Burma’s Misguided Peace Process Needs a Fresh Start

By Bertil Lintner 11 October 2016

The Burmese government’s peace parley, dubbed “the 21st Century Panglong”, in Naypyidaw at the end of August was hardly over before the Tatmadaw went on the offensive again.

Fierce fighting has been reported from Kachin State and northern Shan State. In Karen State, clashes have erupted between different local armed groups and in eastern Shan State, the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) has moved against what was considered a close ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army (Eastern Shan State) (NDAA[ESS]), also known as the “Mongla Group,” and took over several of its positions.

“It is not a peace process,” one observer said. “It’s a conflict process”.

The ultimate irony is that Burma has seen its heaviest fighting in decades, since the Thein Sein government came to power in March 2011 and launched its so-called “peace process.” Most of the fighting has occurred in Kachin and northern Shan states, with sporadic clashes in Arakan and Karen states. Burma’s civil war has not been this intense since the Tatmadaw launched offensives against ethnic Karen and communist forces in the late 1980s.

The conflict never seems to end despite, or perhaps because of, the activities of foreign “peacemakers.” A popular practice has been to invite representatives of the Tatmadaw and of ethnic armed groups on study tours to other conflict areas across the world, including Northern Ireland, Colombia and South Africa. The main player behind those trips is a UK-based outfit called Intermediate, founded and led by Jonathan Powell, who served as then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1997-2007.

But the value of such trips is being questioned. A foreign analyst based in Burma described “an endless parade of international peace junkets that preoccupy ethnic leaders while the actual negotiations are bogged down.” Meanwhile, “addressing ongoing conflict is cast as spoiling progress.”

The government of Switzerland has also been active, inviting some ethnic leaders from Burma to study how their model of federalism works, although it is hard to imagine how the Swiss canton system could possibly be a model for Burma. Invited were representatives of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), one of eight groups that signed the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government on Oct. 15 last year (only three of which actually have any armed forces, the other five being token “armies” with only a dozen or so men each).

IHS Jane’s analyst Anthony Davis wrote in the Bangkok Post on Feb. 7 this year: “History does not relate how this all-expenses-paid flight of fancy cost the Swiss taxpayer, though it was doubtless small change in the wider picture of the tens of millions of dollars being thrown at the ‘peace process’ by Western governments eager to declare Myanmar (Burma) finally and officially open for business.”

At the same time as RCSS representatives were being entertained in Switzerland, truckloads of its troops were sent to northern Shan State to fight the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic Palaung force that did not sign the NCA. Peace with the government enabled the RCSS to move its soldiers across Shan State to engage in what Davis termed a proxy war.

The UWSA’s military action against NDAA(ESS) is another divisive consequence of the “peace process.” The UWSA reportedly suspected that the NDSS(ESS) leadership was about to close ranks with the groups that signed the NCA. One of its representatives at the talks in Naypyidaw in August even urged all parties to recognize the 2008 Constitution, which is widely seen as undemocratic because it gives the military ultimate power over the state—and is certainly not federal in character, which is what the ethnic armed groups are fighting for.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a closing address at the 21st Century Panglong peace conference on Sept 3 this year. (Photo: Pyay Kyaw / The Irrawaddy)
State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a closing address at the 21st Century Panglong peace conference on Sept 3 this year. (Photo: Pyay Kyaw / The Irrawaddy)

It is clear that the foreign players in the process need to seriously rethink their strategies, if they need to be involved at all. According to the Burma-based analyst: “It’s like a growing conga-line of craven opportunists, who think their analysis and workshops should be privileged over listening to the people who have suffered for six decades. It’s not a peace process, it’s a parallel reality peopled by shady foreign actors whose pedigree is largely a litany of failed efforts in other countries.”

A Burmese human-rights worker cynically referred to recent developments as a “peace opera.” One might add that it is an opera where too many divas aspire to be the lead performer, and no one wants to sing in the choir.

Instead of “studying” processes in other countries which bear little or no resemblance to Burma’s decades-long ethnic and political conflicts, it would be much more useful to examine Burma’s own past experience of peace efforts—and why all those, without exception, have failed to end the war.

In 1958, when Gen. Ne Win took over from the elected government led by U Nu and formed a military-controlled “caretaker government,” some communist and ethnic rebels laid down their arms under an unofficial amnesty. No political concessions were offered. Some became bands of local armed men engaged in trade. When the military stepped in again on March 2, 1962 and seized absolute power after a short interregnum with a new civilian government led by U Nu, the new junta promised serious peace talks. These commenced in 1963 and attracted a wide range of ethnic and political rebels. But, again, the ruling military demanded surrender, offering nothing more than “rehabilitation.”

Unsurprisingly, the talks broke down. Some old and new armed bands were converted into home guard units called ka kwe ye (KKY), but there was not enough money in the central coffers to pay them, so they were allowed to trade in opium to finance themselves. Both Lo Hsing-han and Zhang Qifu (alias Khun Sa) began their careers as government-allied home guard commanders and, as a result, became prominent drug traffickers. They were arrested only after they had established links with armed rebels in Shan State, which they had to do in order to convey their opium convoys down to the Thai border.

The KKY project was abandoned in Jan. 1973. New local forces called pyi thu sit, or “people’s militias,” were formed in their stead. They were smaller than the old KKY units and therefore easier for the government to control.

