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Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Burma—Ceasefires to Sustainable Peace


By ASHLEY SOUTH Thursday, March 8, 2012


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The transition currently underway in Burma presents the best opportunity in over two decades to address conflicts between the government and ethnic communities. However, to achieve lasting peace, ceasefires agreed between the government and armed ethnic groups must be extended to include participation from a range of stakeholders, and substantial discussion of issues which have structured half-a-century of armed conflict. Without a political settlement, the current round of ceasefires are unlikely to be sustainable.

National Political Context—How Resilient is Reform Process?

Since the Thein Sein government assumed power in late March last year, there have been many positive developments—for example, the functioning of parliaments; release of most (but not all) political prisoners; understandings reached with opposition groups; government responses to social action (e.g. suspension of the Myitsone dam); relaxations on censorship and freedom of expression and association. However, the question remains whether the pace and scope of reform is sustainable.

So far, centrally directed reforms have not had much impact on ordinary people's lives, especially in the conflict-affected countryside. Expectations of real change in Burma could quickly become frustrated, once it becomes apparent that many of the changes required will take years, or decades, to achieve.

It is when authoritarian regimes seek to reform that they are most vulnerable. Many individuals and communities in Burma are damaged and traumatized by decades of military rule and abuses. The relaxation of political restrictions is like taking the lid off the pressure cooker—ethnic and other grievances (e.g. land rights) could explode.

Perhaps the biggest constraint on rapid and sustainable change is limited government capacities. There is a need for policy reform in many areas. However, state officials have limited skills, and authoritarian political cultures make change difficult. Also, elements of the previous regime are unhappy with the pace and scope of recent reforms. Powerful actors are biding their time, waiting to move against the reform process.

The Ethnic Dimension

These concerns are particularly relevant in relation to ethnic issues. For more than half-a-century, various armed ethnic groups have been fighting for greater autonomy from a militarized government dominated by the Burman majority. After decades of “low intensity” armed conflict, most armed ethnic groups are greatly weakened. Nevertheless, they still enjoy varying degrees of credibility among the communities they seek to represent.

Burma's ethnic communities constitute over 30 percent of the population. Until their grievances and aspirations are addressed, national-level political reforms cannot be consolidated. Although complex and seemingly difficult to resolve, addressing the “ethnic question” is essential to sustained social and political reform.

Peace must be understood as a national issue affecting all sectors society—not just something concerning ethnic political and military elites and the government and Burmese Army. Reconciliation must include trust building. But peace is about more than ceasefires.

Peace-Making and Peace-Building

Resolving conflicts between armed ethnic groups and the government is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve peace. Lasting peace must also address the underlying social-economic and political grievances and aspirations of ethnic communities. These are potentially divisive issues, which require working with individuals and communities on identities and interests. Such long-term work must be owned and driven by Burmese citizens.

Armed ethnic groups are key stakeholders, whose members are motivated by genuine grievances, and long-held aspirations for self-determination; some individuals are also motivated by private economic agendas (“greed factors”).

Particularly along the Thailand border, some armed ethnic groups have been supported through aid agencies working in refugee camps and cross-border in the conflict zones. This has had the effect of legitimizing some actors, while marginalizing others.

Other key ethnic actors include political parties, several of which did well in the 2010 elections. Ethnic nationality political parties are key stakeholders, which should be brought into peace processes. Another important sector is civil society actors. This includes NGOs and community-based organizations (CBOs) working cross-border from China and Thailand, and those operating “inside” the country—both traditional and modern associations, faith-based and secular groups.

The most important set of stakeholders are communities. Civilian populations in conflict areas have the most to gain, or loose, in peace processes.



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COMMENTS (8)
 
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Tom Tun Wrote:
19/03/2012
Where do you get all these ideas? By smoking pot? Keep living in your dream buddy. Are you lecturing Burmese people and Ethnic people, how is proper peace be built? Can you even make peace with your own girlfriend? Every human being with thinking power have idea of how to develop peace. It has already began. Your divisive agenda of Poe Karen and Sagaw Karen doesn't work. We don't need you.

