A woman votes in Myanmar's 2012 by-election. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

A woman votes in Myanmar’s 2012 by-election. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

2015 Myanmar/Burma Update: how national elections and the peace process in Myanmar may clash in the coming year.

International observers should manage their expectations about elections and peace in Myanmar, says leading expert Professor Mary Callahan.

Speaking at the 2015 Myanmar/Burma Update at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Callahan argued that the coming year will see two key ‘macro processes’ in the country. On one hand will be the first national elections in the country in 25 years. And on the other hand the peace process – and the hope for a National Ceasefire Agreement.

She suggests that the combination of elections and the peace process – in the context of so much other flux – is the making of a ‘perfect storm’. The two processes may be mutually harmful and disappointing, and yet they may also have some unexpected positive consequences.

This caution about a ‘perfect storm’ comes from the fact national elections and the peace process may be in tension.

On one hand, elections are by nature ‘about contestation and polarisation. Winners take all and the losers go home,’ said Callahan. So political parties will likely inflame tensions as they attempt to garner support and undermine the positions of opponents.

On the other hand, a peace process by nature is about ‘building bridges, expanding inclusion, moving away from zero sum politics and trying to develop respect for alternative visions and aspirations,’ she said. In this sense, the process of the peace negotiations is very different to that of elections.

Compounding these tensions, Callahan suggests, is the fact that within the country different actors are more focused on the success of one or other of these ‘macro processes’.

For communities in areas of armed conflict in the east of the country, it is the peace process which is of primary concern. In contrast, in predominately Burmese communities in the centre of the country, the national elections are seen to be far more important.

Meanwhile political parties and armed groups too are interested in particular aspects of the processes, and will seek to position themselves to benefit from changes. International aid agencies are also inherently oriented toward one or the other process as being more important.

And aid agency approaches are often ‘siloed,’ said Callahan; into peace or elections and often seen as technical issues to solve, rather than complex and interconnected macro processes which will evolve in an iterative way.

Overall, Callahan says that the inherent tensions between the two processes mean that they will likely be ‘mutually undermining’ in the coming year and will therefore be ‘disappointing’ for many actors.

The challenge is to manage expectations – both processes of political change and peace processes will ‘take years not months,’ said Callahan.

Tamas Wells is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, an aid consultant and moderator of the Paung Ku Forum, an online discussion site on civil society, aid and development in Myanmar.