Myanmar: Can Military And Ethnic Groups Reconcile? – Analysis


By Preet Malik*

Myanmar will be holding its second election under the provisions of its 2008 constitution likely by November this year. President Thein Sein has led the reforms process that has adopted a three-pronged approach that covers the graduated progress towards democracy, the progressing of a peaceful settlement of the confrontation with the ethnic minorities, and transition from a centrally controlled economy to a market controlled and responsive economy. All the three pillars of the Thein Sein policy is a departure from the 1962 to 2010 authoritarian system that had provided the format for governance in Burma/Myanmar.

A major consequence of the positive actions undertaken by Thein Sein has been the restoration of Myanmar to the international global community. This has also resulted in the levelling out of the dominant role that China had come to play in Myanmar in the post 1988 era to a relatively more balanced position. However, the road to political reform and the return of Myanmar to full democracy is still under a cloud as there has been little agreement on amending the constitution in its current form to reduce the role of the military in the governance of the country. This is an essential element in bringing back a fully representative system of democratic rule to the country.

In effect, this ensures that whatever the outcome of the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy, cannot take over the position of the head of government even if she wins an overwhelming mandate from the people of Myanmar. This to an extent has negated the political reform process that Thein Sein had promised while contending that the move towards democracy was irreversible. In actual effect the progress towards a more democratic form of representative governance has been put on hold.

In contrast, economic reforms have been placed on a more liberal plane and there is expanding interest being shown by Myanmar’s partners to invest in the economy. The gradual involvement in the economy of Western businesses has brought about a greater resilience to the economy, helping reduce the dominant position that China had come to occupy, to a more acceptable level. Development of the economy is also being assisted, although on a tardier pace than it should be, with the involvement of India.

The fault here lies mainly with India. Myanmar because of the extremely faulty economic policies adopted by its military-based authoritarian governments in the past has an enormous leeway to cross to ensure the socio-economic development of the country, to bring prosperity to its people. Socio-economic development of the border areas is an imperative, for the peace process with the ethnic minorities and to help in securing these areas that are vital to security of Myanmar, and would have a positive bearing on the security of India’s northeastern region. Tourism is another area of the economy that is expanding rapidly, bringing a greater contribution to the revenue basket and contributing to Myanmar’s foreign currency reserves.

A significant issue that continues to confront President Thein Sein is the political and constitutional gap that has to be bridged to arrive at an understanding with the ethnic groups. This is central to securing and maintaining the security, unity and sovereignty of Myanmar. The problems with the ethnic groups have arisen out of the lack of the past governments adhering in letter and spirit to the Panglong Agreement.

A positive development has been the April-May 2015 agreement with a majority of the ethnic groups signing the draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) that had been insisted upon by President Thein Sein, as a matter of principal, before the political process for an eventual political settlement could move forward. Sixteen ethnic groups signed the NCA draft on May 7, 2015 in the presence of Thein Sein and is a major step for ending the civil war and progress of the peace process.

However, three ethnic groups, among whom the major problem lies with the Chinese origin Kokang, have continued their hostilities and are fighting the Myanmar armed forces. The battles with the Kokangs have also come to directly involve the Chinese, as hot pursuit has led to air action intruding into adjoining Chinese territory. The government of Myanmar has also been suspicious of the involvement of the Chinese with the Kokang of the Wa. The Chinese have not only armed the Kokang and the Wa but reportedly over the years established an arms industry for the Kokang.

While the NCA is indeed a historic development that in a sense credits Thein Sein with having secured the trust of the ethnic groups; the real political problems shall have to be faced now. This is not an area of easy solutions. The ethnic groups expect real progress on their being granted “full autonomy”, the amendments of the constitution to bring about an acceptable federal structure, the reduction of the dominant position of the armed forces in governance particularly at the state levels, greater share of financial and developmental flows, including a significant development of the socio-economic infrastructure, and a more representative say in the manner in which the country is governed.

It has taken over three years for the peace process to progress to the present point; the next steps are likely to be difficult to undertake as the ethnic groups shall insist on many of the key provisions of the Panglong Agreement be implemented. This would involve amendment of the constitution that can only be achieved if the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) is fully on board. The main issue remains to what extent can the military and the ethnic groups – that have been fighting each other since 1962 – come to develop a relationship of mutual trust and work together for the peace and security of the nation.

*Preet Malik was a former Ambassador of India to Myanmar and Special Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]

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