Guest Column

Only a ‘Peace Approach’ Can End the Cycle of Conflict in Myanmar

By Mon Mon Myat 31 October 2018

Historically, the peace process in Myanmar has been dominated by men. Peace talks have focused on “security” as the main factor in ending conflict.

In the past, negotiations between the military government and insurgent groups including the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) followed a familiar pattern: Insurgent groups demanded autonomy for their states and recognition of their ethnic armies; the military government rejected those demands and the peace talks broke down.

In The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Burma, Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner writes about the failures of peace talks in 1963 and 1980s. He observes that in 1981, “Kachin rebel leader Brang Seng declared that his troops were willing to lay down arms if the government granted autonomy to Kachin State, stressing that separation was no longer an issue. But the rebels were offered ‘rehabilitation’ only—no political concessions were forthcoming, and the talks eventually broke down.”

The cessation of armed conflict was the focus of the negotiations, but this was not sufficient to achieve genuine conflict resolution. The root causes of the conflict, such as historical context, ideological divide and political will, were not given priority in the peace process between male-dominated armed groups.

In their book Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping, Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley discuss three different “masculinities”—warrior masculinity, protective masculinity, and militarized masculinity—as the main obstacles to negotiating peace.

These masculinities are frequently on display in speeches by Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. In his opening speech to the Third Session of the 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference earlier this year, he stated that “We, the government and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military], are actively leading the peace process—[but] not because we are weak.” Drawing attention to the power imbalance between the Myanmar military and EAOs doesn’t help the peace process; it only creates more doubt in the minds of EAO leaders about the military’s desire for peace.

And in the most recent peace talks involving the government, the Tatmadaw and EAOs that are signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), the military chief again warned EAOs not to abuse the NCA.

“The NCA shouldn’t be misappropriated. If there is a misappropriation, the Tatmadaw, which is responsible for protecting the lives and property of ethnic people, will not just stand by and do nothing.” His statement clearly showed the protective norms of the military with regard to ethnic people. Yet dozens of EAOs operate under a similar protective norm vis-a-vis their own people and territory.

Furthermore, the Tatmadaw holds firm to the principle of “non-secession,” based on one of the three main national causes, the “non-disintegration of the Union”. The concept originated from a security point of view in regards to “perpetuation of sovereignty”.

“A guarantee of non-secession is a one-sided demand of the Tatmadaw,” General Yawd Serk, the chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS/SSA), said during a recent interview with The Irrawaddy.

Turning this demand back on the military, Gen. Yawd Serk commented that “We also have a question for the Tatmadaw: Will they promise not to stage another military coup if they are [sincere about] building a federal democratic nation?”

Gen. Yawd Serk’s question demonstrates the EAOs’ concern with security, and illustrates the degree to which the Tatmadaw’s willingness to grant autonomy to the ethnic states influences to issue of non-secession.

The Tatmadaw’s concerns are of a similar nature. The 2008 Constitution was drafted to protect the military and gives it “the right to independently administer and adjudicate all affairs of the armed forces.”

Negotiations based on security concerns alone lead to deadlock in peace talks. “We have no areas of compromise, which is why there is no mutual trust. We are acting based on our own principles,” Gen. Yawd Serk.

The masculinity-influenced security approach is a key obstacle to the success of peace talks among these groups of “warriors”. After 70 years of shooting at one another, they are still fighting a war of words with no room for compromise. And the peace talks are only getting more complicated.  In 1963 there were only four guerrilla groups. Today, there are many. In the space of five decades, four main guerrilla groups mushroomed into 24, including breakaway ethnic armed groups and newfangled militias across the country.

The NCA’s political roadmap, drafted under the Thein Sein government, is also based on a security approach. It contains three main steps: signing the NCA, holding a national political dialogue, and negotiating “security reintegration matters”.

If we look at peace talks from 1963 to 2015, we can see that both the Tatmadaw and the EAOs have held fast to the security approach, leaving them trapped in a cycle of conflict.

Women can play a leading role

After the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 election by a landslide, its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became the state counselor and, for the first time in Myanmar’s history, a woman took a leading role in the country’s peace process.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration has tried to change the peace process from a “security approach” espoused by armed men to the “peace approach.” As a woman, and therefore perceived as a natural peacemaker, she has tried to kill two birds with one stone: the peace process and constitutional amendment. The NLD’s roadmap for national reconciliation and the Union peace process is not based on “security matters” but rather cites “constitutional amendment” and “building a democratic federal union,” both of which can lead to multi-party general elections. It sounds promising, but in fact it is rather vague and unrealistic.

But it is not a new concept. It is based on sub-para (d) of Paragraph 22 of the NCA, which holds that “all decisions adopted by the Union Peace Conference shall be the basis for amending, repealing and adding provisions to the Constitution and laws, in line with established procedures.”

