1 June 2012
Chiang Mai - Talks between the Myanmar government and ethnic resistance groups have raised hopes of a lasting solution to decades of ethnic strife, but the country's established history of failed ceasefires threatens to repeat itself with potentially disastrous consequences for new foreign-funded peace and reconciliation initiatives.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the northern Kachin State, where fighting between ethnic rebels and the Myanmar government flared up again last year after years of peace. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the central government in 1994 that ended decades of civil war but failed to produce a political solution to the group's calls for autonomy and other rights.
The then-ruling military junta told the KIA that a new constitution had to be promulgated and an elected government installed before it could engage in a political dialogue about autonomy. KIA representatives participated as observers in a National Convention, which the junta set up to draft a new constitution, and agreed to hold a referendum on the charter in the area under their control in May 2008.
When the new constitution was promulgated and general elections held in November 2010, the promised political dialogue failed to materialize. Instead, the KIA came under pressure to put down their arms and join a Border Guard Force under the command of the Myanmar army. In exchange, they were offered little more than business opportunities, similar to the terms of the original 1994 ceasefire that led to the reckless exploitation of Kachin State's once abundant forests and resources by Chinese businessmen, local entrepreneurs and certain KIA officers.
The ceasefire collapsed on those broken promises, and hostilities resumed in June last year as government forces moved into KIA-held areas. A year later, fierce fighting continues in the far north of the country, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee to the Chinese border or take shelter in major Kachin State towns. The renewed fighting has been attended by widespread reports of rights abuses, raising questions about the sincerity of President Thein Sein's internationally lauded political reform program.
Those efforts include tenuous ceasefires with other armed ethnic groups, including the Shan State Army (SSA) and the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Karen National Union. However, the recent talks between Thein Sein's government and ethnic groups are following the same dead-end pattern seen in the now failed Kachin ceasefire.
At a meeting in the far-eastern town of Kengtung held between May 19-20, SSA and government representatives signed a 12-point agreement to "restore peace" in that long restive part of the country. Apart from humanitarian issues such as resettlement and "rehabilitation" of people displaced by the fighting, the agreement only contains references to "existing laws" on all major issues; autonomy is not on the negotiation table.
The government's primary aim of the negotiations is to get the SSA to accept the 2008 constitution and convince armed rebels to return to what successive military administrations have consistently termed as the "legal fold".
Talks with Karen rebels, who are also fighting for autonomy in the areas they control, have been along the same lines. They have been offered business opportunities in exchange for peace but no promise of constitutional reform. Because the 2008 constitution does not recognize federalism, there is no negotiating space for concessions that would jeopardize the military's notion of a unitary state with itself at its apex.
Minor amendments may be made to the charter by a majority vote in parliament, as seen in the lifting of the ban on the opposition National League for Democracy that allowed the party to contest by-elections on April 1.
But a tangle of 104 clauses means that major charter changes cannot be made without the prior approval of more than 75% of all members of parliament, after which a nationwide referendum must be held where more than half of all eligible voters cast ballots. This complicated procedure makes it virtually impossible to make any substantial changes on issues of federalism and ethnic region autonomy, especially considering 25% of all seats in the upper and lower house are reserved for the military.
There are now two fundamentally opposing views on how Myanmar's ethnic question should be resolved. For the government, the solution to ethnic strife is for the rebels to lay down their arms in a gradual approach under terms stipulated by central authorities. For ethnic rebels, hopes are that the ceasefire process will through negotiations eventually lead to the establishment of a federal union and more regional autonomy.
Certain ethnic groups seem to have pinned their hopes on a number of international peace and reconciliation outfits that have recently flocked to the country to assist in the reconciliation process. Thein Sein's government, on the other hand, wants the same foreign interlocutors to help persuade armed resistance groups to effectively surrender and embrace the terms of the new charter.
The Norwegian government has earmarked some US$5 million to support its own peace plan and has asked other donors for additional assistance, while several other international nongovernmental organizations have offered their services as intermediaries. Critics argue the foreign pressure will not be on the government to amend the constitution - a far-fetched proposition in any case - but rather on the rebels to agree to work within the new existing political structures in exchange for development assistance in their respective areas.
Despite their lavish foreign funding, the peace initiatives are essentially non-starters. Sai Wansai, general secretary of the Shan Democratic Union, a non-armed Shan interest group, said in a recent statement posted to the Internet that "the change of political system, and not just a few paragraphs change here and there of the 2008 constitution, is a necessity for long-lasting peace and political settlement."
While fighting and mediation efforts continue in Kachin State, sources with access to military insiders say that the central government refuses to accept that the KIA is representative of the Kachin people. They argue instead that the "elected" Kachin State government and its "chief minister", Lajawn Ngan Seng, who was appointed after the rigged 2010 election swept by military-backed candidates, are the true democratic representatives of the Kachin State.
From this perspective, the KIA must be co-opted into the system or wiped out militarily. Not surprisingly, several rounds of talks between the Kachins and the government, most held in neighboring China, have failed to produce any tangible results.
The government's hard-line stand has had consequences that authorities may not have anticipated when the peace process began. According to Kachin sources, the negotiations have led to the emergence of a new, younger generation of Kachin leaders who are more driven by political struggle than commercial interests.
The most charismatic of these new leaders is KIA vice chief of staff General Sumlut Gun Maw, a physics graduate from Mandalay University who joined the KIA in 1987, a year before the nationwide uprising for democracy. Many of his old classmates and contemporaries took part in that suppressed uprising, and Gun Maw has maintained throughout that a solution to the ethnic conflict and the struggle for democracy are equally important.
Despite the rebel group's name, the KIA does not advocate independence from Myanmar but rather is fighting for ethnic rights and federalism. The Kachins are a predominantly Christian people who rose in rebellion in 1961 after the government tried to make Buddhism the state religion. Christianity continues to be an important factor in Kachin life and society. The fact that government appointed chief minister Lajawn Ngan Seng belongs to the Kachin State's tiny Buddhist minority was seen by many Kachins as a slight to local culture and sensitivities.
The problems are similar in all parts of the country where non-Burman nationalities reside. Other ethnic groups in Myanmar will sooner or later have to confront the same issues that compelled the KIA to scrap its 1994 ceasefire and resume fighting. As Shan leader Sai Wansai argues, as long as the core problem - the highly controversial 2008 constitution - is not addressed, "it is hard to imagine that the ethnic conflicts within [Myanmar] could be resolved anytime soon."
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003) and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier (published in 1997). He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.