Can Myanmar’s Armed Ethnic Groups Find a Path Toward Becoming Responsible Businesses?

By The Irrawaddy 23 January 2021

Ye Ni; Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the issues surrounding the Border Guard Force (BGF) in Myawady of Karen State, the peace process and disarmament and the rights of ethnic armed groups to do business. Nan Paw Gay, editor-in-chief of Karen Information Center, and U Banyar Aung, editor-in-chief of Mon News Agency, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Myanmar’s military put pressure on top leaders of the BGF—Colonel Saw Chit Thu, Major Mote Thone and Major Saw Tin Win—to resign. Then, not only BGF leaders but also its members submitted resignations, forcing Myanmar’s military to hold talks with the armed group in Myaing Gyi Ngu. These were a result of disputes over the controversial China-backed Shwe Kokko new city project in Myawady, which is alleged to have ties with Chinese criminal gangs. The BGF said it would not accept pressure from Myanmar’s military because the BGF also contributes to peace and development of Karen State.

Nan Paw Gay, what is your assessment of the BGF’s contribution to development of Karen State over the past ten years since it was formed in 2010?

Nan Paw Gay: There are two things to consider—peace and development. Though the BGF is not involved in peace talks, it does play a role in settling armed conflicts in respective areas. While they are subdivision of Myanmar’s military, they grew out of the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army), a splinter group of the KNU (Karen National Union). The BGF acts as an intermediary between Myanmar’s military and Karen armed organizations.

And as to development, though they don’t play a major role in the state economy, there are companies that have been established by the BGF. Those companies play a role in regional development work and are also involved in work like road construction in towns. But the work does not always go smoothly.

Shwe Kokko, the new city project, faces serious challenges, and not only from locals of Myawady but also from the residents of the entire state, who have concerns about it. The BGF has participated in peace and development work over the past ten years, and they are facing considerable challenges in some issues.

There are many armed organizations in Karen. There are the KNU, which has signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and KNU/KNLA (Peace Council). The BGF cooperated with them on the Unity Committee for Karen Armed Groups. Though it might not be a big deal, the BGF does play a role there. And the BGF also takes part in [celebrating] significant days of Karen people.

YN: Security sector reform (SSR) is an important aspect of the peace process. The Tatmadaw maintains a policy of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) in security sector reform. It is fair to say that BGF is a model of that policy. But then, the Tatmadaw is finding it difficult even to disarm the BGF. The BGF is not included in the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference or NCA of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. But it is under the control of the Tatmadaw. U Banyar Aung, how do you think the BGF can participate in the peace process?

Banyar Aung: The DDR or SSR is the process all the ethnic armed organizations must ultimately go through as part of the peace process. First of all, we need to assess if we have reached the DDR stage. In the case of the Kaungkha people’s militia in northern Shan State, action was taken against the entire group in connection with drug charges. The BGF and people’s militias are under the control of the Tatmadaw. They are the groups outside NCA path. Seventeen armed groups signed the ceasefire with the then military regime between 1989 and 1997.

After the Tatmadaw applied pressure under 2008 Constitution, some of them transformed to BGFs and people’s militias. They became BGFs and people’s militias as it was not convenient to implement DDR at the time. However, large ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) opted against BGF scheme, and they are now engaged in the NCA path. At first, it was hoped that some 20 EAOs would sign the NCA, but so far only ten have signed it. There are hundreds of organizations outside the NCA, and there are tens of thousands of members in those organizations.

As far as I’m concerned, the government and the Tatmadaw are not on the same page. In my opinion, there should be only two sides—the government and the Tatmadaw on one side and EAOs on the other. But in reality, it appears that the process has become more complicated. There are political parties, NCA signatories and the Tatmadaw. And I don’t know what role the government is playing. The process is lengthy and has no definite timeframe. It is important that the government and the Tatmadaw be in accord, if the peace process is to be implemented effectively.

YN: Every armed group needs to make money to arm and equip and feed its members and their families. For many years, they have been dependent on border trade and resources. But as the political landscape has changed and focus has been shifted to stability and development of the country, the government is pushing to legalize the illegal border trade.

This has had a serious impact upon the income of the BGF. We heard that 20 vehicles [illegally] imported by the BGF were confiscated ahead of latest tensions over Shwe Kokko project.  The government always promotes an ideal in its reform process—to make businesses in conflict-affected areas responsible enterprises, which focus not only on profits but also guarantee labor rights, human rights, and take responsibility for community development and environmental conservation. The government always calls for switching to a responsible business model. Do you think the EAOs will be able to transform their operations into responsible businesses?

NPG: Not only the EAOs, whether NCA signatories or non-signatories, but also the BGF are struggling to support their members and families. Not only are those groups struggling, but also the lower-ranking soldiers of Myanmar’s military can’t survive on their salaries. They have to look for additional sources of income. Neither side is perfect. Setting aside the businesses operated by EAOs, even the operations of leading businessmen are not perfect. The same is true of the government.

Without stability, no business will be able to operate properly. There are too many challenges and risks to do business in unstable environment. NCA signatories are given certain business permits either by the National Reconciliation and Peace Center or relevant state governments to feed their armies. In some cases, business permits granted by the Union-level government do not harmonize with regional requirements. In that case, NCA signatories have to spend a lot of time on negotiations.

The concept of responsible business can’t be materialized by a single organization or in a single place. The process calls for a strong overall policy. But before adopting such a policy, comprehensive surveys must be conducted to examine the negative impacts of businesses in respective regions. It will be difficult even in the next five year to ensure that businesses minimize their social and environmental impacts. If the government adopts a plan or policy, there will be some improvement over time. But it calls for collaboration between people, civil society organizations (CSOs), political parties and armed organizations including Myanmar’s military and government. If there is collaboration, there will be changes over time. But there won’t be changes overnight.

YN: Taking a look at the peace process, you can see that EAOs were granted business permits in exchange for a ceasefire. And those businesses mostly became illegal businesses, for example the Shwe Kokko project. Then, the Tatmadaw tried to retake control. What is your view of that circle?

BA: As peace is being built, the government has been able to spread its authority to ethnic and border areas. The government started to collect taxes while the existing EAOs continue to collect taxes. And people suffer as a result, having to pay double taxes. But then, EAOs have limited options to feed their armies. Some businesses make profits, but some don’t. The burden on the people has increased. The government failed to provide assistance to NCA signatories through a specific aid program. The leaders of New Mon State Party told me that the government had not given them any assistance and that they have to do business by themselves. Only when a federal country is built will these problems be solved. For the time being, it is not an easy task to turn smuggling into a responsible business. They all are connected with the peace process. They all are dependent on the peace process.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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