Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world, with over 160 recognized ethnic groups (plus unrecognized groups such as the Rohingya in the southwest of the country). Ethnic minorities comprise almost 40% of the population. Insurgencies in these ethnic areas date back to the country's independence from England, and continue to be one of the defining aspects of Burma's post-colonial period. Currently, twenty different ethnic armies have cease-fire agreements with the Burmese government, most of which were signed in the 1990s. A smaller number of armies continue in armed conflict with the government, most notably the Karen National Union.
There is broad consensus between the government of Burma, ethnic minority groups, and the international community that it is important to maintain the territorial integrity of the country. In fact, almost all of the ethnic minorities in Burma have renounced calls for independent states, and now favor the creation of a federal democracy that would allow them to have a role in the governing of their people and of the country.
Many ethnic minority groups are now in the process of deciding whether or not to participate in the 2010 elections. While there are valid arguments that participating in the process will add legitimacy to what are likely to be flawed elections under a flawed constitution, others argue that the elections are the only game in town. To not participate would be to lose a potential opportunity to move out of the current stalemate that has dominated ethnic-Burman relations for the past decade. Whatever is the outcome of these deliberations, the possible opportunities for progress lie not only in the elections, but in the period after a new government takes office.
The ethnic minorities constitute the only real challenge to the authority of the Burmese government. With armies, political demands, and control of territory, they are the main obstacle to the Burmese goal of a unified state. A new government under international pressure to democratize may find it more appealing to negotiate with ethnic groups than it would with the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, which poses opposition from within the Burmese ethnic majority.
Of course, it is impossible to predict what will happen between now and the 2010 elections, but it is important to prepare for a range of possibilities. Policymakers have not been giving enough attention to the need to prepare ethnic minority groups for negotiations should the time come. In clear terms, this means helping those that want to participate in 2010 elections learn how to campaign, run a political party, and, above all, how to govern. It means that the international community should begin to work with the ethnic minorities not only on clarifying its demands for a potential negotiation with the Burmese government, but also in how to negotiate those demands.
Finally, the international community should look at providing serious mediation to any negotiations that would happen. Working on all of these issues will take time to set up. But if the international community is serious about engaging the Burmese government on a range of issues, the resolution of ethnic conflict in the country should be at the top of the list.