Most have been involved in peace talks with the government, but the process remains fragile.

SAO THAN MYINT, SHAN NATIONAL DEMOCRACTIC PARTY (Translation): The ethnic issues will not be affected by this by election. Why the ethnic people are involved in the arms struggle is directly concern with the constitution.

ZOE DANIEL: The Shan Party won a seat in the by-electionsl; an encouraging sign after allegations voting in the same area was rigged in the 2010 general poll. Caution about what happens next remains.

SAO THAN MYINT (Translation): We need more self determination. We don't have much of it now. For example, if you compare the Burmese area with the ethnic areas, the Burmese area is more prosperous. The ethnic areas are developing very slowly. Therefore, lack of equality between Burman and non-Burman people is the main problem.

ZOE DANIEL: Burma's ethnic groups have faced so many years of brutality from the country's military that it is unsurprising that they're cautious about the reform process. They've faced decades of things like forced labour.

And we know that even now in Kachin State, for example, that is still happening, along with the military using rape as a weapon.

New fighting between the Burmese military and rebels in Kachin State broke out last week after the by-elections.

Spend any time in Burma and you soon see just how ethnically diverse it is. Sitting at the junction of India, China and South East Asia, it's a melting pot of races and religions. That's long been a cause of conflict as minorities have been strategically neglected by the junta.

Burma's Chin State is one of the poorest parts of the country but Chin representatives do have new hope for a brighter future with Aung San Suu Kyi in the parliament.

ZABAWI, CHIN STATE REPRESENTATIVE (Translation): Yes, we can see the opinions of the people and the election result gives an answer about how much the people of Burma have been longing for democracy in the country.

ZOE DANIEL: Are the Chin people celebrating?

ZABAWI (Translation): Yes, they are. And people are celebrating in their home towns and cities not only in Yangon (Rangoon), but Kachin State as well.

ZOE DANIEL: So far peace talks have led to a series of fragile deals and the government says it is confident that it can end more than 60 years of ethnic conflict.

A union of ethnic groups has welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi's election to the parliament and has urged her opposition to help broker that peace.
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