The opening of Myanmar will not be complete until peace and stability are achieved in ethnic regions. But as those who have been following the country’s long history of civil war know, that is still a distant and elusive dream.
Increasingly, however, political observers are not the only ones paying close attention to this issue. Jon Frederik Baksaas, CEO of Telenor—one of two telecom companies to win licenses to operate in Myanmar—was surely speaking for many other foreign investors when he said recently that the peace process was “very important” because tensions make working in “certain areas sensitive.”
But while businesses, both foreign and local, certainly have a legitimate interest in Myanmar’s unresolved conflicts, the growing trend in recent years to treat the peace process as if it were an industry in its own right should be a cause for concern.
Ever since he came to office in 2011, President U Thein Sein has prioritized peace in Myanmar’s ethnic regions, and this focus has brought with it millions of dollars in funding and technical support from abroad. Institutions from the European Union to Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Japan have all gotten involved in the government-led peace agenda, while opposition figures such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and several key leaders and civil society groups have been notably absent.
Much of the money now pouring into this process has gone to the Myanmar Peace Center, which was established with the president’s blessings in October 2012 to engage in “confidence-building” activities. What this has meant in practice is a proliferation of meetings among government ministers, ethnic delegations and “peace brokers” around the country. Many of these have been little more than photo ops, seemingly aimed at giving those in attendance a chance to post amateurish propaganda on social media sites.
This lack of tangible progress on substantive issues might explain the growing urgency with which the president has been pushing for a dramatic breakthrough. During a visit to the United Kingdom in July, he told an audience at Chatham House, an influential British think tank, that nationwide ceasefire talks would be held “over the coming weeks” and boasted that “the guns will go silent everywhere in Myanmar for the first time in more than 60 years.” Five months later, we’re still waiting.
The closest we’ve come so far to a real turning point was in early November, when many of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups met with a government delegation in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina. It was the first time that multilateral talks had been held, and came a few days after the ethnic militias gathered in Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), to discuss their common stance for negotiations with the government.
The Myitkyina meeting ended in disappointment, however, when it became clear that the two sides still had fundamental differences on key issues.
A key demand of the government was for the ethnic armies to end their resistance, which many have continued for decades (although only one major group, the KIO, is still on a war footing with the government army since the collapse of a ceasefire in June 2011). In this, Naypyitaw was barely moving from the position of the former military junta, which had insisted in 2009 that the ethnic ceasefire groups disarm and form Border Guard Forces under the command of the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar armed forces—a demand that most rejected.
Myanmar still has 18 different armies, including major groups representing the Kayin, Kachin, Shan, Wa and Mon ethnic minorities. Each of these groups control parcels of territory of various sizes in the country’s border territories. It is estimated that ethnic insurgents have a combined total of about 100,000 fighting forces. Several ethnic leaders are also involved in lucrative businesses, including mining, logging, border trade, taxation and, in some cases, illicit activities such as drug trafficking.
What these ethnic armies want is the formation of a federal army, one in which ethnic minorities are on a more equal footing with the Burman majority that now overwhelmingly dominates the Tatmadaw. But this is something the country’s current military leaders won’t accept.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Lt-Gen Myint Soe, the leader of the Armed Forces delegation to Myitkyina, said that the only armed forces Myanmar needed was the Union armed forces. But he also said there was no immediate plan to forcibly disarm the ethnic armies. Rather, he said, the goal was to gradually integrate them into mainstream politics.
Although neither side got what it wanted from the Myitkyina meeting, the good news is that they agreed to continue speaking to each other. Before that, however, the ethnic armies plan to meet again in Hpa-an, capital of Kayin State, to sort out some of their own differences.
Meanwhile, as the peace process moves forward with greater Western involvement, another major foreign influence also needs to be considered: Myanmar’s powerful neighbor, China.
Beijing has long expressed a desire to see peace restored in Kachin State, where it has massive investments in the local jade trade, mineral exploration and hydroelectric power. It came as no surprise, then, that it sent observers to the talks in Myitkyina.
At the same time, however, Beijing has actively supported Wa insurgents in Shan State, which also borders China. The United Wa State Army, which didn’t take part in the talks in Laiza or Myitkyina, was formed after the collapse of the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma in 1989, and is one of the most powerful armed groups in the country. According to a report last year by Jane’s Intelligence Review, it is also the recipient of large quantities of military hardware from China, “including man-portable air defense systems [and] Chinese-made armored vehicles.”
What this reflects, perhaps, is Beijing’s concern that the West—and particularly the United States—is rapidly extending its presence in Myanmar right into China’s backyard. Signaling Washington’s keen interest in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell has visited war-torn Kachin State twice in just one year, becoming the first top US diplomat to travel to this sensitive area in several decades.
It is clear, then, that the West and China are beginning to exercise considerable influence over Myanmar’s still fragile peace process. Many remain skeptical, however, that foreign “peace experts” and other outsiders understand Myanmar’s complex ethnic and political divisions well enough to be of any real help in ending more than half a century of conflict.
Although there are no easy answers to how Myanmar can achieve a lasting peace, it is important for all parties to realize that simply throwing money at the problem—or looking at it solely through the lens of their own commercial or strategic interests—will only make matters worse.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.