An Uphill Mission But Not Mission Impossible

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 29 October 2016

Burma’s peace process—the first priority of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political agenda—is at risk due to the military’s ongoing offensives against ethnic armed groups. The de facto leader is ambitious for aiming both to achieve peace and amend the undemocratic, military-drafted 2008 Constitution during a specific timeframe.

When the incumbent government led by the State Counselor announced its policy for national reconciliation and Union-level peace in mid-October, it indicated a certain level of determination to suggest that this could be completed in accordance with a predetermined schedule. The policy was published in the government’s newspapers after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described them in her speech at the first anniversary of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement on Oct. 15.

The first two steps of the government’s seven-point policy are to review and amend the political dialogue framework that was drafted by the previous government led by ex-general Thein Sein. The third and fourth steps are to continue convening the 21st Century Panglong Conference and to sign a Union peace agreement based on the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government never officially disclosed a timeframe for their political roadmap in establishing a democratic federal union, but she seems to have a specific deadline in mind. The fifth point clearly mentions amending the current Constitution in accordance with the Union agreement, while the sixth says to hold multi-party democratic elections in accordance with the amended Constitution.

These two points reveal her timeframe. The general elections mentioned in the government’s policy must be a reference to the next election in 2020. Thus, before the 2020 election, the State Counselor must aim to execute the other points of the policy, including the Union-level agreement, and the amendment of the Constitution.

This clearly shows that the government’s policies do not only aim to achieve peace but also to change national laws. In fact, such an attempt to amend the Constitution could be considered the bigger challenge, as the military—which enjoys the Constitutional privileges—will definitely resist any change to its current status. Yet one of the longtime goals of the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been to create a Constitution that ensures “all the people of Burma can live together in tranquility and security.” It was officially written as such in the NLD’s 2015 election manifesto.

Both the State Counselor and her NLD government will need to doggedly pursue this goal in order to keep their word. But it remains an inconceivably difficult task for any government, as the military’s main duty is to safeguard the current Constitution, which protects both its economic benefits and guarantees its privileges in the political arena.

The sixth point in the policy states that the election will be held in accordance with the amended Constitution, meaning that the election is to be held only after the Constitution has been changed. The seventh and final point of the guideline mentions the building of a democratic federal union based on the results of the election, revealing the government’s ultimate aim.

It reads as quite an ambitious guideline to achieve such goals within five years.

But even now, only two months after the 21st Century Panglong Conference convened for its first round at the end of August, fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups—including the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Shan State Army-North—has escalated in border areas.

This round of fighting in Kachin State started on Aug. 17, about two weeks before the Panglong peace conference. It was expected to end or, at the very least, decrease, after the peace conference. Instead, it has escalated with the military attacking using fighter jets; it is hard to say whether this timing was a coincidence. The clashes have led tens of thousands of Kachin people to take to the street in Hpakant, Kachin State, calling on the Burma Army to stop the offensives, launching criticism of continued fighting while the government was holding peace talks with ethnic armed groups.

But the government is silent.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration have faced heavy condemnation because they have not spoken out against the military’s heavy offensive against the KIA. I sincerely believe the government deserves this criticism as long as they cannot come out to reasonably explain such circumstances to the public.

But there is another relevant question: why is the government so quiet on this issue?

Not all people Burma and the international community might understand that the military and the government are not joined together in such offensives. The military is its own absolute authority when it comes to strikes against ethnic armed groups.

Fairly speaking, no one exactly knows the depth of the relationship between the government and the military, though we have often seen smiles on the faces of Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when they meet. Yet one thing is certain: the government does not seem to have any power to give orders to the military when it comes to fighting. This was particularly apparent in 2013, when then-president Thein Sein—himself an ex-general—instructed the military to stop an offensive against the KIA, but clashes continued.

It then becomes clear how much more difficult it would be for the NLD civilian government to order the military halt such offensives. Under that scenario, the government is not in position to come out and admit that they cannot control the military. The public who understand our country’s complex political situation might accept such an honest statement, but it would just as soon upset the leaders in the military establishment.

The ongoing military offensives continue to damage the government’s attempts to gain trust from the ethnic groups. Is the military intentionally undermining the government’s peace process? The answer remains unknown.

The entire peace policy of the government remains a sheer uphill mission. But we cannot say it is “mission impossible.” Among the mounting challenges, the military’s collaboration with the government and the ethnic armed groups is the most crucial throughout the entire process. We will have to see if and how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can coax the military leadership into cooperating to achieve her goals.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.