Burma’s Peace Process Could Take ‘Several Generations’

By Saw Yan Naing 13 August 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The peace process undertaken by Burma’s government and the country’s ethnic armed groups could take several generations to complete, according to an analyst watching the negotiations closely.

The government of President Thein Sein is looking to sign a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic rebel leaders, which would be followed by political dialogue to address the groups’ decades-old demands for some kind of autonomy. But negotiations have dragged on many months now, and long-time Burma watcher Ashley South said the fate of peace process would be uncertain in the hands of a different president.

South recently returned from the Philippines to study peace negotiations between the government and ethnic rebels in the south of the country. He said the Philippines had been negotiating with various ethnic Moro armed groups since 1979, and a comprehensive agreement has yet to be achieved.

“A lasting settlement to decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar will take several years to achieve—and perhaps several generations,” said South, who serves as an independent consultant to the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), a Norway-backed international initiative to support the ceasefire talks.

In a review of its work over the past two years, published in April, MPSI said that parliamentary elections set to be held late next year could act as an interruption to the peace process, which could go on until perhaps 2020.

South said it was difficult to see how those involved in the peace talks can agree to a framework for political dialogue, conduct substantial talks and reach agreement on key issues, and have this ratified in a way which will be credible post-election—all before “election fever” takes hold in Burma. He believes a better approach would be for the government and ethnic leaders to accelerate achieving a political agreement of substance now, but wait until after the polls to begin broader national political dialogue.

“Furthermore, it’s not obvious that the future government of Myanmar—particularly if led by a different president—will want to own and continue the current government’s peace process,” said South.

The MPSI report said that the ceasefire and ongoing peace process in Burma had helped to transform the livelihood of civilians affected by decades of armed conflict. Internally displace persons (IDPs) have started to return home in some conflict-affected areas, rebuilding their lives.

These changes are appreciated in those areas, the report said, although it raised concerns about whether ceasefires can be maintained. MPSI-associated projects have been undertaken across five ethnic states— Chin, Shan, Mon, Karen and Karenni—and in Pegu and Tenasserim divisions.

“I think the overwhelming concern of most conflict-affected communities is that fighting does not break out again. In many areas, IDPs have benefited greatly from the peace process—with a reduction in human rights abuses and fear, greater freedom of travel and association, and in some cases improving livelihoods,” said South.

However, he said, many communities remain concerned about issues such as widespread land grabbing, and whether the peace process is sustainable without a political settlement, especially as armed conflict is an ongoing in Kachin State and northern Shan State.

A villager from Kyaukgyi village tract in Pegu Division told the MPSI, “It [a ceasefire] should be the genuine one. We will be very happy if it is the case. But, if the ceasefire breaks down again, conditions will be worse. And it is meaningless to me to live on.”

The MPSI report said that international donors and diplomats need to better reflect their understanding of historical and present complexities in Burma in their strategies for support to Burma and the peace process. Those working in conflict-affected areas need to understand and better respond to local political cultures and local perceptions and the dynamics of peace and conflict at the sites of their work, said the report.

Backed by the Norwegian government, the MPSI has spent US$5 million in supporting peace-related activities in Burma. Community-based organizations and critics have criticized the MPSI for a lack of transparency and local involvement in its work.

“International donors and aid agencies mostly like to position themselves as neutral, in relation to conflict in Myanmar. However, the underlying causes of armed and state-society conflict in Myanmar are highly political,” South said.

“If outside interventions do not engage with these inevitably political realities, the likelihood is that they will support the status quo, which tends to favor the government’s political, social and economic agendas—and those of the aid agencies, rather than their ethnic counterparts.”