Engaging local people in the short-term is key to ongoing peace and change.
While considerable focus has been given to Myanmar’s recent Union Peace Conference, not all of it has been positive.
It was called ‘meaningless’ by the United Wa State Army (the largest of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organisations), while Irrawaddy author Bertil Litner wrote off the whole political process as, ‘a total waste of money [that] has created more problems than it has solved.’
However one fascinating outcome, described as a Pandora’s Box by one participant, was debate around the division of the current Union into a federal system based on eight states, or a system based on fourteen constituencies — seven states and seven regions.
The eight states formula would designate each of Myanmar’s dominant ethnic groups a state, and most importantly, grant the majority Bamar ethnic group one state equal in status to the others. Alternatively, the seven states and seven regions model would reflect the status quo.
Both options offer considerable value to their adherents. However, each suggestion overlooks a core aspect of both ceasefire negotiation and political dialogue in Myanmar; that is they represent the express judgement or preferences of the participants, without necessarily considering the broader opinions of the public and civil society.
Accordingly, over 120 NGOs requested that the Union Peace Conference be postponed while fighting continued in Shan and Kachin states.
In Myanmar’s post-ceasefire political landscape, there remains the need for strong interim arrangements at a sub-national level, and, overall, a need to build strong resilient local authorities that are representative of their populations.
Chapter Six of the National Ceasefire Accord (NCA) includes a number of areas of governance under interim arrangements, including ‘projects regarding the health, education and socioeconomic development of civilians’. As such, interim arrangements can be best viewed as establishing interim governance or interim authorities on agreed areas of governance.
The support of interim arrangements builds on two on-going processes. First the continued political education of the population that started prior to last year’s historic vote. This can also leverage important social-political capital towards multi-party democracy, albeit with Myanmar characteristics.
Second, as further consideration is given to the election of local township General Administration Departmental Officers, interim arrangements provide the possibility for greater response to local issues. This would help to address a key aspiration from local civil society organisations to have people in power who understand local contexts and have relationships extending within existing local networks.
As the repeal of ethnic armed organisations occurs, many external actors see interim arrangements as a beachhead for international financial institutions, businesses and international NGOS to deal directly with an untapped population and their undeveloped land.
However, interim arrangements also bring the opportunity to build legitimacy, participation and inclusion of local populations in interim governing authorities.
While the composition of interim authorities are yet to be meaningfully thought through, the potential of interim authorities to engage local populations on key local issues around health and education in a way that promotes local styled governance will go far to promote further awareness of electoral processes and voting outcomes. Meanwhile, a high level of inclusion can help better inform national level dialogue.
If a formal transfer of power under a negotiated federal system is likely to take place in five years from now, strong local sub-units must be supported to handle such authority. Interim authorities provide this potential. A strong and vibrant multi-party democracy, civil society and population would be given important impetus to meaningfully participate in such a scenario.
If Myanmar is to move forward as a united nation, then embedding the local into any federal framework is essential.
Gregory Cathcart is an international development consultant focusing on community perspectives regarding landmine/unexploded ordnance (UXO) related issues in Southeast Asia.