In 1980, the government announced a general amnesty for rebels and political prisoners. Officially, 1,431 rebels surrendered. This figure was, most likely, a gross exaggeration, but the amnesty led to the demise of the rightwing Burman insurgency led by U Nu from the Thai border. At the same time, separate peace talks were held with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The talks lasted for months, but the government’s offer was again rehabilitation in exchange for surrender. Needless to say, those talks broke down as well.

After the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the seizure of power by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), thousands of urban dissidents linked up with the Karen National Union (KNU), the KIA and other ethnic armies. But those groups had only a few guns to spare for the Burman activists—unlike the CPB, which had warehouses full of weaponry, supplied by China between 1968-78. However, few pro-democracy activists went to the CPB’s area.

The situation changed when, in March-April 1989, the hilltribe rank and file of the CPB rose in mutiny against the party’s ageing, predominantly Burman leadership. The CPB subsequently broke up into four ethnic armies: the UWSA, the NDAA(ESS), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army based in the Kokang region of northern Shan State, and the New Democratic Army-Kachin in Kachin State.

Now, the SLORC faced the real danger of a united front. But the Burmese military acted faster and with more determination than the loose alliances that then existed between ethnic rebels and urban dissidents. The ex-CPB mutineers were offered ceasefire deals and promised unlimited business opportunities. As a result, all four former CPB forces made peace with the government.

Demonstrators gathered in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina last week to demand an end to conflict in the state. (Photo: Nang Lwin Hnin Pwint / The Irrawaddy)
Demonstrators gathered in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina last week to demand an end to conflict in the state. (Photo: Nang Lwin Hnin Pwint / The Irrawaddy)

The threat from the border had been neutralized—but the consequences for the country were disastrous. “Business” in the northeastern border regions means the production of opium and its derivative heroin. As a result, the area under opium cultivation rose from 103,200 hectares in 1988 to 161,012 hectares in 1991. According to official US figures, annual heroin production skyrocketed during the same period from 68 tons to 185 tons, of which 181.5 tons were meant for export.

With the collapse of the CPB and the failure to form new alliances, about two-dozen ethnic armed groups, both large and small, entered into ceasefire agreements with the government in the late 1980s and early 90s. Several of those groups became involved in logging. Vast areas of northern Burma were denuded and the timber sold to China.

So, agreeing ceasefires with ethnic armed groups is nothing new—it’s a continuation of the policy of the long-defunct SLORC. But not all the ceasefire agreements agreed upon at that time have been honored. The KIA, which actually signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994 (all the previous agreements being verbal), came under fierce attack in 2011 and the fighting still continues. The Shan State Army, which made peace with the government in 1989, came under attack shortly afterwards.

The common denominator in all these talks and maneuvers, including those of today, is that the government and the military have either demanded surrender followed by “rehabilitation,” or, failing that, attempted to corrupt them by allowing them to engage in business of any kind. Following the Oct. 15, 2015 ceasefire deal, leaders of the RCSS and the KNU have benefited from new, lucrative commercial opportunities, including in logging and palm oil plantations.

Sadly, the present government, which came to power with a resounding popular mandate after the Nov. 2015 general election, has only continued the policies of the previous government. This has included the insistence that everybody sign the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which is not nationwide and has resulted neither in peace nor in meaningful talks about which governing system the country should adopt: a federal union or a centralized state structure. Military spokesmen, meanwhile, have made it clear that all parties to the conflict must accept the 2008 Constitution and lay down their arms, with the option of becoming pyi thu sit forces and benefitting economically.

It is hardly a secret that well-known pyi thu sit commanders, who traffic drugs, were elected to national and regional assemblies in the 2010 election, usually on Union Solidarity and Development Party tickets. The drug trade today is controlled by those individuals and groups, not by the UWSA, the MNDAA or the NDAA(ESS), which built their fortunes on drugs but have since moved into other enterprises such as casinos, cross-border trade in consumer goods, and the export of tin and rare earth metals to China.

The difference this time from previous failed peace efforts is the number of foreign groups and individuals involved, bitterly competing with each other for funds and attention. But, as a Rangoon-based foreign analyst said, “The international interlocutors are actually facilitating the Tatmadaw’s hardline approach by refusing to understand the grievances of Burma’s minority communities, saying it’s all about business and economic interests—an oft-repeated cliché of Rangoon-based Western diplomats.”

Receiving foreign advice and learning from other countries’ experiences are not entirely wasted exercises, but the shape and form that foreign input has taken in Burma’s so-called “peace process” has not led us anywhere close to lasting peace. On the contrary, it has made the situation worse by granting the Tatmadaw an international respectability and legitimacy that it previously lacked—at the expense of armed and non-armed ethnic groups and communities.

It should be evident to anyone that an entirely new approach is needed, if the vicious circle of talks with demands of unconditional surrender and rehabilitation coupled with business concessions is ever going to be broken. Such an approach would have to include a genuine political dialogue, not just meetings with dozens of ethnic representatives sitting in their colorful costumes in a huge hall listening to speeches, as was the case in Naypyidaw in August.

The fighting also has to stop on all fronts. Only then can a meaningful peace process begin—not merely a repeat of what happened in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Burma’s ethnic conflict is a political problem demanding a political solution. The present peace opera is only a recipe for further disaster.