During the constitutional amendment campaign in 2014, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow party members said that the “undemocratic” 2008 Constitution creates inequality between the military and people, and called for it to be amended. “The basic principle of unity is equality. This country can become a genuine federal union only if we have equality. Where can equality be started? We have to start from the Constitution, as it is a foundation of the country,” she said.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government maintains that “peace” is the best approach to “security” and “conflict transformation”. But for the groups who are mainly concerned with security, this approach is fraught with complications and requires time. Moreover, many people involved in the peace process think it is unrealistic to expect that it will be concluded by 2020.

Johan Galtung, founder of the Oslo, Norway-based International Peace Research Institute, asserts that “the peace argument against the security approach is strong: It works like a bandage over a festering wound. The conflict formation of parties with goals with too many incompatibilities has to be transformed into a peace formation by bridging the legitimate goals non-violently, empathically, creatively. An untransformed conflict will reproduce violence sooner or later.”

Because of the divergent approaches taken by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, some EAOs are confused about whether they should sign the NCA.

The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) is one of the EAOs that remain undecided as to whether to sign the NCA. “The Tatmadaw’s principle is to lay down arms after a national political dialogue. Then we have to take part in the elections. The Tatmadaw wants us to abandon armed struggle. But the NLD wants us to work together to amend the Constitution. As the Tatmadaw’s principle is to protect this Constitution with its life, their principles are different. So no matter which side we take, we will face one problem or another,” KNPP second secretary Khu Daniel told the author during an interview.

The Tatmadaw seems unhappy with the NLD’s actions, and with the dual process of constitutional amendment and peacebuilding. In his speech, Sen-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing voiced displeasure at the notion of amending the Constitution. “We agree in principle with amending and supplementing the really necessary provisions of the Constitution with the aim of achieving lasting peace. But it would be difficult for us to agree to amending and supplementing the Constitution and other laws with the intent of serving [specific groups’] self-interest and abusing the NCA,” the military chief said.

Nonetheless, the Tatmadaw still has to follow the political framework of the NCA drafted by Thein Sein’s government, because the international community is involved in Myanmar’s peace process and has recognized the agreement.

Before 2016, the NLD led the discussion on the constitutional amendment issue, but now ethnic people and EAOs have started talking about amending the Constitution and putting the military under the civilian government’s control.

Amend the undemocratic 2008 Constitution and drafting federal principles should be done in parallel, not sequentially, because they are equally important. The DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) and SSR (security sector reform) approaches failed because of a lack of specific principles or an appropriate Constitution.

During the transition from the “security approach” to the “peace approach”, the peace process got stuck and made no progress. Somehow, we have reached the third anniversary of the NCA signing ceremony, making it the longest peace process in Myanmar’s history. In mid-October, senior leaders of the government, the Tatmadaw and 10 NCA signatory EAOs attended the first round of special peace talks focusing on deadlock issues such as non-secession and the integration of military forces.

In his interview with The Irrawaddy, Gen. Yawd Serk of the Shan State Army accused the Tatmadaw of stalling the peace process: “This deadlock happened because of these two issues brought up by the Tatmadaw. If the Tatmadaw wants peace, they do not need to bring up these two issues. Whether there is any will to make peace depends on the Tatmadaw.”

Peace approach based on conflict resolution

Galtung discusses six peace tasks: three “absences” and three “presences”. “A ceasefire is only one-sixth of a complete peace process, yet often mistaken for the real thing,” he says.

The three “absences” he discusses are the absence of direct violence such as civil war and conflict, the absence of structural violence and the absence of cultural violence. The three “presences” are those of cooperation; equality and equity; and a culture of peace and dialogue.

Myanmar’s peace process is still in the beginning stage. After the first step, a ceasefire agreement, there are other steps that must be taken. To take these steps, a Constitution that guarantees equality must be drafted along the way. A democratic federal constitution should guarantee the absence of structural violence and absence of cultural violence in order to prevent “massive suffering by economic, political and cultural structures,” according to Galtung.

It is impossible for the Tatmadaw, the government or any particular EAO to implement the peace process alone. To stop the cycle of conflict which has been going on for more than 70 years, all parties must participate.

For the time being, the gradual development of a political dialogue proves that all parties are on common ground, and agree that there is a need to stop the cycle of conflict.

Although people might think that the peace approach based on conflict resolution is unachievable, it has the potential to end the conflict cycle if everyone steadfastly steps forward.

Not only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but anyone involved in the peace process who has the spirit of a natural peacemaker can carry on the “peace approach.”  Crucially, we need to recognize that the “security approach,” despite many years of attempts, has failed. We need to recognize and adopt the “peace approach” as the best chance for a long-lasting peace.

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance writer/journalist and a graduate student in the Ph.D. program in peacebuilding at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.