Even if things don’t look perfect, the path toward peace and self-determination for all the peoples of Burma through a negotiation process is certainly preferable to an ongoing armed conflict. Of course, those involved in the peace process are not expected to be angels or saint-like figures. But for the process to bear fruit, all parties must at least be trustworthy partners for peace in the long-term interests of the country.
When leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) negotiated a ceasefire agreement 20 years ago with the then-military intelligence chief, Khin Nyunt, of the previous military government, they must have certainly believed they were making a strategic decision. But the military government was not a trustworthy partner. The result that followed, as we know, was irreversible, and the ethnic Kachin people are still suffering to this day, as clashes continue to break out in the northern state.
Regardless of how willing we are to negotiate, every time we cut a deal with a government that does not value trust, ethnic nationalities in particular stand to endure negative consequences for generations to come. Ethnic nationalities have already suffered through decades of ruthless subjugation by the Burmese military, whose dominant presence is still obvious in all ethnic regions today. In the current peace process, then, the nominally civilian government should bear the burden of proof—demonstrating that it is indeed trustworthy, even though ex-generals remain in power.
Trust is not a prerequisite to start the talks. However, given this historical experience, it is deceitful to downplay the need for trustworthy partners in Burma’s peace negotiation process, and it is outright insidious to argue that those who insist on trustworthy partners are less strategic. In fact, ethnic nationalities should ask themselves the following questions: How can we create a trustworthy peace process if the leading participants do not value trust? What possible benefit might a negotiated political settlement hold if the government cannot be held accountable to keep its promise?
To sustain the current peace process, the government must ensure that it has support from the powerful military. People need to believe that the military will follow through on agreements made by the government as part of a political settlement. Any peace agreement signed without full backing from military will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Even during the ceasefire stage, the Burmese military needs to reduce its troops in ethnic regions to diminish the impression that ethnic people are considered their enemies. It seems that the government has thus far failed to prove that the military is on board with the peace process.
By the same token, the leaders of ethnic organizations need full support from their respective armed forces as they negotiate with the government. Local communities and soldiers need to sufficiently trust that their political leaders will negotiate in good faith with Naypyidaw. They need to believe that their leaders will not be duped or simply follow the wishes of the central government.
While we must recognize the importance of an effective relationship between negotiation teams, armed ethnic organizations can lose credibility and political effectiveness in their communities if they are perceived as cozying up to the government. In turn, leaders may lose trust in the very communities whose interests they claim to represent.
In every step of the negotiation process, trust is a sensitive issue and a necessary ingredient. If and only if participants trust that their counterparts are working collaboratively—and for the collective interests of their people and the country—will they be able to move forward and eventually achieve peace.