Challenges for Burma’s transition to democracy

11 July 2016 | ResolutionPossible

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Mae La refugee camp in Northern Thailand, located on the Thai-Burma border. | Photo by Burma Link.

Burma (Myanmar)

Burma (Myanmar). | Image by Wikimedia.org

Longest running civil war in the world

While Europe is undergoing what is being referred to as a ‘refugee crisis’, a similar crisis of millions of people fleeing from conflict has been developing on the Thai-Burma border for the past decades, largely remaining unaddressed by international actors.

The newly elected government of Burma, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is the first civilian government after decades of military rule and has stirred up hope in the West to finally see Burma transition into a democratic nation. In the light of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party’s landslide victory last November, hailed as a victory for democracy, it might appear easy to overlook the seriousness of Burma’s challenges. While large-scale development projects are under way and the country’s economy is opening up to foreign investment, Burma’s long history of human rights abuses, armed conflict and resulting displacement are just one of the many issues that need to be addressed immediately to keep the government’s promises and end the decade-long ethnic conflicts that the government has been failing to solve. In a country with the longest civil war in the world, the new NLD-led government promises hope for change as Western nations praise Burma’s progress towards democracy. But can the new civilian government implement these changes necessary for a democratic nation?

Flag of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the current ruling party of Burma. | Image by Wikimedia.org

Flag of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the current ruling party of Burma. | Image by Wikimedia.org

National army still holds country’s key ministeries

While State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is receiving much international praise, the question remains whether she will have the power to keep her promises. Important ministries, such as the Ministry of Defense and Home Affairs, are still held by the Burma Army and the 2008 constitution keeps 25 % of parliament seats reserved for the military. Ahead of the elections, the Tatmadaw (or Burma Army) made sure that even if Suu Kyi’s party wins, the Tatmadaw will still hold the country’s key ministries and thus most of the nation’s power would remain in the military’s hands.
As US president Obama hailed the swearing in of the new president, Htin Kyaw, as as ‘extraordinary moment’, he also cautioned that the nation is still facing “significant challenges going forward”. Some of these challenges for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and president Htin Kyaw include:

  • Long-lasting conflicts between ethnic groups and the Burma Army
  • Large-scale human rights abuses
  • Drug trade
  • Land confiscation
  • Internal displacement and refugee support
  • Lack of education in most areas

These are complex issues that need will need time to solve, but seeking peace between ethnic groups and providing an inclusive solution for all ethnicities should be one of the top priorities in any approach that genuinely seeks to solve the country’s challenges. The ethnic question lies at the heart of  those issues but it is further complicated by conflicting interests of the newly elected NLD as well as the Burma Army, hindering the current peace process.

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IDP camp near the Thai-Burma border. | Photo by Mirja Brand for Burma Link.

Not all armed groups have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement

Map of Burma's 14 administrative divisions, including its ethnic states

Map of Burma’s 14 administrative divisions, including its ethnic states. | Image by Wikimedia.org

Fighting in areas controlled by non-state armed organisations continues, despite a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed between the Burma Army and several ethnic armed groups in October 2015. In fact, clashes between non-state armed groups and the Burma Army have increased since the signing of the agreement, with heavy conflict in Northern Shan State and Kachin State, increasing the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and prolonging the peace process. What has now been described as a mere tactical strategy, the implementation of the so-called ‘nationwide’ ceasefire agreement (NCA) in October 2015 has not been able to stop conflict in ethnic areas. One major obstacle is that the NCA has not been signed by all ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) involved in the conflicts, which has caused further divide between ethnic groups.  the Burma Army itself has violated the agreement several times and attacked ethnic areas, increasing troop numbers and advancing its territory. As a result, armed conflict continues and so does internal displacement. IDPs as well as refugees are the result of these ongoing clashes between different EAOs and the Burma Army.

The 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference

In the past, the old government’s approach was centred on a ‘rule-and-divide’ tactic to keep internal conflicts going and push for its own interest, dividing the myriad ethnic groups to exert its power. Currently, it seems that little has changed now regarding the Tatmadaw’s approach to the current peace process. The so-called ’21st Century Panglong Peace Conference’ leaves doubts about the Tatmadaw’s genuine interest in peace and its proposed inclusiveness for all ethnic groups. Named after the 1947 conference in the Shan town of Panglong, Burma’s independence hero General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, met with the leaders of the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups, promising them autonomy in exchange for their support to attain independence from Britain. However, General Aung San was assassinated just shortly after the agreement was made and the ethnic peoples’ hopes of autonomy were further shattered when a military coup was staged by General Ne Win in 1962.

The new 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, however, has not come without criticism. The Burma Army insisted that the ethnic armed groups first disarm as a precondition for their participation in the peace talks. This argument has received support by the European Union ambassador to Burma, Roland Kobia, in his recent visit to Burma, which has angered ethnic groups in areas currently under attack by the Burma Army. These three non-state armed groups have issued a statement, condemning the Tatmadaw and the NLD-led government of exclusion and discrimination:

“Exclusion of some ethnic armed organizations with discriminatory classification and demand for renouncing arms without achieving solution to political problems, cannot in any way realize the cessation of civil war and peace. For that reason, we the alliance absolutely protest Myanmar Tatmadaw’s principle of renunciation of arms for peace, and earnestly urge Myanmar government led by the National League for Democracy, which has been undertaking for the realization of National Reconciliation and Peace, to stop ongoing wars in the lands of the ethnic nationalities and resolve political problems by political means, through genuine political negotiations and dialogue.”

– Joint statement of the Mayanmar National Trust and Justice Party/Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNTJP/MNDAA), the Palaung State Liberation Front/Ta’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA), and the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA)

This example is just one of the many hurdles the new government is currently facing. The ethnic divide and ongoing armed conflict challenge the present view of Burma hailed as a newly democratic nation, ready to welcome foreign investment and large-scale development projects. Development and prosperity can only flourish in a country where sustainable stability and genuine democratic values for all can be guaranteed, and where its citizens can live in peace, free from war and ethnic or religious persecution.

 

River dividing Northern Thailand and Burma, bordering on Burma's Karen State. | Photo by Mirja Brand for Burma Link.

River dividing Northern Thailand and Burma, bordering on Burma’s Karen State. | Photo by Mirja Brand for Burma Link.

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