With Myanmar coming out of the cold after five decades of military rule, President Thein Sein and his deputies are eager to show the world they are making progress on political reforms. The latest government ploy is to pressure minority groups — through a buildup of troops in a minority-held region — into signing a national cease-fire agreement in the coming weeks in the nation’s capital, Naypyidaw.
While minority leaders are negotiating with the government this week, many are dubious of the proposal. Government troops have failed to honor agreements in the past. And Naypyidaw’s chief negotiator makes it plain that he and his team do not have control over the military. Rebel leaders are mindful that the Burmese military has exploited earlier lulls in fighting around cease-fire negotiations for its own strategic ends.
But the main problem with Naypyidaw’s approach to peace is that government leaders and the military remain wedded to a highly centralized — as opposed to federal — vision of government that is unacceptable to the minorities.
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities make up about a third of the nation’s nearly 55 million residents and live in some of the most resource-rich areas along the borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. There are a handful of major ethnic minority groups, and dozens of smaller ones, with unique cultural and linguistic heritages. Though independent statehood was the original aim of most minorities following independence from Britain in 1948, most groups chose long ago to fight for a federal system of government, an idea the Burmese generals have been reluctant to embrace since they came to power in 1962.
Several years ago, one of the country’s highest ranking generals complained to me about the minorities’ push for a federal system. In a view typical of the leadership in Naypyidaw, he said federalism would be the first step toward disintegration of Myanmar.
The government’s military presence in ethnic minority regions is another sticking point. Government troop reduction is something all minority communities want. The army’s abysmal human rights record in the contested areas has perpetuated conflict over the decades and hardened resistance to the military.
When it comes to negotiating peace, the military has in the past used its bilateral cease-fire agreements as opportunities for troop reinforcement, or the construction of strategic roads for sending in supplies to front-line positions.
General Baw Kyaw Heh, the deputy chief of staff of the Karen National Liberation Army, told Karen News in September that despite a bilateral cease-fire between his group and the government, the Burmese Army has “continued to transport their military supplies, rotate their troops, modify and fortify all of their bases.”
Based on my experience working with the generals as an unofficial advocate for Western re-engagement with the country, I know that the military leaders who may be inclined to compromise hold an instrumentalist view of reconciliation. For them, peace is not a worthwhile goal in and of itself but a means to another end: financial reward.
Myanmar is well-known for its untapped natural resources, much of which are in the minority controlled areas. Kachin state is famous for jade; Karenni state’s tungsten deposit is one of the world’s largest; Karen state has vast virgin teak forests and potential as a source of hydropower.
A cessation of the violence in these regions is a prerequisite for commercial development. To be sure, some minority leaders would stand to benefit personally from the buildup of these areas. But many ethnic people look at the national leaders and well-connected businessmen with more skepticism, assuming they will exploit their land.
The idea of a national cease-fire has gained traction, in part, because former President Jimmy Carter led a delegation of former heads of state, known as the Elders, to Myanmar. They met with the government, civil society groups and ethnic minority leaders and threw their weight behind Naypyidaw’s cease-fire call. Locals explain the Elders’ endorsement as a case of outsiders being misinformed about the true nature of the government, which talks peace to the West while waging quiet wars against the minorities outside the media’s gaze. A version of this is under way now in the Kachin region, where the government has recently sent in troops just as cease-fire negotiations were beginning.
On the eve of independence in 1948, the Burmese nationalist leaders promised that ethnic equality would be a cornerstone of the new Burma. But equality has remained elusive.
Until the promise of equality and the vision of a federated union are genuinely pursued, the government’s offer of peace will have few local takers. No amount of aid or international cheerleading by celebrity statesmen will make it work.
Maung Zarni is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an associate fellow at the University of Malaya.