In the lead up to Myanmar’s November 8 general elections, a fourth session of the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference (UPC) is slated for August 19-21. While no one is expecting significant breakthroughs at this scaled down event, the fact that the UPC is being held, given logistical challenges presented by COVID-19, might be interpreted as a positive development. Over the course of 2018-2019, several scheduled UPCs were delayed or cancelled while the two most important ethnic armed organization (EAO) participants suspended their participation.
Most of the discussion points on the conference agenda are procedural, with the goal of setting the stage for the next phase of negotiations when a new government assumes power in early 2021. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government is motivated to hold the UPC prior to the elections so as to show progress on one of its core policy planks — peacemaking. This is similar to 2015 when the military-backed government pushed EAOs to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in the lead-up to elections. Many observers have also accused the military of depriving the NLD of peace process advances to constrain its popularity. These dynamics demonstrate how ethnic minority issues are a means to political ends for Burman elites. To be clear, the only winner from this UPC will be Aung San Suu Kyi, who will show her Bamar base that she is indispensable because ethnic minorities cannot be trusted.
Most ethnic minority parties are unified in preparation for the 2020 election, to avoid the disastrous results of the 2015 elections. However, ethnic parties are unlikely to gain enough seats to be kingmakers. Whether the next NLD government finally grants ethnic parties key positions in state governments in 2021 may be the most important indicator of whether the NLD is serious about ethnic reconciliation and collaboration. Throughout the NLD’s term of office, the party repeatedly made obvious symbolic and policy blunders regarding ethnic minorities and their status in the nation. Finally, the NLD fielded a mediocre and unempowered peace team, compared to previous governments, symbolically and practically diminishing the relative importance of the peace talks.
Many EAO linked negotiators appear to be participating in the UPC on account of not wanting the last 10 years of peace talks to go to waste. However, keeping talks going out of fear for a resumption of violent conflict is a far cry from real hopes of progress on core political issues. After so much time, attention, and money spent by the international community on the peace process, the actual points that have been agreed upon in successive UPC conferences are consistently vague and have fallen short. While NCA signatory EAOs have seen fewer violent conflict incidents with the government compared to non-signatories, the international-funded Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committees have proven opaque and ineffective.
Elements of the international community are increasingly questioning whether to fund the peace process at all. Skepticism is amplified by the dysfunctional Joint Peace Fund mechanism where critics point to wasted resources and donor gridlock. The UPC includes too many stakeholders in ways that frustrate the process while not including the most powerful EAOs that command approximately 80 percent of ethnic armed troops in the country. However, cutting political parties from the preparatory dialogues in the lead up to the UPC will likely alienate key ethnic constituencies.
The EAOs that didn’t sign the NCA will not attend the peace conference given their demand to participate as an alliance and that the Arakan Army (AA) is not invited. This time, China is not forcing EAOs on its borders to show up at the conference. Continued intense fighting between the AA and the military in Rakhine state is both undermining the peace process and precluding any hopes of return for the million Rohingya refugees who call Rakhine state home. The AA is demanding a confederation model based on the de facto autonomy enjoyed by the most powerful EAO, the United Wa State Army. The AA’s position is a non-starter for the government compared to the variously defined “democratic federalism” acceptable in principle to many other EAOs. However, in practice government negotiators will not even agree to ethnic state constitutions. Furthermore, the United Wa State Army, the de facto leader of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) alliance that counts the key non-signatories among its members, would never support an agreement that gives them less than the long-standing status quo.
Since the current process gained momentum in 2011, it has never been clear whether the military power holders support meaningful political concessions or if they seek to dismantle EAOs through a new game of divide and rule. Without this clarity there is little hope of building the trust necessary to sequence complicated quid pro quos such as EAO disarmament and guarantees of federalism.
In the southeast, which has seen the most positive trajectory toward peace, the emerging political economy does not indicate significant improvements over the illiberal ceasefire capitalism dynamics of the 1990s and 2000s. For example, Chinese criminal syndicates are making fast inroads into Kayin state through deals with local militias and certain corrupted EAO leaders. While better security, freedom of movement, and new economic opportunities have come to parts of Kayin state, there has also been increased land insecurity while the resettlement of internally displaced persons and refugees has been disappointing notwithstanding international financial support.
The Karen National Union, which is the key actor underpinning the peace process, is internally fractured, weakening its ability to represent the larger Karen community let alone the aspirations of other ethnic groups. Many of the 10 EAO signatories have little grassroots support and/or control few combatants.
Processes of rapid but incomplete political, economic, and social liberalization such as Myanmar experienced over the last decade can have unintended and countervailing conflict effects. New opportunities for overcoming conflict impasses come up against nationalist impulses, social media illiteracy, marginalized groups demanding rapid inclusion and rights, and rising expectations confronted with economic exploitation — all while entrenched elites remain willing to use force to maintain their positions and privileges. In this way, Myanmar’s predicament should not be surprising nor the cause of a prolonged cycle of depression and neglect by the international community. Senses of disappointment have more to do with initial unrealistic expectations about the likely speed and depth of progress.
With relations between the international community and Suu Kyi and the military still badly frayed from the Rohingya nightmare, the illusion of quick wins and influence are plain for everyone to see. The international community might leverage this clarity to take stock of how ill-understood some of Myanmar’s core conflict dynamics remain. For example, some experts think Myanmar’s conflict-linked exploding illegal drugs problem may account for up to half of GDP. In the years to come, COVID-19 economic reverberations, scenes of Rohingya camps devastated by cyclones, and rising tensions between China and key Western and Asian powers may present new conflict challenges.
Unfortunately, the aid structure mostly pays for empowering a partisan civilian set of Buddhist Bamar elites in government and entrenching a peace process that needs a zero-based review and potentially a total reset. As such, aid at present does not pass the “do no harm” test despite so much lip service by the aid community. Aid should be shifted away from bureaucratic processes that cannot respond in a nimble and flexible manner. The Joint Peace Fund should be discarded while donors recommit to coordinate, perhaps through a scaled down advisory body. In sum, the order of the day is a more patient and targeted aid approach emphasizing systemic conflict prevention and ethnic minority employment while promoting credible local organizations with the staying power to see Myanmar through future ups and downs.
This piece has been edited since publication.
Seth Kane is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington