The ceasefire agreements signed during the 1990s between Myanmar’s military government and various armed ethnic groups allowed for the de facto existence of semi-autonomous areas such as the “special regions” in Shan State controlled by the United Wa State Army and a very ambiguous situation in other places such as Karen, Karenni and Mon states, where state authority and ethnic armed groups coexist, with the latter sometimes managing separate businesses, schools and health care systems.
These ceasefire agreements have reduced violent armed conflicts, but have not established peace. In addition, some of these agreements have been violated since the new government took office in 2011. Decades of violence has disenfranchised a large portion of the population, while a politically powerful few on all sides have exploited the situation for their own economic benefit through legal and illegal means.
The fault line in Myanmar society starts with the very nomenclature of the States and Regions. Myanmar’s Constitution confers “every citizen equal rights, liberty and justice” before the law. But the nomenclature of the seven States as administrative units identifying ethnic minority residents and seven Regions as ethnic Burman-majority territories is discriminatory and continues to identify people by their ethnic origin, thus propagating an ethnocentric sociopolitical stratagem that has its roots in Myanmar’s British colonial history. This ethnocentric nationalism dominates Myanmar’s political landscape and continues to challenge the authority of the central government.
Since independence, many territories and people therein have been administered and exploited by various armed groups seeking autonomy in the name of ethnic nationalism, while the military has continued to dominate the rest of Myanmar. Even after more than 60 years of independence, socioeconomic development in Myanmar has been totally undermined by this myopic, ethnocentric nationalism, despite abundant natural resources and excellent human resource potentials within the country. As a principle of inclusion, all subnational administrative units should have a common name—such as State or Region or Division—signifying equality without any ethnic identification or affiliation.
The ongoing ceasefire talks involving all major armed groups appear promising and could provide a basis for a permanent peace. A permanent peace, however, can be achieved only by addressing political grievances of all ethnic groups through political means. This will mean power sharing and resource sharing so that every citizen can enjoy the same citizenship status, irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic or religious background. This is not a new issue, but steps to get to this point have not been defined clearly. In spite of the wishful thinking of many, the military will not suddenly disappear from Myanmar’s political scene. Its role will gradually diminish over time, as it did in Indonesia and South Korea, where militaries used to dominate the countries’ political economies for decades. Myanmar’s people must live with this reality for the time being.
The current Constitution of Myanmar provides a broad base for power sharing through the formation of various political parties and decentralized governance with Union and State/Regional governments. However, all leaders representing various political parties must realize that a government formed based on ethnic identities would continue to pose a risk of fragmentation and destabilization as the interests of political actors would be limited to a certain constituency. There is a need for genuine compromise between the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnically based political parties. The USDP, which has dominated Myanmar’s political landscape through military supremacy, must convince minority parties that they will not be assimilated politically, culturally, economically or socially. There is no other way to build trust between the USDP and other political parties.
The Constitution allows full authority to the subnational governments to engage in all policy except defense, foreign affairs and education curricula. This provides opportunities for subnational governments to be engaged in nearly all aspects of development. The best way for minority political parties to test the intent of the government is to contest in the national electoral process and participate in national and subnational governance structures. In this process, all political parties will be able to contribute in developing their constituencies in any field they choose. This could be a way to initiate power sharing and contribute to the lasting peace that people so desperately desire.
In recent years, sharing of revenue from extractive industries has been raised in different forums, but no clear proposal has been forthcoming on “what and how much to be shared.” With the ongoing liberalization of the economy, including establishing special economic zones, large hydro-power plants, offshore drilling for gas, oil pipelines and extraction of minerals, it would be prudent to consider allocating part of the income generated from these ventures to the local governments of the host States and Regions. The deep mistrust that exists between the government and the public in general, and minority groups in particular, must be addressed through transparent discussion on resource sharing. The discussion must also address social and environmental concerns related to extractive industries. Investment of such revenue in States/Regions will help develop rural areas and benefit local populations.
The price of peace for the government is to ensure that military elites are no longer a political and economic threat to ethnic minority groups. All ethnic minority groups must be assured and shown in practical ways that they will be treated fairly and given equal opportunity in all aspects of Myanmar’s political and economic destiny. The price of peace for armed ethnic groups is to disarm and take part in the political process through national elections. There cannot be separate armies or militia within the boundaries of a sovereign nation.
The minority ethnic nationalities in Myanmar have enjoyed political support from many quarters, especially the West. In the broader geopolitical context, given Myanmar’s location linking South Asia with Southeast Asia, ethnic minority leaders must realize that this support is not so much to fulfill their aspirations, but largely to harass the Myanmar government and military. With the gradual opening of Myanmar, such support will decline as the government enters into economic and military cooperation with the West. It is therefore in the broader interests of ethnic nationalities too that a permanent peace is achieved. This process will be very difficult for some of the groups that remain in control of border trade and mining, but for a viable future there is no other option.
The bottom line is that the government as well as its people should not be distracted by the short-term economic benefit that seems to be on offer at the moment. The political transition that started in 2011 can be completed only with settlement of longstanding political and economic disputes between the government and ethnic nationalities. It will require a certain amount of give and take from all sides. An uncompromising mentality among any of the parties involved will only ensure that more time, resources and lives are lost before Myanmar achieves its long-awaited peace.
Ramesh Shrestha is a former Unicef country representative to Myanmar.