U Thein Sein: Myanmar’s next Nobel Peace Prize winner?

President-led peace team could crack Kachin deadlock – and reach historic settlement, say experts

By Thomas Kean with AFP
Volume 32, No. 626
May 14 - 20, 2012

President U Thein Sein greets members of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw after delivering a speech March 1.
Pic: AFP

PRESIDENT U Thein Sein’s decision to take charge of peacemaking efforts in Kachin State has raised hopes of a historic settlement but also put the government’s credibility on the line, experts say.

The consolidation earlier this month of two negotiating teams into a larger, single body led by the president and Vice President Dr Sai Mauk Kham has been broadly welcomed and is the strongest signal yet that the government is serious about ending the conflict in Kachin State.

Fighting broke out in June with the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire and since then more than 50,000 people have been displaced. Previous negotiating efforts by a parliamentary team failed to win over the Kachin Independence Organisation and the group’s leader, U Aung Thaung, has been left out of the new line-up, ostensibly for health reasons.

However, U Thein Sein will have to overcome significant challenges if his negotiating team is to end the conflict in Kachin State – not least of all by convincing hardliners within his own ranks that concessions need to be made to win the KIO’s trust.

For the government, the risks and potential benefits of the latest move are considerable, said Dr Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University and co-founder of the New Mandala website.

“I think the message is now pretty clear: the war in Kachin State is the top priority,” Dr Farrelly said in an email last week. “The formation of the new negotiating team indicates that President U Thein Sein wants the war to end. His own credibility and leadership are now at stake.”

Along with significant economic benefits, there is probably a “Nobel Peace Prize waiting for whoever manages to finally end Burma’s tragic history of civil war”, he said.

“The real question at this stage should be: is President U Thein Sein up to the task? Millions of Myanmar citizens certainly hope so.”

A KIA official, who asked not to be named, said that U Thein Sein’s involvement was welcome.

But he said the success of the talks “will depend on their policy, their willingness to talk to us. It doesn’t depend on people”.

Independent analyst Richard Horsey said the Kachin conflict has been particularly hard to calm because on-going fighting made the military reluctant to back down while suffering casualties.

But he said the KIA were uncomfortable being the only major group not to strike a deal, and were likely to be open to negotiations that gave them the same standing as other ethnic minority rebels.

“There was the wrong negotiating team. It wasn’t ready to offer the same terms to the Kachin as had offered to the Karen for example,” said Mr Horsey, citing international monitors and codes of conduct for troops as examples.

But peace may imperil the standing of rebel commanders who enjoy much greater power in a conflict situation, he added, while others benefit personally from controlling land linked to lucrative logging and mining deals with Chinese firms.

Central to the stalemate is the government’s insistence on an initial ceasefire followed by political dialogue, in contrast to Kachin demands for political negotiations from the outset. The KIO’s position has been influenced by its experiences during the 1994-2011 ceasefire period: while it participated in the National Convention that drafted the 2008 constitution, KIO-linked groups in Kachin and Shan states were later barred from contesting the 2010 election.

It is not clear whether the new-look government team will budge on this policy but the president’s widely applauded March 1 address to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – in which he raised the prospect of amending the 2008 constitution in cooperation “with other national races at hluttaw” – indicates that he is likely to bring a fresh approach to the negotiating table.

“I have made a firm commitment to end all suspicions and anxieties during our tenure. And this is the conviction of our government. We have the duty to heal the bitter wounds and sufferings and fulfil the lost dreams. It is the historic duty for all of us. We understand that it is a demanding task. But we have full confidence to shoulder this duty well,” he told hluttaw representatives.

“In truth, trust is a vitally important factor in our national reconsolidation process. Sincerely, we will make no deception in our stride to the goal of eternal peace. We will do the job with trust based on Panglong spirit.

“There must be mutual assurances and pledges to end all hostilities. It is the duty of our government and the Kachin leaders to fulfil the aspirations and hopes of the people.”

If U Thein Sein can turn these words into concrete results, the consequences on Myanmar’s political, social and economic future could be great.

“Many still hold out hope for a new compact between Myanmar’s ethnic majority and the country’s many minority populations,” said Dr Farrelly.

“Concessions and a genuine appetite for reconciliation will create the conditions for a new settlement. The Kachin will want to see the terms of their deal provide impetus for a wider ranging and much grander negotiation.”

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