Book Review: Pathway to Peace

By Bertil Lintner 26 January 2017

In an endorsement on the back cover of this book, Roland Kobia, the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Burma, states that it “provides a unique insight into Myanmar’s [Burma’s] peace initiative for anyone who is trying to understand one of the world’s most complex peace processes.” The problem, though, is that Aung Naing Oo’s book is a rather incoherent collection of 65 very short essays which does not provide any analysis of the so-called “peace process,” the role of its different domestic and international players, and why it went wrong.

Burma’s former president U Thein Sein expressed his desire to find a solution to the country’s decades-long civil war between government forces and an array of ethnic resistance armies shortly after he assumed office in March 2011. In August that year, he announced that he was ready to engage in talks with the armed groups—and what has been termed a “peace process” began. The EU and others began to support this “peace process” politically and financially.

The bitter truth, however, is that after the peace plans were announced, the war in Burma’s frontier areas became more intense than at any time since the 1980s. It began in June 2011 with an all-out offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north—a group that actually signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1994. Concluding ceasefires with ethnic groups was nothing new and did not begin with U Thein Sein’s presidency; about two dozen major and smaller groups entered into such agreements in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although the KIA was the only one that insisted on a signed accord—which, in the end, was not honored.

After attacks on the KIA were resumed, which led to the flight of more than 100,000 villagers living in the war zones, government forces went on to attack the Shan State Army (SSA) of the Shan State Progress Party, another group that had a ceasefire agreement—although not signed—with the government. Fighting also broke out in northern Shan State, where a new group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) was formed among the Palaungs. Its predecessor, the Palaung State Liberation Army, entered into a verbal ceasefire agreement with the government in 1991, but continued discontent among the Palaung led to the formation of the TNLA, which has grown into one of the strongest ethnic armies in the country. Then, in February 2015, fighting broke out between government forces and yet another armed group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, an area in northeastern Shan State dominated by ethnic Chinese. But this time, it was the ethnic armed group, not the government, which started the war.

None of this is dealt with in Aung Naing Oo’s book. Instead we are treated to tales about “Angolan Tennis”—whatever that might be—and “the Spirit of the Haida Gwaii, the Jade Canoe,” a statue at Vancouver airport in Canada. But the main shortcoming of this collection of essays it that it deals only in passing with the main foreign player in Burma’s civil and political conflicts: China. Aung Naing Oo refers to China as “the elephant in the room,” and lumps it together with India and, somewhat surprisingly, the KIA—which he says “has refused to sign the NCA.” The NCA, or nationwide ceasefire agreement, was a face-saving gesture that U Thein Sein initiated towards the end of his presidency in October 2015. It attracted only three armed groups and five smaller entities which should be described as NGOs rather than resistance armies. None of the major groups in the north and the northeast signed U Thein Sein’s NCA, and Aung Naing Oo ignores the fact that, until then, the KIA was the only group that actually had a signed ceasefire agreement with government.

China is the only foreign power that can wield a carrot as well as a stick in Burma’s civil war—and Beijing is playing its cards very well, outmaneuvering all the Western peaceniks who have flocked to the country since 2011. The MNDAA grew out of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which received massive support from China during the decade 1968-1978, and at a limited extent until the party collapsed in 1989 when the hilltribe rank-and-file of the communist army rose in mutiny against its old, predominantly Burman, orthodox Maoist leadership. The main successor to the CPB, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), is the strongest ethnic armed group in the country—and heavily armed with Chinese weapons which China did not even give to the CPB: Man-portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, howitzers, armored fighting vehicles and the latest models of Chinese machine-guns and other automatic weapons.

The UWSA did not sign the so-called NCA—but it did enter into a ceasefire agreement with the government as early as 1989. Today, it does not take part in the war, but supplies other groups, notably the MNDAA, the TNLA and the SSA, with weapons and ammunition. And, behind the UWSA are, of course, the Chinese—at the same time as China has sold military equipment, including jet fighters, to the Burmese government. In recent months, China has also begun to flex its muscles in the “peace process” by offering to mediate. Aung Naing Oo, who was foreign affairs spokesman for the All-Burma Students Democratic Front, based in Bangkok, and later affiliated with the Vahu Development Institute in Chiang Mai, before he returned to Burma after U Thein Sein had become the country’s president, wants us to believe that “the peace process is still on track”—a remarkable conclusion given the state of affairs in Burma’s frontier areas.

Ambassador Kobia also writes in his endorsement that “history will show that supporting the Myanmar peace process was the right thing to do, and that the EU tries its best, politically and financially.” History is more likely to show that Western political support for Burma’s so-called “peace process” was one of the most ineffectual follies of our time. As for financial support, peace making has become a lucrative industry in Burma, with numerous foreign organizations and individuals competing for funds and attention—while ordinary people in the war zones continue to suffer. If any book should be written about Burma’s civil war today, it should be from their perspective, not from that of any local or foreign “peacemaker.”

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma.