The Price of Peace

The government’s peace negotiating team and leaders of ethnic armed groups meet in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, in November 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

The government’s peace negotiating team and leaders of ethnic armed groups meet in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, in November 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

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.

6 Responses to The Price of Peace

  1. Ramesh Shrestha, mentioned of ‘Full autonomy’ for subnational governments in 2008 Constitution. I don’t know why he claimed that.

    Numerous legal experts, veteran Myanmar analysts, and journalists alike agree that 2008 Constitution is nothing more than systematic power grasp of military.

    I work in Myitkyina – teaching English to young people who plan to study abroad. Last year, one of my students (who is a trained medical doctor, working in Myitkyina General Hospital) got a full scholarship to study in a university in Thailand. He applied for educational leave to Kachin State government. Kachin State government prime minister Lajawn Ngan Seng has no power to grant the educational leave for the civil servant in Kachin State. So, he had to refer him to Nay Pyi Daw.

    What kind of autonomy does Kachin State have now? Ramesh Shrestha is either completely ignorant about Myanmar’s political system and legal or he is lobbying on behalf of ruling elites – arguing people to ‘wait’.

    It is easier for ruling party to say ‘wait’, but if Ramesh Shrestha really understands the plight of ordinary people whose land has been lost to land grasp by authority and the uncertain future of ethnic minorities, it would be hard to say ‘wait’.

    All the examples (i.e., South Korea, Indonesia) Ramesh Shrestha mentioned, the military did not give up their power voluntarily. They did so because of popular public pressure.

    What the people of Myanmar really need right now is unison in pressuring the military to relinquish its power. Once it is achieved, permanent peace with ethnic rebels will also be easier.

  2. Very interesting article but I have to respectfully disagree on some points although I agree that lasting peace is best achieved through political dialogue.
    “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.”

    The seven state nomenclature is not discriminatory. There is nothing wrong with identifying someone by their ethnic origin. You can have unity in diversity as long as people learn how to respect one another which is something the military junta has never figured out how to do successfully. The division of Myanmar according to ethnicity was not rooted in British colonial rule-it is rooted in the rich and fascinating history of Myanmar. Many of the ethnic minority groups have enjoyed political autonomy long before the British came. A viable political solution that was commensurate with the history of Myanmar and that promised peace was set in place by Aung San in 1947 but, unfortunately, the military junta destroyed that foundation and instead opted for the more discriminatory and destructive strategy of Burmanization.
    The strategy for peace that respects the freedoms and rights of all people in Myanmar needs to congrue with the spirit of Panglong.

    • The discrimination that the author is referring to when discussing the nomenclature of states and regions is the distinction between the two based upon solely upon ethnicity. The seven ethnic states contrasted with the seven Bamar-majority regions has the intentional effect of ‘diluting’ the voices of ethnic nationalities within the seven states. The author states that a common name for all sub-national administration units would “signifying equality without any ethnic identification or affiliation”, ensuring, in nomenclature of state subdivisions at least, equality among ethnic nationalities.

  3. I have seen many educated people by books but having very little consciences and thinking abilities. This author is belong in that book smart idiots group. This article is insensitive and insulting to Burmese people who lived under military thugs. The reason of insulting is he publicly saying Burmese people should live under military rule in the name of stability. Ethnic people also should give up their struggle and give into military rule. First and very important point for ethnic people not to give into military rule is that, “foreign policy dictate the survival of Ethnic cultures and way of life”. For example “Look at Bangladesh border, Araken state stability is affected by a group previously unknown in Burma history. Kachin and Shan States border with China and Burma and China foreign policy always affect Kachin and Shan state. What is a good reason for Burma to carry the burden of military dictatorship which does not serve any positive outcome for country and people development? May be it is good for UNICEF because you and your organization can rent a building with air conditioning and good plumbing with loathsome price. You may be able to go to bed with murderers and rapists of Burma, but it is disgusting to say Burmese people should do the same as you are. Please recalibrate your moral compass and write with sensitivities.

  4. Re: 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, according to the writer. This is the issue UNFC/ NCCT leaders are facing to draw a line. UNFC / NCCT leaders even suggested to form’ Federal Army’. UNFC/ ethic leaders may not disarm by 2030 unless a Federal Defence is established under the constitution. UNFC / ethnic leaders draw a line on’Federalim’ and’ Federal army’ in the next ceasefire agreement. The next step is a public debate on chaning the constitution line by line and word by word with equal rights. Let’s bring the battle line into legal line but justice is the bottom line to uphold in Burma.

  5. United Nations is often criticized for its ineffective programs, actions, and squandering aid money for its staffs’ luxurious living. It is not surprising that why the world body is criticized because of employing people such as Ramesh Shrestha who apparently pretended to know Myanmar well (i.e., wrote this misinformed article) and served is a former Unicef country representative to Myanmar.

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