Civil war has plagued Burma for over 60 years now. At a number of times throughout that period, the ethnic rebel groups fighting for autonomy from the central government attempted to join forces. But their common foe, the Burmese military, consistently refused to have any dealings with alliances that tried to bring together all the restive minorities into a common front. The reason for this was simple: The generals always understood that ethnic rebels tend to be a fractious bunch, and that it’s only too easy to incite defections by playing to a particular group’s sectional interests (whether it be the offer of a favorable deal or the threat of a harsh crackdown). As a result, the Burmese army developed considerable expertise in the subtleties of divide and rule.
On Feb. 20, this well-established scenario finally collapsed. For the first time, the Burmese government’s senior ministers met with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. According to a joint statement released after the meeting, the discussion focused on establishing an agenda for future political dialogue between the government and the ethnic council.
Aung Min, the Burmese government’s top peace negotiator, acknowledged that the ethnic groups’ grievances are political, and that an ultimate solution to the festering civil war can only be found on the political front.
It was a significant first step in many ways. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for two months from now, and if it goes well, the prospects for peace will look rosier than they have for years. The government’s approach suggests that it is finally willing to recognize the problems that motivate the ethnic groups and their demands for a proper conflict-solving mechanism. For decades the rebel armies have had good reason to doubt the government’s sincerity. Now, finally, they can begin to see a potential for trust.
Of course, such hopes will be borne out if this new multilateral approach can be institutionalized, and if more rebel groups can get used to compromise. On a more practical level, further progress depends on persuading the Burmese military that the cost of crackdowns is higher than the cost of accepting a negotiated settlement (all the way from a comprehensive ceasefire to a sustainable political solution). In this respect, it should be noted that no military representatives participated in the February meeting.
The high cost of cracking down on the ethnic minorities is shown by the continuing Kachin conflict. The escalation of violence, including the Burmese military’s use of air power, has caused domestic and international outcry. This underlines the second reason why the preliminary discussion in Thailand was important. The talks included a representative from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which is the only ethnic armed group (out of eleven altogether) that hasn’t reached a ceasefire agreement with the government. Dr. La Ja, a senior KIO official, said that the situation in Kachin State had improved, adding that “the fighting between the government and the KIO has diminished.”
In early February, government negotiator Aung Min met KIO leaders in a city on the Chinese border. Both sides agreed to work on reducing military tensions, opening lines of communication, and inviting observers to attend their next meeting. The Chinese government played a crucial role in mediating the talk between the two sides: Luo Zhaohui of the Chinese Foreign Ministry also attended the meeting. This is noteworthy. It appears that China and other Southeast Asia nations are pressing both the Burmese government and ethnic armies to come to the table together in Chiang Mai to explore the possibility of substantive political dialogue.
The more urgent reason for the Burmese government to pursue dialogue is that the country is set to assume the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014. This high-profile honor will give the Burmese government much-needed political legitimacy. The government will host hundreds of Asean meetings during the period of its chairmanship, and while this is happening Burmese leaders certainly don’t want the visiting heads of Asean states to be reading about the Kachin war and ethnic strife in the daily papers. (The authorities have just announced, by the way, that eight new private newspapers can start publishing in April.) Government officials would also prefer to not have to answer questions from visiting journalists about continuing violence in the ethnic regions. Burma would much prefer to use the Asean summit as an occasion for highlighting its political reforms and inviting more investment from Asean countries and beyond.
The government negotiating team’s conduct of peace talks with the ethnic alliance council also reduces the role of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma’s ethnic politics. The leader of the opposition movement had shied away from taking a clear stand on the Kachin conflict for over a year now. She has avoided criticizing the Burmese army’s actions in Kachin, saying that abuses have occurred on both sides. Her position has outraged the Kachin and many ethnic minority groups, who once lent their support to the Lady in her fight against the old military junta. Early this year, Suu Kyi said she would require an official invitation to join peace negotiations. In February, she appeared to change her tune by emphasizing her willingness to play a mediating role in the Kachin conflict. But the Kachin rebels turned her down—attesting dramatically to her diminished role.
Perhaps the government’s effort to enter into a political dialogue with the ethnic alliance could frustrate Suu Kyi’s attempt to make herself relevant in the peace process. It is also increasingly apparent that ethnic groups in Burma no longer look up to Aung San Suu Kyi for moral solidarity and political support (at least for now). That should be a powerful lesson for Burman politicians.
All in all, this new approach to the peace process is a very positive step. The international community should do whatever it can to sustain this unprecedented situation. The United States should not sit idly by. Just as Washington played an important part in facilitating dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government in 2011-2012, the Obama Administration now needs to put its weight behind the revitalized peace talks—and should also do what it can to make sure the Burmese military plays along. Of course, all sides must be pragmatic and willing to make compromises for a sustainable solution that the people of this war-torn country deserve.
Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.