The question of national reconciliation in Myanmar has come to the forefront after the formation of National League for Democracy (NLD) government in March 2016.The country’s icon of democracy and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated that the NLD government has accorded top priority to national reconciliation and is committed to achieving lasting peace in Myanmar.
The ethnic rebel groups’ long-standing demands of equal rights and regional autonomy lie at the heart of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The ethnic minorities, who comprise nearly 40% of the country’s total population of 55 million, have been subjected to widespread discriminations and persecutions for several decades. One of the major impediments in the path of national reconciliation is the unaccommodative attitude of the majority ethnic group Burman who continue to dominate the armed forces and government jobs.
Myanmar’s protracted ethnic conflict has a religious dimension too. The predominantly Buddhist Burmans have never seemed to be at ease with the Christians and Muslim minorities. The recent rise of radical Buddhist outfits like Ma Da Tha has only complicated the country’s ethnic imbroglio.
The Myanmar armed forces or Tatmadaw in local parlance, had been persistently engaged in skirmishes with the numerous ethnic rebel groups since the attainment of independence in 1948 and lost vast swath of the nation’s territory to them. The armed forces began to regain some of the territories especially in the frontier regions only after 1988 through a series of ceasefire deals with the rebel groups. Amidst simmering discontents of the ethnic minorities an uneasy calm prevailed in military-ruled Myanmar during 1990-2010.
Peace initiatives under Thien Sien
The peace process gained momentum following Thien Sien’s quasi-civilian government assumed office in March 2011. The Sien government inked long-term ceasefire agreements with more than 10 ethnic insurgent groups. However, peace could not be restored in restive Kachin and Shan states as a number of hard line factions of the ethnic rebel groups refused to accept the terms and conditions set by the union government. Besides, the ground rules of the ceasefire deals had hardly been implemented because both the warring sides—Tatmadaw and armed rebel outfits continued to engage in clashes across the country.
The Sien government also tried to incorporate the cadres of various armed groups into the nation’s frontier forces. The new Constitution of 2008 made it mandatory for the ethnic militias to join the Border Guard Force (BGF) under the command of the Defence Services after the signing of ceasefire pacts. While a few insurgent outfits like New Democratic Army-Kachin, Kayinni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front and Karen Democratic Buddhist Army were absorbed into the BGF, most of the private militias did not do so even after signing ceasefire deals. It is a matter of concern that some of the strongest ethnic rebel groups that control vast territories such as Kachin Independence Army (KIA), United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Shan State Army have remained outside the ambit of ceasefire agreement.
Ethnic insurgents’ participation in Laiza and Myitkyina meetings
In the face of the Myanmar Army’s regular offensives in the minority-dominated regions, the rebel groups enhanced coordination among themselves to evolve a common strategy to achieve their goals. Seventeen ethnic insurgent outfits held a four-day conference in the last week of October, 2013 at Laiza, a town along the Myanmar-China border in Kachin province, to explore the possibilities of signing ceasefire agreement with the government.
Subsequently on November 4-5, 2013, over 50 leaders of different ethnic armed organisations participated in peace talks with the representatives of the union government at Myitkyina, the provincial capital of Kachin. The Myitkyina meeting was the first of its kind in many decades as it tried to address the protracted problems of the minorities. The ethnic insurgent outfits submitted an 11-point proposal to the government that among other things called for the establishment of a federal army accommodating the ethnic minorities.
The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement of October 15, 2015
The Sien government in its bids to ensure a peaceful environment in the country before the November 8, 2015 parliamentary elections signed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with 8 insurgent groups on October 15. The rebel groups participated in the NCA under the banner of United Nationalities Federal Council included: Karen National Union, Democratic Benevolent Karen Army, Karen Peace Council, Arakan Liberation Party, All-Burma Students Democratic Front, Palaung National Liberation Organisation and Chin National Front.
Most of these insurgent groups belong to the Karen-inhabited region bordering Thailand and a hub of narcotics trade. The rebel groups which signed the NCA would be excluded from the country’s terrorist lists and considered for much needed development and investment after long isolation. The cadres of these outfits could also move freely and participate in politics.
Reports suggest that the Sien government wanted to sign the NCA first with 15 of Myanmar’s 21 armed groups. The government does not recognise some of the ethnic militias such as Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Arakan Army (AA). All the three ethnic armed groups have recently been engaged in intense fighting with the Myanmar Army.
The union government also did not invite three smaller outfits—Wa National Organisation, Lahu Army and Arakan National Council. One of the oldest insurgent groups KIA that controls territories along northern borders with China—a major route of drug trafficking and smuggling of gems, also did not join the signing ceremony. Besides Kokang armed groups, Mon State Party and Karenni National Progressive Party were not represented in the NCA meting.
