Welcoming our first reader from Burma/Myanmar in May, prompted an attempt to find out more about the search for peace in that country.
This picture of a stilt village in Myanmar is the only reference made on this site to several descriptions of social and environmental diversity found online.
Having only received news of the plight of the Rohingya refugees and the condemnation of Aung Suu Kyi’s lack of support for this minority, the writer’s search unveiled a far more complex situation than ongoing news bulletins have indicated.
The Panglong conference of 1947 between the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic minority leaders and Aung San, head of the interim Burmese government led to an agreement to join in a union government that would give equal status to all citizens and press for independence.
The term ‘federalism’ was construed by many in Burma as being anti-national, anti-unity and pro-disintegration.
When the non-Burman ethnic groups pressed for autonomy or federalism, as incorporated in the 1947 Constitution, at a time when there was a weak civilian government, the military leadership staged a coup d’état in 1962, moving towards democracy gradually in the 90s.
Following the democratic election of the Thein Sein government in 2010, the government embarked on a series of reforms to direct the country towards liberal democracy, a mixed economy, and reconciliation, includes the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, the granting of general amnesties for more than 200 political prisoners, new labour laws that permit labour unions and strikes, a relaxation of press censorship, and the regulation of currency practices.
By 2011, the government accepted the concept of federalism, one of the core principles of the ongoing peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups.
Map of Myanmar and its divisions, including Shan State, Kachin State, Rakhine State and Karen State.
The government allowed the use and discussion of federalism and the drafting of a Constitution by individual states and regions and international approval included:
• ASEAN’s approval of Myanmar’s bid for the position of ASEAN chair in 2014;
• a visit by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 – the first in more than fifty years,
• and the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the 2012 by-elections.
However, there were ongoing conflicts in Myanmar:
• The Kachin conflict between the Pro-Christian Kachin Independence Army and the government;
• a civil war between the Rohingya Muslims, and the government and non-government groups in Rakhine State;
• Armed conflict between ethnic Chinese rebels and the Myanmar Armed Forces have resulted in the Kokang offensive in February 2015. The conflict had forced 40,000 to 50,000 civilians to flee their homes and seek shelter on the Chinese side of the border
• a conflict between the Shan, Lahu, and Karen minority groups, and the government in the eastern half of the country.
• A widely publicised Burmese conflict was the 2012 Rakhine State riots, a series of conflicts that primarily involved the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist people and the Rohingya Muslim people in the northern Rakhine State—an estimated 90,000 people were displaced as a result of the riots.
The recent violence in Kachin State, where thousands have been forced from their homes because of renewed fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that was reached under former president and retired army General Thein Sein. And despite this agreement, even groups that signed the deal are regularly having to fend off incursions by government soldiers into their areas.
Armed conflict between ethnic Chinese rebels and the Myanmar Armed Forces led to the Kokang offensive in February 2015. The conflict forced 40,000 to 50,000 civilians to flee their homes and seek shelter on the Chinese side of the border.
The army has stepped up its campaign while global attention focuses on the Rohingya crisis, which has seen some 700,000 people flee to Bangladesh.
General elections in November 2015 gave the National League for Democracy (NLD) an absolute majority in both chambers of the national parliament and Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed that peace with the ethnic minority groups would be her top priority. However, she has not continued with the talks initiated under the previous administration and it is reported that some negotiators who had championed her cause have been sidelined. Ethnic groups now say that the government team charged with finding peace rarely travels to their part of the country to see or hear at first-hand what the issues are.
The Myanmar Government does not include the Rohingya as a Burmese minority group
They are classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government’s list of more than 130 ethnic races and, therefore, the government states, they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.
Wayne Hay reports that in 2012, there was a series of Rakhine State riots, conflicts that involved the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist people and the Rohingya Muslim people in the northern Rakhine State, displacing an estimated 90,000 people.
The Myanmar government’s Nationwide Ceasefire now has eight ethnic armed groups as signatories which could participate in the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. The third meeting of the conference in the second week of July will discuss fundamental principles on federalism in Myanmar.
The Diplomat reports that the Tatmadaw (Burmese army) continues to insist that there should be a single army under the new federal arrangement. The ethnic armed groups, however, prefer having a federal army, which could allow them to keep their respective armed forces:
“Essentially, the Tatmadaw deems that the ethnic armed groups will be a threat to territorial integrity if they are to retain their weapons and personnel. It is also concerned that the union government would have little authority or control over the regional governments if there is a federal army.
“On the other hand, the ethnic armed groups argue that their forces have to be retained to serve either as a deterring factor or as a counter in the event of unexpected or unprovoked attacks from the Tatmadaw. Any conflict settlement arising from the process will not be sustainable if there is an element of mistrust between the negotiating parties.
“Trust cannot be built if attacks by the Tatmadaw continue alongside the civilian government’s efforts to conduct the peace process. Early this year, the Tatmadaw launched attacks on the Kachin and northern Shan States, triggering renewed clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The Tatmadaw’s actions also strengthen the case for retaining the ethnic armed forces”.
Serving in the Kachin Independence Army
However, preservation of the union has been a longstanding belief of the Tatmadaw and its uncompromising stance could trigger the ethnic armed groups to maintain arms and continue the fight, providing justification for maintaining military operations against these armed groups.
Eugene Mark, a Senior Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, ends:
“Immense challenges lie ahead for the peace process in Myanmar. However, if the peace process is to have any chance of succeeding, one should look at building trust between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups as the starting point. Perhaps the best solution is for the two sides to listen to each other’s concerns and be ready to compromise in the larger interest of the country.
“Conflicts that are political in nature require political consensus”.
Those who want to read more about Burma’s complex and eventful history during these years, with one ference to CIA/USA intervention, can do on these sites: