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Reforms in Myanmar: Need for caution

October 19, 2015

“The road to future peace in Myanmar is now open,” said President Thein Sein after his government signed a ceasefire agreement with eight armed ethnic groups on Thursday. The president seems to be unaware of the many hurdles on the path to peace. For one thing, seven of the 15 armed groups declined to sign the agreement. Though the Karen National Union (KNU) that has been at war with the Myanmar military for nearly 70 years is a party to the deal, the United Wa State Army, believed to be the largest and best equipped of the country’s armed ethnic groups, is not. Based in the Shan State, the Wa State Army receives large quantities of military hardware from China.

The Kachin Independence Organization, which controls vast areas of Kachin State in Myanmar’s northeast has also not joined the peace process. Thein Sein, who made the nationwide ceasefire a key platform for his reformist agenda after taking power in 2011, wanted the deal to be signed ahead of the Nov. 8 general elections. The government has removed all the groups that signed the ceasefire agreement from its list of Unlawful Associations. This is expected to help them join the political mainstream.

Thursday’s agreement was the culmination of more than two years of negotiations with both the government and the rebel groups coming under growing pressure from the West to end what a US State Department spokesman described as “the longest-running civil conflict in the world.”

Apart from US, institutions from the European Union to Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Japan were involved in the government-led peace agenda. Beijing has long expressed a desire to see peace restored in Kachin State, where it has massive investments in the local jade trade, mineral exploration and hydroelectric power.

Although the West and China exercise considerable influence over Myanmar’s peace process, the latter is worried that the West, and particularly the United States, is extending its presence in Myanmar right into China’s backyard. US Ambassador Derek Mitchell has visited war-torn Kachin State twice in just one year. This may be the reason why China put pressure on the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization that operate on the Myanmar-China border, not to sign the agreement. This together with the fact that opposition figures such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and several key leaders and civil society groups have kept aloof from the peace process argues against pinning too many hopes on the ceasefire agreement restoring peace and stability in Myanmar’s ethnic regions.

Then there is the still unresolved issue of Rohingyas. Though US President Barack Obama pushed Myanmar to conclude the ceasefire as part of wider changes to protect minorities, Rohingya Muslims are the one minority who needs protection most and who stand to gain the least from the recent reforms in that country. Even the November elections will not bring any succor to them. The government has disenfranchised almost all of Myanmar’s approximately one million Rohingyas because of heavy pressure from nationalist politicians and Buddhist monks who regard them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh though their ancestors have been living in this Buddhist country since the seventh century. Worse still, almost all political parties are resorting to anti-Rohingya rhetoric to raise suspicions and create fears about this helpless minority in the minds of the majority Buddhists. Even the NLD led by Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi appears to have succumbed to pressure from radical Buddhist monks and is fielding no Muslim candidates in the elections.

This means the West should not view Thursday ceasefire agreement as the end of the reform process, but as a modest beginning. More important, they must ensure that the options before Rohingyas are not “to stay and die or to leave by boat,” as Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, pointed out in one of her reports.

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Rohingya Exodus