Guest Column

Myanmar’s Labyrinthine Peace Process

By Aung Naing Oo 5 June 2014

A deadly clash occurred between DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) and the government’s BGF (Border Guard Force) in Karen State in April 2013. This was not the first time these rival groups engaged in a firefight. There had been sporadic clashes before, but by April 2013 the MPC (Myanmar Peace Center) was established and its operations were already in full swing and ceasefires between the government and 14 of the 16 ethnic armed groups had been signed.

So we were asked to visit various stakeholders in the areas in Karen State where the clashes occurred. Dr. Min Zaw Oo, who is the Director of MPC’s Ceasefire Negotiation and Implementation Program, and I went to Karen State. The purpose was to listen to all sides in the conflict.

We traveled to Sone-See-Myine, the DKBA headquarters, about one kilometer from the former All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) Camp at Thay Baw Boe where I was based in 1988-89 near the Thai-Myanmar border in Karen State. We also visited Myawaddy and another town in Hlabwe Township. And for two days and two nights, we listened to various officials from rival groups, local authorities and local commanders of the Myanmar armed forces.

By the second night of listening to these various accusations, counter-accusations, local situations and history of these local conflicts, my notebook was almost full. But most importantly, I could no longer take notes. So I just wrote one word “Tha-book-oo,” which is the name of a fruit. It has a labyrinth of fabric inside so intricate that no one knows the beginning, the middle or the end.

Put differently, I thought I knew the protagonists and conflict situation in Karen State since I once worked with the Karen National Union. But my trip proved that I was wrong. Even within groups that broke away from the mainstream Karen armed movement, there were many layers of relationships, feuds, history of conflicts, friendships and camaraderie. Thus, I wrote “Tha-book-oo” to demonstrate the complexity of a localized conflict.

I can say with certain conviction that for the majority of Myanmar citizens, it will not be easy to appreciate the complexities in the conflict or the situation I described earlier. IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and civilians living in areas of active conflict may wonder why the fighting cannot be stopped. Blame is likely to be heaped on one side or the other.

And peace and political activists cry foul when fighting erupts during peace talks. The media reports on the armed conflict and peace process are generally shallow and often focus on black-and-white descriptions of the conflict.

It is natural for them to look at the armed conflict and peace process from a simple analysis of what is perceived as right or wrong. It is equally natural for them to have hope for peace and wish that peace be restored as soon as possible.

But take a moment and try to imagine. If a localized situation in Karen State is extremely complex, how complex it can be for the whole country. Hypothetically, the DKBA-BGF conflict can be multiplied at least 16 times because the Government of Myanmar has officially recognized 16 ethnic armed groups.

How about groups that are not officially recognized by the government? How about thousands of militia groups scattered all throughout the conflict areas?

How about all of these groups with their localized situations, with their own layers of allegiances, kinships, alliances, tribal divides, broken social fabric, grievances, war economy, territorial interests and political and negotiation cultures?

This is not to mention the Government of Myanmar with its own internal politics and relationship with the armed forces and parliament which are also part and parcel of peace negotiations. Then there are political parties, groupings, civil society and the media. Likewise, there are many substantive issues such as resource-smuggling, drug trafficking, land grabs, illegal arm sales and security issues. And there is an age-old practice of taxation by ethnic armed groups of which legality has been hotly debated.

And as some of the ethnic armed groups are based on the borders, we need to pay attention to geopolitical issues and conditions. The UN Special Envoy is involved in the peace process as an observer. So is the Chinese Special Envoy when there are negotiations related to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The Naga, which has signed truces with the government, have their sister organization over the Indian-Myanmar border. And we take into account Myanmar’s current chairing role within ASEAN, bearing in mind the larger regional issues such as the tensions in South China Sea.

And there is politics. We in the peace process have to pay attention not only to relationships among all the stakeholders but also their politics as well. We have to pay attention to what Myanmar leaders say about the peace process. We have to listen to ethnic and opposition leaders. And we must take into account what civil society says about the peace process.

Extrapolate all that I have mentioned above and what we have is an extremely complicated ‘Tha-book-oo’ situation of a peace process.

And this is a situation not everyone can really understand nor appreciate.

A foreign expert who has been involved in the Myanmar peace process recently visited MPC. He has worked in seven major armed conflicts around the world. He openly admitted that he was learning many new things in the Myanmar situation because the situation here is more complex than any other country he had worked on.

Armed conflict is described as a situation in which individuals, groups, issues, interests and conditions are pulling and pushing in all directions. Given my experience with the peace process, I can say the same thing with peace-making, peace-building and the peace process as a whole. They are in a ‘Tha-book-oo’ situation pushing and pulling in all directions.

Both situations have an element of unpredictability and uncontrollability at the same time.

The purpose here is not to encourage the readers to see a negative side of the peace process. Rather, it is to instill an appreciation among the stakeholders regarding what has been achieved so far in the peace process. It is also to invite them to participate in the process so that we can cement the achievements in an all-inclusive manner. And the purpose is also to encourage belief in our country’s ability to achieve peace at long last no matter how complex and difficult the task ahead of us may be.

Aung Naing Oo is the Associate Director, Peace Dialogue Program, Myanmar Peace Center, which advises the Myanmar government.