Economic Development Not a Cure-All for Ethnic Conflict: Burma Watcher

By Saw Yan Naing 4 January 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Burmese government officials have expressed hopes that economic development in the country’s resource-rich frontier areas might help bring an end to decades-long civil wars with ethnic armed groups. But that approach could be problematic, according to an independent consultant who meets regularly with the government and armed groups.

“I think Minister Aung Min understands the need to go beyond an economic agenda,” said Ashley South, a consultant for the Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which formed at the request of Burma’s government last year to boost international support and build confidence in the peace process. Aung Min is a President’s Office minister who is leading the government peace negotiation team.

“But that said, I think generally on the government side there is an assumption that the main problem for ethnic communities is underdevelopment and poverty. I think the main idea is that if they can get money and resources and development into ethnic areas, that will address the main grievances of ethnic communities. I think Aung Min is smarter than that, but mostly on the government side, that is their view, and I think it’s incorrect.”

South, who has been following Burmese affairs for the past two decades, was speaking in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai on Friday, at an event focused on the humanitarian situation for Burmese people who have become refugees in Thailand as a result of civil wars in their homeland.

Burma’s government is currently attempting to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire deal with ethnic armed groups, many of which have fought since the late 1940s for greater political autonomy.

As part of the peace talks, leaders of armed groups have been offered stakes in development projects. While government officials have suggested that economic gains in poorly developed frontier areas might decrease interest in fighting among armed groups, some ethnic observers have said that development and aid projects are short-term fixes that cannot replace political dialogue as a means of ending armed struggle.

South said livelihoods in some conflict areas have improved, but that key political issues had not yet been addressed in the peace process. “The great challenge in the peace process is how to move to political dialogue,” he said. “Another is how to include a wide range of stakeholders, such as civil society organizations and conflict-affected communities.”

Among those stakeholders are Burmese refugees who fled to Thailand, India, China and other countries to escape the fighting. Over 1 million people from eastern Burma alone have been displaced since 1996, according to The Border Consortium (TBC), a humanitarian agency that has provided aid to refugees on the Thai-Burma border for more than 20 years.

Since the Burma government has signed individual ceasefires with a majority of armed groups, the idea of repatriating refugees on the Thai-Burma border has been raised. Funding to refugee camps from international donors has been reduced or cut over the past year, while preparations have been made to help refugees return home.

However, most refugees on the border say they do not believe it is safe yet to return home, as the government army remains stationed in or around many of their villages. “The idea of returning home is so problematic,” said South. “The IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees are not being consulted about the peace process.”

South also questioned the government army’s commitment to the peace process, citing on-and-off fighting in Kachin State and Shan State. Clashes have been ongoing in both states over the past two years, despite peace talks.