Prospect of peace, stability in Myanmar
By Nehginpao Kipgen
The year 2011 was a decisive moment in recent Myanmarese (Burmese) political history, after a series of democratic reforms were implemented. The convening of a new parliament marked the end of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the official party of the military junta since 1997, and gave rise to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Significant political developments included the reconciliation between the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military-backed nominal civilian government; successful lobbying for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) 2014 chairmanship; a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and ceasefire agreements with armed ethnic groups.
The year 2012 began with the signing of a ceasefire agreement with the oldest armed ethnic organization in the country, the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army on Jan. 12. The KNU, which began armed operations in 1949, has been the symbol of the ethnic minorities’ movement in the country.
The other important development was the release of political prisoners on Jan. 13, which included prominent democracy activists. The release of political prisoners has been one fundamental demand of Western nations to normalize relations with the pariah state.
A series of democratic reforms in 2011 and its continuation in 2012 give optimism to many political observers and governments around the world. The bigger question now is whether the ongoing trend of reforms can bring a durable peace and stability to the country.
By observing the recent political changes, one can be as optimistic as to suggest that the country is heading toward the path of an “irreversible” democratic transition, as remarked by Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of parliament, to Secretary Clinton on Dec. 1.
The atmosphere of optimism is boosted by the international community’s desire to embrace if Myanmar continues to walk the path of democratization. For over two decades, the U.S. and Great Britain have been two of the fiercest critics of the Myanmar government. However, these two countries were the first Western major powers to send their chief diplomats to visit the reclusive country in more than half a century.
Despite a wave of positive developments, it is premature to conclude that the reform is irreversible. Along this line, it is pertinent to ask what entailed the series of reforms. Are they genuine or superficial? It is evident that different factors have contributed to recent reforms.
The political changes can be attributed to the Myanmarese leadership’s search for legitimacy and recognition. In the midst of domestic and international pressures, the government wanted to build credibility by assuming the role of ASEAN chair in 2014. By doing so, the government plans to improve its international image and eventually convince the Western democracies to lift sanctions.
Recent political changes have also been entailed by developments at the United Nations and the political uprisings in the Arab world. Former military generals, now in civilian garb, were concerned by the possible establishment of a commission of inquiry into suspected crimes against humanity and war crimes which Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, recommended in 2010 and reiterated in 2011.
While the political reconciliation between the NLD and the USDP-led government was crucial, the more significant issue was the government reaching out to armed ethnic groups for political dialogue, which remains the crux of Myanmar’s decades-old political problems.
If democracy alone were the root of Myanmar’s problems, it would have been resolved during the years of the first democratic government under Prime Minister U Nu. Disagreement over federalism or autonomy has been the fundamental problem between the successive central government and the country’s ethnic minorities.
Although a nominal civilian government has been installed, the military still retains the ultimate power. One vivid piece of evidence was a communique from the country’s President Thein Sein to halt a military offensive against the armed Kachin Independence Army on Dec. 10, but the military continues to engage in armed attacks.
The recent changes emerged only after the military had successfully entrenched its power base. The 2008 constitution reserves 25 percent of parliament seats for the military, and the current government is overwhelmingly dominated by former military generals and their cronies. The military will not hesitate to intervene if its power or control of the government is threatened.
Peace and stability does not depend on how many ceasefire agreements have been signed between the government and armed ethnic minority groups, but rather how these agreements will be implemented and sustained. This is contingent upon how much the central government is willing to delegate powers to ethnic territories and the extent to which the minorities are ready to cooperate.
The success of the ongoing reforms will also depend on how the international community reciprocates. The release of prominent political prisoners, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s rejoining electoral process are important for the Western democracies to review their diplomatic relationships with Myanmar. In fact, the U.S. government announced on Jan. 13 that it will resume ambassadorial diplomatic relationship with Myanmar.
The decades-old fundamental problems have been neither the issue of political prisoners nor the confrontation between the NLD and the military; and nor has it been sanctions. It has been the successive central government’s (both civilian and military) reluctance to grant equality of rights to all citizens, and the refusal to grant autonomy to ethnic minorities.
Despite recent positive developments, the democratization process has the probability of either reversing back to military dictatorship or another form of authoritarian regime. However, if there is mutual participation and cooperation, the ongoing democratic reforms have the potential of a successful national reconciliation for all the peoples of Myanmar.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and non-academic analytical articles on the politics of Myanmar and Asia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.