It was a sort of setback for the Sien government as less than half of the total ethnic insurgent groups active in the country stayed away from the high-profile signing ceremony. The NCA was organised barely three weeks before the November 8 polls to project the image of the outgoing Sien government as peace-maker before the electorate of the trouble-torn nation. Myanmar witnessed hectic parleys among the ethnic minority groups in the wake of the parliamentary elections. Anticipating a change of guard in Nay Pyi Taw, the ethnic rebel groups that seek a political settlement of the outstanding demands—guarantee of rights to manage their own natural resources and semi-autonomy within a federal structure, stepped up efforts to draw the attention of the country’s military-dominated ruling elites.
21st Century Panglong Conference
The country’s new civilian government has initiated the process of resolving the lingering ethnic conflict and the recently-concluded 21st Century Panglong is an effort in that direction. The five-day conference began on August 31, 2016 in Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw with an emphasis on unity in building a federal union. It was attended by stakeholders of the government, Parliament, Myanmar Army, numerous ethnic groups, foreign diplomats and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The 21st Century Panglong Conference was a historic step towards national reconciliation and political dialogue. Sum Kyi’s father and independence hero General Aung San organised the original Panglong Conference in 1947 in an attempt to grant autonomy to the ethnic minority groups like Shan, Kachin and Chin before Myanmar attained independence from Britain. However, his assassination in July 1947 halted the implementation of the agreements signed during the conference and several ethnic minority groups took up arms against the union government.
Amidst fresh fighting between the Myanmar Army and armed ethnic rebel outfits in Kachin and Shan states, representatives from 17 ethnic militias attended the conference. Reports suggest that three other groups—AA, MNDAA and TNLA—were not invited to participate as they had refused to surrender their arms before the talks. The conference also did not address the problem faced by the country’s stateless Rohingya population since this minority Muslim community is not included in the list of Myanmar’s recognised ethnic groups.
The participants of the conference agreed that in addition to the political aspects, the parties would engage in talks regarding the modus operandi of sharing natural resources such as gas, minerals and timber between the state and ethnic regions where they are in plenty. The other contentious issues discussed in the conference were total laying down of arms by the ethnic rebel groups and the question of their merger with the Myanmar armed forces.
While addressing the conference, Suu Kyi noted that the NLD government has been working hard to persuade the non-NCA armed groups to sign the peace pacts since the government wants to move forward the peace dialogue on the basis of NCA. Reports say peace talks would be held after the conference and another peace conference would be arranged in six months. The Myanmar government aims at finding a permanent solution to the lingering ethnic conflict by 2020.
Challenges of national reconciliation
The national reconciliation process faces a number of challenges, including the issue of the withdrawal of the armed forces from ethnic minority regions and providing them some amount of autonomy to manage their affairs. The other key questions are the absorption of the ethnic rebel groups’ vast number of armed cadres into the country’s defence forces and rechannelise their energies to the nation building efforts in a federal system.
Reports indicate that the rebel groups may not agree to surrender their arms unless the union government demonstrates sufficient political will to resolve the long-standing problems of the ethnic minorities. It appears that mutual distrust and lack of confidence still persist between the minority groups and the military that has been ruling the country either directly or indirectly since 1962. Both the sides have to walk extra miles to do away the trust deficit.
One formidable obstacle of democratic transition and national reconciliation is the preeminent position of the armed forces in the country’s current political dynamics. It is a matter of concern that the political role of the military has been institutionalised in Myanmar. Under the new Constitution adopted in 2008, the members of the armed forces occupy 25% of the parliament’s seats and control three key ministries—interior, defence and border affairs. It remains unclear how the newly-elected NLD leaders and the powerful generals will work together. Despite a clear mandate in favour of the NLD, an element of uncertainty looms over the country as the armed forces are deeply entrenched into the levers of power. The military is unlikely to relinquish its privileged status or allow sweeping change in the Constitution. The former military junta specially drafted this Constitution to suit its designs.
Another seemingly intractable problem confronting national reconciliation is the future of the Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist majority Myanmar. The Rohingyas constitute 10% of the country’s population but have long been denied voting rights. About one million Rohingyas are living as stateless in western Arakan state. Some religion-based parties, including radical Buddhist Ma Da Tha, often raise the bogey of “threats from Muslims”. These forces are vehemently opposed to the Rohingyas getting citizenship rights. The Rohingya leaders are hopeful that Suu Kyi’s NLD would grant them basic rights even though the party has remained silent on their plight in the country.
The recent peace talks could be converted into more meaningful political dialogue focusing on the formation of a federal polity wherein the ethnic minorities’ various rights, including semi-autonomy in their own territories are ensured. Some analysts maintain that durable peace and democracy will elude Myanmar “without a political settlement” which addresses ethnic minorities’ needs and aspirations. It is expected that with the establishment of a civilian government, peace and stability will be restored in this Southeast Asian nation.