Aung San Suu Kyi’s Wishful Peace

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Christina Hägerfors

YANGON — Early this month, just days after a round of major talks in the capital, Naypyidaw, fighting broke out between the armed forces and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army in the northern state of Kachin. Ahead of a clearing operation, the Myanmar military airdropped pamphlets ordering residents of Tanai township to leave and warned that anyone who stayed would be seen as cooperating with the K.I.A. Thousands of displaced people are reported to still be stranded in the conflict zone.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature peace initiative is not bringing peace to Myanmar. After two major meetings in less than a year, she has made no more headway than the previous government toward finding a solution to the country’s decades-long ethnic conflicts. By some estimates, ethnic armed groups representing about 80 percent of all combatants — including more than 10,000 with the K.I.A. — are not formally participating in the peace process. In the northeast, by the Chinese border, in Kachin as well as Shan State, fighting has only intensified.

In the lead-up to the latest conference, the government floated, even hyped, the idea of allowing states to have their own constitutions while remaining federal units of Myanmar. But negotiations over the proposal foundered, and it doesn’t appear in the final principles that were adopted at the conference.

Not only did this failure disappoint major groups that have signed the previous government’s nationwide cease-fire deal; it further discouraged some nonsignatory groups from signing the deal, a precondition for joining the peace talks.

One reason the peace process is stalling is that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision of it — as a step toward building a new democratic federal union — radically differs from that of the Myanmar Army, and even after the democratic reforms begun in 2011, the Tatmadaw, as the military is known here, remains an indispensable player in Myanmar politics. In no area is that clearer than regarding internal ethnic conflicts.

Very soon after Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s leader last year — following her party’s landslide victory in the 2015 general election — she took over the previous government’s peace initiative and rebranded it “21st Century Panglong.” The name was a grand reference to the 1947 Panglong Agreement, a deal that her father, a general, struck with ethnic leaders back then. Gen. Aung San had promised them eventual self-determination — perhaps even secession — in exchange for their support in securing independence from the British for the whole country.

The Tatmadaw balked, arguing that using the word “Panglong” today could encourage secessionism again. During the latest round of peace talks last month, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that while the first Panglong had helped give birth to modern Myanmar, this Panglong would finally bring about a democratic federal union.

The peacemaking process is important to the Tatmadaw, too, but principally as a way to convince ethnic armed organizations to sign the cease-fire agreement. It is unrelated to state- or nation-building, several senior military officers in Naypyidaw and Yangon told me in recent weeks, because the state and the nation have already been built.

These officers also said that the Tatmadaw is ready to accommodate reasonable demands that could help stabilize the country. For example, they would agree to let ethnic leaders who sign the cease-fire deal found political parties and run for office in multiparty elections, if these groups agreed to submit to a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program within several years.

But — and this is a fundamental point for the Tatmadaw — any concession would have to be negotiated within the terms of the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by a military government. The Tatmadaw also rejects calls for comprehensive security-sector reform on the grounds that state governance still needs to be strengthened. No need, either, to build a new federal army, as the ethnic armed groups insist: The Tatmadaw says it already represents the country’s ethnic diversity.

The one thing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw do agree on pits them both against many ethnic armed organizations. Although she, too, used to frown on the idea, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi now says that such groups must sign the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement before they can enter into any comprehensive political dialogue with the government. Several major groups, including the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army in the northeast, reject the deal.

In fact, neither Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi nor the Tatmadaw’s leaders seem eager for a confrontation over the peace process. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to realize she is at a disadvantage: The Tatmadaw still controls three ministries that deal with security issues, and by dint of fighting insurgents for so many years it has on-the-ground information that she does not have and better contacts with the ethnic armed groups. The military’s leaders, for their part, seem to think that the real battle anyway is the next general election, scheduled for 2020.

The army chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said in his speech at the conference in May: “We must cultivate the spirit of constantly protecting Our Three Main National Causes, the absolute requirement of the state and the people, and pursuing our path to multiparty democracy.” It was a remarkable statement — the first time, I think, that the leader of the armed forces put electoral democracy on the same footing as “Our Three Main National Causes,” namely, to put it in the army’s terms, “the non-disintegration of the Union,” “the non-disintegration of national solidarity” and “the perpetuation of sovereignty.” After the disastrous loss at the polls of the military-backed ruling party in 2015, the Tatmadaw apparently has come to believe that it, too, must learn to play the game of electoral politics.

The Tatmadaw can still bank on the support of the former ruling party and Buddhist nationalists for the 2020 election. But these groups’ votes were insufficient in 2015, so it will also have to court ethnic political parties in hopes of putting together something like a grand coalition.

Given this politicking and the spotty record of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government so far, especially on economic matters, she may be playing with fire with all her talk of “Panglong,” greater federalism and constitutional reform. How long before the false hopes she has created in ethnic leaders are dashed and disappointment turns into distrust?

Min Zin is the executive director of Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, a think tank in Yangon. A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 26, 2017, on Page A16, in The International New York Times.

 

About Author

Min Zin

Min Zin is a founding member and the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy (Myanmar), which is an independent, non-partisan, and nongovernmental think tank, which promotes democratic leadership and strengthen civic participation in Myanmar. He is a PhD candidate in Travers Department of Political Science at University of California, Berkeley. Min Zin is a comparative political scientist who studies civil-military relations, democratization, contentious politics, ethnic conflicts and civil war with a focus on Myanmar and Southeast Asian countries. Min Zin’s writings appear in Journal of Democracy, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, Social Research: An International Quarterly, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Georgetown Journal of International Affair and many edited books. He serves as country analyst of Myanmar for several research foundations including Freedom House, and he is also a fellow of Legatum Institute. Min Zin took part in Burma’s democracy movement in 1988 as a high school student activist, and went into hiding in 1989 to avoid arrest by the junta. His underground activist-cum-writer life lasted for nine years until he fled to the Thai-Myanmar border in August 1997. Min Zin writes for The Foreign Policy Magazine, The New York Times, and other media outlets.

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