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.