“Realizing Peace in Myanmar”, a collection of background papers published by the Euro Burma Office in Myanmar between 2015-17 was launched on Monday at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the EBO.
Author Paul Keenan compiled his research on the Myanmar conflict and highlighted the diverse nature of the conflict and the many obstacles that remain to peace.
Keenan has been based in Southeast Asia doing research on Myanmar for almost two decades and is the current consultant on research and analysis at EBO Myanmar.
He shared his perspectives on the Myanmar peace process with Irrawaddy senior reporter Nyein Nyein this week.
What is the key message in your book?
Paul Keenan: The key message I think is the fact that, for the conflict in Burma, people cannot just see it as a similar conflict elsewhere because there are far too many individuals who need to be given what they are asking for. Obviously, you know, it is very easy for international observers to see everything in a context where we’ve sorted out conflict in Sri Lanka and Bosnia. But those actors were three or four.
We are talking about a lot more here. And with some, like say, the Wa, they are very big and they are very well equipped. And they have very strong support. With some groups it is not the same. The main thing from what I see in the conflict is people don’t fully understand this dynamic. They don’t see the fact that one group might be recent, could be four or five years old. Another group could be 15 years old. One group is 25,000 people; one group is 100 or less. So they don’t see that. You just see an organization and you think well these are heavily armed men fighting. But that is not what it’s about. I think the conflict is more about understanding what each individual armed organization wants out of a final peace process. Some are prepared to accept less, others are not prepared to.
As the book is about peace in Myanmar, how do you perceive the current peace process in Myanmar? Has it been deadlocked as many observers have said?
I would say there is no deadlock. What I would say is the peace process has become very, very slow. There are a number of reasons for this. During the [former President U] Thein Sein regime, I would say, the peace process moved faster, primarily because the Thein Sein regime understood what it was they were dealing with better than the current government. The military aspect is very important in how fast and what can be achieved in a peace process.
The Myanmar peace process involves the Tatmadaw and many ethnic armed groups, it is unique.
Yes, it is very unique.
So how we could move forward to achieve peace quickly or in a certain period of time?
Well, to be honest I don’t think you can move quickly. I don’t believe any of the actors now are in a hurry. I think it serves them well to try and get the best they can out of the deal. Because they know when they agree to something, they will not be going back. Because if they do, it looks like they themselves caused the problem to the peace process. So you have a number of actors, who are hoping to strengthen their positions, sometimes by using other bigger armed organizations to support them; others who are hoping they can get what they want based on previous experience. But I don’t see the peace process, regardless of how many meetings or peace conferences are held moving that quickly. I don’t believe Tatmadaw sees significant changes next year. But I think we will see a lot more dialogue. Whether that dialogue is positive, I doubt it will be in the beginning. There are a number of actors who I think still remain in the pre-2012 mindset. As long as that exists, progress will be slow.
What do you mean by a number of actors are left with this [pre-2012] mindset, are they from both sides of the negotiation or one side?
To be honest, I think the military is happy with the position that they have. And also they are happy that there are divisions within the armed ethnic organizations, because it serves their purposes more than it does the armed ethnic organizations. So in that regard, that is why the peace process is unlikely to go quickly, because the Myanmar military at this moment in time does not necessarily feel that it has to put that much effort into it because it is allowing the government to run the peace process. So whereas the Myanmar military is prepared to watch the NLD-led government negotiate, it probably knows nothing substantial would happen soon. For them it is win-win. For the ethnic people, not so much.
What were challenges for you in finalizing this book? Although the sub-title says that they are papers from 2015 to 2017, you said you spent more time than that.
To be honest, the challenges are that there are a lot of minds being changed when it comes to what people want. That is not strange because we all make the same changes in our daily lives, let alone as something as serious it is. The process has become too administrative; there have been too many meetings and those meetings often say the same thing. They always end with “Well, we cannot agree to anything, until we go back and speak to our leaders.” And then that requires another meeting that leads us to say, “Well actually, we are going to issue a statement.” But the statement is the same like the one four months ago. So for me that’s the most … odd part of it. Do you see what I mean? If you reduce the number of people involved, the faster things can get done. But with this, because there are so many different negotiations and negotiators, it is difficult for everyone to find common ground.
In terms of the many people participating, how could we promote inclusiveness, including integrating civil society members into the process further?
You have to ensure that the civil society actors are involved in the political dialogue. We cannot not include them. Obviously, the environmental section of the community has to be involved, the gender issue has to be taken into account. But before that happens, I think, you set out the guidelines for what you want. And then you go forward. If you invite everyone to the same meeting, whether you are deciding on military issues, whether you are deciding environmental issues, gender issues, and a number of different important aspects of the future society for the country, it has to be taken into account, the more people you invite the more divergent the outcome would be. So I think that’s the important part of the process.
If you had to describe in one word the current Myanmar peace process, what would it be?
In your book, I also noted your comments about the Arakan Army and other groups. As you know, the Rakhine state issue is currently drawing a lot of attention. What do you think [about the Rakhine state situation; with the involvement of the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]; ARSA was proposing a ceasefire and hinted they want to be in the NCA process? Clearly there is no acceptance by the government and other [non-state armed] groups. What is your opinion?
ARSA will never ever be part of the peace process. Never! There is no legitimacy for them whatsoever. Even as an organization they are not legitimate. They can never be. If you look at similar conflicts in Burma, they are not following the same pattern. The situation in Rakhine State, I think, it is going to get worse next year, but not because of ARSA, primarily probably because of the Arakan Army. They may seek a confrontation with the Chin National Front and Arakan Liberation party. At the moment, the Arakan Army seems to be shifting its operations back to Rakhine State, that’s probably not good for Rakhine State.
What do you think of the current situation in Myanmar as military engagement is happening in the north, northeast and western part of the country? Are we going back to history in this conflict cycle?
You are right, to a degree. There are number of issues that should have been finished. With the Arakan Army and their philosophy, I don’t think their philosophy is a philosophy of finding Rakhine or Arakan nationalism, I think it is a bit more than that. That’s why I think the Arakan Army poses a serious threat next year to the peace process, because it is not going to be the Kachins, or the UWSA [United Wa State Army] that would be a threat to the peace process. It would be a smaller group who do not really have a fundamental outlook on what they want. If you remember, the Arakan Army did not have a political wing when they were formed. They did not set a political agenda until the Kachins told them you have to have a political goal. The Arakan Army for me will be the flashpoint for the peace process next year, because they don’t seem to have legitimacy. They weren’t created out of legitimacy, and if they try and pose one in Rakhine state, then that will be serious.