To Thant Myint-U: Undermining the Root Cause of Ethnic Nationalities’ Armed Struggle Will Not Help Achieve Genuine Peace in Burma

By Stella Naw 1 September 2016

There is a discourse invented by those who label themselves as “Burma experts,” of what ethnic armed struggle should look and sound like—regardless of the reasons cited by those within this struggle. This discourse is reinforced and extended by Thant Myint-U in his recent article, “Myanmar Beyond the Peace Process,” published in the Nikkei Asian Review on August 28.

His attempt to equate the aims of ethnic armed organizations to the activities of Chicago’s criminal gangs in 1926 would ring truer if the aforementioned gangs had provided health services or run education programs for impoverished families, as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has done for those living in the areas under its control.

This inaccurate comparison suggests that perhaps the author lacks a comprehensive understanding of what goes on in the areas administered by ethnic armed organizations.

As a historian, Thant Myint-U knows the importance of recording events accurately, yet attempts to downplay the intensity of the armed clashes taking place as the highly anticipated 21st Century Panglong peace conference is underway: “confrontations are low-intensity,” he wrote, “with dozens of small clashes each month, across an area of northeastern Myanmar, along the China border.”

In reality, the most recent deadly attacks—coupled with indiscriminate shelling against the KIA—included the use of helicopter gunships, artillery and anti-tank rockets, resulting in more than 1,000 people being forced from their homes and communities. This new wave of displacement added to an existing IDP population of 120,000 in Kachin State, of whom two-thirds are currently seeking refuge in KIO-controlled areas.

Describing episodes of fighting that take place far from Rangoon or Naypyidaw as “small clashes along the border” is an act of dismissal, as people continue to struggle daily to remain safe from atrocities committed with impunity by members of the Burma Army.

Thant Myint-U concludes that, “Men with guns usually stay out of each other’s way, often do business together, sometimes try to expand their territory, and occasionally, fight.”

That would be true if the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an ethnic alliance now composed of seven armed organizations, was busy “expanding” the territories under their control by waging wars in government-controlled areas outside of their own respective lands in the ethnic states.

Instead, what the UNFC has done, however disappointing it may be to Thant Myint-U, is to present policies based on federal principles, to be discussed, and hopefully adopted, in future political dialogue.

During the process of policy development, representatives of community-based civil society groups from every ethnic state were invited to present their experiences and views on the process and the outcomes. The UNFC now has nine policy declarations on issues ranging from land and natural resource management to humanitarian assistance and agriculture.

The KIO is known to have held many rounds of public discussion to provide updates about the political steps being taken in the country since the peace process began in Burma in late 2012.

Furthermore, a diplomat from the European Union (EU) recently approached the leaders of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) to pressure the KIO into signing a new ceasefire agreement with the government—the ceasefire signed between the two entities in 1994 has, since 2011, been violated multiple times by the Burma Army. The response from the KBC was that Kachins would not sign any ceasefire agreement unless it would result in a genuine political dialogue.

The KBC’s response provided the EU representative with an understanding that the KIO’s policies and decisions are based on the wishes of the Kachin public.

With this in mind, perhaps Thant Myint-U will also be able to better understand the norms of interaction between the ethnic armed organizations and their respective communities, and that those interactions are inclusive, open and democratic—values that we are struggling to achieve on the national level.

The initial comparison of the criminal activity of 1926 in Chicago with the struggle of Burma’s ethnic peoples today is therefore absurd. The reality is that for more than half a century, the Burma Army has been guilty of arbitrary arrest, torture, rape and extrajudicial killings—largely perpetrated against ethnic nationalities. Numerous reports detailing these atrocities have been published by international human rights organizations as well as local women’s groups.

The international community and the Burmese political elite—of which Thant Myint-U is a member—has developed a narrative for what they imagine Burma’s conflict is all about. When they hear stories that contradict their imaginative discourse, they simply dismiss them.

Statements like the one most recently made by Thant Myint-U only widen the gap between ethnic nationalities’ call for a genuine dialogue to solve political incompatibilities, and the already distorted views held by the international community.

In order to achieve peace, it is imperative that we look at this disconnect between a genuine understanding of the root causes of the ongoing armed struggles—political inequality and ethnic discrimination—and what those outside the realm of the conflict believe: that Burma’s war is a series of clashes between organized criminal gangs.

General Sumlut Gun Maw, one of two vice chairmen of the KIO, posted on social media, “My Lord, we have embarked on our journey for the meeting in Rangoon [for the peace conference]. During this meeting, guide me to have the power of an analytical mind in order to find the truth, instead of feeling the anger caused by the sound of non-stop fighting back home.”

Despite the military pressure following ongoing attacks by government forces in Kachin and northern Shan states, ethnic armed organizations continue to willingly participate in peace meetings, in the hope that these events could lead to the start of the political dialogue that they seek.

I am afraid that even having Aung San Suu Kyi as an interlocutor will not help us achieve peace unless there is a change of mindset on the part of the political elites, such as Thant Myint-U, and other analysts speaking from far outside of Burma’s conflict. What we need are creative solutions to bring the decades-long war and the suffering of people in the conflict zones to an end, not grossly inaccurate accounts of armed struggle and its root causes.

Stella Naw is an advocate for democratic federalism in Burma, with a special interest in reconciliation and the rights of ethnic and indigenous peoples.