RANGOON — Burma’s recent election will usher a sea of new faces into the national Parliament, installing a fresh batch of lawmakers who will select the next president—an as-yet-unknown figure that pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed to act “above.”
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), secured a landslide win on Nov. 8, effortlessly cleaning house in the Union Parliament and faring well in most states and divisions. What may prove harder, observers said in the wake of the victory, will be tackling the country’s persistent troubles—most dauntingly the civil conflict between the government and ethnic armed groups.
Resolving civil conflict will prove especially difficult for Suu Kyi’s government, as she will dare not confront the powerful Burma Army or try to circumvent its authority.
Within just days of the historic vote, about 10,000 civilians had been displaced in eastern Burma after government troops renewed offensives against ethnic Shan, Kachin and Ta’ang rebels. It has never been clearer that the Burma Army is unfazed by Suu Kyi’s executive gains. Almost as striking has been her failure to speak out on the violence to date.
La Nan, a spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), was not so silent, telling The Irrawaddy that his organization is committed to working with the new government throughout the forthcoming political dialogue, the next step in the country’s long and volatile peace process.
“We want to end all these problems,” La Nan said, referring to the decades-long civil conflict that still rages in parts of the country. “We want internal peace; we want to move forward with political dialogue. We are ready to make that happen and deal with the new government’s policy on ethnic groups.”
Armed ethnic minority groups have been at war with Burma’s central government in an ongoing effort for self-determination and a true federal union since the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The conflict in Burma has become one of the world’s longest sustained civil wars.
The government of President Thein Sein initiated a complicated peace process that led to the Oct. 15 signing of a “nationwide” ceasefire agreement with eight of the country’s more than 20 armed rebel groups, though some of the most powerful and influential groups abstained from the accord. The Kachin, Kokang, Mongla, northern Shan, Ta’ang and Wa forces were all among those that did not sign the agreement.
The Burma Army was quick to act in a number of non-ceasefire territories after the deal was made, and none of the actors on the government’s side of peace negotiations spoke out about the ongoing violence. Neither the government’s chief peace negotiator, Union Minister Aung Min, nor the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) has spoken out against recent military operations in northern Shan State.
Nang Charm Tong, a prominent activist with the Shan Women’s Action Network, urged the international community not to lose perspective on the civil conflict in the wake of the NLD’s electoral victory, and to keep one eye on the realities in Burma’s conflict zones, where voting did not even take place.
“While thousands of people are suffering at the hands of the Burma Army, the international community should not be silent about the atrocities and injustices committed by the military against our people,” Nang Charm Tong told The Irrawaddy.
Some analysts suggested that the incoming government might be well-advised to take up a new approach altogether, arguing that efforts to secure a true and lasting peace under Thein Sein were ultimately unsuccessful and likely unsustainable.
Journalist and Burma expert Bertil Lintner pointed out the failures of the MPC, which offers “facilitation” services but has no mandate in the decision making process with regard to the peace talks. Lintner said the MPC had “failed miserably and should be replaced by a new outfit.”
A number of ethnic politicians also cast doubt on the longevity of the progress made, calling into question Suu Kyi’s ability to broker between stakeholders. One Mon politician told The Irrawaddy he was concerned that her switch from opposition leader to a major player in the government could leave inclined to avoid confrontation with the ethnic groups’ main adversary—the Burma Army.
His concerns seem supported by remarks Suu Kyi has made in the recent past; last week she told Channel News Asia that she intended to have friends rather than enemies. In recent years she has expressed “fondness” for the Burmese Armed Forces, remarking that her late father, Gen. Aung San, was the founder of Burma’s powerful military institution.
The NLD’s election manifesto stated the party’s commitment to establishing a genuine federal union in a chapter titled, “Ethnic Affairs and Internal Peace.” The charter said the party would strive to achieve a peaceful political settlement based on the principles of freedom, equal rights and self-determination, vowing to resolve disputes among ethnic groups through dialogue and mutual respect.
The formation of a true federal union will likely be the most difficult task Suu Kyi will face in the dawn of her party’s rule. The reason this will prove so problematic is that the Burma Amy and the ethnic armed groups hold two different conceptions of federalism. The military views the idea of federalism as a withdrawal from the Union, a threat to its sovereignty, while the ethnic groups envision a more unified group of distinct parts. The Constitution, however, allows for only one army in the nation, which presents a stumbling block in discussions about autonomy.
Zipporah Sein, vice chair of the Karen national Union (KNU), said that while the NLD government is likely to be more democratic and Suu Kyi’s ability to act as a unifier could benefit the peace process, concerns remain over how the military will react to her late entrance into the conversation.
“Some people from the government have said there is no guarantee that the next government will continue the peace process, and that it might not go well,” Zipporah Sein told The Irrawaddy. “My only concern is the military’s attitude toward the NLD once it becomes the government.”
Despite the difficulties facing the next government with regard to reining in the military and bringing an end to the country’s devastating civil wars, some stakeholders are confident that the NLD can eventually handle the task if it can find a way to negotiate with the Burma Army.
Whether that happens quickly or over a prolonged period of calculated decision-making will be up to the incoming government and the will of the military, said Sai Nyunt Lwin, general secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for democracy (SNLD).
“It will take time for the NLD to cooperate with the Burma Army; it’s important and it will depend on how much she can negotiate with them,” he said. “But the new government, whoever is in power, must take responsibility for ending this war.”