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In Myanmar, Peace for Ethnic Rights



By Maung Zarni
September 24, 2015

For months, the government of Myanmar has been touting progress on a nationwide cease-fire deal, claiming it is a major step toward ending the country’s long-running armed conflicts. But the latest summit meeting on Sept. 9, attended by President Thein Sein and representatives of more than a dozen ethnic armed groups, ended inconclusively.

Some groups have refused to sign the agreement unless the government allows all of them to join it. The Kachin Independence Organization, the second-largest of the groups, is recalcitrant because three of its closest allies, which are still actively fighting the Myanmar Army in the country’s northeast, are being sidelined. 

Working out an accord acceptable to all the guerrillas was always going to be difficult given their differing interests. Some groups, like the Karen National Union, view the cease-fire as an economic opportunity, because it would open up access to the Asian Highway network that is being built; others, like the Kachin, are worried it will bring unwanted dam projects, excessive jade mining and more deforestation, and undermine their calls for a more federal system.

Yet the greatest obstacle to finalizing a comprehensive deal actually is the one thing these minority groups share: deep distrust of the Myanmar military, which they see as an occupying force with a neocolonialist mind-set.

They are right. I grew up in Mandalay in an extended military family. Like the vast majority of Myanmar’s people, we are Bamar and Buddhist, and have been imbued with a dominant culture that is distrustful of Muslims and condescending toward ethnic groups. For many minorities, Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 was less a moment of emancipation than a shift to another form of oppression. Colonial subjugation morphed into centralized rule under a chauvinistic majority.

Almost seven decades later, Myanmar politics is inherently sectarian, and when the government isn’t downright exploitative of minorities, it is paternalistic and domineering. Small wonder that our military leaders, who see themselves as the guardians of national sovereignty, feel little need to pursue genuine peace with ethnic armed groups. Or that even those ethnic groups that seek peace are wary of the government’s recent overtures.

The commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, did not attend the summit meeting in early September; he was in Israel then, touring military facilities. Even as participants in the talks were gathering in Naypyidaw, the capital, the military was attacking Brigade 3 of the Kachin Independence Army, apparently unprovoked.

Gen. Gun Maw, the K.I.A.’s second-in-command, has said it is a pattern of behavior for the military to stage offensives at the same time that negotiations are underway. He seems to be correct: The army has also been attacking areas controlled by the Restoration Council of Shan State, even after the group publicly said it would accept the cease-fire deal regardless of whether all armed groups could join it.

That the army is waging strikes while the president is talking about peace does not reflect a split between the military and the executive branch; it is just the government’s version of playing good cop/bad cop. And the government’s attempt to leave some groups out of the nationwide cease-fire agreement — for instance, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army — is a ploy to divide and conquer the ethnic opposition.

With the ethnic armed groups understandably skeptical, the only way to make real progress toward peace is for the government to offer them some significant military and political concessions, and fast.

The army should immediately halt all hostilities and allow humanitarian relief to get through to war-trapped communities, especially in the Kachin and Shan areas. The government must also drop its demand that outlier groups sign bilateral cease-fire agreements as a precondition to their being included in the comprehensive accord. And the commander-in-chief must publicly declare that the military will abide by the addendum to the proposed cease-fire. The addendum has not been made public, but according to senior advisers to one major ethnic group that has been involved in the negotiations, it provides that the security sector will undertake reforms — including allowing some parliamentary oversight — before the ethnic groups are asked to disarm.

To overcome the distrust of minority groups, the government must also devolve more power to the ethnic areas. Both the commander-in-chief and the government should commit now to ending the current practice by which the president handpicks chief ministers for the country’s 14 regions and states. Text should be inserted into the addendum of the cease-fire deal stating that the authority to select chief ministers will be transferred to local legislatures, including in ethnic-majority areas.

These recommendations may seem like a tall order, but the moment is right. The government appears determined to arrange a signing ceremony for the ceasefire accord before the general election in November, partly to shore up its popularity with both voters and international donors, which dwindled after it took a series of controversial moves: The government has prevented the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for president; sacked the relatively liberal head of the ruling party; banned statements critical of the military in state media during the campaign; and stripped Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, of their voting rights.

The government’s current vulnerability is a precious opportunity for Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups. They must stand together, and hold out on signing the nationwide cease-fire until all of them are included in the deal and they have secured concrete military and political concessions. If the government is as serious as it claims about wanting peace, it must let go of its oppressively majoritarian mind-set and recognize ethnic minorities’ legitimate aspirations for more autonomy.

Maung Zarni, a political activist from Myanmar, is a nonresident scholar with the Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia.

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