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The Importance of the Myanmar Peace Deal
The Importance of the Myanmar Peace Deal
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation
President Thein Sein shakes hands with General Mutu Say Poe, Chairman of the Karen National Union, at the NCA signing ceremony on 15 October 2015. MYANMAR PEACE CENTRE
Commentary / Asia

The Importance of the Myanmar Peace Deal

Thursday’s signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement by the government of Myanmar and representatives of eight armed groups is a remarkable achievement, despite outstanding concerns. This is a major step forward at a crucial political moment for Myanmar, coming just weeks before the landmark general election scheduled for 8 November. The deal locks in the progress achieved so far toward ending six decades of civil war.

As Crisis Group has reported, the ceasefire agreement is far from perfect. Military issues such as force separation, demarcation and verification are vague, not included, or require further agreement to come into force. The deal nevertheless paves the way for a more comprehensive political settlement after the election.

It is important to note that only eight of the fifteen armed groups negotiating with the government have signed the agreement. Three more, who are fighting the government in Kokang, were excluded. There is a risk that the partial signing could exacerbate tensions between groups and between factions within groups. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not attend the ceremony, and her National League for Democracy declined an invitation to sign as a witness to the agreement, although a representative of the party was present at the ceremony. This all makes for an unsteady foundation on which to build a future comprehensive peace.

But the significance and value of the signing should not be underestimated. It is the culmination of four years of tireless effort and intense negotiations. All fifteen armed groups, including those not signing, have agreed to the text. The deal creates an opportunity to move forward and make the process more inclusive. It is not unusual for peace processes to begin as partial agreements, and there is of course more work to be done. It is also important to note that Myanmar’s peace process is home-grown, with no international mediators – one of its greatest strengths.

Given the decades of distrust between the many parties to the internecine conflict, the progress so far is impressive. When the peace process started, most leaders of the armed groups had never been to the capital, Naypyitaw, nor met with a senior member of the government or military. Ethnic aspirations could hardly be voiced. The concept of federalism was taboo for the government. Now, government leaders regularly state that a federal Myanmar is the ultimate goal – something that President Thein Sein said explicitly in his address at the ceremony. This represents a huge shift in the political climate.

The mood at the signing ceremony was very positive, and there were some memorable moments. When Mutu Say Poe, the chairman of the Karen National Union, took the stage following the president to give the second keynote address, the audience heard from an elderly man at war with the military for his entire adult life.

The domestic audience at the event included a diverse array of representatives from political parties and civil society. Leaders from the 88 Generation – named for the student-led democracy movement that began in 1988 – accepted the invitation to witness the agreement. Along with seasoned political activist Ko Ko Gyi they also sent a prominent Muslim member of the group, Ko Mya Aye, to sign the document – a politically brave and farsighted gesture in the current climate of bigotry.

The international community has a vital part to play in supporting the peace process.

Ambassadors from 45 countries as well as representatives of the UN and World Bank were in attendance. Six international witnesses – China, India, Japan, Thailand, UN and the European Union (EU) ­– were called up in pairs to sign the agreement, sitting opposite each other at the table, starting with Myanmar’s two giant neighbours, India and China. The international community has a vital part to play in supporting the peace process – including by providing sustained political support to the government and armed groups, and mobilising funding for conflict-sensitive aid to affected communities.

Implementation of the agreement is the key issue. The government and the military must work to uphold the ceasefire, improve the security situation on the ground, and work to realise the political aspirations of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups. The success or failure of the process going forward depends in large part on the military, which is the one institution that will not see a change in leadership as a result of the elections.

Thursday’s agreement was signed in person by Myanmar’s powerful commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy. He had reportedly been conflicted about signing in the days leading up to the agreement, and had been absent from a key meeting between armed groups leaders and the president on 9 September. His personal signing of the document was incredibly important, and not something he appears to have done lightly. If the armed forces really are committed to de-escalation and demilitarisation of ethnic areas, then there is a chance for a sustainable peace process in Myanmar. The commander-in-chief’s signature does not guarantee that; but it was certainly a prerequisite.

