The peace process underway in Myanmar is the best opportunity in many decades to address the social, economic and political issues that have long structured state-society and armed conflict. However, there is a risk of growing alienation from the peace process, unless participation is deepened to include conflict-affected communities, civil society and political actors.
Opportunities and constraints
The peace process represents the best opportunity in many decades to begin resolving Myanmar’s complex ethnic and state-society conflicts. Although serious concerns remain regarding the Tatmadaw’s willingness to support the peace agenda, particularly in Kachin and Shan states, communities in many parts of the country are already experiencing the benefits of peace – particularly freedom of movement and reduction in human rights abuses. However, many communities still have serious concerns regarding the peace process, including the unregulated incursion of business interests – including natural resource extraction projects and land-grabbing – into previously inaccessible, conflict-affected areas. Concerns also relate to the exclusion thus far of most local actors from meaningful participation in the peace process. Some activities, such as pilot projects supported by the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), have helped conflict-affected villagers express their concerns and aspirations for the future to the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw, and non-state armed group (NSAG) authorities.
Nevertheless, many civil society actors and political parties express growing resentment at being excluded from the peace process. This is perhaps inevitable. The first phases of the peace process have involved ceasefire negotiations between the armed actors: the Tatmadaw and armed groups. Such discussions are sensitive, and cannot readily be open to other stakeholders. However, recent meetings between the government and NSAGs (through the United Nationalities Federal Council) have seen a commitment to beginning necessary political talks. In the context of this broader peace process, all citizens of Myanmar are stakeholders – and have a right to be involved.
There is little information in the public domain regarding the mechanisms for political talks proposed by the government and UNFC respectively, and as a result there is a widespread anxiety that the process may not be inclusive. This can be problematic, and potentially lead to a backlash of popular discontent.
Ceasefires, past and present
A previous round of ceasefires in Myanmar, in the 1990s, created the space within which civil society networks could re-emerge within and between ethnic nationality communities – in government-controlled areas, in the ceasefire zones, and among conflict-affected and displaced communities in the borderlands. As well as their roles in building “democracy from below”, civil society actors have been involved in service delivery in Myanmar for years. Indeed, during decades of militarised state suppression, the civil society sector inside Myanmar was largely restricted to the delivery of assistance, and local community development activities. In areas of armed conflict, civil society activities have included providing assistance to highly vulnerable communities.
Over the past 18 months, the political narrative regarding ethnic politics in Myanmar has shifted inside the country, as has much donor funding. Many border-based groups have responded creatively, building on their networks and forming alliances with counterparts inside the country, including urban-based actors. However, some border-based groups remain uncomfortable with the pace of change and wary of business and political agendas associated with the peace process.
Both in the borderlands and inside Myanmar, community based organisations have positioned themselves as representatives of conflict-affected communities. However, as the peace process moves forward, and access to conflict-affected areas becomes easier, it is possible to meet directly with vulnerable communities. It is important that those seeking to support the peace process, and assist vulnerable populations in conflict-affected areas, recognise that civil society speaks with many voices – and where possible engage directly with conflict-affected communities.
A particular challenge lies in conceptualising the relationship between government structures and those of NSAGs, and related civil society actors. Many armed opposition groups, and CBOs working in partnership with them, have developed long-established, if chronically under-resourced, structures in the fields of education, health and local administration. Peace talks are yet to address how these non-state governance and service delivery regimes will relate to formal state structures, at the national level as well as the newly significant state level. For many displaced and other communities in the conflict zones, NSAG and related civil society structures and personnel are the only ones they have known, and are perceived as more legitimate and effective than those of the state. It is essential that such individuals and networks enjoy a sense of ownership in the peace process.
New civil society activism
Since the new government took power in 2011, the space for civil society in Myanmar has expanded dramatically – particularly on the part of the urban-based networks. These predominately, but not exclusively Bamar groups have taken a lead in mobilising popular protest around abuses in Myanmar during a period of rapid transition. The focus thus far has been mostly on land-related issues, with demonstrations and other actions organised against land seizures. If the transition underway in Myanmar is to be successful, the government and its development partners need to find ways of responding effectively to concerns raised by communities and civil society actors.
