Between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, the Myanmar Army (44th Division, 1st and 2nd Battalion) launched attacks in Dwe Lo Township in the Karen National Union (KNU)’s Papun District (Brigade 5), forcing more than 200 civilians to flee. These machine-gun and mortar attacks followed similar Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) ceasefire violations in the Ler Mu Plaw area between March and June, in which 2,500 villagers were displaced.
‘The Tatmadaw seems determined to take control of the last remaining KNU-controlled areas “in a campaign of a thousand cuts”. This is despite the fact that the KNU signed a bilateral ceasefire with the government in January 2012, and was the leading Ethnic Armed Organization (EAO) to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015.
Elsewhere, the militarized state is also pushing into previously autonomous ethnic nationality-populated areas, for example through road-building projects. For now, across most of southeast Myanmar various ceasefires are still holding, and a tenuous negative peace allows villagers to begin rebuilding their lives after decades of conflict. However, in the Papun hills, state-directed violence has increased since the present government took office in 2016. Unsurprisingly therefore, many Karen and other ethnic nationality stakeholders are deeply skeptical about the peace process and fear that widespread fighting may break out again.
The KNU and Karen activist and aid groups are alert to the possibility of further Tatmadaw incursions. This year, Tatmadaw attacks on KNU positions and civilians in Papun District have been by assiduously documented, followed by the speedy publication of hard-hitting advocacy statements. This proactive strategy ensures that Tatmadaw aggression will be costly for the military politically, at a time when the Tatmadaw is under international pressure because of abuses committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, and against other civilians in the Kachin conflict.
However, such humanitarian advocacy and activism can only go so far. Salvaging a failing peace process also requires clear political strategy from EAOs and political parties.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her advisers reportedly plan to hold one or two more Union Peace Conferences, and then declare the “21st Century Panglong Process” finished. The resulting (so-called) Union Peace Accord would go to Parliament and form the background to election campaigns in 2020. Despite the NLD’s reduced popularity among ethnic communities and urban-based political elites, and in the western and international community, the NLD will probably win the next elections.
Once the Union Peace Accord is completed, the Tatmadaw would likely call more strongly for EAOs to disarm and demobilize. This would be virtually impossible for the main EAOs to accept.
Unlike the U Thein Sein government, which invested significant energy and political capital in trust building, the NLD government seems not to regard EAOs as legitimate political actors. Aung San Suu Kyi and colleagues see political legitimacy as a product of participation in elections; in contrast, most EAOs derive their legitimacy from the long years of armed struggle. Although not universally popular among the country’s ethnic nationality citizens, the major EAOs do nevertheless enjoy significant support among the communities they seek to represent.
The NLD government inherited a peace process framed by the NCA and seems determined to see this through—not least because that is what the Tatmadaw wants. Therefore, the government (and presumably the Tatmadaw) need NCA-signatories and other EAOs to support the “21st Century Panglong Process”. For the EAOs, pulling out would be a high-risk move, exposing them to accusations of sabotaging the peace process. However, NCA-signatory groups should be getting more out of the process. The principles agreed so far in the last two UPCs are very weak, and do little to address ethnic grievances and self-determination goals. Key stakeholders have agreed on the need to re-negotiate the ‘Framework for Political Dialogue’, with an ambitious plan to achieve federalism and security sector reform by 2030. However, given limited interest on the government or the Tatmadaw side, any renegotiation could end up with another messy and complex framework, which doesn’t really work (or benefits the government and military, which is almost the same thing).
Therefore, it could be useful to identify a small number of political priorities, which would help to deliver on some of the ethnic stakeholders’ key aims. These could be negotiated by EAOs and political parties in a “fast-track” manner, in exchange for continuing to participate in political dialogue, resulting in a Union Peace Accord which could benefit the government and ethnic stakeholders.
Another area for possible progress is “Interim Arrangements”, as defined in Article 25 of the NCA. Myanmar’s main EAOs (both NCA signatories and non-signatory groups) control sometimes extensive territory and deliver services to civilian populations, often in partnership with CSOs. In these areas, EAOs constitute the local government and generally enjoy more legitimacy locally than the Naypyitaw government or Tatmadaw, which are often considered alien, violent and predatory forces. EAOs’ service delivery and governance functions should be supported, because these are often the only state-like entities providing public goods to vulnerable communities on the ground, in remote and conflict-affected areas. However, the government does not seem to recognize EAOs as governance actors, instead engaging with them underground merely as service providers (similar to CSOs), and/or as private businesses. This contradicts the NCA and undermines the possibility of peace-building efforts that could transform political and economic structures that have driven ethnic violence in Myanmar for decades. Supporting Interim Arrangements could be a key element in building ‘federalism from below’ in Myanmar.
If EAOs are to continue participating in the 21st Century Panglong Process, they should demand concrete progress on key issues. Benchmarks or indicators would need to be established, and should be kept simple. Areas for possible progress could be education and language policy (recognition of and funding for EAOs’ extensive school systems; ‘mother tongue’ teaching in government schools); land issues (recognition of land title documents provided by EAOs; revision of unjust existing land laws; compensation and restitution for people who have had their land unfairly taken); and equitable natural resource management. Furthermore, EAOs should demand that the government and Tatmadaw respect Interim Arrangements as previously agreed in the NCA.
None of the above would prevent other ethnic stakeholders from continuing to campaign for federalism, including changes to the 2008 Constitution. In parallel, they could aim for some short-term political objectives, which could build trust and momentum in the peace process. These “peace dividends” would help ethnic communities, and also reinforce faltering local support for EAOs; in exchange, the government might be able to deliver a credible peace process. Otherwise, NCA-signatory groups should seriously consider withdrawing from a failing political dialogue.
Ashley South is a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University, Center for Ethnic Studies and Development. (See www.AshleySouth.co.uk)