The setting is a house on stilts in Kyauk Kyi, Bago Region. It is located in a Myanmar military base in the middle of what until then had been known as the civil war’s black area. Basically, a free fire zone for the Myanmar military. Sitting on the floor were representatives of the displaced village communities, who had been hiding in the jungle for close to thirty years, never further than a day’s march away from the villages they were forced to flee.
They had been on the move constantly, having to relocate in the jungle every two to three years as the carrying capacity of the areas they cultivated was depleted, or to flee attacks by the military. The purpose of the encounter was to build confidence in the ceasefire which had only been signed some months before. This particular ceasefire had brought to a halt the longest-running insurgency on the planet, one that had seen over 60 years of continuous fighting.
A villager asked the colonel sitting in front of him whether he could guarantee that, if they returned, he and his men would not once again burn their villages down. The displaced villagers had agreed to the meeting as they knew that the battalion currently in the area had only just been deployed and was not the one that had attacked them a year earlier. The colonel answered that he could make that promise. And then, after a brief pause, stated that he knew that they did not believe him.
That exchange occurred in April 2012. The displaced villagers were being encouraged to come out of the jungle within the framework of a Norwegian-sponsored initiative called the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative. They came out, received support from Norway [seeds, tools and food aid to tie them over until the harvests], and settled near their traditional farmlands to cultivate their fields. The Norwegian-supported initiative acted as a sort of catalyst and guarantor in building confidence in the ceasefires.
Today, those very same areas are again being bombarded. The people from this area have again fled back into the jungle, with hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting that has erupted since last year’s coup.
Myanmar was not a story of an impossible peace. A return to fighting was not inevitable. It is a story of a serious miscalculation. Peace is difficult to achieve. It is a path that can only be embarked upon by courageous and visionary individuals, who take the risk to reach out to the other in an effort to end the suffering of their people.
Frustrated by the overwhelming victory of the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy in the 2020 general election, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup in February 2021. It appears that he believed that the military could follow the old playbook of military domination that originated in the 1960s, had worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s and had even overcome the Saffron Revolution, the 2007 uprising led by monks.
But the coup leader hadn’t counted on the fact that Myanmar has evolved into a fundamentally different society since the 1980s. The people of Myanmar, and especially the young, have tasted the relative freedoms that came with the opening up of the country in 2011 and are actively demonstrating that they are not prepared to give those freedoms up.
The young lead this revolt against the military. And in doing so, they are following the examples of similar peaceful protest movements in Algeria, Belarus, Bolivia, Chile, Egypt, France, Georgia, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Thailand, Ukraine and even the United States. In all these places, the peaceful protests are led by a generation who, through the mastering of social media, have been able to mobilize as never before, giving voice to frustrations and articulating hopes.
The miscalculation by the junta chief, and the brutal crackdown he ordered on those protesting against the coup, was a clear overreach by the military. Eighteen months later, Myanmar is destabilized as never before with military conflict, once so common but only in ethnic minority areas, now engulfing the heartland of the majority Bamar people. The military regime has now lost control of much of the country, despite its use of artillery and airstrikes against its own people.
In the face of all this, Western donors are reneging on their individual responsibilities. There seems to be little institutional memory of the early international involvement in the peace process, and of the benefits that donors received from this involvement in the form of favourable investments, lucrative contracts and burnished images as peace negotiators.
Today, a number of the Myanmar nationals who were instrumental in the Norwegian-supported peace initiative, in Kyauk Kyi and elsewhere, are running for their lives. While many have sought shelter in ethnic minority areas, others facing immediate and particular risk are seeking asylum. But the response they receive is that the crisis in Ukraine is taking up all the world’s attention.
Should one be surprised by such a response? After all a similar lack of interest led to the recent abandonment of Afghans who served the international effort in Afghanistan.
Realpolitik, of course, is a fact of life. But we need to understand that unkept promises come not only with a cost to those we have abandoned, but also a price to the West’s credibility and moral standing. We shouldn’t be surprised and offended when the West is accused of being hypocrites because, ultimately, we are. And that is not something to be proud of. We cannot and must not make a habit of abandoning our friends.
Charles Petrie is a former coordinator of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary General and United Nations Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar 2003-2007.