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Rain for Myanmar's peace parade

Asia Times - June 26, 2013

Bertil Lintner, Myitkyina A grand ceremony is expected to be held next month in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw, where a nationwide ceasefire with various ethnic resistance armies will be announced to an audience of United Nations representatives and other foreign dignitaries.

Ten of Myanmar's 11 major ethnic rebel groups who have signed individual ceasefire agreements with the government will be highlighted at the high-profile event.

The one main rebel outlier, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has not yet reached a ceasefire agreement. The most recent round of talks between KIA and government representatives in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina held between May 28-30 failed to yield the deal government authorities anticipated. The two sides agreed only to a seven-point agreement stating that "the parties undertake efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities" and "to hold a political dialogue" though no firm commitment was made concerning when such talks would commence.

The "peace" celebrations will nonetheless go ahead, government officials have indicated. But will the announcement really lead to an end to Myanmar's decades-long civil war and is it really the KIA who is the spoiler of the event?

Behind the peace hype and reconciliation rhetoric lie fundamental problems which the different ceasefire agreements have wholly failed to address. All the ethnic armies and legally allowed ethnic political parties still demand that federalism replace the current military-dominated centralized power structure, which as constructed leaves only negligible powers to Myanmar's seven regions and seven ethnic states.

During interviews in Myitkyina, church leaders and community activists expressed the same view. More than a dozen rebel armies, with or without ceasefire agreements with the government, make up the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), which, as the name suggests, are in favor of federalism. Within the UNFC, the KIA sits together with Shan, Karen, Mon, Karenni, Pa-O, Chin and several other ethnic armies. In November 2012 and January this year, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the main legal political party among the Shans, reiterated its call for "genuine federalism".

Nor are most of the touted ceasefire agreements actually new. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ceasefire deals were reached between the central government and about two dozen ethnic resistance armies. The present government, led by Thein Sein, has reaffirmed the most important of those agreements and added two more, including with the Shan State Army (South) (SSA-S) in December 2011 and the Karen National Union (KNU) in January 2012. A ceasefire agreement was also reached with the KIA in 1994 but broke down in June 2011 when the government renewed attacks in the northern state.

Despite all the hype, little actual progress towards has actually been made during Thein Sein's tenure. In Shan State, the Shan State Army (North), which has had a ceasefire agreement with the government since 1989, has also come under renewed attack from government forces. The SSA(N) has recently received support from the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA), a heavily armed ethnic militia that fears it will be next in the government's line of fire if the KIA is defeated militarily or forced to surrender.

Like the SSA(N), the UWSA has had a ceasefire agreement with the government since 1989. But the rebel group has refused to lay down its arms and is demanding a separate state for the ethnic Wa people (at present, the Wa Hills are part of Shan State.) The UWSA consists of anywhere between 20,000-30,000 armed fighters and is equipped with modern weaponry obtained from China, including artillery, man-portable air-defense systems, armored vehicles and, according to Jane's Defence Weekly, even a small number of transport helicopters.

Pictures of armored vehicles flying Wa flags have appeared in the media, including Asia Times Online. Two helicopters are reportedly stationed at a remote location near Pangwei in the northeastern Wa Hills, far from prying eyes. China's position is clear: it is losing its previously dominant role in Myanmar to the West, and it wants to maintain leverage inside the country. China is showing that it can impact the situation inside the country in a way that the United States and European Union cannot. And China's role in this development is much more important than awkward and often misguided efforts by a host of Western interlocutors who have become involved in the efforts to establish peace in Myanmar.

Unyielding position

In spite of all these difficulties, the government's position has remained unyielding: it demands that the country's ethnic armies accept, at least in principle, the 2008 constitution, which paved the way for a general, but blatantly rigged, election in November 2010 and the appointment of Thein Sein, a general who served as prime minister in the previous military junta's cabinet, as the president of a new quasi-civilian government. That constitution is not federal in character and gives far-reaching powers to the military, including the right to take over power if so requested by the president.

During recent talks with rebel armies, government negotiators have stated that they must transform themselves into proper political parties, take part in elections and, if elected to the national assembly, then raise their grievances and suggestions for constitutional change through parliamentary processes. In an interview with the Washington Post on January 19, 2012, Thein Sein stated bluntly that the ceasefire procedure "requires the two sides to sign an agreement and [for ethnic armed groups to] return to the legal fold without carrying arms."

But even if the ethnic rebels became parliamentarians and pressed to change the constitution, it would entail a complicated procedure where no substantial progress could be made without the consent of the powerful military. The first chapter of the new constitution states specifically that the "Defense Services" shall "be able to participate in the National political leadership role of the State". That provision allots 25% of the national parliament's seats for soldiers.

The charter's Chapter 12 delineates complicated rules for constitutional amendment, which effectively gives the military veto power over any proposed changes to the present power structure. Minor constitutional changes may be considered by the bicameral parliament if 20% of MPs submit a bill. However, a tangle of 104 clauses mean that major charter changes cannot be made without the prior approval of more than 75% of all MPs, after which a nationwide referendum must be held where more than half of all eligible voters cast ballots.

