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In Myanmar, conflict threatens reform, 2 years on

Saturday - 3/30/2013, 2:30am  ET

TODD PITMAN
Associated Press

LAIZA, Myanmar (AP) -- When Myanmar's post-junta government took power two years ago vowing to bring democracy to one of the world's most repressed nations, Da Shi Naw was under no illusion his own life would improve any time soon. But the 61-year-old farmer never dreamed it would actually get worse -- a lot worse.

First, a 17-year cease-fire between the army and ethnic Kachin guerrillas relapsed into fighting that tore through his family's fertile rice fields, forcing him to flee into the mountains on foot. Then, after a year in a packed displaced camp far from home, war edged close once more.

Government troops began pounding rebel positions near the Kachin stronghold of Laiza with artillery and airstrikes that shook the ground here until late January. The battles triggered such a panic, authorities took the extraordinary step of urging people to dig their own bomb shelters.

And so, one cold day when camp administrators began handing out shovels, Da Shi Naw, humbled by fate, began plowing the ground a few steps from his tiny hut. He dug a rectangular cavity into the earth, a simple, makeshift hide covered with bamboo poles just big enough to climb into with his wife and their two-year-old grandson.

"We have nowhere left to run," he told The Associated Press, "We have begun to lose hope."

Two years into President Thein Sein's historic term as Myanmar's first civilian president in half a century, this Southeast Asian nation has moved closer to democratic rule than any other time since a 1962 army coup. Although few initially believed that Thein Sein, a former general, was sincere about reform when he took office on March 30, 2011, his administration has since orchestrated a top-down revolution that has stunned the world and given hope to millions of people, allowing freedoms unheard of just a few years ago.

Yet even as Myanmar basks in world praise and foreign investors rush in, some parts of the country have taken phenomenally tragic turns for the worse -- plagued by explosions of ethnic and sectarian violence so grave, the government has acknowledged they threaten the very process of reform itself.

Here in the north, where the army is still battling rebels of the Kachin Independence Army, residents do not speak of the country's newfound freedoms. There is no talk of economic liberalization, of the end of censorship or the suspension of western sanctions. There is no discussion, either, of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's rise as an elected lawmaker after nearly two decades under house arrest.

Here, the only subject is the tragic counter-narrative to progress, the story of a region where roads and bridges have been severed by fighting, where families have been separated and 100,000 people have been displaced.

"We feel our lives are going backward," Da Shi Naw said. "It has never been this bad."

And Kachin state is not alone.

Last week, bloody anti-Muslim pogroms ripped through the nation's heartland for the first time, raising the specter of new instability. In the central city of Meikhtila, Buddhist mobs armed with machetes burned mosques and Muslim shops in a rampage that left charred corpses piled in the streets and more than 12,000 people, mostly Muslims, homeless. The unrest has spread since, with mosques ransacked in several villages north of the capital, Naypyitaw.

Thein Sein declared a state of emergency for the second time during his term, deploying the army to Meikhtila to restore order. It was a jarring move given the military's long history of oppression. But Muslims welcomed the troops' arrival, and analysts say the move further strengthened the army's power.

In a national speech Thursday, Thein Sein said such conflicts were to be expected "during our period of democratic transition."

But "we must face and overcome these challenges together," he said, calling on his countrymen "to rise above the old ways of doing things."

"As a nation, it is our firm belief that only an inclusive democratic society based on equality for all citizens will ensure peace and stability," he said, "especially in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith country such as ours."

Such words of assurance, though, still ring hollow for many.

In western Rakhine state, where Buddhist-Muslim unrest exploded twice last year, human rights groups accused the state itself -- its own idle security forces -- of failing to stop the violence, and in some cases facilitating it.

More than 120,000 people, mostly Muslims, are still displaced there, and Thein Sein's government has failed to ease still-festering tensions, enforcing instead the de facto segregation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, whose movement has been heavily restricted.

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