Ethnic Issues

Why Peace Is Still a Tough Sell

By Min Zin 13 September 2013

Burma has witnessed the breaking of many political taboos over the past two years. Perhaps the most significant example is the use of the word “federalism” by the powers-that-be. During his recent visit to the country’s northeast, Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of Parliament, said that Burma should adopt a form of federal union. That Shwe Mann, once the number-three general in the former ruling junta, now sees fit to express public support for the federalist idea suggests that the elite’s long-held phobia about decentralization is losing steam.

When the Burmese army staged a coup in 1962, it justified the takeover by claiming it was preventing the country from falling apart. The army claimed that the Shan ethnic-led political movement, which called for establishment of a federal union in Burma, was a secessionist effort to disintegrate this multi-ethnic country. Yet as the military tightened its grip on power, several ethnic groups took up arms against the central junta, leading the country into what would become one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.

Now President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government is pursuing peace negotiations with dozens of ethnic armed groups, possibly the most complicated and challenging task it has tackled since early 2011. If the president’s initiative succeeds, it could mean the end of Burma’s decades-long civil war. So it’s worth taking a closer look at the peace process and its feasibility. Let’s start with the government’s plan.

Generally speaking, the whole peace process is an executive-led initiative. The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), led by reform-minded ministers Aung Min and Soe Thein, plays an essential role in facilitating on-the-ground negotiations (as well as the ensuing complaints, protests and controversies). With the help of the MPC, the government has thus far struck ceasefire deals with fourteen ethnic armed groups despite ongoing battles with Kachin state in northern Burma and other ethnic resistance armies.

President Thein Sein has made it very clear on many occasions that the country would soon see a nationwide ceasefire signed between the government and ethnic rebel armies. The government plans to hold a grand ceremony in October of this year to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord with the 14 ethnic armed groups and is keeping the door open for other armed groups to enter the agreement at any time. The government, working in coordination with all stakeholders—including ethnic groups, Union Parliament, the military, political parties and civil society organizations—will then draft a framework for a national political dialogue. Thein Sein and his aides are aiming for nothing less than a complete end to the civil war.

And that, needless to say, is a very ambitious goal indeed. They’ll need a lot of luck in order to pull it off.

The president and his associates seem to mean well. They hope to put the country on the right track while they’re still in power and to leave behind a positive legacy. Some cynics believe the president is only in it to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize—in fact, he’s already a strong contender. Regardless of his motives, the plan has at least the potential to yield a good outcome for Burmese citizens.

In any case, the motives behind the government’s push are ultimately irrelevant. The real crux of the matter is whether the government has the power to negotiate peace in the first place. Thein Sein’s administration will only be in office for another two years before the next general election in 2015. According to reliable sources, Thein Sein and many reformists are not likely to run for office again, so they’re effectively brokering this deal as lame duck politicians. It’s going to be a tough sell.

Two other powerful players in Burmese politics, Aung San Suu Kyi (leader of the opposition group National League for Democracy in Burma) and Thura Shwe Mann (speaker of Parliament), may have little incentive to jump on the bandwagon. As I noted in one of my previous posts, the rivalry among these three key players—Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, and Suu Kyi—is only getting worse. Moreover, the latter two have struck an uneasy alliance in order to outmaneuver Thein Sein in many of his recent political postures.

Recently, Shwe Mann questioned Thein Sein’s approach to ethnic peace talks and asked that Parliament be directly involved in ceasefire negotiations with ethnic groups. The MPC then invited both Shwe Mann and Suu Kyi to its office for a long briefing on the peace talks. Shwe Mann has just completed an official tour in Shan State, where he met with representatives of the most powerful ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army. For Shwe Mann, who publicly declared that he wants to be the next president of the country, this is a great opportunity to garner ethnic support for his 2015 campaign. And since Shwe Mann wants to be the leader who can claim that he successfully ended the civil war and brought peace to Burma, his timeline is longer than that of the ruling lame ducks.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi has also announced her 2015 campaign for presidency. Her position appears to be harder to track these days. Before her release from house arrest in 2010, she supported the ethnic cause and showed political and moral solidarity with ethnic resistance groups by sending videos and other messages to them. Even after she was freed in 2010, she continued to advocate the holding of a nationwide conference to address ethnic conflicts in Burma. But since entering Parliament, Suu Kyi has toned down her stance on ethnic issues. She has said, for example, that she is taking a neutral stand in the ethnic civil war in Kachin State.

It’s increasingly apparent that her once whole-hearted support from the ethnic groups is now dwindling. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi remains a prominent and respected figure in international politics, and the Burmese government must still count on her when it comes to securing international legitimacy and resources.

The most important strategic players in this peace process are the armed forces: both the government army and the troops of the ethnic rebel groups. As a general rule, these armed forces tend to be more institutionalized, and their leaders tend to plan for the long term (unlike the above-mentioned politicians who are focused primarily on the 2015 elections). The armed forces on both the government and rebel sides, therefore, have relatively stable stances and strategies on issues such as territorial control, economic gains, and the consideration of geopolitical influences such as China and Thailand.

The success of the president’s peace plan thus depends less on simple hard work and good will than on the tricky process of bargaining among these multiple strategic interests. Burma’s long civil war comes down to more than just inter- and intra- ethnic power distributions. Among many other factors it involves the interests of neighboring countries and illicit businesses. The lifting of the federalism taboo is most welcome. But unless President Thein Sein is somehow able to work around the interests and motives of all the key players and strike a strategic bargain, the true end of the civil war in Burma remains elusive.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, where this article first appeared on Sept. 10, 2013.