Since taking office in March 2011, President Thein Sein has moved remarkably quickly to implement reforms. He has reached out to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released significant numbers of political prisoners, cut back on media censorship and signed a new law allowing labour unions to form. On the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s early December visit, key benchmarks set by Western countries imposing sanctions, such as releasing political prisoners and creating the conditions for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to join the political process, appear well on their way to being met. Now, a bold peace initiative has given hope the country’s biggest challenge – the devastating 60-year-long civil war between the government and ethnic groups – can also be resolved.
Until very recently, the conflict situation had not been looking positive. As preparations for the new civilian government were being made in recent years, the outgoing military administration aggravated already fraying relationships with the ethnic minorities. Ceasefires collapsed as it tried to impose a new border guard force scheme on the armed groups that would have brought their soldiers under national army command. Stepped up fighting and treating their long-standing political grievances as a security problem did not address core concerns of making peace, promoting equality, ending human rights abuses, providing economic opportunity, equitable resource sharing and strengthening regional autonomy. President Thein Sein came to power pledging to make the ethnic issue a national priority, offering dialogue with all armed groups and dropping key preconditions for talks but found these words were not enough. He now needs to follow through on the new peace initiative with actions that convince sceptical ethnic communities that he means what he says.
Myanmar has been at war with its own minorities almost since independence in 1948. The military regime that came to power in 1988 temporarily neutralised its largest military threat in the borderlands by signing ceasefire agreements with a number of ethnic armed groups. The ceasefires should have been a watershed, from war to peace and armed to political struggle, but this failed to happen. Instead, these agreements grew stale as promised political talks never materialised and then collapsed when the military government tried by decree to incorporate ethnic armies into a border guard force ahead of a long-planned transition to a new structure of constitutional government.
In his inaugural speech in March, the president laid out a broad reform agenda to catch up with a changing world. As part of this, he acknowledged the importance of the ethnic minority issue, and pledged to make it a national priority. The upsurge in fighting around the same time he took office contradicted his rhetoric and cast a shadow over the reform efforts. It also led to great scepticism on the part of ethnic minority leaders, who felt that once again their grievances were not being accorded genuine national priority.
After his initial speeches on ethnic reconciliation did not promote the kind of dialogue hoped for, the president moved decisively to build momentum behind a new peace initiative. His government has reached out to all armed groups, offering first more flexible terms, including dropping the demand for the groups to become border guard forces, and then an unprecedented national conference to seek political solutions to ethnic divisions. This has convinced some of the major ethnic groups to sign peace agreements and others to agree to verbal ceasefires, with written agreements to be signed in the coming weeks.
While these developments mark one of the most significant moments in the six decades of conflict, lasting peace is still not assured. Ethnic minority grievances run deep, and bringing peace to the country will take more than reaching agreements with the armed groups – it requires addressing the grievances and aspirations of all minority populations, whether or not they are pursuing armed struggle. Renewed clashes with one large group, the Kachin Independence Organisation, have been intense and have created further bad blood on both sides, making any peace agreement more difficult. The new more open political process offers a framework within which these issues could be addressed, but it will require an honest reckoning with the failures of the past and a fundamental re-thinking of the way the country deals with its multi-ethnic make up. A lasting solution to the problem requires going beyond just stopping the wars. Multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious Myanmar can only achieve genuine national unity and reconciliation by embracing its diversity.
As the international community takes stock of the situation, it must understand the complexities of the conflict. There is a positive role for outsiders to play, especially neighbours such as China and Thailand, but it would be foolhardy for the West to make resolving such deep-seated domestic grievances a prerequisite for improving bilateral relations or beginning to lift sanctions. Encouraging the government in Myanmar to find its own way to stop the fighting and address key political concerns of ethnic communities, however, would simultaneously help meet key Western benchmarks on political prisoners, human rights and democracy, as fixing these problems would also be an important part of reconciliation with the country’s ethnic constituencies. The greatest improvements to human rights observance would come from tackling these conflicts. Once peace agreements are reached, there is an important role for donor countries in providing development assistance and peacebuilding support to these areas.
This report, Crisis Group’s first focusing exclusively on the ethnic conflict since 2003, is based primarily on field research carried out in Myanmar, as well as in China and Thailand, over the past several months.
Jakarta/Brussels, 30 November 2011