Burma’s peace process on the brink?
25 July 2014
Ceasefire capitalism undermines peace in Karen State.
In early June leaders from the Karen National Union (KNU) met with President Thein Sein and Burma’s armed forces Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to discuss the country’s ongoing peace process. The oft-discussed ’growing friendship’ between Naypyidaw and the KNU – Burma’s oldest ethnonationalist insurgency movement that long fought for secession – still puzzles foreign and domestic observers, many of whom were taken by surprise when both parties agreed to a ceasefire in early 2012.
Since then, Burma’s new semi-civilian rulers and a seemingly pragmatic KNU leadership have been deluged with praise for championing a peace process that, in the wake of democratic reforms, was expected to make natural progress. Yet shortly after the latest round of handshakes, soldiers from both sides reportedly clashed on 13 and 14 June in Huaypha. What could be interpreted as an accident or misunderstanding (both sides blame the other for initiating hostilities) was, however, the predictable result of a deeply flawed peace process that has been driven by elite business interests rather than by a desire to address the root causes of a conflict that is more than six decades old.
The current situation in Karen State mirrors the pitfalls of a 1994 armistice between the Junta and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). Despite its eventual collapse in 2011, observers of the 17-year-long ceasefire noted a remarkable rapprochement between the erstwhile foes that resulted in a relationship of pragmatic cooperation in exploiting the area’s vast natural riches, which include jade, gold and teak. Ostensible stability, moreover, enabled neighbouring China to construct large hydropower dams as well as gas and oil pipelines in order to develop its landlocked Yunnan province. Since the breakdown of the ceasefire in 2011, fierce fighting has displaced more than 100,000 civilians in the country’s far north.
General Baw Kyaw Heh has consistently warned that the discussions between the current leadership and Naypyidaw focus too much on business and economic development to the detriment of ordinary Karen who suffer from the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.
The spoils of peace
During the years in which the ceasefire was observed, elites of both sides negotiated business deals behind closed doors that primarily enriched themselves. At the same time, Burma’s junta tabooed any discussion of the root causes of conflict, namely, socio-economic marginalisation, political discrimination against minorities and widespread human rights abuses. This situation – which one observer referred to as ’ceasefire capitalism’ – negatively affected the legitimacy of the insurgents among local communities. It also gave rise to a new faction that was disenchanted with the old guard’s corrupt dealings and was much less willing to compromise on political demands. Now led by young officers, the KIO’s ethnonationalist agenda and revolutionary spirit has once again come to the fore. Similar developments can be witnessed occurring within the KNU, whose new leadership is remarkably secretive about the actual issues being discussed with the government. Many Karen civilians, as well as some KNU leaders themselves, suspect this ceasefire process to be driven primarily by business interests.
According to reports, private business activities – particularly in natural resource exploitation – as well as the construction of large infrastructure projects have been the only substantial economic developments in Karen State since the end of open hostilities. These, however, contribute little to the betterment of local Karen livelihoods. On the contrary, they are often accompanied by land grabs, displacement, environmental degradation and increased militarisation. It is, hence, not surprising that many KNU members are growing increasingly disillusioned with the peace process and fear that the revolutionary goals they have been fighting for are being eroded by powerful business interests. Some KNU leaders are indeed wary of losing legitimacy among their rank and file and are concerned at the declining support of local Karen communities on which the movement still depends.
A close look at the dynamics of the peace process reveals that the KNU’s ’growing friendship’ with Naypyidaw only encompasses a particular rebel faction that assumed official leadership during ceasefire negotiations. While this faction commands key positions in the group’s power fabric, its primacy has been challenged. The movement’s northern brigades in particular regard the ceasefire as inherently flawed. One of their representatives, General Baw Kyaw Heh, has consistently warned that the discussions between the current leadership and Naypyidaw focus too much on business and economic development to the detriment of ordinary Karen who suffer from the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Some observers have already warned of the split within the KNU and a potential ’balkanisation’ of Karen State.
Against this background it is no coincidence that the Burmese Army has continued to reinforce its troops and has fortified military compounds in northern Karen State. The reported stockpiling of artillery shells and the construction of helicopter landing pads in these areas hints at a forthcoming offensive against what are perceived as ’renegade’ elements of the KNU. This, however, is a dangerous game of brinkmanship that could spark a wider civil war on an unprecedented scale. While the military strength of the KNU’s southern brigades are only a shadow of their once mighty selves, the movement’s northern brigades are well-organised, enjoy overwhelming support among local communities, and are situated in one of the most inaccessible and remote jungles of Burma.
A renewed military offensive would not only result in an entrenched guerrilla war without winners; it would also unite the KNU’s northern brigades with the KIO and their allies who are battling the Burmese Army in the country’s north. These ideologically aligned factions already cooperate closely in an alliance that seeks to establish a federal minority army and is working on a draft constitution. Burma’s government and pragmatic rebel leaders are attempting to sideline these factions by portraying them as hardliners and warmongers. Yet their demand for genuine political dialogue enjoys vast support among ethnic minority communities, most of whom have yet to see tangible benefits from long-lasting ceasefire agreements, besides an end to fighting.
In order to prevent a breakdown of Burma’s much-praised peace process, Naypyidaw urgently needs to rethink its dated ’pacification’ strategies. Instead of brute military force and co-opting rebel leaders with business concessions, a robust discussion on longstanding political grievances is due. Such negotiations need to encompass the topics the regime has hitherto shied away from, including a federal system that grants political and cultural autonomy to ethnic minority regions, security sector reform that subjects the army to civilian control, the codification of land rights and inclusive approaches to economic development. Only then will there be a chance for solving the world’s longest ongoing civil war.
~ David Brenner is a researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).