The Irrawaddy

Burma’s Peace Process and the Swiss Bank Account

Burma’s former chief peace negotiator Aung Min at a meeting with ethnic leaders in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in February. (Photo: Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy)

Burma’s peace negotiators must be able to open a Swiss bank account if they want to achieve their goals in the peace process.

Such first-rate advice was the legacy of Aung Min, the former government’s chief negotiator at the Myanmar Peace Center, which has been rebranded as the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) under the leadership of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

You may ask: How is Burma’s peace process related to Swiss banking?

In a recent publication, “Peace Process and the Analyses of Those Involved,” Aung Min wrote a 12-page reflection on how he had led peace talks with the ethnic armed organizations through shuttle diplomacy, a tactic used throughout his leadership. In the article, he explained the term shuttle democracy by telling the “Swiss Bank Account” story.

The story goes: Once upon a time, there was a rich man who had a very beautiful daughter. There was also a broker who wanted to arrange a marriage between the daughter and a poor boy in town. He asked the rich man to allow his daughter to marry the poor boy, but the rich man refused because of the boy’s poverty. The broker said the boy had a Swiss bank account. Thinking that a person with a Swiss account must be wealthy, the rich man agreed to the nuptial.

Then, the broker went to the daughter and urged her to marry the boy, but she refused. The broker explained that her father had approved the match. She was then afraid of losing the rights to her father’s wealth and agreed to marry the boy. The broker again went to the boy and urged him to marry the daughter of the rich man. The boy said she would not marry him because he was poor. When the broker said that she already agreed to marry him, the boy agreed as well.

Finally, the broker went to a Swiss bank and asked them to open an account for the boy. The bank refused. The broker told the bank that the boy was going to be the son-in-law of a billionaire. Knowing that, the Swiss bank agreed to open an account for the boy.

U Aung Min wanted readers to understand that he had played the role of the broker in the story and was able to open a Swiss bank account to achieve his goal. Transposed to the peace process, he was able to achieve the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government and several ethnic armed organizations by using his brand of shuttle diplomacy.

The story could also be understood through the well known Machiavellian principal, “the ends justify the means,” implying that any means necessary are acceptable in achieving one’s goals.

But, if Aung Min actually led the peace talks with the ethnic armed organizations over the past four years with the Swiss bank account story as a template, it was nothing but deception, no matter how noble the results were.

What is worse is that he wrongly interpreted shuttle diplomacy. The term was first coined when Henry Kissinger shuttled between countries while acting as the US government’s negotiator in a peace process between Israel, Egypt and Syria following the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The term shuttle diplomacy is used when a peace negotiator has to deal with multiple parties; shuttle between the parties numerous times to seek a consensus; understand that all goals will not be met initially and that flexibility must be encouraged; and be able to shift from negotiator to counselor in order to persuade concerned parties in instances of deadlock.

Most importantly, from what we know about Kissinger’s Israel-Arab negotiations, he did not employ the underhanded tactics described in Aung Min’s Swiss bank account story to persuade concerned parties into agreement.

It is telling that seven ethnic armed organizations did not sign the NCA even though they participated fully in negotiations and had agreed in principle to the pact. It could be that there were additional reasons behind their abstention, other than the exclusion of the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

With the publication arriving at a critical period, while the government is preparing for the 21st Century Panglong Conference, it was assumed that it would contain profound ideas and invaluable tips for the new NRPC leadership, in their efforts to resume peace talks.

However, Aung Min’s advice differs sharply from the political philosophy of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now chairs the NRPC. Since 1988, she has always believed that “the means justify the ends,” indicating that if the means were morally acceptable, the end would preserve the political integrity she values so highly.

Thuta is the pen name of an independent Burmese writer and observer of politics in the country.

This article has been slightly amended to correct the number of ethnic armed organizations that did not sign the NCA though they participated fully in negotiations and had agreed in principle to the pact.