This is the third and final in a series of articles on Myanmar’s peace process.
Demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants (DDR) processes are only one aspect of the state building process that will need to occur in ethnic armed organization (EAO) areas; durable peace will only arrive when communities in EAO areas discern value in citizenship, and so a distrusted state must deliver health, education, and other services, and offer impartial protections, including the provision of land tenure. Education is particularly important: successful reintegration and enhanced livelihood security in EAO areas are fundamentally a question of human resources, the foundation of which is public schools. Across Myanmar, the educational system is in need of repair, and this is doubly so in many EAO areas. Education is supposed to create citizens as well as workers literate in a common language. A lack of vocational and technical training centers, not only in areas accessible to EAO populations, but in Myanmar as a whole, is also an urgent issue. These matters warrant much greater exploration— exploration that is beyond the scope of this analysis, however. Afghanistan amply demonstrates how both DDR and alternative livelihood programs fail when they are standalone programs occurring in areas lacking the administrative, service-oriented, and coercive presence of the state.
The process of state building in insurgent areas will occur through an inflow of Bamar civil servants into these areas to deliver services, and this will also lead to resentment. As a rule of thumb, many EAO host populations will not possess the requisite human resource capacity to completely staff education, health, and general administrative posts. Business and capital, some of it exploitative, will follow. Migrants historically dominate local markets in newly colonized areas; Chinese already play this role in Kachin, while Naga markets in Northeast India are dominated by Marwaris and Biharis, and Han Chinese in Tibet. This can also cynically play into conflict resolution efforts, if it gives struggling ex-EAOs entities to levy extra legal taxes on.
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities—and for that matter, China’s Tibetans, Indonesia’s highland Papuans, Thailand’s hill tribes, and others—know that uncontrolled in-migration will reduce them to minorities, with their cultures and lands subsumed by newcomers. James C Scott’s engulfment— defined as the settlement of loyal (read: docile) populations with an existing “national” identity in areas where such identity was lacking among indigenous peoples— may occur as a part of an unstated but overarching government strategy to dilute the concentration of peoples with separatist tendencies in sensitive areas. Rich historical precedents exist, such as Manchu/ Qing settlement of Han Chinese colonists and soldiers in Southwest China:
Han settlement into areas where they are not a majority has been a Chinese government policy that transcends types of rule, and its continuity from empire to republic to communist dictatorship to the present appears unbroken. Significantly, however, the greater the disruption of the previous demographic status quo, the greater the volatility, as is demonstrated by contemporary anti-state violence in Xinjiang and unrest in Tibet. Controls on migration will likely be sticking points in future negotiations, between the Union and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), and United Wa State Party (UWSA) in particular.
Lessons from Thailand:
The future settlement of conflicts in Myanmar’s EAO borderlands, either through Panglong or another forum, cannot be predicted, but the contours of a long path can be inferred from the recent experience of Northwestern Thailand, which only became integrated into the modern Thai state beginning in the 1960s. While Afghanistan’s experience demonstrates how reintegration and alternative livelihoods standalone programs not synchronized within a larger state-building and service delivery exercise can often prove futile, Northwestern Thailand’s integration into the Thai state confirms this. The region’s hill tribe regions were developmentally and administratively ignored until the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) based itself there: hill tribe members served as CPT foot soldiers, and the exponential increase in poppy cultivation in hill tribe areas made many Thais perceive them as threats to the state. The government’s defeat of the CPT involved coaxing CPT members to surrender, but unlike Myanmar, the Thai state’s relatively strong position made the process a simpler one than the current context of EAO areas. In Thailand’s opium-growing strongholds, much of them in then-CPT areas, poppy cultivation dropped from 12,112 hectares in 1961 to 281 hectares in 2015, and the opium trade shifted almost entirely to Laos and Myanmar.
The historical success of Northwestern Thailand’s incorporation into the state through both counterinsurgency and alternative development in formerly insurgent areas is not attributed to any one factor, but to a combination of many. Opium poppy cultivation there was not halted because substitute crops earned the same income as opium. In the Thai case, nothing equaled the price of opium to smallholder farmers, especially those without land tenure and the consequent inability to invest in longer-term crops: in 1984, 15 years after alternative crops and extension services were introduced, cultivation was again peaking, and the Thai authorities introduced forcible eradication and arrests in response. But alternate crops did provide income, especially through Arabica coffee. Despite the interference of middlemen and exploitative contract farming— problems for farmers across Thailand and Myanmar, not simply in opium cultivation areas— farmers did earn a living. But the end of illegality was aided by much more than new crops and price guarantees, and the presence of state security actors. The means by which this once remote area of Thailand was truly integrated into the state was through the provision of health and education services, the extension of roads, the provision of land tenure, and the assignment of civil servants to administer areas they were previously absent from— both the presence of the state, and people’s perceptions that its presence was worthwhile.
This success took generations. Myanmar’s will as well: If Panglong 21 is a success, then it will only be because it serves as the foundation upon which services and protections for EAO communities are built. If Panglong 21 is the end of a process, rather than a beginning, then it will fail.
The negotiated assertion of the power of the lowland state into state-resistant areas continues with the Panglong 21 peace process. Myanmar’s borderland insurgents have replicated lowland state coercive power in order to fight the state. The egalitarianism discussed by Scott and others mainly exists in those armed communities which continue to resist the state, as they form and fracture over time. Many of these insurgents historically protected their communities from Tatmadaw incursions distinguished by violence, flight and impunity. Like states, they also tax and control the communities they protect. Many have resorted to criminal activities to survive, and also, profit.
EAO communities have been caught between a rock and a hard place. Panglong 21 offers them a chance to be relieved of the pervasive insecurity and occasional violence they have been subject to for generations. It offers many of those who represent them less: what we witness in the insurgent offensives that began in Shan in November 2016 may be the last gasp of certain smaller groups and the beginning of serious negotiations between larger entities and the government. That process will see EAOs surrender some powers while retaining others: outlaws will legitimize, and a certain amount of post-conflict criminality from former militia and EAO structures will be tolerated as the price of peace. The peace process, if it works, will not be the end of an era of instability, but rather, the beginning of a different type of insecurity, and expectations must be managed. Transitional justice and other demands will prove to be illusory.
No one should underestimate the long task ahead of both the government and the insurgents; it will take a generation, at least, before insurgent populations will find a place in licit economies, and before adequate services are provided. No particular program or step serves as a “magic bullet”. The same infrastructure that will allow troops to travel quickly to quell unrest will also serve to reduce costs for farmers to get their produce to market and reduce times for people to access emergency care. That access, to name one example of many, gives people a vested interest in the state. And in many an EAO territory, that interest is lacking. It is exactly this type of social capital that the state needs to invest in EAO areas that will guarantee peace after Panglong. The state’s presence will be measured not in terms of soldiers but by health, education, markets and opportunities.
Bobby Anderson ([email protected]) is a Myanmar-based Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.