Guest Column

Risk-Taking and the Road to Peace

By Aung Naing Oo, Reform 16 July 2014

Risk-taking is necessary for peace, but a risk-averse mentality often overshadows peace processes. A case in point is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, where disputants on both sides are unwilling to take risks for peace.

But in Myanmar, if we want to lay a firm foundation to the peace process, we have no choice but to take unavoidable risks. Especially now, Myanmar is on the verge of signing a historic Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). We are right at the threshold of the political dialogue that everyone has desired for decades to “resolve political problems through political means.” We just need to go the extra mile to reach the finish line.

Looking back, we could not have come this far in the peace process if all parties involved were not committed and courageous enough to take risks. But in the past, risk aversion was common.

A ceasefire often is a prerequisite for peace talks, so in 2006 I urged a late leader of the Karen National Union (KNU) with whom I was friendly to declare a unilateral ceasefire with the Myanmar military government. Given the hostilities on both sides, I knew such a move would go nowhere. But I reckoned the KNU would politically benefit from taking the initiative because I thought it was unlikely for the military government to respond to the KNU’s proposal in kind.

I might have been wrong, but if the military government responded positively to the KNU’s suggestion of détente, I thought it might herald a change of direction in Myanmar’s armed conflict. In short, there was nothing to lose for the KNU and something to gain for peace.

But the KNU leader told me that it would be impossible for the KNU to embark on such a path unilaterally. He would not even think about it, let alone raise such an idea with the KNU leadership.

I understood why he was reluctant to do so—it posed a huge risk for him, personally and institutionally. He would be labeled a coward. Worse still, if he did not lose his political standing within his own organization, he would likely be called a traitor and accused of selling out to the enemy. He simply could not take the risk because the cost to him would most likely outweigh any benefit gained.

And the timing was not conducive. I proposed the idea at a time when the KNU viewed ceasefires by ethnic armed groups, such as the one between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the military regime, with contempt and suspicion. It was also a time when Myanmar military leaders refused to negotiate politics, maintaining that such talks could be held only with the “political government.”

But largely, ceasefires of any kind and peace agreements pose huge risks for all parties involved, especially non-state armed groups. In Myanmar, ceasefires were considered a weakness by ethnic armed groups, rather than a necessary entry point to a peace process and eventually to peace. And in times of intense conflict, the talk of a ceasefire was met with pure cynicism. Organizationally, too, it would be an enormous task to convince battle-hardened soldiers and commanders of the need for a strategy shift.

It was not that the KNU did not want peace. They had held talks with the military government on many occasions. In 2004, the late KNU leader Gen. Saw Bo Mya even visited Yangon and met with the then military intelligence chief, Gen. Khin Nyunt. Ultimately, however, deep-rooted distrust and a refusal of the military government to go into political dialogue to settle differences—the KNU’s constant demand—saw the end of all peace overtures.

But in 2012, the political landscape in Myanmar was transformed. Earlier in 2011, President U Thein Sein invited ethnic armed groups to pursue peace. The Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) had already inked a ceasefire deal with the new Myanmar “political government” by November 2011. Amid confusion and infighting, the KNU took a huge risk and signed an armistice with the government in January 2012. And that risk has rendered incredible peace dividends, as the ceasefire has held in KNU-controlled areas—with only a few minor glitches.

And the KNU have continued to take risks. They have met five times with the president and the chief of Myanmar’s armed forces. Such meetings pose huge risks, both personally and institutionally, for KNU leaders, government officials and Myanmar army leaders. But with each risk taken, more trust is gained and the realization grows that peace can be within reach.

Likewise, all 14 ceasefires signed between the government and ethnic armed group have involved varying degrees of risk for concerned parties.

The risks are numerous, particularly at this stage where the long-awaited political dialogue may depend on the capacity of all protagonists to wrap up the NCA talks at the earliest time possible. While larger ethnic groups face internal dissent due to the prolonged peace process, smaller groups are at greater risk. Similarly, there are risks for the Myanmar government in a delayed process, both domestically and internationally.

Understandably, risk aversion remains strong in the Myanmar peace process. This is rooted in long-held ideological thinking and psychological fear in a classic conflict resolution sense.

But there is strong commitment all around to move on with the peace process no matter what happens. There is also strong domestic and international pressure to focus on the peace process and to not go back to war if a deal is not possible in the foreseeable future.

On June 30, Minister U Aung Min, the Myanmar government’s chief negotiator, spoke to reporters following the introduction of a bill to the Upper House of Parliament in support of the peace process. “In some countries, negotiators leave the table if a deal is not reached, and then there will be a resumption of hostilities,” he said. “But here in Myanmar, everyone has made up his mind not to leave the negotiating table. I call it a success.”

All stakeholders know in their hearts that no one gains from continuing conflict. But risk aversion may block some protagonists from seeing the bigger picture.

Risk-taking is an integral part of the peace process. And the status quo is not good enough for Myanmar. It is imperative for all stakeholders to make the extra effort, to go the last mile, on a nationwide ceasefire so that we can soon traverse a road to political dialogue.

Aung Naing Oo is the associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program at the Myanmar Peace Center. Opinions expressed here are his only.