Myanmar's transition can be viewed from two different broad perspectives. In the first, the formerly military run country is well along the way towards a genuine democratic transformation. This perspective highlights the consolidation of the reform process with the appointment of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi as chair of the Lower House of Parliament's Committee for Rule of Law, Peace and Stability, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the adoption a law allowing for public demonstrations, the removal of thousands of foreigners and exiles from government blacklists and ongoing peace talks between the government and ethnic armies.
Government negotiators and ethnic rebel representatives have signed 13 different ceasefire agreements since the beginning of the reform process. Before the outbreak of hostilities in Kachin
State in mid-2011, there were three main ethnic groups with armies fighting against the government, namely the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Shan State Army (North and South), and the Karenni Army, the military branch of the Karenni National Progressive Party.
Today, all major active ethnic armies have agreed to ceasefires, with the exception of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and their allies the Arakan Army (AA), All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Optimistically, these ceasefires are seen as a positive step towards the end of the violent conflicts that for decades have plagued ethnic states. The ongoing fighting in Kachin State is viewed by authorities as a major challenge, but one that has not hindered peace processes with other ethnic groups. Economic interests, including control over natural resources, are seen by the government as major root causes of the conflicts.
This perspective highlights positive achievements and identifies liberalization measures as a unique opportunity for peace and growth. This upbeat perspective is shared by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, German political foundations such as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the European Union.
A countervailing perspective views more critically the transition process. Ethnic groups, political activists and human rights advocates who struggled for decades against previous military rule remain skeptical of the new quasi-civilian government's intentions.
To be sure, not all of those who fought against military rule in both violent and non-violent ways share this perspective. But it is a relevant and important viewpoint that for various reasons has been neglected by many Western governments and organizations, many of which prefer to subscribe to the oversimplified notion that only economic issues hinder the peace process.
The critical perspective views recent democratic reforms as part of an outwardly oriented strategy aimed at winning international legitimacy for the government. From this point of view, recent changes are only a cosmetic adaptation and easily reversed if perceived as necessary. That includes the inclusion of Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner and now parliamentarian, into the military-dominated political establishment.
Once an icon of democratic resistance, Suu Kyi is now viewed by many as co-opted and neutralized by the military. This view has been bolstered by her repeated failure to speak out against the recent violence in Kachin State and Buddhist-led pogroms against Muslim minorities.
While hundreds of political prisoners have been released, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) has documented over 200 new politically motivated arrests between January and September of last year. Draconian provisions in the Unlawful Associations Act, used by the previous junta to prevent grass roots organization against its rule, are still in force and have been used in past months to arrest ethnic people believed to be supportive of armed resistance groups. Despite recent ceasefire agreements, fighting is ongoing in different ethnic areas, including the Kachin, Karen and Shan States.
These actions have led many ethnic people, both those involved with and outside of formal peace processes, to be skeptical of the government's sincerity. This perception is rooted in the lack of substantial change in their daily lives. Ethnic groups in remote areas have so far not benefited from recent government allowances for greater press freedom and freedom of expression. Many still live in fear as internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the country or as refugees in border areas around China and Thailand.
For ethnic groups like the Karen National Union (KNU), which has struggled for self-determination and ethnic rights for over six decades, official mixed messages have caused its leaders to take a "wait and see" strategy.
Participation in the first peace negotiations by KNU/KNLA soft-liners sparked an internal dispute within the group. KNU top leaders were reluctant to enter into peace talks due to concerns the government had a hidden agenda. Rather than holding talks with central ethnic group representatives, KNU leaders have viewed the bilateral nature of negotiations as a government strategy to divide different ethnic groups.
During the first peace talks held at the end of 2011, the KNU delegation felt they were being pressured by the government's peace team to sign onto an agreement that failed to propose a political solution to their conflict. Over the past year, KNU leaders have become more involved in the peace process. But it is still unclear if the government's peace team has the capabilities and the power to implement any of its negotiated agreements. There are also concerns that government negotiators have failed to understand ethnic needs and positions.
