Burma’s Peace Process Needs a Fresh Start 

By Khin Ohmar & Alex Moodie 12 February 2016

On Union Day, 69 years since the signing of the Panglong Agreement, it is time for a reappraisal and a new start to what has ultimately been an unsuccessful peace process. Key elements toward achieving a successful peace agreement have been missing throughout the past five years: inclusivity, trust, the meaningful and full participation of women, and—perhaps key to the whole process—political will from the Burma Army. It is the latter that will be the biggest challenge facing the incoming NLD government as it contemplates how to address both the faltering peace efforts and the civil war that has plagued Burma’s ethnic communities since independence.

The much-touted Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015 and the subsequent Union Peace Conference (UPC) in January 2016 were boycotted by many powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), while the UPC was condemned by civil society in a damning statement. The term ‘nationwide,’ used with a complete lack of irony by the Burma government, excluded EAOs in many parts of the country, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA), and the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). Civil society cited ongoing military offensives in Kachin State and northern Shan State as a key factor in their decision to call for the postponement of the UPC.

It is these ongoing offensives—in some of the most ferocious military operations since World War II—that perpetuate ethnic communities’ and EAOs’ lack of trust in the Burma Army and the Burma government. Furthermore, human rights violations including sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killings have continued as perpetrators from the Burma Army act with complete impunity. The government’s peace negotiators have talked a good game, sugar-coating their words throughout Thein Sein’s administration, but if the military continues as it always has—unreformed, abusive, unremorseful—such words are empty and efforts will have been ineffective.

Throughout the whole peace process, as is often the case, women’s voices have been limited to mere token inclusion. The meaningful and full participation of women is vital, as their experiences of armed conflict are often very different to those of men. The burdens, responsibilities, coping mechanisms and perspectives they could bring to the negotiating table would broaden and deepen the peace process, and it is well established that women’s participation in peace processes ensures a more sustainable long-term peace. Yet despite a strong presence in civil society leadership, women have continued to be marginalized in the peace process.

Underlying many factors contributing to the failed peace process in Burma is the lack of political will by the Thein Sein government and the Burma Army to truly address the aspirations of ethnic people: self-determination, ethnic equality, and a federal system of governance. The military is still the most powerful institution in the country and any moves toward reforming their dominance are flatly refused by the military itself through its constitutional veto powers.

This will be the biggest challenge for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government: persuading the military to reach a middle ground, to compromise, and to participate on equal terms with EAOs based on the Panglong spirit of equality and self-determination. Yet there are some positives on her side—she is trusted by the ethnic communities and EAOs much more than the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This was demonstrated by the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory in November’s national polls—not just in central Burma, but in ethnic regions, too. The NLD’s stated position towards ethnic equality and power sharing, while yet to be demonstrated in action, is much more amenable to ethnic aspirations than any other time in the past fifty years. Furthermore, the election victory gives the NLD a moral authority and popular legitimacy that no other ruling body in Burma has had since the time of independence.

The new government, while institutionally restricted by the Burma Army’s veto powers and continued control over many national affairs, thus has some space to maneuver. This is an opportunity to demonstrate the political will needed to confront issues currently lacking in the peace process, such as an end to the marginalization of women and the demand that anything with ‘nationwide’ in the title actually be as such. While the NLD will not be able to stop the Burma Army from launching devastating military offensives in ethnic areas and abusing local populations, it can use its popular legitimacy both at home and abroad to pressure the Burma Army in a way that the USDP never did or could.

Finally the international community, and especially the peace donors that have poured millions into this unsuccessful process, must also undergo a reappraisal of their priorities. EAOs and ethnic rights-based civil society must benefit from this financial and technical assistance in equal measure to the Burma government. This may involve a certain swallowing of pride. But, after all, it is the ethnic communities they represent that have led a generations-long struggle for real peace and equality, in spite of bearing the burden of social, economic and political injustices enabled by a centralized Burman monopoly on power and resources. These ethnic communities must now be recognized as the primary stakeholders in any future peace process; it is to them that the international community and the peace donors must be held accountable.

Khin Ohmar is the Coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of regional and Burma civil society organizations supporting the collective efforts of all peoples working towards democracy, peace, justice and human rights in Burma. Alex Moodie is the Advocacy and Research Officer at Burma Partnership.