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As new era dawns in Myanmar, ethnic conflicts remain a challenge (+video)

The ethnic Kachin did not get a chance to vote in Sunday's historic parliamentary by-elections due to an ongoing civil war. 

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As voters up and down the country went to the polls Sunday in parliamentary by-elections seen as a key step towards democracy in Myanmar, ethnic Kachin citizens in the North were denied the chance to join in.

The postponement of the vote in three Kachin constituencies because of fighting acted as a reminder of the biggest obstacle on Myanmar’s path to normality – the civil war that the army has been fighting off and on with ethnic rebels almost since the country won independence 65 years ago.

Though the nominally civilian government that took office a year ago has signed truces recently with a number of rebel armies, Kachin Independence Army soldiers have been clashing with government troops since last June, following a failed effort to integrate them into a national border force.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, some into neighboring China, adding to the estimated half million people who have been displaced in recent decades by the various conflicts. Another 150,000 refugees live in camps in Thailand.

The Myanmar government has signed on-again, off-again ceasefires with armies belonging to the Kachin people in the north, the Shan and Karen in the east of the country, and the Mon in the south, among others, since the late 1980’s. They have generally left the rebels in administrative control of the areas they occupy.

But never have the rebels and government resolved the fundamental political questions of how much autonomy the ethnic minorities should enjoy, how much control they would have over the gold, gems, and timber on their lands, and how influential they could be in national politics.

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