Commentary / Asia

Myanmar: Humanitarian Crisis and Armed Escalation

Ethnic armed conflict, the ongoing Rohingya crisis and thriving illegal business are preventing Myanmar from solving the country’s protracted conflicts. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to sustain aid and diversify its peacebuilding initiatives.

The Rohingya crisis continues to take a heavy toll on the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, and Myanmar’s international reputation, and remains a significant barrier to peace. No durable solution is on the horizon for the refugees, most of whom are in crowded camps exposed to health and natural disaster risks. Muslims remaining in Rakhine State suffer increasingly entrenched conditions of apartheid, with limited access to essential services and livelihoods. The human catastrophe on both sides of the border represents a major threat to peace and security. The ethnic Rakhine are also on a collision course with Naypyitaw, particularly over the detention and potential high treason conviction of a key Rakhine leader. This has undermined the Rakhine population’s confidence in politics and is driving broad support for the Arakan Army insurgency, which has sharply escalated attacks and threatens to tip the state into prolonged armed conflict. Elsewhere, in the north east, armed conflict has eased due to the unexpected declaration by the military on 21 December of a unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin States. However, clashes between ethnic armed groups continue, the peace process remains moribund, and insecurity is exacerbated by increasingly lucrative opportunities for armed groups in drug production, human trafficking, and a range of other illicit activities.

The EU and its member states can help to address this complex set of challenges by:

  • Continuing to fund the humanitarian appeal for Rohingya camps in Bangladesh and stepping up development aid to host communities. This is the best way to give greater dignity to refugees and limit space for actors with other agendas, potentially including those promoting violence.
     
  • Providing humanitarian and development support that takes into account the differentiated needs of men, women, girls, and boys from all ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine State. Delivery of this support should avoid entrenching segregation or reinforcing apartheid policies, and should be sensitive to past human rights abuses some have suffered, including sexual and gender-based violence.
     
  • Remaining engaged with Myanmar while continuing to support international accountability measures. Disengagement and isolation will not bring positive change and will likely exacerbate the structural factors underlying Myanmar’s multiple crises.
     
  • Establishing sectoral exemptions if it decides to revoke Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme, which provides Least Developed Countries with tariff- and quota-free access to EU markets. Revoking the scheme in its entirety would harm hundreds of thousands of low-income garment industry workers, mostly young women who would lose their jobs, potentially further impoverishing their families and leaving these women at heightened risk of trafficking and exploitation.
     
  • Diversifying its support to peacebuilding initiatives aimed at ending Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. This support should aim to protect civilians, assist conflict-affected communities and de-escalate rising levels of violence, including in Rakhine State.

Deadlock in the Peace Process and a New Escalation in Rakhine State

While international condemnation helped avert Bangladesh’s planned forcible repatriation of some Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar in November 2018, the risk remains that Dhaka could revive the process or force refugees to relocate to a remote island. Uncertainty about their future is feeding fear and desperation among the refugees, creating fertile ground for potential militancy. No long-term solution is in sight. Safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation is a distant prospect, third-country resettlement is extremely unlikely for all but a tiny proportion of refugees (and currently blocked even for small numbers), and the Bangladeshi government continues to resist local integration.

In Rakhine State, living conditions for the Rohingya that were already dire are worsening. Myanmar’s government is making no concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State – it has taken some steps on health, education and development, but made no progress on guaranteeing freedom of movement, citizenship and other fundamental rights. Nor has it made progress on holding accountable those responsible for crimes committed during the Myanmar army’s expulsion of the Rohingya following militant attacks in October 2016 and August 2017, which a UN report has said merits investigation for genocide. The government is moving forward tentatively with closing camps for displaced Muslims but without granting the freedom of movement necessary to access services and livelihood opportunities, thereby reinforcing a situation of apartheid and leaving the population indefinitely reliant on humanitarian assistance. Repression and poverty are fuelling a new wave of dangerous boat journeys from Rakhine State across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia and Indonesia; desperation in the Bangladesh camps is prompting Rohingya refugees to attempt the same route.

