Ethnic Issues

A Deceptive Peace?

By Jiwon Lee 29 July 2015

When the Sri Lankan government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers in 2002, few anticipated that only seven years later Colombo would declare a complete military victory over the Tamils. Few expected the betrayal of the historic peace agreement.

Burma has inched closer to reaching its own nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), but it remains uncertain whether the accord will form the cornerstone of a genuine commitment to long-term peace or turn out to be a government-led deception, as in the case of Sri Lanka.

In order for Burma to avoid making the same mistake, it may be instructive to heed the lessons of the failed peace process in Sri Lanka.

Why the Sri Lankan Peace Process Failed

The ceasefire brokered between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was at the time hailed a success.

The international community including Japan, the EU, the US and Norway, which mediated the talks, showed great support for the peace process. In the Oslo Declaration in December 2002, they commended both parties of the long civil war for concluding an “unprecedented, historic” agreement.

However, against all the optimism, the peace process fell apart.

The unanticipated failure was rooted in the significant gap between the expectations of each party on the nature of the new administration under negotiation. While the Sri Lankan government envisaged a federal but unified system under the existing Sinhalese administration, the LTTE wanted to share sovereignty in a two-state framework.

The Sinhalese-majority government had an agenda to bring the north and east Tamil regions under unified rule. They wanted to bring an end to the war so that they could normalize and develop the areas that were dominated by the Tamil insurgencies.

With a focus on state-building, the government prioritized plans for economic development of the Tamil areas over a political solution. Spending a great amount of money on recovery projects, both the government and the international community regarded economic development as a legitimate and crucial way to promote peace.

Meanwhile, the LTTE had a completely different vision centered on their demand for autonomy. The Tamils had designs on their own state-formation project based on self-rule and self-representation, which did not gel with the government’s plan.

Like many ethnic armed groups in Burma, the LTTE had established an institutional structure with state-like functions such as security, welfare, and development. Thus, for them, their demand for sovereignty and political authority over the Tamil population was a logical corollary.

The ostensible peace agreement based on a mismatch of political visions was doomed to failure. The LTTE, after having lost trust in the peace process, withdrew from talks in 2003. The country quickly relapsed into a full-scale war, ending in the defeat of the Tamils in 2009.

Optimism over the Sri Lankan peace process turned out to be misplaced. Although the rounds of talks and truces seemed constructive in the beginning, the signing of a ceasefire belied the completely different visions the two parties had for the future of Sri Lanka.

Ceasefires for State-Building

Burma’s peace process carries the same risks. Although the NCA stipulates that political dialogue would start within 90 days after it is signed, the sincerity of the government to work towards a lasting political solution is dubious.

Recent failed votes in Parliament on proposed constitutional amendments which would have diluted the political power of the military and the executive demonstrate the establishment’s unwillingness to cede power.

Typically, the Burmese government has seldom allowed ceasefires to translate into any dilution of state power. The military government used many of the ceasefires inked with specific ethnic armed groups in the past as a tool for state-building, rather than for genuine peace-building.

The series of bilateral ceasefires during the 1989-2009 period between the government and about 25 non-state armed groups (NSAGs) were not reached on an equal standing in the first place. The government offered great economic incentives to the NSAGs who agreed to ceasefires not because their demands were satisfied, but because they were weary of war.

Although the ceasefires brought some benefits to the NSAGs such as the opening of liaison offices, they mostly served as a tool for the government to bring the ethnic regions on the periphery into the central military’s sphere of influence. Under the ceasefires, government authorities and the Burma Army could “freely” enter border regions and impose tighter control.

The government not only enforced heavier militarization of ethnic areas but also implemented massive economic development projects. According to David Steinberg, it built more roads, railroads, dams, bridges and irrigation systems since 1988 than all the governments since independence in order to gain what he calls “legitimacy through construction.”

Ceasefires also provided legitimacy to the government by making it appear to be enhancing national unity and addressing the demands of the ethnic minorities—while in reality their grievances remained.

The government was unwilling to share real political power with the ethnic minorities. Although some representatives of ethnic groups were allowed to participate in the National Convention that resumed in 2003, they were given only limited bargaining power. National politics was still dominated by the military—and still is thanks to the 2008 Constitution guaranteeing one-fourth of seats in the Parliament to military appointees.

In short, the Burmese government used the 1989-2009 ceasefires for the expansion of state power into the peripheries. It was not actually interested in reaching a political solution through power-sharing.

Present Challenges

Now the question is whether the government has changed; whether it still seeks ceasefires out of the same self-interest.

Several challenges point to the precarious nature of Burma’s peace process. First of all, it is clear that the government and ethnic armed groups do not share the same vision for political arrangements. Although the government has now agreed to work towards “federalism,” it does not seem to have any intention to devolve its power to state and regional governments.

The government’s understanding of federalism is clearly different from that of ethnic armed groups, many of which envision having their own constitutions.

The desire of the government to finalize the negotiations before the upcoming general election adds the risk that the process may be rushed through, hindering parties’ ability to thoroughly go over the terms.

The busy elections period might also hinder the stakeholders’ full engagement in deciding the framework for political dialogue. After the election, it is questionable whether the new government will have the incentive to compromise its powers through political dialogue, since it will already have more legitimacy than the current government.

Of course, it is not my intention to downplay the significance of recent progress in the peace process. The nationwide ceasefire is indeed historic, and it is an important first step in the long road to peace.

However, even the first step must be taken with a sense of caution. Without a constant push towards a political solution, even a successful peace agreement can end up unwinding rapidly, as in the Sri Lanka case.

I hope that Burma’s peace process will be remembered in future as a long-term, not merely fleeting, success.
Jiwon Lee is an independent researcher studying political science at Yale University. She can be reached at   [email protected]. The full academic paper from which this article is drawn can be found at