Myanmar/Burma: Armed Groups, Contested Legitimacy and Political Transition


    Catalyst for change

    The following presentation was delivered by Harn Younghwe, Brussels-based Euro Burma Office (EBO), at the Conference on National Dialogue and Mediation Processes held in Helsinki in March 2014-Editor

    Harn YounghweLegitimacy is the key challenge for the Burma Army or Tatmadaw, even after 50 years of absolute rule. It no doubt has the coercive power to continue ruling. But no one, not the ethnic population, not the person in the street, and not even the international community, sees the military as the legitimate and rightful ruler.

    The armed struggles that have beset Burma since independence in 1948 have involved multiple armed groups seeking recognition and representation, and demands for political transition of the military regime. Recent reformist moves by the state have given hope of an opportunity for real change. A proposed nationwide ceasefire aims to bring in all armed groups – those that have already signed ceasefires and those that have not. A subsequent National Dialogue looks to include all stakeholders – armed groups, political parties and civil society. The Dialogue is not just about resolving armed insurgencies, but about the future of the country.


    State Legitimacy

    Even after writing a new constitution in 2008, holding elections and establishing a ‘democratic’ system of government, President Thein Sein’s administration of ex-generals still face a legitimacy deficit. For many Burmese, the rightful heirs to political authority are symbolised in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK), daughter of independence hero General Aung San, her National League for Democracy (NLD), and the ethnic nationalities.

    The Tatmadaw’s vision of the great Myanmar nation began in 1044 with King Anawrahtaand, and continued by Tabinshwehti (1531) and Alaungpaya (1752), who conquered neighbouring kingdoms from Manipur in India to Thailand. According to this narrative, the British conquest (1886–1948) was an aberration of 62 years. The Tatmadaw’s mission is to re-establish thismighty empire – at the expense of the ethnic nationalities who constitute at least 40 per cent of the population and whose homelands make up about 60 per cent of the territory.

    The ethnic nationalities’ competing national vision acknowledges their temporary subjugation by three Myanmar kings, but mostly they had their own kings and traditional rulers, including during British rule, and were not part of the Myanmar empire. In fact, they agreed to join their territories to Myanmar at the 1947 Panglong Conference and claim that they and not the Tatmadaw are the legitimate co-rulers of the nation.

    British annexation of Burma in 1886 had excluded a number of provinces: Chin Hills (now Chin State) Frontier Area; Kachin Hills (now Kachin State) Frontier Area; Shan States (later Federated Shan States – now Shan State) Protectorat; Karenni States (now Kayah State) independent Protectorate; and Trans-Salween area (now Karen State) Frontier Area. These were nominally administered separately as a buffer zone with French Indochina. The current Arakan and Mon States were part of British Burma.

    In the process of independence after World War II, Prime Minister Aung San (from the predominant Bamar ethnic group) negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders, which promised them equality – hence subsequent demands for federalism. But while the 1947 Constitution recognised the various constituent states it gave them no power. Everything was centralised –Burma effectively replaced the British as the new colonial power.

    In 1962 the Tatmadaw, claiming that federalism would break up the country, seized power, promising to oversee gradual democratisation. Since then the Tatmadaw has re-written history. Many Bamar are not aware of ethnic viewpoints and few understand why ethnic people have been so ‘troublesome’.

    Competing Claims to Legitimacy

    Given the disappointment with the 1947 Constitution, most ethnic political movements began as independence movements. At the grassroots, ethnic people still want to be freed from the Bamar, whom they do not distinguish from the Tatmadaw. But in the last 25 years, ethnic leaders have been persuaded that independence is not an option and have generally accepted the idea of a federal union with equal power and autonomy.

    In addition to President Thein Sein’s government, the Tatmadaw, DASSK, and the ethnic nationalities, competing claimants to legitimacy include:

    • the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP),
    • the previous ruling National Unity Party (NUP),
    • the governments of the seven ethnic States and seven Regions,
    • the more than 18 ethnic armed groups who are negotiating ceasefires with the government,
    • the ethnic parties that won seats in the 1990 elections,
    • the ethnic parties that won seats in the 2010 elections,
    • the more than 50 opposition parties,
    • thousands of civil society movements, rights-based groups and informal community groups that have over the years spoken up on behalf of the ‘people’, in the absence of organised opposition.

    USDP is a military creation – no more than 30 per cent of the Bamar population supports it. Most people – Bamar and non-‐Bamar – support the NLD because they believe DASSK can bring about freedom from military rule. However, observers and activists question NLD’s capacity to run the country. Instead of building up the party it waited 25 years for DASSK’s release. All ethnic armed groups include both hardliners bent on armed struggle and moderates who want to convert to a political struggle. The situation is fluid, but generally today moderates predominate.

    In Burma, policies and strategies are second to personalities. Disputes (between or within groups) are generally over who will lead. Burmese society was ‘atomised’ under 50 years of military rule. There was no organised societal groupings or political parties. Civil society and political parties have started to revive but remain small, localised and often ethnically based.

