After enduring decades of brutal military dictatorship, the people of multi-ethnic Myanmar finally got their chance to try democracy. In November 2010, the people of Myanmar voted for the first time in twenty years. While the election was an important step toward peace, Myanmar’s military maintains a tight hold on political power, making progress difficult. The international community has supported the democratic transition, but has focused too narrowly on governmental reforms and economic development, while the demands of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are marginalized. The fact remains that disenfranchising ethnic minorities will prolong armed conflict and possibly derail the democratization process. Thus, for Myanmar’s democracy to succeed, the international community must actively promote ethnic minorities.
The ethnic dimension of Myanmar is extremely complex, but the major anti-government players consist of seven groups, each possessing armed rebel forces. Among these dominant groups, the Kachin Independence Organization is yet to sign a ceasefire agreement with the government, and is a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council, the political alliance of ethnic rebel groups. While each ethnic group is distinct from the others, most find common ground in their mutual resistance to centralized rule. The political demands of Myanmar’s ethnic groups revolve around this issue of autonomy and the internal sovereignty they were promised by the Panglong Agreement of 1947, a treaty unifying Burma with several neighboring territories also under British control. The Panglong Agreement was signed in order to more effectively push for independence, but only under the condition of retaining autonomy. Without this agreement, minorities argue, there would be no unification in the first place and minority regions of Myanmar might today be separate and independent states.
The 2010 election renewed ethnic minorities’ hopes for negotiating adequate decentralization, but the winning party–the Union Solidarity and Development Party–is tacitly supported by the military and is dominated by former generals. This new, nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein, also a former general, has initiated several widely praised (yet ineffective) reforms. The so-called civilian government has become a darling of the West, as evidenced by the lifting of most economic sanctions. In 2013, Myanmar’s military was invited as an observer to Cobra Gold, a major, regional military exercise led by the United States.
The warming relationship between the West and Myanmar’s government is based on the promise of reforms, but those reforms have not empowered the country’s ethnic minorities or granted them any meaningful autonomy – both essential conditions for ending armed conflict. However, the government’s actions demonstrate a reluctance to change.
President Thein Sein touted national reconciliation and reform after coming to power in 2011, and his government has engaged with Myanmar’s rebel ethnic groups in over a dozen peace talks. However, the May 2014 attacks and numerous battles against the Kachin Independence Army, the displacement of over 100,000 refugees, and continued military buildup in ethnic areas make ethnic groups and Myanmar analysts alike question the sincerity of the peace negotiations.
The unwillingness of the government to share power with ethnic minorities is reflected in the 2008 constitution. When the constitution was drafted, most armed ethnic groups participated and presented their demands to be incorporated, but ultimately none were included. Now, rebel, ethnic groups and the government are at an impasse. The government insists rebel groups first lay down their arms, then convert to political parties and participate in elections under the framework of the constitution. But rebel groups, such as the Kachin Independence Organization, want political negotiation and constitutional reform before agreeing to a ceasefire. Many Myanmar observers see the current constitution as the mechanism preserving the military’s political power instead of more appropriately devolving power to ethnic groups.
Additionally, the government has wrongly blamed poverty as the driver of insurgency and has pursued economic development ahead of political negotiation, further rankling Myanmar’s ethnic groups. Economic development may benefit government officials, but it will not solve the conflict unless the demands of ethnic minorities are properly addressed.
Unfortunately, Myanmar’s lucrative business in natural resources blinds the international community to ethnic minorities’ grievances. To bolster peace in Myanmar, the international community must step back from rapid economic development and refocus on political negotiation. Otherwise, civil war will continue and the military will remain a powerful actor in Myanmar politics for years to come.
International influence is crucial for democracy to succeed in Myanmar and there are several actions that can facilitate the peace process.
First, the international community should acknowledge rebel groups as legitimate political entities representing their respective ethnic groups. Without explicit support from the international community, rebel groups have no leverage to enter political negotiation.
Second, the international community should not prematurely encourage foreign investment in Myanmar. Instead, investment, engagement with the military (which is blocking the democratic reform), and debt relief should be used as incentive for tangible political reform.
Third, the Myanmar government should be pressured to implement the peace process in good faith, to cease military buildup in ethnic areas and, to stop ongoing military campaigns which could derail the nationwide ceasefire negotiation process.
Fourth, the international community should offer mediation for this delicate stage of the peace process and provide minority groups an assurance of security for participation in political talks.
Fifth, the international community should recognize the importance of providing autonomy to ethnic groups and should pressure the government to implement federalism accordingly.
Sixth, the Myanmar government should be pressured to allow humanitarian aid to be distributed to internally displaced people in Kachin State.
Additionally, the international community should urge the government to amend the 2008 constitution, which both prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015 and enshrines military power in Myanmar politics.
These steps are vital to foster Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, but above all, the international community must not turn away from the people of Myanmar. Without support the conflict will continue, and if the international community does not stand up for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, who will?
Yaw Bawm Mangshang is co-founder of the Nau Shawng Education Network (NSEN) with a goal of cultivating democratic culture through civic education and higher education opportunities for young people. NSEN is based in Myitkyina, Myanmar, where Yaw Bawm worked as director until mid-2012. With a Fulbright Scholarship, he is currently studying for a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].