The impending transition of power from President Thein Sein to Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has significant implications for Myanmar’s nascent peace process. Having failed to institutionalize the peacebuilding effort since the process was reinvigorated through a series of bilateral agreements in 2011, there remains an immediate concern that political capital will continue to be the compass and barometer for negotiations. While NLD’s overwhelming majority imbues a mandate to compromise that the USDP lacked, its predisposition towards populist sentiment may yet prove a liability in negotiations. More than anything, Myanmar must begin to broaden the scope of the peacebuilding initiative to lessen its reliance on ever-fragile high-level talks.
Myanmar’s political transition and the military’s escalating offensives in Northern Shan State have added uncertainty amid recent progress in technical negotiations. The October 15 signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement was an important milestone and a critical platform for progressing discussions, albeit with only eight of the 15 armed groups who entered negotiations. From this, the establishment of the trilateral Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) on November 22 and Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JCMC) has created a path to negotiate a more substantive agenda. While these have notionally been established as non-partisan bodies, there is little doubt NLD’s sweeping electoral victory will dramatically alter the pace and scope of talks. With so much of the peacebuilding effort to date intrinsically linked directly to the President’s Office, a readjustment and realignment will be inevitable. Technical advisors will be replaced, and new relationships – from the president down – will take time to cement.
Given the length of time inevitably required to transform violent intrastate conflict, Myanmar’s peace processes inevitably must survive further political transitions and military upheavals. In one of his more pessimistic, but perhaps often realistic observations, peacebuilder and scholar John Paul Lederach often observes that getting out of a conflict takes as long as it takes to get into it. So as Myanmar enters its fifth year of negotiations, the road ahead to resolve the country’s six decade civil war, is likely to be long and winding.
Like many comparative conflict-affected states, Myanmar is a deeply socially fractured state. There is a fundamental trust deficit that has manifested along political, social and ethnic lines, all of which conspire to undermine efforts towards sustainable peace. According to a 2014 Asia Foundation survey, 77 percent of respondents in Myanmar felt most people could not be trusted. Conflict, especially violent intra-state conflict, divides populations, destroys trust and dilutes the opportunities for cooperation and collective action. As noted by the World Bank in 2000, “this damage to a nation’s social capital – the norms, values, and social relations that bond communities together as well as the bridges between communal groups and civil society and the state – impedes communal and state ability to recover after hostilities cease.”
The challenge for NLD will be to transform Myanmar away from violent fractures through harmonization and fundamental social re-orientation – issues far away from the current peace negotiations in Yangon. Resolving the social divides that conflict creates must be an essential component of this process to drive, facilitate and implement security compromises and political agreements that address structural violence. For Myanmar, as a state that has never effectively existed as a union of its composite parts, this guiding principle is all the more significant.
Without a cohesive society, Myanmar’s transformation from intrastate conflict to functional nation-state will be precarious, if not impossible. The fragility of the country, long acknowledged and advertised by its military rulers for their own end, is born of a multitude of factors. NLD – and the international donors supporting Myanmar’s transition – must start to consider how reconciliation can be used to support the ongoing political negotiations. Two tangible moves will be important as a first steps in this process.
First, political leaders and the country’s mass media must remove ethnicity as a point of friction in dialogue, debate and policy. Where rights and citizenship are inseparably tied to ethnicity and religion, the question of identity will always impede the development of a national, cohesive social collective. As Robert Taylor has argued separately, discarding the list of 135 so-called “indigenous ethnic groups” and removing the distinction between states and regions, both in name and in structure should be prioritized as structural objectives.
And second, more investment should also be made in inclusive, localized initiatives for connecting inter-ethnic and inter-religious communities in Myanmar. Projects around peace education, transformative vocational training, holistic community development and common ground connections will all be critical in laying the foundation for local-level interaction and healing. Trust between interlocutors (and often one-time military adversaries) mirrors the suspicion that defines communal relations more broadly. Where social cohesion is transformed at the local level, the impetus for trust and cooperation within political negotiations is likely to increase correspondingly.
David Hale is a Yangon-based peacebuilding consultant, and former advisor with the Myanmar Peace Center. He is Co-Director of the social enterprise Harmoneat, and author of Social Fracture, Violent Conflict: Bridging divides for sustainable peace in Myanmar.