Guest Column

Interim Arrangements in Conflict Zones Key to Peace in Myanmar

By Ashley South 4 February 2019

The “interim” period in the peace process is likely to be long-lasting — until there is a realignment in state-society relations and changed attitudes among Bamar elites who have long dominated Myanmar. Therefore, interim arrangements are about long-term support for ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and civil society as precursors for a future federal state. Interim arrangements are self-determination arrangements, and preconditions for the emergence of a truly democratic state embracing Myanmar’s different peoples.

In a November 2018 report by the Myanmar Interim Arrangements Research Project, interim arrangements are defined as “service delivery and governance in conflict-affected areas, including the relationship between EAOs and government systems, during the period between initial ceasefires and a comprehensive political settlement.” The arrangements establish EAOs’ governance and administrative functions, and services in their areas of authority and influence. As viewed from the perspective of the peace process, the interim period is from the initial ceasefire until negotiation of a comprehensive political settlement. However, reaching an accord acceptable to key ethnic stakeholders seems unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.

The focus of interim arrangements is on supporting EAO and civil society governance and service delivery systems, as recognised in Article 25 of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). However, despite insisting on the NCA as the only vehicle for realising the peace process, the government and Myanmar military have so far proved reluctant to operationalize interim arrangements.

For ethnic stakeholders, certain circumstances, local governance and service delivery systems might be coordinated with the government, which could lead to collaboration, and even convergence. However, this is not the primary purpose of interim arrangements, which focus on maintaining ethnic systems. Furthermore, interim arrangements are broader and deeper than the NCA. Important EAOs in Myanmar that have not signed the NCA, such as the Kachin Independence Organization, have developed impressive, state-like functions and play important roles in providing services to communities in areas under their authority or influence. Furthermore, a number of ethnic-based civil society organizations (CSOs) provide elements of local governance in communities they serve, engaging in mobilisation and advocacy in support of locally relevant agendas.

There are three main arguments for supporting interim arrangements. First, they provide the best outcomes for vulnerable people in ceasefire areas by utilising locally trusted and already existing mechanisms. Second, Myanmar’s principal EAOs have political legitimacy, and supporting only government systems  — thereby strengthening the state vis-a-vis EAOs — changes the balance of political power on the ground. Third, EAO and associated CSO service delivery and governance functions, ethnic language schools for example, are the building blocks of federalism.

There are three main elements to the peace process architecture, as structured by the NCA. The political dialogue mechanism is in deep crisis because the government and military refuse to address key issues of concern to ethnic communities, leading to a subsequent decision by the Karen National Union (KNU) to suspend participation. The Joint Monitoring Committee is also in crisis for similar reasons, and because the Restoration Council of Shan State has also suspended participation. The third pillar of the peace process designated by the NCA are interim arrangements, which, unlike political dialogue and ceasefire monitoring, have no implementation mechanism.

Arguably, opportunities to reach a preliminary political settlement existed between 2012-15, under the previous U Thein Sein regime. However, under the NLD-led government since 2016, progress has stalled. The peace process will likely be subsumed and either sidelined or co-opted in the run-up to the general elections in 2020. There is a risk that the government may quickly foreclose discussions and move toward forcing through a Union peace accord before the elections. The KNU was therefore wise to suspend participation until general agreement can be reached with the government on fundamental issues underlying decades of armed conflict.

For these reasons, a political settlement is very unlikely — at least until after the next elections, and probably not until there are major changes in relations between majority and minority communities in Myanmar. There is a need for fundamental shifts at the level of basic identities and interests, particularly on the part of Bamar elites that have long dominated the state of Myanmar and its armed forces. A substantial and sustainable political settlement will take a generation or more to achieve and can only be delivered once members of the Bamar community better understand the realities and aspirations of ethnic minority communities, particularly in conflict-affected areas.

The interim period is likely to be lengthy. Therefore, interim arrangements are really about long-term support to ethnic armed organization and civil society systems of service delivery and local governance. Interim arrangements can be viewed through the lens of self-determination, which ethnic political actors have been struggling for since independence. They are also an essential step for building federalism from the bottom up. These self-determination arrangements are important not just for ceasefire groups, but also for other EAOs struggling against a still-militarised state dominated by urban-based Bamar elites, and also for community-based and other civil society groups seeking to build and support local capacities and maintain indigenous cultures.

Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a research fellow at Chiang Mai University.