Constitutional change is even trickier in outlying regions and states, which through the 2008 constitution now have their own local assemblies. However, one-third of all assembly seats are reserved for the military and the legislative bodies are subjected to perhaps the most curious of clauses in the 2008 constitution, namely number 183, which states: "Although there are vacant seats, the Region and State Hluttaw [assemblies] shall have the right to carry out its functions. Moreover, the resolutions and proceedings of the Region and State Hluttaw shall not be annulled, notwithstanding the acts of some person who was not entitled to do so sat or voted or took part in the proceedings are later discovered."

In plain language, a group of imposters could legally enter local assemblies, sit on their benches and vote and nothing could be done to undo their actions even if it was later discovered that they were not elected. One international human rights lawyer who spoke to Asia Times Online describes this as "the weirdest clause I've ever seen in a constitution."

The only plausible explanation for this clause is to prevent local assemblies in ethnic minority areas to pass decisions and regulations that would give them more rights and jeopardize the state's current centralized power structure. Now, that can be thwarted by blocking some elected local assembly persons from voting, and sending in "some persons" to vote in their stead.

Efforts to establish lasting peace in Myanmar have been further hampered by the involvement of a host a rival foreign peacemakers with huge budgets, overlapping agendas and, it seems, little understanding of the complexities of Myanmar's ethnic problems. According to Tom Kramer, an analyst from the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based think-tank, who has studied the problem for years:

The present peace process is top-down, lacks civil society involvement and still has to move from making new ceasefires to a political dialogue. Concerns and criticisms from local organizations on the peace process, including on the role of international organizations, have not been properly addressed and sometimes even ignored... in the meantime economic reforms especially the new land and foreign investment law coupled with the new ceasefires have opened up the flood gates for local and international companies to enter ethnic borderlands and buy up land pushing local communities off their ancestral lands. The experiences from the Kachin ceasefire which were followed by large-scale unsustainable resource extractions should serve as a clear warning signal.

Concessionary peace

During the 17 years the KIA had a ceasefire agreement with the government, vast tracts of forest land in the far north of the country were denuded, with the majority of the timber exported to neighboring China. Minerals were also extracted at rapid rates, and Kachin State saw an unprecedented influx of businessmen from China as well as southern Myanmar. Many KIA leaders were involved in those businesses, which over time caused the group to lose much of its popular support. Only after hostilities resumed in June 2011 did the Kachin public rally behind the movement, as some of the old leaders were sidelined and a new generation of rebel leaders took over.

As Kramer argues, the same pattern may soon be repeated in other ethnic areas. After signing a ceasefire agreement with the government, KNU leaders were also awarded major business concessions. For example, top KNU officials have been given licenses to import cars from Thailand, and the sons of one KNU leader are reportedly running a human smuggling network and fake ID business.

During recent talks in Naypyidaw between Thein Sein and Yawd Serk, the leader of SSA (South), permission to establish rubber plantations in Thai border areas was a main topic of discussion, as was the possibility of mining concessions. The government is evidently using economic incentives to neutralize ethnic minority demands for political change, as it did with the KIA in the 1990s. According to a well-placed source familiar with the situation: "The peace process is a protection racket for vested interests, financed by the international community."

The so-called peace process is thus unlikely to result in the transformation of Myanmar into a federal union of empowered ethnic states. According to sources close to the armed forces, the country's powerful military is staunchly opposed to any move towards federalism, as top generals fear it would eventually lead to the balkanization of the country. The military has always viewed itself as the sole protector of the country's territorial integrity. After fighting ethnic rebels for decades, new, more sophisticated strategies are being deployed to suppress, not accommodate, the demands of Myanmar's ethnic minorities.

While Thein Sein claims to be pursuing national reconciliation, his government's policies aim to divide the country into "135 national races". In Kachin State, where community leaders have for years made efforts to unite tribes and linguistic groups in the area, the government has divided them into nearly a dozen different groups, of which most are more accurately described as sub-tribes, clans and extended families.

"This is pure divide-and-rule policy," said a community leader in Myitkyina. The same could be said about the Shans and others, which have been sub-divided into numerous smaller entities that can not reasonably be classified as distinct ethnicities. A more realistic estimate would put the number of distinct ethnic groups in Myanmar at between 20 and 30.

While declaring peace and reconciliation, the government is simultaneously bolstering its military presence in the Kachin, Shan and Karen states. Although fighting has reduced in Kachin State since the inconclusive talks held in Myitkyina in May, armed clashes continue in northern Shan State as the Myanmar Army advances against Shan, Kachin and Palaung another ethnic group rebel positions.

The July ceremony in Naypyidaw will undoubtedly be a grand display of self-touted government successes, an announcement many foreign governments and international peacemaking groups involved in the peace process will be eager to celebrate and recognize. But it will not herald an end, or even the beginning of the end, of Myanmar's decades-long ethnic strife. And the quest for what the country's various ethnic groups yearningly refer to as a "genuine federal union" will be as elusive as ever.

[Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (published in 1994, 1999 and 2003), Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, and The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.]

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