Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Burma—Ceasefires to Sustainable Peace
By ASHLEY SOUTH Thursday, March 8, 2012

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Ceasefires between the government and armed ethnic groups in the 1990s “froze,” rather than resolved, conflicts—i.e. did not move from peace-making towards genuine peace-building. Nevertheless, these truces did allow for the (re-)emergence of civil society networks within and between ethnic groups. Also, the earlier ceasefires saw a marked decrease in war-related deaths and injuries and other acute human rights abuses associated with counter-insurgency.

Another lesson from history—international agencies failed to support the 1990s ceasefires. This was largely due to political conditions, and the reluctance of governments and donors to engage with a military regime which was an international pariah. It is important that such mistakes are avoided this time round. Donors should explore ways to get behind the ceasefires, and where possible provide early peace dividends.

From Armed Truces to Sustainable Ceasefires

With the important exception of the KIO, Burma's major armed ethnic groups have agreed preliminary ceasefires with the government. The question now is how to consolidate these ceasefires and produce benefits for communities affected by fighting and human rights abuses. One way forward could be to reach agreement regarding “ground rules” for (ex-) combatants, specifying how soldiers should behave towards civilian populations. This will require agreeing codes of conduct for armed personnel—both government forces and non-state armed groups.

A key issue is how compliance with such codes of conduct—and thus ceasefires—can be monitored. One solution may be a tripartite monitoring mechanism, with roles for the government and Myanmar Army, armed ethnic groups, and community representatives. This mechanism could resolve some issues locally, while others would be passed up the chain of command, for resolution at the State/Region level and if necessary Union level.

Other issues still to be resolved include:

  • The rehabilitation (and return, where appropriate) of refugees and internally displaced persons, and other communities affected by conflicts;
  • Supporting livelihoods, including providing alternatives for young people to engaging in criminality and armed conflict;
  • Land rights, including issues of return and/or restitution for displaced people;
  • Landmines (Burma is one of the most landmine-infested countries in the world);
  • Release of ethnic and other political prisoners.

Foreign Aid and Economic Agendas

In the context of political transition in Burma, foreign donors are preparing to increase their assistance. More foreign aid is welcome, given the scale of needs. Assistance to conflict-affected areas should focus on confidence-building measures, delivering concrete and symbolic peace dividends.

However, international organizations currently lack access to many armed conflict-affected areas, while local communities and CBOs are already active on the ground. An influx of foreign aid risks distorting local priorities, overwhelming limited local capacities, and marginalizing local agencies.

It is therefore important that foreign donors and aid agencies engage with communities and CBOs in ways which support and empower local agencies, and build capacities. Multi-donor trust funds and other mechanisms should be flexible and creative enough to engage constructively with local agencies.

Notwithstanding the importance of humanitarian and development assistance, it is important to recognise that current levels of foreign aid to Burma are less than one percent of foreign investment. In or nearby many armed conflict-affected areas, huge infrastructure and industrial development projects are in the planning or implementation stages.

These include hydropower projects (e.g. On the Salween); the Shwe Gas and associated projects (in Arakan State); Special Economic Zones (e.g. On the outskirts of Pa’an); and the Dawei (Tavoy) deep-sea port project (with an initial budget of US $8 billion, and total projected spend of some $100 billion).

Such projects were planned and agreed by the previous military government, without implementing social or environmental impact assessments, and could cause enormous environmental and social damage. However, since many of these projects are still in the planning or early implementation stages, there are opportunities to engage with economic and political power-holders, in order to mitigate the worst impacts, and advocate for the best results for affected communities.

Entry points for engagement include the promotion of environmental regulation, and best practice in the field of corporate social responsibility.

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Tom Tun Wrote:
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:
In the cloak and mirror land of Burma, conventional political wisdom may not be usable. Derek Tonkin got it right ( 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
International Witnesses and Monitor required to achieve a sustainable peace. Without them no deal, no signing.

More Articles in This Section

bullet Making Sure Burma Doesn't Go Dutch

bullet Corruption Scandal in Burma: The Canadian Connection

bullet Helping Education to Keep Pace with Reform

bullet How the Game Was Lost

bullet Karens at the Crossroads

bullet Building Country Ownership in Burma

bullet Donors Rush Where Angels Feared to Tread

bullet Myanmar: On Claiming Success

bullet Ceasefires Won't Bring Peace

bullet General, You Lied

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