Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s embattled government recently produced a glossy brochure of its policy achievements and priorities, a bid to spin some positive news out of resoundingly negative international coverage of its handling of the Rohingya Muslim exodus and refugee crisis.
In a section entitled ‘Peace. Reconciliation, not retribution’, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs extolled the inclusiveness of the government’s efforts to resolve 70 years of civil war, where “progress is being made and the Panglong Conferences place a new focus on dialogue and finding political solutions to Myanmar’s challenges.”
But as state, military and ethnic leaders gathered in the capital Naypyidaw last month to mark the second-year anniversary of the signing of a partial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government and a handful of ethnic groups in October 2015, claims of progress rang wholly hollow.
Myanmar’s peace process has spluttered to a halt despite Suu Kyi’s aim to make peace and reconciliation her government’s centerpiece policy. While drawing on the symbolism of her independence hero father General Aung San’s 1947 Panglong Conference, an overhyped preliminary meeting with a handful of ethnic leaders, Suu Kyi’s 21st Century Panglong process has been devoid of detail and direction.
Suu Kyi and her government share equal blame with the autonomous military for the standstill. The government’s main claims to progress rest on staging two huge conferences in August 2016 and May this year. The events assembled around 700 participants, but were largely stage-managed and insubstantial affairs that failed to address issues at the core of decades of conflict and resistance.
Suu Kyi’s speeches, laden with imperious insistence on ‘unity’ and ‘harmony’ among all ethnic groups, reflect her subservience-before-compromise approach to peace.
The Pyidaungsu Accord for Peace agreed in May by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the government and military included 37 vague principles for future negotiations under five broad headings: politics, economics, social affairs, land, and natural resources. No substantial discussions on any of these issues have taken place since it was inked.
The government has been criticized for failing to mobilize the human resources and organizational structure necessary to take the moribund process forward. The reconstituted National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC), taking over from the much-maligned foreign-funded Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), has failed to organize regular events related to the peace process, let alone support routine negotiations.
Suu Kyi’s few and far between official statements to the many armed groups that have refused to sign the NCA have been peppered with ultimatums and vague threats rather than the facilitation of inclusive debate. In a September 19 speech, mostly on the Rakhine crisis, Suu Kyi admitted the peace process faced “many difficulties.”
“I am not surprised by this because it is the way of peace processes anywhere in the world that they come across difficulties and sometimes the process is stalled, sometimes they come to a dead halt, and sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, and yet, in the end, we all join together and move forward,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s insistent demands, vague vows and diversions caused by her government’s mishandling of the Rakhine crisis all suggest an inchoate nationwide peace process comprised of aspirations, platitudes and orders without a clear-sighted action plan. Suu Kyi visited Rakhine state for the first time on November 2, over two months after the crisis began, and urged people “not to quarrel.”
It’s a reflection of the culture of secrecy in Suu Kyi’s inner circle and the ephemeral advice she receives from a handful of Myanmar and Western advisors. They include Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair whose nongovernmental organization Inter Mediate has advised on aspects of the process for several years.
If Suu Kyi’s inner circle of advisors are having any positive effect on her peace plan, the proof is not yet clear.
The ultimate roadblock to peace, however, is not her government’s fumbling attempts, but rather Myanmar’s powerful military, or Tatmadaw. At the May peace conference, Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing constricted space for peace negotiations by threatening participants to stick to the NCA framework while warning against any proposal that goes beyond a future federal framework.
The military chief reiterated the Tatmadaw’s six-point policy approach, now two years old and widely seen as the main obstacle to further negotiations, as the points can effectively be used to shut down or narrow discussion of any topic.
The martial six points include: “to have a keen desire to reach eternal peace, to keep promises agreed to in peace deals, to avoid capitalizing on the peace agreement, to avoid placing a heavy burden on local people, to strictly abide by the existing laws, and to march towards a democratic country in accord with the 2008 Constitution.”
When these inflexible negotiating conditions are contextualized with the Tatmadaw’s behavior on the ground, with continued fighting against EAOs and chronic abuse of civilians, trust in the peace process and the military’s sincerity is flat-lining, despite the transition from decades of hardline military to Suu Kyi’s elected rule.