To be sure, many rebels and their commanders are weary from decades of fighting. They have lost plenty to war, including family members and a civil life. But they do not want to surrender with their demands unfulfilled, particularly as some ethnic leaders still believe that a military victory is still possible.
In February 2013, for the first time, the government's peace team responded to the United Nationalities Federal Council's (UNFC) call to hold talks with their centralized authority. The UNFC is an 11-member alliance that represents various armed ethnic groups. Previously, the peace team refused the UNFC's offer because they believed that its members would only promote their own personal interests.
However, holding talks with the UNFC is an important step for building trust between the ethnic groups and government. Some analysts believe that a political solution can only be achieved with all the ethnic groups working towards a common goal.
The situation in Kachin State is different. Despite numerous rounds of peace talks, including recent meetings facilitated by China, there is no ceasefire agreement in sight. After nearly two years of fighting, the KIA has lost confidence that any ceasefire would safeguard their interests and meet their demands.
From their point of view, the Myanmar military first violated their previous ceasefire through offensive actions. They say the KIA and its associated Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) political wing were intent on maintaining the ceasefire and only undertook defensive positions after more than 50 KIA members were killed in an assault initiated by the Myanmar military. Since the fighting has intensified, including through aerial bombardments launched by the Myanmar military in late December, the KIA and local Kachin people fear for their existence.
Although President Thein Sein has ordered the military to cease its attacks, the army has failed to respond to his executive command. That failure has raised hard questions about who really controls soldiers on the ground in Kachin State. In late January, the Myanmar government released a statement saying that the army had ceased all military operations against the KIA. The statement claimed that recent armed exchanges were conducted only in "self-defense" and questioned the accuracy of recent news reports about recent armed exchanges with the rebels.
These is seemingly only two ways to break the cycle of violence: first, the government should withdraw their troops from Kachin State; or second, an international protection force under the auspices of the United Nations is needed to supervise a negotiated ceasefire. Withdrawing troops not only from Kachin State but also other ethnic areas would demonstrate that the government favors negotiated resolutions rather than military solutions to the country's various unresolved conflicts.
Despite these significant challenges, there have been signs of progress. After the talks between the government and KIA held in February, the United Nations was allowed to deliver humanitarian aid to IDPs in KIA-controlled areas. The war in Kachin State has forced more than 80,000 people to flee their homes, with more than half of them residing in areas controlled by the KIA without proper assistance. In the past, the government has blocked international aid deliveries to KIA-held areas. While shipments have recently been allowed, the Myanmar Times reported in mid-March that the military was using the cover of UN shipments to reinforce its military positions along uncontested supply lines.
Last year's violence in Rakhine State against Muslim Rohingya and the government's either unwillingness or inability to contain the attacks has provided additional reasons to be skeptical. Human Rights Watch showed in a new report that the anti-Rohingya pogroms were a government-supported campaign of ethnic cleansing in which widespread crimes against humanity were committed. According to the report, the military actively participated in the violence.
Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have also claimed that humanitarian aid has been intentionally withheld from the Rohingya. The violence represents a significant backward step and seems to show that new conflicts can erupt during the transition process as the political opening has provided space for ethnic and religious groups to organize against one another.
Many of Myanmar's problems boil down to a lack of trust. Both sides of the country's conflicts must demonstrate that agreements are reliable and that human rights and people's livelihoods are their top priorities. When ceasefire agreements are reached, the government must be able to demonstrate that they have the power to actually implement them, ie that the civil government actually controls the army.
Myanmar's transformation challenges are bigger than structural changes and without peace in ethnic areas will lack credibility. But as long as Myanmar's people continue to die because of their religion or ethnicity, it will be nearly impossible for non-state actors to change their perceptions of the government.
Dr Sina Schuessler is a senior researcher at the Center for Conflict Studies at Germany's University of Marburg. She may be reached at email@example.com.