Myanmar: Is Peace Possible? – OpEd


On Friday as the 8th meeting between the Ethnic Armed Organizations’ Senior Delegation (EAOs’SD) and the Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) for conclusive negotiations of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) ended without a breakthrough, the US embassy in Yangon conveys its deep concern in a strongly worded statement about the escalating tensions in the coutry’s north undermining the trust that is essential to achieving a nationwide ceasefire accord.

In Kachin State and northern Shan State “continued fighting needlessly puts the lives of vulnerable communities at risk and undermines the trust that will be essential to achieving a nationwide ceasefire agreement,” the statement said, calling on humanitarian access to affected communities. “We also strongly urge restraint on all sides and call for dialogue in the service of genuine, lasting peace,” it added.

Sai Nyunt Lwin, a lawmaker from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party reflecting on the prospects of finalising the NCA, said in an interview with the Radio Free Asia, “We see that the government army is engaging in this fighting intentionally, not accidentally” which might work as a “deterrent” to the ongoing talks. To add more, according to a recent Jane’s Defense Weekly report, Myanmar’s military has quietly launched its largest war effort in Shan State’s Kokang region since the country achieved independence in 1948, and sporadical clashes continue to occur between the govt forces and Karen, Arakan and Palaung rebel groups.

Now at this juncture, as the country is nearing its national polls in November, avoiding skirmishes and facilitating the air to reach upon an “inclusive”, and effective Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is very critical to organizing credible elections. But recent reports from the ground furnishes a counter-narrative to the government’s professed commitment to peace, exhibiting a tendency to drive tandem: on the one hand insisting on peace talks with, and, on the other, launching military offensive, against the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs).

Major T San of the KIA, operating in Hpakant, says, “Tatmadaw is increasing attacks on us. Fightings are breaking out on daily basis.” Meanwhile, the military apointees’ Veto against major amendments, including allowances for federalism, to the 2008 constitution last month had weakened “already weak trust between the stakeholders” in the ongoing peace talks, said Nai Hong Sar, a leading ethnic negotiator.The military, on the other hand, is ‘committed’ to a “multi-party democracy” with the proviso that it must maintain a political role until the country is at peace, as reaffirmed by Commader-in-Chief of the Defense services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in a recent interview with the BBC. The military’s massive war effort against the EAOs might be a tactic to pressurize them to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) without effecting any changes demanded by the ethnic armed groups’ leaders in the draft NCA signed by Nationwide Ceasefire Co-ordination Team (NCCT) and Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC). The demands, if accepted will loosen the military’s grip on power. Hence it is highly unlikely for the military to concede to these demands.

Conversely, it is uncertain whether the EAOs will finally sign the NCA without these changes being effected. Delegates from the stakeholders will further discussions earlier next month. However, these efforts, if do not address the root cause of the conflict, will only freeze the problem, not solve it.

Can there be true ‘multi-party democracy’ without genuine peace ? And can genuine peace be attained without addressing the root causes of the decades-long ethnic conflict in Myanmar ? One thing for sure, if instability persists, which is very likely, in several areas of Kachin state and Shan State elections will have to be suspended for security reasons, barring maximum voter participation, and thus rendering the elections not fully representative of popular will.

The Root of the Conflict

Burma (or Myanmar) is a classic example of the serious mess between “state-building” and “nation-building” processes where nationalism has emerged as a political paranoia. Francis Fukuyama wrote, “While ‘nation-building’ is a process of building a community of shared values through rites and rituals, culture and language, collective memories and historical experiences; ‘state-building’, on the other, is a process of constructing political institutions, establishing common economic and legal systems, promoting economic development, and protecting the security and well-being of its citizens.”

A modern nation-state, which receives its legitimacy from the people, requires some sort of identification from its citizens. In a homogenous nation-state there are no such hurdles in forming that identity. But in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural state like Burma where the ethnic minorities have been striving to assert their ethnic ‘national identities’ within a federal politico-judicial structure (that is state) of Burma, it is congenial to seek ”state identity” instead, basing on the founding ideology of the state, which can accommodate within it the different ethnic national identities. Unfortunately in Burma this did not happen. The country’s history is replete with efforts and instances of forced assimilation and expediting a ‘nation-building’ process. The ‘nation-building’ process belongs to ‘subjective values’ : values that can not be shared objectively but differentiate one group of people from another.

Hence, to quote Saunder, nation-building is “hostile to multiculturalism and diversity.” But in Myanmar exactly this conflict is at the root of the long-persisting civil war. U Nu’s policy of state religion, Ne Win’s national language policy and the later regimes’ constant effort of Burmanisation of the country which were strongly resented by the minorities bear testimony to this nation building process which was done on the basis of ‘Myanmar-lumyo, Myanmar batha-ska,Myanmar thatana’ (one ethnicity, one language, onereligion) policy.Interestingly, Pyi-duang suh, the Burmese word for Federal Union, literally means ‘coming together’ of ‘nations’ implying the combination of ‘shared rule’ and ‘self-rule’: shared rule for all ethnic nationalities under the union, and self rule in their respective homelands.Therefore, any genuine peace is unlikely to be reached without underscoring these aspects.Jiwon Lee, of the Yale University, has convincingly argued in her paper “Civil Wars of Myanmar and Srilanka : The Success, Failure and Deception of the Peace Process” that the govt simply regards the peace process as parts of its state buliding mechanism, but that does not promote lasting and genuine peace unless a political solution is devised.

Points of Disagreement in the Peace Process

Apart from the EAOs’ demands of including these rebel groups : the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA)—all of which have had recent skirmishes with the Myanmar army, and also three smaller groups : the Wa National Organization (WNO), Lahu Army and Arakan National Council (ANC)—in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, the two sides disagreed on these key points: disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, natural resource management, and whether President Thein Sein and the legislature can be signatories to the peace accord. Further negotiations for reaching an agreement over these remaining issues have been scheduled in the first week of August. However, while negotiating on these issues the stakeholders will be nearing to some of the root causes of the decades-long conflict; for instance, conflict over access to natural resources in the resources-rich ethnic minorities’ areas being one among them. Therefore it is likely that that stage of the talks will determine the future of the NCA.

Summing Up

In conclusion I will refer to an anecdote, prevalent about the eighth century Chinese painter Wu Daozi, which is pertinent in portraying the nature of the attempts of peace in Myanmar. The master painter Wu was commissioned by the Tang emperor Xuanzong to paint a landscape on a palace wall. The emperor admired the wonderful work, for a long while, discovering forests, high mountains, waterfalls, clouds floating in an immense sky, birds in flight, men trudging up hilly paths. “Look, Your Majesty”, said the painter pointing to a particular place in the artwork, “in this cave, at the foot of the mountain, dwells a spirit.” The painter clapped his hands and the entrance to the cave opened. “The inside is splendid, inexpressible in words. Please let me show Your Majesty the way.” The painter entered the cave; but the entrance closed behind him, and the painting vanished from the wall instantaneously, before the astonished emperor could move or utter a word. Likewise, the peace processes in Myanmar have been historically elusive, giving the impression that fruition is imminent, but eventually ending up in renewed tensions—as if the path to peace closes ahead just at the threshold. Given the recent developments in the ongoing negotiations, and war-torn Kachin it is still unclear whether this time an inclusive and effective NCA will be inked before the November polls—deemed as stepping stone for successful democratic transition in the former British colony.

*Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya is a student of Bachelor’s degree in Tezpur University. As a freelancer he has contributed to The Assam Tribune, The Telegraph, and also to several vernacular newspapers on issues relating to political developments across Southeast Asia.

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