The Price of Peace

By Saw Yan Naing 17 March 2016

Since the initiation of Burma’s reforms in 2010, major policy shifts have emerged among Western nations that had long supported opposition forces and ethnic organizations committed to the democracy movement.

As aid to these groups has decreased, funds fulfilling the aspirations of the outgoing quasi-civilian government have increased.

Critics and observers point out that many within Western governments believe economic development will end Burma’s political stalemate and resolve decades of armed conflict. This has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in both aid and investment being filtered through Naypyidaw, the government capital, instead of through long-established community-based infrastructure networks.

Myanmar Peace Center

The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a four-year-old Burmese government affiliate in Rangoon, is one institution that has benefitted from these funding shifts.

Hla Maung Shwe, an advisor within the MPC, would not elaborate on the organization’s foreign monies; the Myanmar Peace Monitor has reported that the MPC has received around US$2.5 million in funds from Japan, the EU and the United Nations in its first year of operation. Hla Maung Shwe pointed out that “hundreds” of “foreigner-led” groups receive funds for peace-building as well.

But has it worked? The MPC advisor said that his organization has played a major role in shaping the perspectives of military generals in dealing with ethnic armed groups—of which there are more than 20 nationwide—in the peace process. But the MPC-brokered signing of a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) by only eight of the armed groups and the state military last year has not ended civil war in Burma. Instead, critics say it is has served as a “divide and rule tactic” by the government.

The MPC may be well funded, but it lacks legitimate decision-making power and the trust of many ethnic armed groups, who, Hla Maung Shwe said, “think in black and white,” when it comes to peace, rather than a more desirable “grey.”

Yet Hla Maung Shwe also admitted that despite many outward changes, the former military regime remains a driving force in Burma’s political scene, which continues to attract international interest to the peace process.

“It is true,” he said. “Reforms [came] from a transition initiated by the government regime, and it is the elites who began this transition.” But, he insisted that throughout the process, “government and Tatmadaw [Burma Army] officials have accepted many demands from ethnic groups.”

‘Supporting Government Policy’

At a development forum in Naypyidaw in January 2013 attended by around 600 delegates from 55 countries, foreign donors committed to actively supporting Burmese government structures in ceasefire and conflict-affected areas in ethnic regions. In 2014, international aid for health care began increasingly coming through the government’s centralized structure.

“Donors are just supporting the Burmese government’s policy and not listening to other voices,” said Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist focused on ethnic affairs in Burma, who also lamented the prioritizing of “shortsighted economic interests” by investors.

One long-time Burma watcher, who spoke to The Irrawaddy on the condition of anonymity, said that this foreign aid policy fuelled local resentment and continues to push long-standing ethnic health and education structures under the control of the central government rather than integrating them into a devolved federal system.

“It seems business interests have become the first priority. Human rights and democracy is secondary,” she said regarding donor priorities.

The source highlighted Norwegian action in Burma as an illustration of this phenomenon.

In 2013, Telenor, a largely state-owned Norwegian telecommunications firm, signed a lucrative deal with Burma’s government; its telecommunication services now operate widely throughout Burma.

Yet Katja Nordgaard, who served as the company’s executive vice president, had previous political ties to Burma: she was formerly Norway’s ambassador to Burma, a role from which she resigned and then joined Telenor. Nordgaard reportedly introduced Telenor to Burmese government officials in 2012, while she was acting as Ambassador.

US Engagement

As interests change, increasing commercial engagement with Burma can be expected from other countries that once firmly supported the political and ethnic opposition. There is increasing pressure on the US government by business associations not to renew sanctions on Burma in May of this year, when the policy will go under review.

The United States eased sanctions in December 2015 against Burma’s largest conglomerate, Asia World Company, by extending a six-month waiver for use of Rangoon’s Asia World Port by American companies. Asia World’s owner is Burmese tycoon Steven Law (also known as Htun Myint Naing), who is linked to illicit drug trade through his father, Lo Hsing Han, a notorious drug kingpin.

“Relief from US sanctions in Myanmar is challenging,” said Kristine Gould, the head of PACRIM Research Associates, an American research firm that studies Burma. “In the case of Steven Law and the Asia World Port terminal, the United States had to balance sanctions policies regarding a Specially Designated National against pressure from the international business community for access to his port facilities.”

Decisions on sanctions, Gould said, involve striking a “delicate balance” between US national interests, pressure from American and international business communities and National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi’s wishes.

On Tuesday, a president selected by the NLD was voted in by the Union Parliament, since Suu Kyi herself is barred from holding the position due to constitutional restrictions based on her sons’ British citizenship. The incoming president Htin Kyaw, a relatively unknown political player, is joined by two vice presidents, Henry Van Thio, also of the NLD, and Myint Swe, a former lieutenant-general selected for the post by the military. He remains on the US’s Specially Designated Nationals list, due to his role in crushing the 2007 Saffron Revolution—a series of protests for political change led by Buddhist monks.

“The nomination of U Myint Swe to the Vice Presidency will further compound sanctions decisions,” explained Gould. “This will certainly pose challenges to the US government.”

In an interview with The Irrawaddy last month, Derek Mitchell, the former American ambassador to Burma, said he anticipates further engagement between Burma and international communities, but that there was also a need to acknowledge the country’s turbulent history.

“There must be respect for the past. The younger generations are just outstanding. There is tremendous potential,” said Mitchell. “We need to invest in that even though we deal with the pain of the past.”