After demonstrating commitment to an extraordinary series of social, economic and political reforms, Myanmar’s new government has launched a bold peace initiative with potential to resolve the devastating 60-year civil war with ethnic groups.
Myanmar: A New Peace Initiative , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, comes on the eve of the first visit to the country by a U.S. Secretary of State in a half century and days after ceasefires have been reached or agreed in principle with a number of ethnic armed groups. It examines the opportunity for a sustainable end of the ethnic turmoil and armed conflicts that have been devastating the country since the early days of its independence.
President Thein Sein has recognised the importance of the ethnic situation and pledged to make it a national priority. Myanmar now has an opportunity to comprehensively resolve these conflicts. The President has opened a dialogue with all armed groups and dropped key preconditions, such as the scheme to convert their armies into border guards. He has also offered an unprecedented national conference to seek political solutions to ethnic divisions. Despite serious clashes in Kachin State and parts of Shan State, momentum is now clearly building behind the government’s peace initiative.
“A lasting solution to the problem requires going beyond just stopping the wars”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious Myanmar can only achieve genuine national unity and reconciliation by embracing its diversity”.
But lasting peace is by no means assured. Ethnic minority grievances run deep since the independence of Myanmar in 1948. The military regime of the State Law and Order Restoration Council that came to power in 1988 temporarily neutralised its largest military threat in the borderlands by signing ceasefire agreements with a number of armed ethnic groups. Those ceasefires should have been a watershed, from war to peace and armed to political struggle, but this failed to happen. Instead, the agreements grew stale, as promised political talks never materialised. They collapsed when the military government tried by decree to incorporate ethnic armies into a border guard force ahead of a long-planned transition to a new structure of constitutional government.
Ensuring greater peace will take more than reaching ceasefire agreements with armed groups. It requires addressing the grievances and aspirations of all minority populations, guaranteeing equal rights, supporting socio-economic developments, granting greater regional autonomy and building trust between the communities.
The international community has an important role to play in support of peace and development in Myanmar. It should understand the complexities of the conflict and support conflict resolution without making the attainment of peace a prerequisite for improving bilateral relations or beginning to lift sanctions. Encouraging the protagonists to find their own way to stop the fighting and make headway on a political settlement would simultaneously help meet key Western benchmarks on political prisoners, human rights, and democracy.
“If major conflict persists, successful reform will remain elusive”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “That would be to the detriment of the whole country. Every effort must be made to ensure that all groups are part of this process, or it could be the beginning of a new era of conflict rather than the end of an old one”.