Newly assertive civil society actors have begun to engage with the peace process. Urban groupings, and some ethnic nationality networks, have protested against Tatmadaw offensives in Kachin State, for example, by holding public meetings and undertaking peace marches. Women and young people have been particularly involved in such activities. Nevertheless, civil society actors have not so far focused intensively on peace issues. To the extent that such networks have been engaged, it has mostly been to express discontent regarding the lack of information on the peace process, and concerns regarding underlying business agendas.
A number of NSAGs, including the Karen National Union, New Mon State Party, Chin National Front, Karenni National Progressive Party and Shan State Army-South have in different ways sought to engage their respective communities, through consultations and other encounters. However, such activities have largely focused on ethnic communities in and adjacent to the conflict-affected areas. There has been limited engagement with communities beyond the borderlands – and especially with urban-based and other civil society and political actors.
Among the latter, there is a growing resentment. Ethnic and other independent political parties that contested the 2010 elections did so at great political and personal risk. The situation has improved since late 2010, but we must remember how restricted the political space was just two years ago. The ethnic and other independent parties which contested the elections were not playing on a level playing field – but despite widespread electoral fraud, ethnic political parties did well in the elections, particularly at the state/region level. These parties therefore have some claim to legitimacy in representing their communities. Most see that their aims – greater self-determination for ethnic communities, and representing these groups in the political process – are shared with NSAGs. However, they feel uneasy at the manner in which the government – and by extension, international community backers of the peace process – have welcomed NSAGs as political players via the peace arena. Therefore, ethnic political parties are feeling neglected and alienated from the peace process, excluded from discussions affecting the communities they seek to represent.
The present situation holds numerous opportunities for supporting civil society and political party engagement in the peace process, including: supporting the engagement of Bamar civil society (exposing majority communities to the realities, grievances and aspirations of ethnic nationality groups); engaging sensitively with traditional civil society (building capacity and providing resources where appropriate, while avoiding the tendency to re-configure local realities in line with donors’ values); supporting the agreement between government and NSAGs (in the first instance) of codes of conduct and local monitoring mechanisms; supporting community and civil society participation in ceasefire monitoring; supporting consultations between NSAGs and conflict-affected and other communities. It is also necessary to bring ethnic political parties into the peace process, in recognition of their electoral legitimacy and in order to bridge the divide between Myanmar’s parliaments and NSAGs.
Risks of exclusivity
The danger of not including ethnic civil society and political parties is that Myanmar may encounter a backlash in relation to the peace process. If they do not feel a sense of ownership and participation in the peace process, civil society and political actors – especially ethnic political parties and urban-based civil society – may begin to mobilise to demand their inclusion as stakeholders. This could lead to protests on the part of groups who should be partners in the peace process. There is also a danger that, unless elements of the Bamar majority are exposed to the grievances and aspirations of ethnic communities, any progress on the political front could be undermined by unscrupulous politicians mobilising of the majority community, with alarmist calls to “defend the Union from disintegration”.
As Myanmar approaches the 2015 elections, these concerns are likely to become more pressing as national politics enters a zero-sum mode. Given the demands of the country’s forthcoming chairmanship of ASEAN, followed by the elections, this year (and hopefully, the first part of 2014) represents a window of opportunity. Despite the many problems, there are great possibilities for social and political progress in Myanmar, including in the peace process. However, more needs to be done to engage the broad spectrum of civil society and political actors in the peace process, or these opportunities may be wasted.
Ashley South spent much of the 1990s as a teacher and aid worker on the Thailand-Myanmar border, and since then has worked as an independent writer and consultant, specialising in politics and humanitarian issues in Myanmar and Southeast Asia (most of Mr South’s publications are available at: www.ashleysouth.co.uk). He has worked for the UN in Myanmar, Laos and the Philippines, and for various international and national aid agencies, and academic institutions. Since early 2012, he has been a consultant with the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), which aims to build trust and confidence in – and test – the peace process in Myanmar (for details of MPSI see: http://www.emb-norway.or.th/News_and_events/MPSI/).