Norway looks to cement budding peace

By Thomas Kean
Volume 32, No. 629
June 4 - 10, 2012

Norwegian deputy foreign affairs minister Mr Torgeir Larsen (centre) with the regional military commander, Karen National Union officials and Kayin internally displaced people in Kyaukkyi township, Bago Region, on May 28.
Pic: Nan Tin Htwe

THE role of a recently established Norwegian government “peace initiative” will be defined by progress on political dialogue between the government and armed ethnic groups, Norway’s deputy foreign minister told The Myanmar Times last week.

The initiative was established in recent months to support ceasefires between the government and ethnic armies through dialogue, aid coordination and “quick impact assistance” to areas of the country opening up as a result of the agreements.

A US$5 million pilot project in Kyaukkyi township, Bago Region, is focused primarily on resettling Karen internally displaced people (IDPs), providing farming equipment and food, and clearing land mines.

Mr Torgeir Larsen said the initiative was established at the request of the government, while the pilot project also had the support of the Karen National Union (KNU).

“The [political] meetings are going to define the course of whatever we can [do to] help and that’s extremely important for me to stress … we can never go further than what they are doing. It’s basically facilitating decisions made by the parties,” he said in an interview on May 29.

“In order to build trust, what we are trying now to do, based on some of the experience we have in other areas where we have also been assisting peace building processes, is to assist in getting initial phase projects on a pilot basis on the ground in these areas that have been closed off earlier on … [and] to have some real assistance reaching people on the ground.”

The peace initiative is headed up by Mr Charles Petrie, a former United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator who was forced to leave Myanmar in 2007 after issuing a statement critical of the government.

Mr Petrie said talks have already begun on projects in Chin and Mon states and the government had indicated it would support expansion into Shan and Kachin states when those conflicts had stabilised.

“Norway was asked to help support a broad range of ceasefire agreements and the KNU is probably one of the most complicated ones because it comes out of 63 years of fighting,” Mr Petrie said.

“In a sense there’s a spectrum of interventions, going from support to building up joint capacity to assess needs and respond to those needs, which is in Chin [State], to something far more sensitive, which is the Karen, and there it is accompanying a process but in a very reactive way allowing the process to define the support that is to be needed and ensuring the fact that some sort of political dialogue needs to be initiated also is not lost in the process.”

In Kyaukkyi, the initiative has conducted two missions into former “black areas” with the full support of both sides, and has conducted an assessment in which IDPs categorised their needs, Mr Petrie said. About 2000 people live in 13 villages in the project area, and they have been moving because of conflict since at least 1974.

“Clearly they are in need of protection, in the sense that they can operate and move freely. They are in need of basic humanitarian assistance to cover the rains and seeds and tools to be able to start producing. Basically, what we found is that they’re in a state of suspended belief; they’d like to believe peace has come but they’re still very concerned that it may not have come,” Mr Petrie said.

In the longer term, the initiative aims to prepare the regions for normal development actors, including the UN agencies and non-government organisations. By surveying the needs of IDPs, it can also help to coordinate later assistance programs.

In its support for the initiative, the Myanmar government appears to be taking a different approach to the ceasefires agreed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The benefits of those agreements between military and ethnic leaders for the most failed to permeate down to grassroots communities, weakening the broader peace process.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at Australian National University, said the initiative was “exactly what Myanmar needs”.

“Direct, sustained and well-resourced efforts to deal with the humanitarian and political crises in border areas are what the international community should support. At one level these efforts will be symbolic, but at other levels they can have meaningful and positive impacts on livelihoods and opportunities in ethnic areas,” he said in an email.

“President U Thein Sein and his advisors appreciate that a resolution to ethnic political conflict will not come easily or cheaply. So they are prepared to welcome international assistance in the hope that Myanmar can, for the first time since independence, be genuinely at peace with itself.

“If the current generation of leaders can finally seal these deals then they need never worry about their place in the history books. They will be considered heroes.”

But the initiative has proved controversial with Thailand-based organisations, particularly given the Norwegian government’s decision to cut funding to border-based NGOs earlier this year. In an attempt to allay some of these concerns, Mr Larsen visited Chiang Mai on May 30 to discuss the initiative with the organisations.

But Paul Sein Twa, a spokesperson for a group of Karen community-based organisations working in the border areas, said there had been little consultation with groups in Thailand about the program.

“The initiative has only approached the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People to be the sole implementing partner on the border. Other border-based groups have not been involved in, or informed of, the process,” he said in an email last week.

“The initiative consulted with only a few KNU leaders, and some of these leaders have reported that they are still unclear on the peace initiative’s plans.”

He said he was concerned about the safety of the returning IDPs given the fragility of the peace process and also that the initiative “did not conduct a risk management assessment”.

“The peace initiative’s policy of using IDPs in order to test the strength of the peace process could put IDPs in danger. Troops have not withdrawn, and we cannot clearly see any indicators that the current peace process is durable. There is no guarantee of IDPs’ safety if the fighting begins again, or if the military harasses resettled IDPs.

“In addition, the Norwegian government has cut cross-border support for IDPs in order to work through the Burmese government inside Burma. We are concerned that this will place additional pressure on the peace process, and that other governments may follow suit.

“The potential success of the peace initiative depends heavily on the Burmese government and the KNU reaching a successful political settlement and on government troops withdrawing. If negotiations break down, the peace process cannot move forward, and the Norwegian government’s initiative cannot succeed.”

On this point, at least, the initiative and Thai-based NGOs are in agreement. Both the KNU and government “have to be on board” for the pilot project to work, Mr Petrie said. More broadly, the initiative is “not sustainable and it’s not possible” without the support of both the government and armed ethnic groups.

While a political settlement between the government and KNU could be years off, Mr Larsen said he had been “impressed” by the will of both sides to “move forward”.

“The parties are going to meet for the next meeting probably in the second half of June and there is a range of issues that the KNU and the government have to sort out,” he said.

“I think [the government is] genuine but they have to move from a genuine will to an ability to deliver. And that goes in terms of monitoring, opening up areas, in the long run when you have agreements to withdraw from areas, to create trust on the ground in these areas. So this is a long process but [in terms of] the willingness and readiness to move I think they’re very clear.”