Why Aung San Suu Kyi will Struggle to Revive Myanmar’s Stalling Peace Process

Clashes between army troops and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebels have intensified over the past year in several mining townships in Myanmar’s north (Image Source: Paul Vrieze, VOA)

When Aung San Suu Kyi was propelled to high office via a landslide election victory in November 2015, she vowed to make ending Myanmar’s decades-old internal strife a top priority of her government. Yet three years on, the initial outpouring of hope and optimism around the world after the ascent to power of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has been replaced with rising condemnation of the brutal Rohingya crackdown and alleged army abuses in the northern states of Kachin and Shan.

While the quasi-civilian administration led by Suu Kyi has failed to condemn the actions of Myanmar’s still-dominant armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, the former global human rights icon has pushed forward with a government peace initiative designed to end a myriad of long-running ethnic conflicts which have blighted the country’s remote borderlands for seventy years. While talks began under the former military regime, Suu Kyi attended the latest rounds of dialogue held in July and October 2018.

Despite repeated sets of negotiations, the peace process has stalled amid escalating violence on the ground. Suu Kyi’s strategy is centred on persuading more rebel groups to join the existing Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), signed by eight groups the month before her election in 2015. A further two signed in February, yet the country’s most powerful militias are refusing to join the accord while talks remain deadlocked over key security matters and the central issue of devolving political powers.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi break the impasse in Myanmar’s fractured peace process? Or will the continued dominance of the military and mis-trust of the army among ethnic leaders stand in the way of peace?

Myanmar’s decades-old internal ethnic conflicts

Myanmar’s raging civil conflicts date back to before the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.  Prior to independence, in February 1947 ethnic leaders from Chin, Kachin and Shan states signed the Panglong Agreement with Myanmar’s leader at the time, General Aung San; Suu Kyi’s father. The deal promised autonomy and self-determination for ethnic groups after the creation of Burma. Aung San was assassinated by political opponents later that year and his commitment was not honoured by the nation’s post-independence rulers, sparking the formation of ethnic armies set on securing autonomy.

Insurgencies have persisted for much of the past seven decades in the states of Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Mon. A wide array of armed insurgent groups have fought government troops, driven by core grievances centred on the political control of territory, rights for ethnic minorities and access to natural resource revenues. Most fighting has occurred in isolated and inaccessible border areas far from the centre of state power in Naypyidaw. The uprisings have proven resistant to resolution, having persisted through the 26-year dictatorship of Ne Win and successive military regimes which followed. Previous ceasefires have been negotiated with individual armed groups; yet all have been broken and peace has rarely held for long. The most enduring was in Kachin state, where a 1994 ceasefire quelled fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for 17 years until hostilities resumed six years ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempt to reboot the peace process

The government’s approach to conflict resolution widened in 2011 when reformist military ruler Thein Sein initiated a national-level peace dialogue for the first time under army rule. Negotiations led to a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015, just a month before Suu Kyi’s historic election win. Yet only eight of 15 groups involved in discussions put pen to paper. Some of Myanmar’s largest and most influential insurgent groups – including the 10,000-strong KIA and the 25,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) – refused to sign the deal due to the Tatmadaw’s exclusion of smaller allied rebel organizations, such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), from the peace process.

Suu Kyi has sought to revive the peace process through her 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a 1940s initiative led by her father (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

A month later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept to power having secured a high proportion of the ethnic minority vote. Despite being barred from the presidency by a constitutional clause, Suu Kyi, with the title of State Counsellor and as the nation’s de-facto ruler, vowed to pursue a lasting peace settlement.

Under the weight of high expectations, Suu Kyi has since sought to foster continual dialogue through reviving her father’s peace drive of the 1940s through holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences. Yet the military – which maintains decision-making control over internal security matters and for which one-third of parliamentary seats are reserved – has maintained its central role in talks, which are designed to build upon the 2015 NCA deal. Despite two more insurgent groups signing-up in February, progress has been slower than hoped and delays have occurred. Suu Kyi planned to hold Panglong conferences every six months, yet to-date only three have taken place since she took power. Loose agreements have been reached on principles covering politics, economics, the environment and social issues, but the agenda has been vague and core drivers of the conflict have yet to be discussed.

A stalling peace process amid escalating violence on the ground

The three rounds of talks hosted by Suu Kyi so-far, in August 2016, May 2017 and July 2018, have been held against a backdrop of rising violence on the ground and unchecked abuses by the Tatmadaw. In Rakhine state, the army has responded to attacks on border posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants by launching a wide-ranging crackdown on Rohingya villages. The UN and a multitude of human rights organizations have accused troops of burning villages, raping women and deliberately killing civilians. Some have even gone so far as to label the military’s campaign as ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’, while Suu Kyi has faced strong criticism from western leaders for her failure to speak out. Suu Kyi insists the army have only targeted ‘terrorists’ in clearing operations. Over 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to seek refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh since violence erupted in 2017.

