By Bibhu Prasad Routray
Myanmar’s recent policy to politically reform itself might have excited many analysts outside the country, but its objective of achieving peace with the ethnic rebels is progressing slower than expected. Suspicion regarding the government’s real intentions remains the key factor.
Policy to end Isolation
On 18 August 2011, the new government in Myanmar called for peace talks with armed ethnic rebel groups along its borders with Thailand and China. The new approach came three weeks after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to President Thein Sein offering to mediate between the government and the rebels. The government went on to form a negotiating panel for peace to work on a formula of achieving peace in the entire country in the next three to four years.
By all means, the present strategy is directed at ending the country’s pariah status. Bringing the war with the rebels to an end is one of the conditions set by the West for improvised relations with the Myanmarese government. This was further emphasized by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during her visit to Myanmar in early December 2011.
On 29 November 2011, high ranking Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) leaders held discussions with a Myanmarese government delegation in the border town of Ruili in China’s Yunnan Province. KIO insisted that the political dialogue needs to continue whereas the government underlines the need to ink a ceasefire agreement. The KIO incidentally had signed a ceasefire with the military junta in 1994, becoming one of the first ethnic armed groups to do so.
Similarly, the first round of peace talks were held on 22 December 2011 between a Myanmarese government delegation headed by the Minister for Railways Aung Min and a delegation from the Mon armed group, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) led by its secretary, Nai Hang Thar. The talks took place in Sangkhalburi in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province. The government offered to favourably consider the possibility of granting the right to teach the Mon language in Mon State and also to assist NMSP leaders in developing business opportunities. While the government side said it hopes to conclude a ceasefire agreement during the second round of talks scheduled for January 2011 in the Mon state, the NMSP too, like the Kachins, insisted on a political dialogue.
Suspicion regarding the government’s real intentions remains a hurdle in the actualization of the peace talks. There is a widely held belief that the government is using the twin strategy – military offensive as well as peace talks – to subdue the rebels. Since June this year, armed offensives are continuing with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the KIO. President Thein Sein made a statement during the November 2011 ASEAN summit in Bali that the security forces could annihilate organizations like the KIO/KIA “within a day”. Reportedly more than 100 infantry battalions and three divisions of forces are being used against the rebels, who have since lost many of its camps along the Myanmar-China border. The President on 10 December 2011 ordered an end to the fighting. Skirmishes, however, continue as the directives are yet to reach the troops.
Whether a ceasefire agreement should precede political talks is the second area of contention. The government obviously is in a hurry to showcase its ability to achieve total peace in the country, where as its past records of procrastinating political dialogue with the groups which had signed the ceasefire agreement in the 1990s, remains a negative point of reference for the groups. For example, the NMSP observed a ceasefire agreement with the government between 1995 and 2010 and the entire 15 year period remained bereft of a single round of political dialogue.
Thirdly, government’s moves to individually hold negotiations with the groups rather than talking to the umbrella body United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) has contributed to the suspicion that the government is adopting a “divide and rule” strategy. The 11-member UNFC merging the loyalties of the Mon, Shan, Karenni, Chin, Arakan, Karen, Kachin and Pa-O ethnicities had been formed in February 2011. The UNFC demands that the government deals directly with it rather than individually with the groups. The government, on the other hand, insists that political talks with the UNFC will be the “third step” of its peace process. As a result, the UNFC’s Peace Talk Group formed in the last week of August 2011 remains idle. The UNFC has gone ahead to form a Federal Army during its 16-17 December emergency meeting on the Thai-Burma border.
For obvious reasons, the government will have to walk that extra mile to create confidence among the alienated ethnicities. The excitement in certain quarters about the process of reform underway in Naypyidaw notwithstanding, the rebellious ethnicities will need to be given time to internalize the process of reformation. Honesty and transparency rather than rapidity in achieving peace would have to be the key principle behind the government’s policy.