The Elusive Peace to End 70 Years of War is Myanmar’s Holy Grail

Editor’s note: Khin Zaw Win is currently the Director of the Tampadipa Institute, working on policy advocacy and capacity building since 2006. His current engagement includes communal issues, nationalism and international relations. He is also an honorary senior research fellow at the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies. He served under the Department of Health, Myanmar, and the Ministry of Health, Sabah, Malaysia and did the Masters in Public Policy programme at the National University of Singapore. He has held a fellowship with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and was also a UK FCO Chevening Fellow at the University of Birmingham. He was also a prisoner of conscience in Myanmar for “seditious writings” and human rights work from 1994 – 2005.

A biggish 2-in-1 conference (Peace and Panglong) is on the way. It will be held simultaneously in two locations and participation is likely to be inclusive. It was first slated for July but now the date has been pushed back at least to August. Instead of a single event, it will be more of a series of events.

It will be the best chance to establish a lasting peace. Even elements from the military now openly admit that they are tired of war.

I have been urging one and all – participating or non-participating – to give of their best to help bring peace to this country. Not to let obstructions and distractions stand in the way – like the Prima Donna who will grab centre-stage as well as the ultimate credit. These are small prices to be paid and we should not lose sight of the ultimate goal.

The structure of the proposed Peace-Panglong Conference is ungainly. Political and security matters which form the backbone will be discussed by not more than 48 delegates – 16 each from the government, military and ethnic armed organizations. The ‘non-political’ part is lumped together and given to the parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) to chew on. They won’t be allowed near Naypyidaw. (There have been six CSO meetings on this so far. Indications are that CSOs are unanimously opposed to the present arrangements).

Federalism

Federalization has to be used to ‘incentivize’ the faltering peace process. I had thought at least this part of the constitution amendment bill would be approved by Parliament last August, but it wasn’t so. It could even have helped U Thein Sein’s final Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) effort, but things like his personal rivalry with U Shwe Man got in the way. And of course disapproval from the military bloc.

The post-“NCA” political dialogue is supposed to include federalization. However, there is the feeling that Daw Aung San Su Kyi (ASSK) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) are lukewarm towards this, and there are mutterings that she may even side with the military. The centre’s objective appears to be peace, but without too much federalism. My approach would be to institute federalism by stages and let peace unfold.

On federalism, it is of the utmost importance for the ethnic nationality players (ethnic armed organizations, parties, CSOs, youth) to prepare for a federal system instead of squabbling and shedding blood over territory. If a federal system was formally inaugurated tomorrow, it would be a system under the NLD’s auspices.

But beyond that, what needs to be done in Myanmar is not merely preparing for federalism but doing all we can to avert more (ethnic-based) conflict. It is with deep concern that we are witnessing the rising of inter-ethnic tensions and armed clashes happening between ethnic armed organizations.

Current peace process

As for the peace process up to now, it sadly has been run along the lines of a somewhat shady business enterprise. Hopefully this will change. Quite an elaborate structure has been put in place. But however properly this is done, the impression that needs to be imparted is that there will be no capitulation by anyone, and it is to be an honourable peace. If weakness is sensed on either side, demands will grow to unreasonable extents.

The peace process is under new management now. This new process can and should be used as leverage on ASSK herself. (Remember that there isn’t a large repertoire of tools).

A recent issue of Voice Weekly carried an interview with retired Lt-Gen Khin Zaw Oo. He is a key fixture in the peace process, and has also done the international circuit. He is probably the first insider to speak extensively and freely about the process.

I see two critical issues in his interview –

I. Non-disarmament of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). When he met former Free Aceh (GAM) rebels in Aceh, Indonesia, he was told that the Achinese regard weapons as assurances of peace talks and as instruments to rectify injustice and inequality. He accepts this, but goes on to ask: if these injustices and inequalities are removed or alleviated, will weaponry still be needed as instruments?

I have to say the argument isn’t as easy or clear-cut as that. In Aceh there were only two sides whereas in Myanmar there is a staggering multiplicity of EAOs. Even if the Union armed forces stringently observe all the rules agreed upon, sad to say there are many EAOs who will not. One coming refrain is going to be, “we trust the Tatmadaw but not the so-and-so’s in the adjoining territory. We need our arms to defend ourselves and our people”.