Meanwhile in 2018, fighting has intensified in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan, along the border with China. In Kachin, clashes between the government and ethnic rebels have centred on the townships of Hpakant, Injangyang, Sumprabum, Tanaing and Waingmaw, while in excess of 100,000 people have been displaced in the state since 2011. Human rights groups have accused the Tatmadaw of adopting heavy-handed tactics and employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy in conflict-affected regions.

A UN report in March documented ‘credible reports of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence’ at the hands of the army in Kachin. Human Rights Watch has warned of a ‘dire humanitarian situation’ in the state. The Tatmadaw denies all allegations of abuses, and maintains it only targets armed insurgents.

Why is the peace process failing, and can it be revived?

Amid rising violence, the third round of the Panglong initiative in July made little meaningful progress. A group of four powerful non-signatory rebel groups from the north, including the KIA and TNLA, met with Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the summit, yet there is still little sign they are willing to join the NCA. The peace process, in its current form, appears to be stalling: talks have reached an impasse with NCA signatories, while the non-participation of other groups is blocking the path to a nationwide peace.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since a military crackdown began in 2017 in response to a spate of  attacks on border posts (Image Source: Tasnim News Agency)

It will be hard for Suu Kyi to revive the fortunes of the faltering peace process in the current climate. Rebel demands for genuine autonomy and self-determination appear unlikely to be met, despite the government’s stated desire to turn Myanmar into a federal union. With the Tatmadaw still dominant and primarily concerned with preserving the territorial integrity of the state, any attempt by the NLD to cede too much ground to ethnic rebels would not go down well with the generals, and would risk the removal of Suu Kyi from power. Military leaders effectively hold a veto over all decisions made by democratically-elected politicians. The rhetoric of the generals suggests the rebels’ demands will not be met in full. Despite Tatmadaw chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing calling for a ‘brotherly spirit’ to drive the peace process forward, he has also warned against giving too much away to ethnic minorities or local political parties. In July, Hlaing said ‘armed ethnic groups in some regions cannot represent the entire national people of 52 million, and political parties only represent a particular walk of life’. In contrast, he said ‘the people’s Tatmadaw, born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people’. In this context, Suu Kyi’s vision for a federal union with devolved powers is restricted. The army sees itself as the unifying force in Myanmar, and is averse to giving up control over defence and security matters. It is hard to imagine the Tatmadaw agreeing to withdraw its troops from ethnic areas.

A second barrier to peace is the long-standing lack of trust between the communities represented by insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw. A history of alleged army abuses in the form of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual abuse and the use of slave labour will be hard to forget for deeply scarred populations, even in the event of a peace deal. Seven decades of conflict has fermented anger on both sides, with each viewing the other as the enemy. This factor serves to make the peace process fragile, and may rear its head if or when more contentious issues are discussed at a later stage of negotiations.

Future forecast: looking beyond Myanmar’s current political climate

Withstanding international criticism over her handling of the Rohingya situation, away from the global media spotlight Aung San Suu Kyi has made considerable efforts to resolve conflicts outside Rakhine state, making internal peace-making elsewhere a political priority. Yet it appears on the battlefield, the army has different ideas, and things have continued much the same as before. In fact, violence on several fronts has worsened since the NLD’s victory, mainly due to conflict dynamics at the local level.

While Suu Kyi’s personal view on the Rohingya is shrouded in mystery, it is clear that her government is not able to act independently of the Tatmadaw, who still maintain a stranglehold over Myanmar’s politics and security. To what extent Suu Kyi is willingly allowing the army’s abuses to go unchecked, or not opting to speak out for fear of losing power, is unclear. In the domestic political context, it may suit Suu Kyi to remain silent, as many in the Bamar ethnic majority support the crackdown in Rakhine.

Yet in other areas where conflicts are raging, the story is different. Suu Kyi rode to power in 2015 with widespread support from ethnic minority voters, hopeful the NLD-led government would be able to reduce violence in their communities. If the stalling peace process cannot be revived, Suu Kyi risks losing a proportion of this vote at the ballot box in 2020, risking the military once again firming up its grip on power. These complex electoral dynamics and the increasingly volatile events of recent years demonstrate how the situation in Myanmar is far more nuanced than outside interpretations suggest.

Even beyond the present political era of quasi-civilian part-democratic governance, Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies will remain highly resistant to resolution. Rather than vague ceasefires and half-hearted peace initiatives, it will take generational shifts and years of trust-building to lend dialogue a chance.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Challenges to sustainable democracy in Myanmar: internal conflicts and human rights abuses

When Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide election victory in November 2015, the international community celebrated with a sense of optimism. The election of Myanmar’s first civilian-led government in decades signalled the end of authoritarian rule, and ushered in a hopeful new era of democracy. However, with the new parliament still in its infancy, there is a growing realisation of the huge challenges which face Myanmar’s leaders. They must now turn their attention to tackling a legacy of complex ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses, which have harmed the country’s population, economy and international reputation for decades.

Myanmar’s multiple, complex and on-going internal conflicts remain a significant barrier to achieving national unity, and pose a serious threat to the stability of the democratization process. Parts of the country have endured war-like conditions for over 50 years as several regions have experienced fierce fighting between an array of ethnic armed groups and the military. These conflicts have centred on issues such as the control of territory, the desire for extended political rights and greater autonomy, along with gaining access to natural resources.

