Towards the end of war in Myanmar
By David Henry Poveter
When United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton completed her visit to
Myanmar on December 2, the diplomatic exchange offered a glimpse of hope for
the traditionally military-run country's reform prospects. The high-level visit
was widely viewed as diplomatic acknowledgement of the immense changes that
President Thein Sein has undertaken since taking office in March. With the
international community focused on his government's reform pledges, will Thein
Sein move next to bring a conclusive end to six decades of civil war with
ethnic minority groups?
Ethnic minority ceasefire groups, some fighting on and off against the
government for over six decades, mostly refused to lay down their arms and
become part of government commanded "Border Guard Forces" (BGF) as mandated in
the 2008 constitution. Despite the ceasefires, instability and violence
continued in many border and remote areas because there was no mechanism to
involve ethnic groups in the political process. Under the BGF
scheme, these groups would have been forced to give up their hopes for autonomy
without any government guarantee for political inclusion.
Ethnic minority groups may now be characterized into three distinct groups:
those that accepted the BGF scheme; those who had a ceasefire with the
government but refused to become BGF; and those that remained at war with the
government without a ceasefire. Of the last two groups, the former include
Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Shan State Army-North, and the New
Mon State Party (NMSP) all declined the BGF scheme. The latter group of those
at war includes the Shan State Army-South, the Karen Nation Union (KNU), the
Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Chin National Front (CNF).
There are certain indications that the government has learned from its past
mistakes and is now focusing more genuinely on national reconciliation with
ethnic groups, as professed in the last step of the previous junta's Seven Step
Roadmap to Democracy. The authorities have withdrawn the earlier BGF concept
and opened new political dialogue with many ethnic groups. Over the weekend of
November 19-20, Rail Transportation Minister and Thein Sein close ally Aung Min
met with the presidents of ethnic groups in a bid to break the deadlock and
open dialogue towards peace negotiations.
Aung Min reportedly ensured ethnic group leaders of socio-economic development
in their respective, often impoverished regions, a role for their group's in
the newly established parliament, and that the new constitution could be
amended to meet their agreed demands. After the meetings, Aung Min indicated
plans to convene a "tri-partite dialogue" that will include the government, the
political opposition and ethnic groups. This followed on Thein Sein's comments
about the possibility of charter change made at the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit earlier this year.
"There may be points that are not suitable or acceptable to them [ethnic
groups] and need to be amended," Thein Sein said at the summit. "Once the
constitution is acceptable to them, weapons will no longer be an issue."
Ethnic groups have so far responded positively to the overtures. The SSA-S, one
of Myanmar's largest armed rebel groups that never agreed to a ceasefire,
recently agreed to lay down its arms. The CNF reached a similar agreement with
the government that apparently will be made official in January. The KNU
approved a ceasefire "in principle", which still needs to be ratified by its
central committee, while the KNPP recently agreed to enter into peace talks
with the Kayah State government.
The KIO remains pitched in fierce fighting with government forces in areas near
the Chinese border, but has reportedly agreed to meet government negotiators
for informal discussions. The NMSP and the SSA-N remain hold-outs, with no
progress reported in tentative talks. However some analysts predict these
groups, too, will eventually follow suit in light of the goodwill the
government has demonstrated in pursuit of peace towards other major ethnic
Official overtures to ethnic groups have not come empty-handed. According to
the Shan Herald, a news agency run by ethnic Shan exiles in Thailand, soon
after the ethnic Wa signed a new ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw in early
September new business and investment poured into the region, with new hotels
and stores reportedly under construction. One Shan quoted in the report said
the traffic in the famously remote and underdeveloped region during the Shan
New Year "Reminds me of Bangkok during the rush hour".
Some analysts believe that Thein Sein's surprise decision to suspend the
China-backed Myitsone dam project in the Kachin State demonstrates a new
government sensitivity to grassroots sentiments. The International Crisis
Group, for one, recently reported that "the authorities allowed an unusually
free debate on the issue to take place in public". Public criticism of the
government was met with heavy consequences under the outgoing ruling junta, but
a recent loosening of media censorship and new law allowing for public protests
point towards a more democratic future in Myanmar.
During Clinton's visit, Myanmar officials asked that a World Bank assessment
team be allowed to visit the country and for US technical advise for economic
reforms. After decades of failed economic policies that have impoverished the
population and sparked anti-government protests, including the 2007 "Saffron"
revolution that ended in bloodshed, Thein Sein's request for external
assistance represents a hopeful new direction for the country.
Since the 2010 elections - against widespread skepticism about the prospects
for change - Thein Sein's government has taken major, bold steps towards
achieving national reconciliation. Recognizing the need to establish a
political dialogue with ethnic minority groups, canceling the controversial BGF
scheme and investing in socio-economic infrastructure in ethnic minority areas
points towards a new democratic direction and an eventual end to war in
David Henry Poveter, a pseudonym, is an independent strategic analyst.
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