    Other than the USDP, NUP (previous government party) and the NLD, there are no national political bodies.

    Women in Burma have equal status – in theory. But in reality most Burmese women play a supporting role and are generally discouraged from leadership.

    Women are active and are the ‘doers’, but they are rarely recognized as such. Various cultural perceptions and practices sustain gender inequality. For instance, in some communities and locations, women’s touching men’s heads is considered to diminish men’s power.

    Peace Process

    The Myanmar peace process came from within, not from international pressure. President Thein Sein, in his inaugural speech on 30 March 2011, surprised everyone by stating that his top priority was to build national unity by addressing decades of armed conflicts with ethnic nationalities caused by ‘dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism’. Never before had any ruler made it a priority to address the ethnic problem let alone acknowledge its root causes.

    This was followed on 18 August 2011 with an offer of talks with armed groups seeking peace. Informal talks began on 19 November and the first ceasefire was signed on 11 December with the Restoration Council for the Shan State/Shan State Army – South (RCSS/SSAS). To date, 13 other ceasefire agreements have been signed, and a nationwide ceasefire is being proposed. However, while the government is signing agreements and making commitments, it does not seem to be able to control the Tatmadaw. Serious ceasefire violations continue.

    The government initially mimicked 1990s ceasefire models, which were negotiated surreptitiously as ‘gentlemen’s agreements’, which granted special economic privileges in exchange for an undertaking not to join the democracy movement.

    Except with the Kachins, nothing was put on paper. Similarly the President and his Chief Negotiator, Minister Aung Min, thought they could grant special economic privileges, sign ceasefire agreements and get the ethnic armed groups to disband. The idea was that the armed groups would embrace democracy, form political parties, contest elections, and argue their case for a federal system in parliament. A critical flaw in this concept was that most armed groups that agreed to ceasefires in the 1990s (again except the Kachins) were not the main ethnic political movements. Most used their privileges to trade in opium and other illicit drugs.

    The ethnic nationalists want political settlement, not economic privileges. They have also rejected the notion of surrendering their arms without guarantee that their grievances would be favourably heard in a parliament that is more than 95 per cent controlled by the government.

    Ethnic civil society groups have protested their exclusion from talks and the possibility of armed groups ‘selling out’. A Norwegian initiative to provide ‘peace dividends’ for ceasefire areas, intended to support implementation, was criticised by some civil society actors as an economic incentive to deliver ceasefires. The EU’s promotion of the government’s Myanmar Peace Centre as a neutral inclusive space was also disputed as an attempt to impose the government’s programme. Also, the newly unfettered Myanmar press tended to equate ceasefires simplistically with peace, causing other stakeholders to worry they were being excluded from negotiations.

    Initially the government did not have a clear plan as two different government negotiators pursued competing agendas. In May 2012 the government consolidated its peace initiative behind Aung Min and formed the Union Peacemaking Central Committee (UPCC). Under the UPCC is the Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) led by Minister Aung Min as Chief Negotiator. The MPC was also established in November 2012 to support Aung Min.

    The Birth of the National Dialogue

    Ethnic groups in Myanmar are extremely diverse with different historical and cultural backgrounds, religious affiliations, political aspirations and revolutionary histories. They are geographically dispersed along the nation’s international borders.

    In February 2012, 19 ethnic armed groups were invited to coordinate their individual ceasefire negotiations and plan together how to transform their ceasefire talks into a collective political dialogue as part of an inclusive peace process.

    An Ethnic Peace Plan emerged that called for an extra-parliamentary dialogue to seek a political solution in the form of a federal union. Subsequently, the ethnic armed groups met monthly to share notes and coordinate. In response to growing resistance to the government’s plan, the Chief Negotiator proposed a Panglong-type conference (which was extra-parliamentary) to resolve theproblem, instead of his original scheme to amend the constitution through parliamentary debate.

    Recognising that they alone could not force the government to agree to a federal system, the ethnic armed groups invited some of the 2010 election-winning ethnic parties and ethnic civil society actors to a workshop in May 2012. They discussed the approaching end of President Thein Sein’s government in 2015, whereas the solution to the problems may entail negotiations beyond that, especially as armed groups did not plan to relinquish arms before 2015. How could they ensure that the next government would continue the talks? What guarantees could they seek?

    The rudimentary concept of an inclusive National Dialogue with deadlockbreaking and consensus-building mechanisms began to emerge. A more permanent Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC) was established in June 2012. To gain an even broader acceptance for the National Dialogue concept, an Ethnic Nationalities Conference was convened in September 2012. The Conference endorsed the idea and tasked the WGEC to further develop a Six- Step Road Map:

    1. Develop a Framework for Political Dialogue,
    2. Agree the Framework with the government,
    3. Organise conferences by States and Regions, as well as by ethnic nationalities,
    4. Hold a nationwide Ethnic Nationalities’ Conference to discuss the Framework,
    5. Hold a Convention based on the Panglong spirit, with equal representation from ethnic nationalities, democratic forces and the government,

    6. Implement the Union Accord within the agreed timeframe. From September to January 2013, the WGEC Core Group worked out the details for a National Dialogue, which was then taken in February 2013 to all the ethnic armed groups’ headquarters for their endorsement. The documents were subsequently released for public consultation with ethnic political parties and civil society in March 2013.

