Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Burma: A Fragile Peace

The feting of Burmese President Thein Sein in Europe and elsewhere is premature. Much work remains for Burma to achieve a true peace.

By Tom Fawthrop for

The red-carpet invitation extended to President Thein Sein to visit European capitals at the beginning of March has transformed Burma from pariah state into a new Asian partner, with the international community lavishing praise on the government’s tentative steps towards reform and ending the civil war.

But ethnic leaders and civil society groups inside Burma have painted a less rosy picture. They claim the peace process is undermined by ceasefire violations, land-grabbing by powerful businessmen and the government’s reluctance to discuss a political settlement.

By the end of 2012, many Western governments were impressed that most of the ethnic rebel armies holding sway in areas bordering Thailand and China had signed ceasefire agreements with the reformist-leaning government of President Thein Sein.

The retired general and president’s 11-day European tour included Norway, Finland, Austria and other EU countries, followed later in the month by a visit to New Zealand and Australia. He no doubt delighted his Austrian hosts at a Vienna press conference, assuring them of the complete success of his peace efforts at home.   

"There’s no more hostilities, no more fighting over the country, we have been able to end this armed conflict,” Thein Sein said at a joint press conference with Austrian President Heimilitarnz Fischer in Vienna on March 4.

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Even as he spoke, however, in northern Burma military clashes were continuing in the Shan and in Kachin states. The Kachin National Organization responded to Thein Sein with a statement claiming, “The Burmese government is committing war crimes and preparing another big scale conflict while claiming 'peace' in Kachinland.”

Only a few weeks before Thein Sein’s European trip, government forces had launched attacks in Kachin state involving helicopters and artillery, with a ferocious assault on KIA rebel positions near the town of Laiza, inside a shrinking liberated zone adjacent to the Chinese border.

In repeated rounds of peace talks with Karen, Shan and Kachin groups, the government has refused calls for a demilitarization of the conflict zones. The shelling may be less frequent, but the guns have not fallen silent. Any celebration of peace is highly premature

The largest ethnic army, the Kachin Independence Army and its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization met with the government for peace talks in the Chinese city of Ruili on March 11, but declined to sign a ceasefire agreement.

Even as the two sides sought ways to reduce tensions in Kachin, sectarian violence between Muslims and Buddhists broke out anew in the Burmese city of Meikhtila. According to the Associated Press, dozens were killed and 10,000 individuals were displaced by the fighting in and around Meikhtila.

Yet the many shortcomings of the peace process at home have done remarkably little to tarnish the growing prestige and reformist image of the Thein Sein government abroad.

Most European sanctions have been lifted. The once reviled state, known for its systematic torture of political prisoners, the killing of Buddhist monks and a brutal military occupation of ethnic regions has been rapidly rehabilitated in the eyes of Western nations, which are now pursuing new investment opportunities.

But human rights monitors caution that behind the scenes, the same military that has ruled Burma since 1962 retains ultimate authority over a still fragile civilian government.

Norway has led the way in supporting the peace process with its Myanmar Peace Support Initiative program, set up in January 2012 to play a lead donor coordination role. The EU also funds the government-directed Myanmar Peace Center, working closely with the government peace delegations led by Minister U Aung Min.

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Responding to the welcome Norway offered Thein Sein, the European Karen Network apparently wrote in a letter to the Norwegian government, “We were deeply disappointed to see the shifting of your government’s policy, from prioritizing the promotion of human rights and democracy to prioritizing the promotion of trade and investment.”

Thein Sein has mapped out a three-step peace strategy: first to stop the fighting with a ceasefire agreement; second to promote aid and development projects in the ethnic states; and third to engage political dialogue and reach a political settlement within the national framework of the military-drafted 2008 constitution

However, Yangon-based analyst Tom Kramer from the Transnational Institute told The Diplomat he is deeply concerned that the government’s development strategy will not benefit the ethnic populations. “The big danger I see now is that the new ceasefires coupled with the new land and investment laws have opened up space for local and international businessmen to buy up land in conflict-affected areas,” depriving local communities who lack the land titles and documentation to stop businessmen from the cities grabbing their land.

New laws passed by Burma’s parliament make it easier for foreign investors and local businessmen to acquire land at the expense of the traditional land rights of the indigenous communities. A Burma Land Commission has reported to parliament that the army has also been extensively involved in grabbing land both for building new military camps and in partnership with agro-business and mining corporations.

The government ‘s development strategy is mostly based on mining and hydropower, including six dams to be constructed on the Salween river with another six on the Irrawaddy River, most of them in conflict zones.

Burma Rivers Network has warned foreign investors to remain cautious until the issue of ethnic rights versus the central government is resolved and “safeguards are enforced to protect local communities and the environment.”

This is where issues of development priorities, transparency and public participation in conflict zones clearly intersect. Ramming through controversial dam and mining projects against the wishes of ethnic communities will only undermine the tentative steps being taken towards peace.

The third part of the peace agenda – political dialogue and negotiation that might pave the way for a permanent peace settlement and ethnic armies laying down arms – has so far not even gotten off the ground.

Hla Muang Shwe, a businessman and vice president of the Myanmar Peace Center, told The Diplomat at a round of peace talks held in Chiang Mai that “The peace process is going well. This is a real process and the ethnic groups can get 60% of what they want inside the 2008 constitution.”

It is curious that the vice president of the PMC, a key member of the government team meeting with all the ethnic groups, could seriously suggest that a constitution written by the military and for the military could be an acceptable political framework for the other side.

All the banned parties linked to rebel forces have dismissed the referendum for the approval of 2008 constitution as a “fraud.”

The historical basis for the establishment of a Union of Burma in 1948 was the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which contained pledges by independence leader General Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) to respect ethnic rights and agree to power-sharing between the majority Burman people and the other 30%, the ethnic minorities. This has never actually been implemented.

The opposition outside parliament has been calling for major amendments to the constitution to allow for a Panglong 2, a new pact between all the highland ethnic minorities and the state, which has always been dominated by the lowland Burman majority.

Burma’s military have always seen themselves as the staunch defenders of a strong centralized state and would be fiercely opposed to any kind of federal solution.

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But if political dialogue is to start and a durable peace is to be achieved, it is increasingly clear that development projects must be reviewed on the basis of ethnic community participation. The national government must also respect the original spirit of Panglong.

Government peace advocate Hla Muang Shwe admits the problem is that “nearly all the institutions in our country are weak. Only one institution is strong – the military.”

The question for Burma’s future is whether the generals will permit major reforms in the resource-rich ethnic states, allowing democratic development and peace deals to flourish. The peace talks have a rocky road ahead. 

Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.