How Could Myanmar’s Divided People be Brought Together?

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How Could Myanmar’s Divided People be Brought Together?

The Cambodian peace process of the 1980s offers some lessons for bridging seemingly insuperable differences.

How Could Myanmar’s Divided People be Brought Together?

Cambodians return from refugee camps in Thailand aboard a UNHCR train on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 1, 1992.

Credit: UN Photo/P Sudhakaran

In the late 1980s, Indonesia spearheaded a regional effort to prevent the collapse of Cambodia after the trauma of Khmer Rouge rule and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion.

One key challenge was how to entice to the table the four opposing factions that divided the country. Their differences were intractable; they were well-armed, held territory, and there was a threat of further bloodshed. They all insisted on deal-breaking pre-conditions.

I recall this debate very clearly. I was a journalist covering Indonesia for the BBC. Then Indonesian Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja met the foreign press every Friday. In long rambling discussions, he would elaborate on Indonesian diplomacy and also tease the various news agencies in the room. He was jocular and affable which made for a cozy relationship with the media.

The challenge Mochtar faced with the Cambodian factions was their confounding intransigence, which made it hard to persuade them to meet. The solution was to introduce an element of informality.

“You foreigners,” he said one Friday, “you like cocktail parties, right?” We all looked at each other, puzzled. “Well, you know people just mix and mingle informally.” Little did we know that he was describing an idea that helped eventually convene the fractious and uncooperative Cambodian factions. It was dubbed “The Cocktail Party.”

Knowing how hard it would be to persuade the Cambodians to meet, the original formula, proposed by a former Indonesian ambassador to Egypt, Fuad Hassan, then in the research department of the Foreign Ministry, was to invite each of the factions individually and house them in a complex of holiday bungalows set along a Bali beachfront, owned at that time by the state-owned oil company Pertamina.

“The idea is that each faction would stay at a bungalow. If a faction was interested in talking with another faction, Indonesia would facilitate a meeting, without pre-conditions,” said a former Indonesian diplomat who was involved in the process at the time.

The formula, although never implemented in Bali, was used to bring the factions together in October 1988 for the first time at the sprawling colonial-era mansion known as the Bogor Palace outside Jakarta, where in fact incumbent President Joko Widodo now lives. By this time, Ali Alatas was foreign minister and he used his considerable personal charm and skills as a diplomat to persuade the factions to meet.

Fast forward to the present day and some of the same challenges face Indonesia in its efforts to engage all stakeholders in the protracted Myanmar conflict. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, tasked as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to implement a clumsy five-point consensus on Myanmar, has focused on trying to persuade all sides to engage in a dialogue to de-escalate ever-rising levels of violence.

As with the Cambodians, preconditions are an obstacle. The Myanmar military, which seized power two years ago, is insisting that armed opposition elements known as the People’s Defense Force, loosely directed by the National Unity Government, return to the legal fold – essentially surrender. For their part, most opposition elements, including the ethnic armed groups, want the military to declare it will give up power and return to the barracks permanently. These conditions are non-starters.

Granted, Myanmar is not Cambodia. Cambodians, though polarized by the Khmer Rouge era, and the Cold War-driven Indochina conflict that preceded it, were nonetheless united by language and ethnicity, as well as a long and proud history as Khmers. The differences between the Myanmar army, known as the Tatmadaw, the civilian parties, and ethnic groups run very deep and go back decades, if not centuries.

Nonetheless, dropping pre-conditions will be a necessary precursor to any dialogue. The Burmese are among those acutely conscious of face in the region. Therefore, for all their intransigence, a formula that allowed each side a semblance of equality and dignity could be a starting point. Going beyond face-saving, it will also be important to avoid the front loading of solutions and outcomes: any initial dialogue must be followed by broader consultation to develop a collective vision of the future for all the people of Myanmar.

If Indonesia could persuade the army and the opposition to travel to Indonesia, perhaps the same formula of informal dialogue could be applied. Representatives for each side have already met bilaterally with Indonesia,  mostly in Bali. There are many more types of bungalow complexes to choose from in Bali – they are no longer state-owned, and much more relaxing than the austere concrete bunkers I recall the Pertamina Cottages being. The stage is already set.

I was at Bogor for the first Jakarta Informal Meeting, as the inaugural meeting of Cambodian factions was styled. It was an awkward but nonetheless cathartic gathering. Diplomats and officials from the United Nations and regional states supported and assisted the process. There followed a subsequent meeting in Jakarta, which led eventually to the Paris Peace Agreements that inaugurated an era of peace and reconstruction for the country.

Some claimed more credit than others. Cambodia’s neighboring states Thailand and Vietnam were determined to safeguard their interests, and China was a looming influence in the background. The final agreement was signed in Paris in 1991 and the U.N. took on the task of re-building Cambodia. All the same, it was Indonesia’s ability to find a solution to launch initial dialogue that paved the way.

Today, almost a quarter of a century later, Indonesia is once again leading efforts to start a dialogue process with polarized and intransigent factions. Indonesia’s own experience of negotiating an end to armed conflict in Aceh and Timor-Leste can inform the foreign ministry’s approach.

As with the Cambodian peace process, front-line states like Thailand are similarly more interested in safeguarding their interests in Myanmar, and China is an even bigger presence.  Perhaps being more distant, with fewer direct interests, though clearly concerned, Indonesia’s diplomats can revive the cocktail party idea and entice Myanmar’s divided leaders to meet without labels and pre-conditions. That would be a good starting point for de-escalation.