    The key concepts of the Framework, as presented to Aung Min in May 2013, include that it must be jointly managed, must continue beyond 2015 and must be inclusive. It stipulates a nationwide ceasefire to facilitate the peace process, and a joint military code of conduct to ensure that the ceasefire holds. A joint monitoring mechanism would then oversee adherence to the code, with a joint ceasefire committee to facilitate the monitoring mechanism. All signatories must be removed from the government’s Unlawful Association List and other restrictive laws.

    The concepts were all accepted by Aung Min, who was so enthusiastic he prematurely announced in June that a nationwide ceasefire would be signed by all groups in July 2013. Caught by surprise, the armed groups back-pedalled. But despite the negative reaction and criticism from within the government’s own ranks, the MPC began seriously negotiating the draft Framework and the text of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

    Transforming the Process

    Originally, the government may have envisioned the process narrowly as a quick win: provide economic incentives in exchange for laying down arms, gain support for the government’s democratisation plan, and win international kudos. But the ethnic armed groups saw an opportunity to push for what they really wanted – a political dialogue on the future of the country. There had been no opening in the last 50 years and they were determined to make it work in their favour.

    The government could not depend on its own support base, which was not open to such rapid changes. Instead, small circle of reformers began to see that winning over the ethnic armed groups would help build the momentum they needed to press ahead with the reform agenda. The armed groups also saw that if the reformers gained momentum, they could actually get the government to commit to a political dialogue. So what began as a one-sided push became a common process. The government and the armed groups both then began parallel informal campaigns to win over doubters within the parliament, military, political parties, civil society actors and the ethnic population.

    This effort received an unexpected boost when the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament in alliance with DASSK, started to publicly attack Minister Aung Min and the MPC for not being inclusive enough and for being too tentative. This fit the ethnic armed groups’ agenda exactly: in defending itself the MPC fully endorsed the Framework.

    The armed groups were then encouraged to brief DASSK, the Commander-in-Chief, and finally on 31 August, the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) chaired by Vice President Dr Sai Mawk Hkam, an ethnic Shan. This was a key move since the Work Committee includes key actors within the executive, the military and the parliament. The proposal was well received and UPWC agreed to report to the UPCC and meet again on a regular basis with the ethnic armed groups, thereby elevating the negotiations to a higher level.

    New developments have been achieved on the part of ethnic armed groups. In October 2013, an ethnic leaders’ summit was held in Laiza, Kachin State in northern Myanmar. This is the first time in the post-independence history of Burma that top leaders from major ethnic armed organizations could have a summit ‘in’ the country. The summit formed the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) to draft the nationwide ceasefire agreement and lead negotiation efforts. In November (right after the summit), ethnic leaders held a meeting in Myintkina, Kachin State, with military representatives to discuss nationwide ceasefire. In the meeting, military representatives proposed its own nationwide ceasefire agreement draft. Strong wording and demands surprised ethnic leaders, but both sides agreed to study each other’s draft proposals.

    In January 2014, NCCT held another ethnic leaders’ conference in Law Khee Lar, Karen State. The outcome was the updated version of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

    In March 2014, NCCT and representatives from the government’s negotiation team, military and parliament met in Yangon. They agreed to form a joint committee to jointly develop a nationwide ceasefire agreement – known as “One Text” or “Single Text”. Up to this meeting, both sides were proposing its own drafts one version after another.

    The joint committee will consist of nine members each from the NCCT and the government (three each from the executive branch, the military, and the parliament). The government proposes that the NCA be signed no later than the first of August. A National Dialogue might begin in late 2014. Major threats to the process include the commitment of the Tatmadaw, which will be determined by whether the Commander-in-Chief is prepared to sign the agreement and to arrange intra-military talks to separate troops in the conflict zones; and the inclusion of the Kachin Independence Organisation and the United Wa State Army, the two largest armed groups.

    The situation remains uncertain at the time of writing and much could go wrong, but the opportunity is there for Burma to resolve its outstanding problem of the last 60 years. A lot of preparatory work has already begun on fundamental issues: power- and revenue-sharing; reform of the security sector, the judiciary and land; and community, ethnic and minority rights – to name but a few! How can international peacebuilders best support this domestic process? The conflicts are too diverse, multi-layered, deep-rooted and complex for a single mediator. The National Dialogue will require technical support of domestic and international experts. International peacebuilders might best use their experience and knowledge to help build capacity of multiple local stakeholders and allow them to work their way through, rather than try to impose a solution.

    Source: Burma News International