Prior to last year’s elections, the military-backed government announced a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as a means to end the fighting. However, this was viewed as a largely symbolic and superficial agreement which achieved only limited success. After almost two years of negotiations, only 8 out of more than 25 active armed groups signed the accord. Whilst one of Myanmar’s oldest rebel groups, the Karen National Union (KNU) did sign, many other powerful and influential groups refused. These include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). In the last four years, the UN estimates that over 100,000 people have been internally displaced within the conflict-troubled regions as fighting has intensified, adding to thousands more refugees who have crossed the borders into neighbouring Laos, Thailand and China.

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide majority in November’s parliamentary elections (Image Source: Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Whilst the violence has largely centred on ethnic tensions, there are also significant economic factors. Lack of access to Myanmar’s natural resources in poverty-stricken regions has fuelled inequalities and increased resentment against the ruling elite. For example, in Kachin state, large companies and government officials have reaped the benefits of huge profits from the multi-billion dollar jade trade, whilst the local population remains impoverished. In the last few years fighting has worsened in Kachin and Shan states, with reports of widespread killings, disappearances, rape and forced labour; whilst the government has continued to deny access to humanitarian groups and international observers.

Over the decades, regional tensions have routinely escalated into armed clashes between rebel groups and the military, culminating in a long-standing lack of trust between local populations and the government. This will make any future negotiation attempts more difficult. However, in light of the recent power shift, the NLD government has an opportunity to push-forward a renewed dialogue with disenfranchised groups. In particular, it is important for the NLD to engage with ethnic political parties which lost-out in November’s election, in order to show that minority groups will play an essential part in a more inclusive democratic process going forward.

Another long-standing issue is the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has suffered systematic persecution and discrimination for decades. In November’s elections, the Rohingya were denied voting rights after former military ruler Thein Sein revoked their ID cards, whilst most Muslim candidates were barred from standing for election to parliament. These strict measures highlight a concern that ethnic and religious minorities are deliberately being denied a voice in shaping Myanmar’s future, never mind representation in high office. These exclusionary measures followed years of violence after military operations began in 2012 in Rakhine state – home to an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims. More than 150,000 Rohingyas have fled the country over the last four years, whilst approximately 143,000 others are confined to refugee camps along the border with Thailand.

The latest wave of violence has occurred alongside a worrying rise in religious intolerance, Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments which have appeared to be on the increase in recent years. This marks a further deterioration in the situation of the Rohingya, who have been formally deprived of citizenship since 1982, and continue to face severe restrictions on freedom of movement and access to healthcare, whilst experiencing limited education and employment opportunities. Whilst total figures are impossible to verify, there have been numerous reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings at the hands of the security forces.

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An estimated 150,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since 2012, where they have faced decades of discrimination and denial of full citizenship rights (Image Source: FCO)

A recent report by UK-based human rights group Amnesty International highlights numerous other areas of concern. Firstly, Myanmar still has thousands of political prisoners, after the military authorities have routinely arrested and imprisoned activists for peacefully exercising their rights. In March 2015, police violently dispersed a large student protest in the town of Letpadan, in the Bago region, resulting in more than 100 students being charged with criminal offences. In addition to the threat of imprisonment, activists also claim to have experienced continual harassment and intimidation from the security forces.

Secondly, freedom of expression has been under attack, with the previous government enacting a range of laws aimed at stifling dissent and preventing criticism. Many of the laws are vaguely-worded and open to interpretation, and have often been used to apprehend those intending to protest, through criminalizing activities such as ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘incitement’. Human rights groups and journalists have also been subject to continual surveillance, intimidation and harassment by the authorities.

Thirdly, the report concludes that members of the security forces continue to violate human rights, with almost total impunity for their actions. Official investigations into abuses or corruption are extremely rare and have lacked basic levels of transparency; whilst victims continue to be denied the right to justice, truth and reparations. As a result of the continuing instability there are now around 230,000 internally displaced people in Myanmar, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In addition, hundreds of thousands of refugees now reside outside of the country, reluctant to return in light of continuing militarization, persistent impunity, and the lack of economic prospects.

Despite the on-going conflicts and human rights abuses, it is clear that Myanmar has made huge strides in recent years – largely due to the efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, in addition to a gradual willingness from the military to introduce reforms. Yet it must be recognized that the country’s problems are decades-old and will not be resolved quickly or easily, despite growing international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi to take a tougher stance against human rights abuses. However, the new era of democracy does offer a renewed chance for engagement and dialogue between all parties, which could increase the chances of peace and reconciliation in a fractured society. The social and economic benefits of a lasting-peace would be huge, allowing the country to make significant progress in terms of development and economic growth. However, from a political perspective the rewards may be even greater: resolving Myanmar’s complex internal conflicts and ending decades of human rights abuses, could be the key to ensuring that a lasting, sustainable and inclusive democracy takes hold.