At the same time, deadly coordinated attacks by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, on four police posts in northern Rakhine on 4 January – Myanmar’s Independence Day – will have a major impact in Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Beyond the immediate escalation in clashes this will bring, and the added complications for addressing the plight of the Rohingya, the attacks portend something significant and dangerous for the longer term: a shift in Rakhine popular sentiment away from politics toward armed insurgency as the means of addressing their grievances. This shift threatens to plunge the state into serious and sustained armed conflict for the first time in decades. The popular perception that politics has failed comes in part from the fact that, although a Rakhine political party won a large majority of elected seats in 2015, Naypyitaw imposed a minority National League for Democracy government; subsequently the top Rakhine political leader was arrested for high treason and remains on trial facing a possible death sentence.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy.

In the restive north of the country, even with the military’s unilateral ceasefire, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government will likely struggle to reinvigorate the moribund peace process for ending Myanmar’s multiple internal ethnic armed conflicts. This is due to a loss of trust on all sides, resistance from the military and government to meaningful concessions on minority rights and greater devolution of power, and the fact that political dynamics ahead of the 2020 elections further narrow the administration’s room for manoeuvre. Armed conflict in Shan State has eased as a result of the unilateral ceasefire, although clashes between competing Shan factions continue; this will enable the military to focus more attention and firepower on the escalating conflict in Rakhine State.

Myanmar’s patchwork of local conflicts and grievances of ethnic minorities against the central state now have a dangerous accelerant through the illicit economy. Revenues from illegal businesses (including drug production, gem and wildlife smuggling, gambling, money laundering and racketeering) now contribute to funding and sustaining the civil war. A toxic political economy based on organised crime and corruption fosters local resentment and enormous disincentives against ending conflicts.

Moving Beyond the Status Quo

The EU should take steps in three areas. First, it should re-evaluate its approach to the Rohingya crisis. More than six years on from the initial segregation of Muslim communities in Rakhine State, the government has shown no sign of reintegrating them – rather, it has opted for an ever more entrenched system of segregation. The EU and others providing humanitarian assistance in such a context are an important lifeline for these communities, but must ensure that they take a principled approach and keep the parameters of assistance under close review to ensure they are not inadvertently reinforcing the government’s discriminatory practices. For example, the Rohingya camps in central Rakhine are not classic internally displaced persons camps but, rather, internment camps, and policy approaches must start from a recognition of this. This dynamic presents a dilemma to which there is no easy answer: withdrawing humanitarian support from this population would negatively impact on vulnerable people; continuing support as camps transition to semi-permanent confinement sites could amount to complicity in longer-term ghettoisation. The only way forward for the EU and other humanitarian actors is to continuously assess their approach and the evolving context to ensure they are minimising harm.

The EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme.

The EU should continue its vital support to the camps in Bangladesh while also continuing to push for accountability for those responsible for violence against the Rohingya. Domestic processes such as the government-appointed Commission of Enquiry are not credible; this leaves international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court, and the UN-established body charged with preparing case files for future criminal proceedings, as the most likely route through which perpetrators could be held to account.

Second, the EU should avoid a blanket revocation of Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade preferences scheme. Such a move would have a catastrophic impact on many workers, particularly girls in the garment industry, without doing anything to punish the perpetrators of crimes in Rakhine State and elsewhere, who should be the focus of the EU’s actions in this regard. Hurting vulnerable workers would damage the EU’s reputation in Myanmar and beyond, and hamper its ability to engage with the government and other actors for no positive gain.

Last, the EU has a leading role on Myanmar’s peace process, having been a key donor since its inception. While the EU should continue to support the stalled negotiations, it should also make a realistic assessment of prospects for success, particularly as the country heads to elections in 2020. Redirecting EU funds to local initiatives could have a greater impact than support to the formal process at national level. Recognising that no imminent end to the armed conflicts is in sight, funds should go toward de-escalation efforts, peacebuilding and protecting civilians. The EU should also extend support to the Anti-Corruption Commission and related initiatives. Such support could strengthen government efforts toward combating organised crime, including drug production and human trafficking, which are rampant in conflict-affected areas and help fuel those conflicts.