Myanmar President Thein Sein aims to silence the guns of the civil war that devastates the country’s economic potential. However, until the military is under government control, such hopes seem far-fetched.
Myanmar holds the unfortunate record of being home to the world’s longest lasting civil war. Involving many ethnic and political rebel groups, it erupted shortly after independence from the UK in 1948 and continues to this day, leaving behind thousands of casualties, civilian suffering on a massive scale and endemic instability in large parts of the country.
President Thein Sein, a former general-cum-politician, who in 2011 became head of the first quasi-civilian administration in two decades, launched an ambitious peace process that aimed at reaching a final political solution. He has consistently reiterated his belief that a nationwide ceasefire agreement would be concluded by the end of 2013 and that “the guns will go silent everywhere in Myanmar for the very first time in over 60 years.” Yet few observers in Myanmar or abroad share his optimism as the negotiation process has been plagued by setback and postponement, and there has been renewed or intensified violence across the country in recent years.
The situation is most serious in Kachin state, which has seen constant warfare since dialogue between the army (Tatmadaw) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2011, after 17 years of relative peace. The civilian population, mostly ethnic Kachin, has been subject to forced relocation, conscripted labor, torture, rape and extrajudicial killings as government forces have reclaimed territory from rebels, in a war largely overshadowed by the reforms in Naypyidaw. In July and August 2013 new clashes between government and rebel troops were reported in northern Shan state, while small-scale skirmishes have erupted in the Karen state.
However, a new and more sinister development is the outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Rakhine State by the Bay of Bengal was hit in 2012 by large-scale ethnic violence between the majority Rakhine population and the Muslim Rohingyas, an ethnic group officially regarded as illegal Bengali immigrants and thus denied citizenship and frequently persecuted. The communal violence left more than 250 dead and 150,000 internally displaced with the most recent outbreak October 2013, when 5 Rohingyas were lynched near Thandwe. There have also been isolated incidents of anti-Muslim riots in northern and central Myanmar.
Still, there has been real progress in recent years. The administration has signed peace agreements with 14 of the 16 main guerilla groups according to chief government negotiator and leader of Myanmar Peace Center, Aung Min. “In political dialogue, all must be allowed to be included. There are 135 ethnic peoples in Myanmar; they must be included,” he said in August 2013 during a commemoration ceremony of the 1988 protests. “I’d like to mention here that we are prepared to hold political dialogue at all costs.”
While few questions President Sein’s desire to achieve lasting peace in Myanmar, many regard the Tatmadaw as the key obstacle in this process. The generals who ruled the country for more than 20 years retained their institutional autonomy in the 2008 constitution, effectively operating outside the authority of the government. Despite Sein’s insistence that the Tatmadaw will not initiate offences in areas controlled by rebels, they have consistently ignored his request.
“The problem is the Myanmar military, they don’t want to withdraw,” said the guerilla leader Yawd Serk, leader of the powerful Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) in an interview back in September 2013. He claims there have been over 100 armed clashes with the military since his group signed a peace agreement with the government in 2011. “In fact, the army commanders are sending more troops into the contested areas.”
The Shan is of many ethnic groups that for decades have fought for autonomy from the majority Bamar population, which have traditionally dominated the government and military in Myanmar. Shan State is a key economic hot-spot today There are significant natural resources such as jade, a lucrative oil-and-gas pipeline passes through on the way to China, much of it close to contested territory, and the state is the world’s second-largest opium producer after Afghanistan and a large producer of methamphetamine, generating billions in revenue that fuels the guerillas.
The military maintains strong business interests across economic sectors and have become the key actor in this resource-rich country, providing economic incentives that are not always compatible with the government’s political objectives. Serk believes that the economic dimension is paramount for the continued fighting. “They are not prepared to give up land. They are using the ceasefire talks as a form of technical warfare against the ethnic groups. The Tatmadaw is benefiting, but the ethnic people are not getting any benefit.”
As long as the military is not controlled by the government there is little hope the President Sein’s sincerity alone will be able to silence the guns in Myanmar. In a civil war that is remarkably complex, with several dozen armed groups and huge financial gains at stake, there is much room for pessimism and predictions for new skirmishes in the future. But Myanmar has surprised the world in the past. Few believed that the rigged elections in 2010 would lead to any fundamental changes, yet the country liberalized faster than anyone could imagine. The peace process may bring similar surprises.