II. The need to confer upon the EAOs the dignity they deserve. Rather surprising, coming from a former army general.

I see this as aimed at the new government and present military. The new government’s attitude towards the ethnic nationalities being what it is, such advice cannot come too soon.

The recent Defence White Paper only confirms the divisions in Myanmar – a sad situation at a time of a return to civilian democracy. It is ironic that the political divisions are sharper while social and civil society interaction has become stronger. This is a reflection of the stranglehold that elite politics has on the country. With regard to external powers, it means that Myanmar is more vulnerable.

Inclusiveness

It has been decided to invite the NCA non-signatories, except for the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. The NCA political framework has been bent a little to accommodate this. This is conceding to pragmatism, especially on the military’s part.

ASSK, and by extension her party have held to a monist worldview and are deeply suspicious of CSOs, even those who supported her. She had advocated sanctions for two decades and had wanted them to be absolute, and regarded CSOs which provided much-needed support during those years as traitors.

Features of the upcoming political discussions:

-Both NLD and the military are centrist and at this show they could team up to resist ethnic demands;

-Ethnic voices for federalism are being divided – EAOs in Naypyitaw and political parties in Yangon. The push for federalism could be blunted;

-After the drubbing they received in the November elections, ethnic political parties have lost credibility and stature. There is a possibility that EAO leaders could step to the fore and become chief ministers one day;

-The military’s six points especially a single command and disarmament will be the key bone of contention. I repeat that creativity will be called for.

It should be remembered that nothing so crude as military coups are on the menu. There are strong emergency powers articles in the constitution. What the high command has in mind is to maintain and strengthen its own status quo. The General Administration Department (GAD) under Home Affairs is key – it can facilitate or obstruct ant government policy or initiative. If the NLD is thinking of using its own party apparatus, it should realize that it is not the Communist Party of China. Second is the Police – one can notice the NLD making a concerted effort to win the police over.

If the NLD government performs poorly and public discontent grows (which could happen rapidly) the military half of the dyarchy can stand firm and assure stability. This was exactly the case in the 1950s and early 60s. The mantle of national leadership could easily pass to Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Another reason why a coup isn’t necessary. The recent retirement of 380 senior military officers could be seen as a net loss. But this could also be a re-deployment in the party (USDP) and civil arms, for future use.

It would be useful (and elicit a lot of insights) if we worked backwards from the goal. The common assumption is that if peace or something nearest to it were achieved, it would be a ‘happily-ever-after’ scenario. This country relied upon that kind of assumption at independence and again at the reviving of democracy. We have to be very realistic and prepare for the moment peace and federalism are achieved. Does this sound counter-intuitive and am I worrying too much? The facts and trends speak otherwise. Ethnic identities and assertiveness, and ethno-nationalisms have re-surfaced and clashed in more than one instance. Many, if not all, ethnic groups have armed elements in addition to political parties. More than achieving peace, keeping that peace is going to require a huge task. Who will maintain that peace?

As an appendix, I would like to add some pointers as to how the peace talks conundrum could be resolved –

Single armed forces – a creative structure can be established. A key component would be to station liaison officers from both sides in each other’s units. This will be a first step towards eventual integration, which will take years.

Disarmament – during the KarKweYay (KKY) period in the late 60s and early 70s, ethnic rebel forces were co-opted to fight the growing Burma Communist Party (BCP) threat. Freedom to trade in opium was one incentive. Typically, at a ceremony, the EAO leader would symbolically hand over a carbine to the ranking military officer, and this would then be returned to him. Very subtle and requires a lot of skill. In the current version, the wording will have to be juggled quite a bit, but essentially the EAOs will retain their weapons.

Inter-ethnic conflict has already begun. The central military is the only means to keep things in check.

If all the foregoing is added up, the military has the upper hand. It has prepared for all sorts of eventualities; one cannot say the same for the NLD government.

Conclusion

Both the structure and agenda of the “21st century Panglong Conference” are dangerously flawed. ASSK is relying on the word Panglong and leaning on what she sees as her father’s legacy. But that means she has to make good all the failed promises of that rushed agreement in 1947. It can be done but only by a collective effort, and not in the way she proposes to do now. I can only hope that there is a Plan B. If the present conference organizers do not have one, it is up to others to step up and fill the gap. Peace in Myanmar is far too important to be left at the mercy of a conference with a catchy title.