What Can Myanmar Learn From Cambodia’s Peace Process?

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What Can Myanmar Learn From Cambodia’s Peace Process?

Lessons from Hun Sen’s “win-win” policy.

What Can Myanmar Learn From Cambodia’s Peace Process?

Prime Minister Hun Sen greets during a ceremony to mark the 38th anniversary of the toppling of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh (January 7, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Early this March, Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke with Myanmar’s commander-in-chief General Ming Aung Laing about his experience with a “win-win policy” to dismantle armed groups and restore peace in communities formerly in conflict. Hun Sen successfully dismantled armed groups in Cambodia in the late 1990s, bringing lasting peace to the country.

Hun Sen reiterated after the meeting that he was ready to support Myanmar’s ongoing peace process, adding that his government would send officials to observe the situation and assess the conflicts in the Myanmar’s ethic provinces.

“I will also want to send two or three people who are my colleagues — who used to join me in the implementation of the ‘win-win policy’ — to study Myanmar, the experiences there, and through that we can discuss — not to be teachers — but we can discuss ways on how to find peace and to put an end to armed conflict,” the prime minister said, according to Cambodia Daily.

Senior General Ming Aung Laing’s good will visit to Cambodia took place amid violence in town of Laukkai in the eastern part of Myanmar after a rebel group launched a raid. The attacks left a dozen people dead and forced thousands to flee into China. Myanmar would like to gain knowledge on Cambodia’s experience with conflict management; Cambodia went through a bitter and dark history of genocide and civil war but strived to ultimately bring about real peace and stability.

Myanmar, meanwhile, has been ravaged by bloody ethnic conflicts for almost seven decades following its independence from Britain, the country’s former colonial master. With diverse ethnic groups often in conflict with both each other and with the dominant Burmese ethnic group, Myanmar cannot easily achieve peace and national reconciliation despite  violent military interventions to control armed resistance from other ethnic groups.

The National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in the 2015 national elections gave hope that the war between the government and ethnic armed groups would finally be over. The current government, under de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, revived the peace process through the “21st Century Panglong Conference” that began in August 2016.

What Exactly Is Hun Sen’s “Win Win Policy”?

Hun Sen’s win-win policy played a critical role in bringing full peace and stability to the country after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. The policy was a mechanism to dismantle the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold in Pailin, a province bordering Thailand, by disarming and reintegrating combatants into society. The key elements of the policy included amnesty, employment guarantees, and reintegration through a national reconciliation process.

According to Louis Kriesberg, there are four dimensions that any reconciliation process should address: truth, justice, respect, and security. Though important, it is admittedly a challenge to achieve all four simultaneously. Hun Sen’s win-win policy was successful in addressing two dimensions — respect and security — while it failed to accomplish truth and justice. Respect is generally defined as a situation in which forgiveness was honored, and security essentially refers to the provision of safety and security to both victims and perpetrators by the state authority. Combatants were willing to give up arms only if their fears of retaliation and discrimination were confidently addressed; their lives and careers were guaranteed equal protection, along with reintegration in the society to rebuild their lives and livelihood.

It was worth noting that Cambodia also sought justice for victims in the post-conflict era by making top Khmer Rouge leaders accountable for their crimes against the millions of innocent Cambodians who perished between 1975 to 1979. The UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia) was established in 2006 to put those war criminals to a proper trial in the court of law.

What Lessons Could Myanmar Draw From Hun Sen’s Win-Win Policy?

Hun Sen’s “win-win policy” to some extent could serve as a long-term conflict resolution model for Myanmar’s conflicts. As the name implies, the win-win policy suggests creating a positive situation for all parties, not a win-lose situation where other parties involved will end up losing through the bargain. However, to get to that point, Myanmar needs to focus on building trust and confidence with tolerance at the negotiating table with other stakeholders in order to resolve differences before pursuing a dialogue for peace.

Myanmar’s military has to end its “divide and rule” tactic that aims to divide and weaken ethnic armed groups through violent military intervention. It is worth noting that the key word missing from Myanmar’s peace process has been “inclusivity”; every armed group has to be included in the process. Myanmar’s military forces, in reality, have barred some of the groups from taking part in the peace process. They considered some smaller armed groups as not fulfilling the criteria of a legitimate “armed group,” overlooking the fact that guerrilla warfare can easily be carried out with just a small number.

As a result, the peace process to date has been fractured. According to Irrawaddy, seven ethnic militias have not signed the government’s 2015 nationwide cease-fire agreement. These include the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

On the other hand, Myanmar armed ethnic groups should also be ready to join the reconciliation process and forgive Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, which stands accused of genocide, forced labor, and rape. However such amnesty should only be offered if the military will demonstrate its commitment to peace and national reconciliation.

Some argue that granting perpetrators amnesty means turning a blind eyes to human right abuses and allowing impunity to take root in society. Here there is a huge difference between the developed and developing world when it comes to achieving “justice” in conflict resolution. In most fragile states, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, there is a sense that it is difficult to achieve both justice and peace at the same time, and peace is generally considered as far more important than justice.

Although the “win-win policy” can offer Myanmar certain lessons for peace and national reconciliation, it doesn’t mean that this conflict resolution model, if implemented, will definitely yield fruitful results and successfully end the conflicts in the country. The success or failure depends on the nature of conflict; obviously Myanmar’s ethnic conflict differs from Cambodia’s ideological conflicts.

The situation in Myanmar, where religious and ethnic divisions have persisted for decades and the government has been ruled only by the Burmese majority, requires each party to spare no effort to ensure steady and firm reconciliation and the establishment of a favorable governing system. In contrast, Cambodia is a heterogeneous nation-state, whose different political factions were not based on racial or religious groups. Prime Minister Hun Sen himself acknowledged in a public speech in 2015 at the Ramadan Iftar Dinner Celebration that the Cambodian people, who fought against each other for years, still regarded each other as only one nation, allowing his policy to successfully restore peace and political stability in the country.

Sao Phal Niseiy is a Cambodian journalist who covers foreign affairs and international politics.