Many in civil society, especially ethnic communities, are increasingly critical of the lack of inclusiveness or genuine consultation in the peace process. Women and youth groups, human rights organizations and others working on natural resources, land and justice issues have all been sidelined or ignored by the government and at times intimidated by the military.
One high-profile example is ethnic Shan leader Harn Yawnghwe, founder and long-term head of the Euro-Burma Office which has been involved in peace and development initiatives for over two decades. He is indisputably a central figure on the civilian side for peace. Yet the government has refused to grant him a business visa for several months now, insisting he travel instead on a ‘social’ visa.
Many observers believe this obstruction, which some view as a type of black list, comes directly from Suu Kyi’s office, reflecting thin-skinned sensitivities over any perceived criticism. In recent weeks, the vilification of Harn has intensified with allegations on social media he was complicit in Rohingya militancy due to his efforts several years ago to foster a consensus among exiled Rohingya civil society.
One Myanmar news tabloid, the Sun Ray’s, ran a front-page picture of Harn with the headline in Burmese and English reading “Enemy of the State.” This is indicative of the blurring of the peace process and Rakhine conflict, and the government’s moral failure to foster inclusiveness and curb ultra-nationalist smear campaigns.
The effects of the Rakhine crisis on the broad peace process are not yet fully understood. But the government’s disastrous handling of the situation has provoked intense international condemnation, which in turn has stirred xenophobic nationalism and stripped bare any semblance of good will the Tatmadaw may have extended to certain ethnic groups.
Official reference to the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, as ‘extremist terrorists’, which the government has insisted upon after it invoked for the first time the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law against the group, should concern non-signatory EAOs. Indeed, the Shan State parliament last year passed a motion to condemn members of the Northern Alliance umbrella EAO group as ‘terrorists.’
Rising concerns about the Rakhine conflict on the wider peace process were expressed in an October 15 letter penned by leaders of Myanmar’s oldest insurgent force, the Karen National Union (KNU). The missive, while expressing support for the peace process, expressed concern over the slow pace and military block on constitutional reform, as well as the conflict with ARSA along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
“The handling of the crisis in Northern Rakhine by the government and the Tatmadaw brings the memory of what the KNU and the Karen people have experienced under the state’s four-cut (counter-insurgency campaign) through various forms of aggressive military operations that caused over 200,000 Karen people to become internally displaced persons (IDPs) and over 150,000 to become refugees,” the letter said.
“The KNU regrets witnessing the repeat of this history while efforts to achieve peace are being made, and is gravely concerned that the peace process may be derailed.”
Evoking decades of armed conflict in ethnic Karen areas and the well-worn pattern of abuses should resonate throughout all of Myanmar’s ethnic conflict regions. Many EAOs have watched the Tatmadaw’s Rakhine state “clearance operations” targeting ethnic Rohingya in the country’s west with fear and loathing that they could be next.
The KNU’s letter follows perhaps the most morally astute statement released by an NGO on the violence against the Rohingya since eruptingon August 25. “We have seen the devastation caused by this criminal military against our people for many years,” said the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), a civil society group, in a September 18 statement.
“In the past year, we have continued to see them attack civilians in Shan and Kachin States who are now living in reprehensible conditions in Internally Displaced Camps…The government must act. The military should not be allowed to continue with impunity. It is time we all reach agreement for ethnic rights and a system of government that allows us all, including the Rohingya, to live together in peace.”
To be sure, the Tatmadaw remains the biggest obstacle to Suu Kyi’s peace process. But because of her government’s insular and secretive nature, the military has been given an almost free hand to handle the Rakhine crisis as it deems fit. The government needs to rejuvenate the peace process with fresh ideas, advice, negotiating strategies and energy, all of which exist in abundance in the country.
The answer for Suu Kyi is not stoic resolve and blanket denial, as her stalled and so far failed process shows, but rather a new inclusive approach that genuinely tries to understand why Myanmar has been gripped by civil war for over 70 years and how to achieve a fair and endurable peace before it’s too late.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst