A NEW BURMA PEACE PROCESS
By Roland Watson
April 13, 2016
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The National League for Democracy now has legitimate government power. Its agenda will soon turn to resolving the civil war that has plagued Burma for over sixty-five years. To accomplish this, though, it will have to accept some hard truths, and initiate a completely new approach. There was an effort to negotiate peace in the country over the last four years, but which came to nothing. The reasons for the abject failure are obvious.
The peace negotiation was bankrolled by Europe, reportedly to the tune of over thirty million dollars. However, the E.U. took the military dictatorship's side. Much of the money was channeled to the regime's Myanmar Peace Center. Even worse, Europe apparently bought into the dictatorship's propaganda that the country's ethnic armed organizations could be coerced to surrender; or, barring this, defeated in combat.
Europe, astonishingly, ignored the fact that it is the dictatorship which has been wholly responsible for the war, through invading the ethnic homelands and committing crimes against humanity against the civilian population. Both Europe and the dictatorship further underestimated the degree of resolve with which the EAOs would defend their people.
The negotiation "product" was a flawed ceasefire agreement, with only two significant non-regime allied groups. Indeed, this inconsequential result was itself achieved through the offering of inducements, call them what they really are - bribes, to the groups' leaders. For these rewards the leaders satisfied their personal obsession with power, and in the process betrayed their own people and their ethnic nationality brothers.
With the NLD now in charge of the government (some of it, at least), the International Community, starting with Europe, has established a new Joint Peace Fund, this time with over one hundred million dollars. If this money is also not to be wasted, and the people of Burma are finally to escape the depredations of war, some lessons will have to be learned.
Prerequisites for a new negotiation
Certain important facts and conditions must be accepted at the outset, by all parties, if any new negotiation is to have a chance of success. These are its essential prerequisites, as follows:
1. The so-called NCA, which the KNU and the SSA-S signed, must be abandoned - allowed to fade into oblivion. Right now, the Burma Army is attacking the KIA and the TNLA, and it is threatening other non-signatories, notably the SSA-N, to get them to accept the NCA. However, and as should already be clear, this will never work. The BA is perpetuating the conflict to satisfy its own anger and vanity. The NCA is over. It is time to move on.
Furthermore, the BA must stop its attacks! There can be no peace deal without peace!
2. The MPC, thankfully, has been closed. Its officials embezzled Europe's money, and then as a parting gift stole its capital assets. These individuals, and any organizations that they create, must be banned from future negotiations. A new effort needs new people, and who are not beholden to any side.
3. The last two components of the 2014 national census, the ethnic and religious breakdowns, must be released. For any peace negotiation to have a possibility of success, there must be honesty and transparency about the demographics of the people of Burma. Fortunately, this is within the NLD's power, since it controls the Labor, Immigration and Population Ministry. Even though this is one of the ministries Aung San Suu Kyi gave to regime officers, in this case Thein Swe, she - Suu Kyi, must permit Daw Khine Khine Soe, Director of the Population Department, to publish the census results. Everyone can then analyze the results, to judge if they are untampered, and further to make adjustments for the large groups that were not counted, including in Shan, Karen and Arakan States, and among refugees, resettled refugees and exiles, and migrant workers. In fact, the EAOs should refuse to participate in any new peace negotiation until the census results are published.
4. In a similar vein, the EAOs that did not sign the NCA are still designated as illegal organizations. This is rich, since it is the military dictatorship, which stole the 1990 election and which is nothing but a collection of war criminals, that is illegal. Nonetheless, the regime legacy imperils the ability of EAO leaders to participate safely in a negotiation, at least if it is inside Burma. Fortunately, this too is within the NLD's power. Just as it is now changing the laws about protests, which were used to imprison countless activists, it can find a way to end this identification as well so that EAO leaders and members can travel in the country. Indeed, as with the activists, the EAOs are freedom fighters. They should be celebrated, not arrested.
5. A final prerequisite is that the NLD should accept ownership of the new peace process. The negotiation, including its arrangements, cannot be biased. While there are legitimate concerns over the NLD's objectivity, it can be held to account through how the negotiation is conducted. Also, and practically, if the MPC is not going to make the arrangements, someone else is going to have to do it. It's a risk for the NLD, assuredly. The negotiation will be difficult. The military continues to be untrustworthy and insincere. But, as the government, it is rightfully the NLD's job; and, they will only be fulfilling the role that the EAOs have longed for for years. If the new negotiation does not bear fruit, it will no doubt be clear who is to blame.
Peace process objectives
The most important issue of all is the new negotiation's goal. Yet another reason for the NCA's failure is that it was never clear, at least among the participants, what was meant to be achieved. In summary, there are three general possibilities.
The first is simply a ceasefire, meaning on the battlefield. This is the standard usage of the term, in war zones all around the world. Ceasefires demarcate positions for parties in conflict. They typically call for the relocation of troops, and similar code of conduct measures. Through this, they attempt to ensure the safety of local civilians, and which may also include the involvement of independent peacekeepers.
The second approach is to combine this with a political negotiation, addressing the causes of the conflict and the means to their resolution. Of note, though, adding this element exponentially increases the negotiation difficulty. Because of this, there is often a two-step process: Establish a battlefield ceasefire; and, after it has endured a reasonable period, proceed to the political talks.
In complex negotiations involving entire countries rather than just territories, the second approach may be expanded even further, to resolve the underlying causes through altering components of the national design. This could involve many different things, from rewriting the constitution to dissolving the nation into independent states.
Interestingly, some commentators are suggesting for Burma that it might be possible to get around the military's veto over constitutional amendment by incorporating necessary changes into a national peace treaty. This is wishful, naive thinking. If the generals won't amend the Constitution, which unwillingness they have repeated ad-nauseam, they also won't sign any peace treaty that accomplishes the same thing. Putting it on the agenda simply means that this negotiation, too, will fail. The proponents of the idea are effectively saying: We can't achieve a battlefield ceasefire, or a political agreement, so let's try for a complete national makeover, all in one step. (Good luck with that!)
Other than the fact that the dictatorship was intransigent, and that it received Europe's blind faith, the Burma NCA failed because it attempted the second option. Of course, it only did so because the Burma Army refused to implement a battlefield ceasefire.
The NLD, to be astute, should limit the new peace process, initially, to this objective - peace on the ground. That in itself would be a monumental achievement. There is plenty of time to move on to the issues of a unitary versus a federal society, the legitimate role of the military and security sector reform, natural resource sharing, and constitutional amendment or redrafting. Indeed, with a period of real peace, the different parties should be able to discuss Burma's political issues more easily.
Also, and again addressing practical concerns, the NLD needs to create an independent group to organize the future negotiations. As to location, this ideally would be inside Burma, but as long as the EAOs are branded illegal organizations it will still have to be in Chiang Mai. We are years away from having any type of new Panglong Conference and Treaty.
Finally, the new process is also going to have to address the outcome of the first, by which I mean the split that Europe precipitated among the EAOs. There are four parties to the new negotiation, not three: the NLD, the military, the NCA signers, and the intact pro-democracy resistance groups (organized through the UNFC, and which deserves its own share of the Joint Peace Fund). Barring, or until, the leaders of the KNU and the SSA-S are replaced, this split, as in the first negotiation, will make a real nationwide ceasefire much more difficult to achieve. To assuage the resistance groups' fear that they are being cornered, the NLD should reach out to the UNFC, and involve it openly in every organizational step in the new peace process. If the NLD does not do this, the pro-democracy resistance has every reason to believe that the partisanship in the first negotiation has survived, and that they should never sign anything.