Book Review: War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar

By Bertil Lintner 29 December 2016

Before the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement(NCA) there was another set of ceasefire agreements, initiated by the then-intelligence chief Lt-Gen. KhinNyunt, and which concluded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, nearly two dozen major and smaller groups made peace with the government. But all those agreements were only verbal—with one notable exception. TheKachin Independence Organization (KIO) and itsKachin Independence Army insisted on, and got, a written agreement. It was signed on February 24, 1994 between three representatives of the then-ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, three KIO leaders and three peace mediators from Kachin civil society. The agreement led to the cessation of more than two decades of hostilities in Kachin State, but it stipulated only how the ceasefire should be observed and where the various combatants would be allowed to remain. The agreement contained nothing about the future status of the frontier areas: political talks would have to wait until Burma had a Constitution and elected government, the Kachins were told.

The KIO subsequently participated in the deeply flawed National Convention,which was set up to draft a new Constitution. But even there,no real discussions about ethnic grievances were possible. In an equally flawed referendum in 2008, a new Constitution was adopted which was unitary rather than federal in character. Then, as the International Crisis Group stated in a June 2013 report,the regime“reneged on earlier promises to the KIO, demanding that they transform into border guard units under the partial control of the Myanmar [Burmese] Army. When the KIO refused to do so, the ceasefire was declared void and the electoral commission prevented the registration of Kachinpolitical parties and independent candidates” for the upcoming November 2010 election. In June 2011, after a new government led by ex-general TheinSein had assumed office—and, ironically, said it was making peace with the country’s ethnic minorities a priority—the Burmese Army broke what was left of the ceasefire agreement and attacked KIA positions along the Chinese border. The war has resulted in thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 100,000 people.

In order to understand why the 17-year ceasefire agreement in the north broke down, and why the KIO so far has resisted pressure to sign yet another agreement—the NCA—with the government, it is important to read this book. Edited by Mandy Sadan, an academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the author of a previous, groundbreaking study titled Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderlands of Burma. It is especially commendable that three of the 17 contributors to this new volume are Kachins: Nhkum Bu Lu, the exiled wife of a political prisoner, MahkawHkun Sa, a local politician who spent seven years in prison for his activities, and HkanhpaTuSadan, a leading figure in the Kachin movement in exile. Among the foreign writers are the Canadian professor Robert Anderson, Ho Ts’uiP’ing, a Taiwanese scholar, the Estonian anthropologist LaurKiik, and Martin Smith, a writer who is well known internationally as well as to the Burmese public.

Their combined efforts shed light uponthe reasons why the initial ceasefire collapsed and outline the dangers inherent in ceasefire agreements not being accompanied by a substantive commitment to political change. The agreements that were concluded more than three decades ago did little more than freeze Burma’s ethnic problems without addressing crucial political issues such as the viability of federalism vis-à-vis a centralized system. Little has changed since then, or as one of the contributors argues: “the ‘ceasefire now, political dialogue later’ approach that has shaped the peace building process since 2010 resonated strongly with the trajectory of earlier ceasefire processes”—which did not lead to anything more than an “armed peace” that was bound collapse sooner or later.

Although it is clear, as the contributors to this volume argue, that a new approach is needed to bring decades of civil war to an end, the new government led by the National League for Democracy has pursued the failed policies of its military-run predecessors. No progress can be made,MahkawHkun Sa argues, unless the 2008 Constitution is changedin a way that is meaningful for ethnic national demands.Until and unless that happens, “the agreements will fail again.”

The already complex situation has not been made easier by an invasion of hordes of foreign “peacemakers” who seem more interested in competing for shares of the millions of dollars allotted by the international community to the so-called “peace process,” than trying to understand the root cause of Burma’s decades-long ethnic conflicts and civil war. But this book is a valuable contribution to that understanding. It should be read by those “peacemakers” as well as others with an interest in Burma’s ethnic conflicts — and, last but not least, the Burmese publicof whom far too many seem bewildered by what is happening in the north of their country.