Towards Democracy and Reconciliation (Part 4: Displacement, Ethnicity, and Peace)

Today, on Tea Circle we feature the fourth and final installment of our series summarizing the recent workshop, “Towards Democracy and Reconciliation: Challenges Facing Myanmar’s Incoming Government.” This post focuses on the final panel of the workshop, which directed our attention to urgent questions at play in Myanmar’s ethnic states and rural regions— questions of Displacement, Ethnicity, and Peace. It follows three related posts that we’ve published over the past week, each one summarizing one of the workshop’s other panels— on Politics and Governance, on Sustainable Development, and on Societal Interventions.

Kirsten McConnachie from the University of Warwick addressed critical issues at the intersection of themes of displacement and of Myanmar’s ongoing peace process. McConnachie pointed out that most “big picture” political questions of concern to the displaced are shared by ethnic minority populations at large; however, there are a number of urgent issues specific to displaced communities that demand attention from the new government. Among these are questions of how displaced communities can be brought into the peace process negotiations, of how repatriation and return of refugee and internally displaced populations might proceed, and of how restitution and land claims might be managed. As McConnachie insightfully pointed out, the overlap of many of these issues across populations— in that, while they disproportionately impact displaced populations, they are also key concerns for those who did not leave their homes during decades of conflict— will likely elevate broader questions around justice and fairness in the context of the transition: How can this new era of democratic governance address justice and fairness at present, and in response to what’s happened in the past? But what also can be done for those who remained? What harm might be done by only responding to and supporting those who left?

A final concern raised by McConnachie was that of coordination. How a new government, alongside linked donors, will coordinate (or fail to do so) with armed groups, local organizations, and international entities will be key. McConnachie points out that we must be sensitive to how assistance was provided to displaced populations in the past— both in terms of recognizing who provided assistance, and through what avenues. Drawing on some of the points raised in the previous panel by Alex Bescoby, McConnachie pointed out that we should not ask only about the effectiveness of aid agencies themselves, but also consider the ways in which their activities may end up undermining some of the more dynamic networks through which help has been provided to those in need, historically.

Richard Dolan, a DPhil candidate at Oxford who has been working in Southeast Myanmar, described the challenges facing the new government with respect to ethnic representation, alerting the audience to the potential challenges of engaging with ethnic political parties in the aftermath of an election where many groups failed to gain representation at the national level. How will the new government manage expectations of ethnic parties while still building trust and, in practical terms, how will it facilitate an inclusive political dialogue. In Dolan’s view, there are two potential fault lines where the inclusion of ethnic representatives will be crucial moving forward— one being that of the state assemblies, and the second being the ongoing peace process. In relationship to both of these structures, it is crucial that an NLD-led government embraces an inclusive rhetoric, not just taking the first step in including ethnic representatives, but pairing that inclusion with the kind of support and investment in ethnic candidates that will be needed to ensure that they are actively involved in policy-making. Dolan expressed concern that major challenges still lay ahead in this regard, one of which, for example, will be a lingering perception that the NLD remains a Burman, Buddhist party that cannot fully understand the suffering of the country’s non-Burman or non-Buddhist populations.

Our last speaker in the panel, Kai Htang Lashi, who works with the Kachin Relief Fund and the Kachin National Organization, provided an important closing perspective for the day, reminding those present that the fundamental political and constitutional questions facing the new government have deeply-felt implications for communities at the center of such discussions. She acknowledged that it was clear that everyone in the room cared deeply about what was happening in Myanmar but she was critical of the often-dispassionate manner with which many Burma/Myanmar “experts” spoke of the challenges facing the country at this historical conjuncture; what was truly at stake was the lives and well-being of some of Myanmar’s most vulnerable citizens. First and foremost, Kai Htang Lashi urged, should be constitutional change that ensures that all communities, regardless of their ethnicity or social background, have equal rights. The peace process, too, demands immediate attention, as so much of what was discussed in the workshop— from the experiences of displaced communities, to questions of rule of law and corruption, to opportunities for business and investment—cannot be considered if ethnic areas have no peace. A reformed political process, the struggles of those living amidst ongoing conflict, questions of development, education, and healthcare, too, all come down to the issue of peace— “if we have no peace,” said Kai Htang Lashi, “we cannot even begin dealing with other issues.”


In summarizing some of the discussions throughout the workshop, co-organizer Matthew Walton remarked that it seemed to be clear that for many of the participants, one of the biggest challenges facing the incoming government was the incoming government itself. The Programme on Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College and the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall plan to issue a series of policy briefs over the next few months, addressing these and other topics, which will be made publicly available in English and Burmese and disseminated to key figures in the new government, civil society, and the international community (more information will be posted on Tea Circle as these become available). Yet the comment of one workshop participant during one of the discussion sections highlights a persistent concern: Identifying impediments and potential policy solutions is one aspect of this process. But with many of these issues (the Rohingya crisis, student protests, or armed ethnic conflict, for example), we don’t really know what the NLD position is, whether they see the issues as problems to be solved, or whether they are open to other, critical perspectives. Everyone knows that there are structural impediments that will limit the new government’s space to move and legislate. It is what they do within these limitations that remains to be seen and is what they will be judged on.