Ohn Wrote:
10/03/2012
In the cloak and mirror land of Burma, conventional political wisdom may not be usable. Derek Tonkin got it right ( http://blog.heritage.org/2012/03/02/u-s-burma-policy-is-about-more-than-a-successful-by-election/) when he suggested that current situation is but orderly planned events by the military with surgical precision. With perhaps a great stroke of luck that Aung San Suu Kyi swallowed Then Sein’s lines hook, line and sinker.
Biggest asset of the Burmese military is their unparalleled accurate perception of the Burmese as well as international opinion and ability to exploit it most effectively admittedly with few glaring miscalculations. Hence the survival of the fittest.

Ohn Wrote:
10/03/2012
The1990 “peace deals” of Khin Nyunt correctly assumed that by giving business deals and letting the top leaders of various armed groups to run legitimate businesses in mainland Burma, the army would get free hand to deal with the more important and pressing issue of crushing civil dissent in urban areas and get the proceeds of the lucrative opium trade into mainstream economy which continues to the day.

Ohn Wrote:
10/03/2012
In one stroke, few of the armed groups truly representing the people of the region, became simple mercenaries with business deals losing their traditional grass root support.

Current round of negotiations are but over confidence of the military to buy out the “ethnic leaders” with better business deals and token recognition in administrative posts which are purely ceremonial like Shan Vice-President. But unfortunately the true nationalistic spirit has not been sufficiently corroded with many groups putting principles before money and influence putting their own lives at risk.
The chauvinistic Burmese military thinking is exactly the same from 1962 to today. The continued conflict signifies there are more than money at stake here but the military will never understand this simple fact in a million years.

MHK Wrote:
10/03/2012
Good article with excellent recommendations.
“Lasting peace must also address the underlying social-economic and political grievances and aspirations of ethnic communities. These are potentially divisive issues, which require working with individuals and communities on identities and interests. Such long-term work must be owned and driven by Burmese citizens.”

Very true. At the end of the day, the Burmese who compose 60%, the majority of the entire population must initiate the understanding with all other minority peoples of Myanmar. It is to us (if we think the state is not performing well), who should initiate the cultural, languages, traditions, religious exchanges among our people.

The Burmese should learn also shan, Karen, chin, kachin languages if necessary and try to understand them, first of all learn about the different peoples of Myanmar with different histories, cultural, traditional values and try to live together with equality.

We know so less or almost nothing about peoples of Myanmar.

Brang Wrote:
09/03/2012
Not ceasefire but political dialogue that we need. The minority ethnic will demand for autonomy base on the ethnic equality and self-determination rights which the Burmese government doesn’t want to share it.
To get genuine peace in Burma is totally depend on the Burmese government. To gain peace in Burma 1) they should have willingness of political solution 2) Reconnection of the ethnic arm group 3) Officially announce nation-wide ceasefire 4) Call for National Assembly as Panglong which include all the Ethnic arm groups and political parties and civil society but this should not be under the 2008 constitution 5)National reconciliation and the refugee and IDPs resettlement and rehabilitation have to implement after gaining peace in the country.

Note; The Foreign investment have to wait until the ethnic and political conflict was solved. Otherwise the investment will no longer guarantee.

KML Wrote:
09/03/2012
Thank you for a balanced analysis and recommendations on ethnic peace making and peace building. It is a golden opportunity to heal the wounds inflicted in past. While armed ethnics are at the centre of peace building priority, the healing process for unarmed ethnics should not be underestimated and ignored.
Rohingya in Rakhine state, does not matter how you call them, is the right example. They did have low grade arm resistance before, but later disappeared due to unpopularity among the same community. You can label them immigrants, aliens or whatever but their wellbeing is also important in restoring the good image of the country. There are three options: CRUSH, IGNORE & EMBRACE them. Crush and Ignore options never worked in the past and created significant embarrassment on Burma. Does the new government ready to embrace them? If so, 1982 Citizenship Law should be amended and simplified. I think UN and other foreign governments are observing this issue before ASEAN 2014, Naypyitaw.

Uraw Gam Wrote:
09/03/2012
International Witnesses and Monitor required to achieve a sustainable peace. Without them no deal, no signing.

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