In what is considered one of the world’s longest civil wars, Myanmar may finally be able to turn a page on the ethnic conflict which has burdened the country since its independence. Last month, the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by eight major ethnic rebel groups and government forces. Although the agreement may seem like an important step toward lasting peace, upon closer examination many problems in the conflict, and the ceasefire, will continue to go unresolved.
Over the 67 years since independence, conflict in Myanmar has killed upwards of 200,000 people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and destabilized the region with violence. When the country gained independence from Great Britain after World War II, groups like the Karen National Union and the Communist Part of Burma almost immediately opposed the newly established government. Following a vicious military coup in the early 1960s, ethnic group calls for more self-determination in a federal structure of government were rejected. In 1988, political protests against the ruling socialist regime led to a second military coup, and the military junta, State Law and Order Restoration Council, took control of the government. Upon taking power, they suspended the country’s constitution. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, made large gains against rebels, including the Karen National Liberation Army. In these two decades, the Karen National Liberation Army lost a major stronghold in Manerplaw and saw many towns under its control burned by the Tatmadaw. That offensive helped in displacing over 140,000 citizens to Thai-Burmese border, where many remain in poor living conditions.
In 2008, the government drafted a new constitution to be ratified by a national referendum. The constitution maintained power for the military; 25 percent of all parliamentary seats were reserved for military officers appointed by the commander-in-chief, and the support of more than 75 percent of parliament was required to amend the constitution. The referendum was opposed by Myanmar’s liberal opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. After the vote, a myriad of issues arose regarding voter intimidation and the manipulation of ballots.
The conflict in Myanmar has been especially difficult to resolve because there are not simply two “sides” for which combatants are fighting. Rebels fight for variations of the same brand of ethnic federalism, with each rebel group wanting control over the resources and governance of a state. The Kachin Independence Army, for example, represents the Kachin ethnic group, nearly all of whom are Christians in a country that is heavily Buddhist. The Kachin want political autonomy and ability to claim the rights to resources in the territory they control. The Karenni Army similarly wants independence for the Kayah state, while the Arakan Army represents an oppressed, Muslim minority called the Rohingya. These groups and many others struggle against the government for different reasons, but do not present a particularly united front. The peace process has thus been piecemeal.
In the best-case scenario, the NCA means that the concerns of individual groups will be settled in bilateral talks and not on the battlefield. Formally, the ceasefire agreement indicates acceptance of two demands made by the government: that the rebels “forever remain in the Union” and that they “accept the Three National Causes: non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national sovereignty and perpetuation of national sovereignty.” The ceasefire agreement also includes clauses to promote economic development and to ensure respect for human rights. Amnesty for rebel leaders, promises of promotions in local governance, and concessions on control over economic resources all have been promised in exchange for peace.
The ugly truth of Myanmar’s conflicts is that there can exist excellent business in rebellion. The nation, which was until the 1980s, the world’s largest supplier of heroin, was making excellent progress to curb cultivation of opium, but in the past ten years cultivation has nearly tripled. Rebel ethnic groups like the Wa State Army have deep ties to the drug trade, and many other rebel groups in the Shan State have resisted the NCA. The government specifically demands that groups signing the ceasefire agree to help stop the drug trade, which creates an obvious disincentive for peace where rebel leaders would hurt their own business interests.
More conventionally, rebels also have a large stake in legal natural resource production in their regions. A quick look at the conditions for ceasefire, to which some groups have already agreed, shows just how high a priority natural resource trade is — the National Democratic Alliance Army is demanding official access to mining, coal, and gold exploration and production. It also wants license to export wood, manage its own taxation, and receive food and energy subsidies. Multiple other ethnic groups demand control of their respective regions’ mineral and timber production, and a good many others demand support for corporations to be created to manage these resources. In a country whose economy is so dependent on natural resource exports, both sides seek to control as much of that income as possible.
The economics reveal one fundamental tension involved in settling the disputes: what appears at first to be a massive incentive for peace ends up having complications that actually incentivize resistance. Namely, the chance for rebel groups to institutionalize their business of resource exploitation by allying with the government — though it has the benefits of security and perhaps lower costs — is counterbalanced by competing government interests to control those resources. The ceasefire negotiations then put the rebels on the defensive as they try to protect sources of income that already exist in the status quo. The negotiation process is not an unqualified path to more-secure income; it carries large risks of economic loss. All of the negotiating points about the jade or timber trades, for example, are efforts not to substantively grow the influence of rebel leaders but to maintain what they already have. Regarding natural resources, it is apparent that the demands made for their control are just insurance designed to maintain an economy that already exists and feeds insurgency.
So what motivations do rebel leaders have to pursue peace? For one, agreement to the ceasefire can act as a shield of legitimacy for militants. Consider the Shan State Army South, which agreed to a ceasefire in 2012 separate from the NCA. In exchange for compliance, it received the return of several high-ranking leaders and generals that had been captured, freedom from attacks, and a guarantee that talks would continue despite fighting. To date, there have been more than 100 clashes since the Shan State Army South signed the NCA. The military do not wish to be seen as breaking a ceasefire, and rebels proceed with relative impunity while badgering for more concessions. However, this blade cuts both ways, and rebel leaders blame government forces for remaining belligerent and uncooperative as well; ceasefire is not an unqualified license to fight.
Meanwhile, the president and the military powers-that-be clearly want an end to the conflict that challenges the authority of the state, but the peace that the current constitution would see is one that crushes meaningful dialogue. Any state that wants to pursue real representation and autonomy needs a government that is not designed to give the military de facto control through faux liberalization.
The handful of most difficult rebel groups are now exposed to the concentrated efforts of the Tatmadaw to grind them into submission, or at least drive them to the bargaining table. As Min Zin of Foreign Policy notes, this can be viewed as part of the rich Tatmadaw tradition of dividing and conquering rebel opposition — a convenient way to isolate and hammer down the most obstructionist rebels as others look for short term security.
Indeed, the same Manerplaw offensive mentioned earlier was directly preceded by a refusal, from the hardest-hit groups, to cooperate with the government’s State Law and Order Restoration Council before 1990’s elections. This time around, the military does not appear to be changing its playbook at all. In both cases the government, encouraged to take bold action against rebels in order to rouse public support for important elections, has already made tenuous peace with many groups and isolated a few of the most problematic to be smashed.
As Myanmar heads into a general election in early November, one in which it already appears as if there will be issues of manipulation, the country faces the prospect of a shaky peace. Just because the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which currently controls the government, has patched together what looks like a step in the direction of resolving the conflict, however, does not mean that the country is better off in the long run. It remains a very real possibility that the parties that did agree to the NCA will not see any real progress. The election may entrench the government, in which case the trajectory and nature of reforms would likely not change significantly, although the Tatmadaw might not be inclined to push for peace so vigorously without a looming power struggle. The signatories themselves could see limited gains, while those that didn’t sign are significantly harmed, thereby producing a negative result overall for peace.
The rebels and government should look to accumulated, international wisdom for guidance on how to remove the perverse incentive structure of ceasefires, resist a divide and conquer strategy, and achieve meaningful compromise. Effective nonpartisan monitoring and complaint channels will be especially vital. Only with a proper understanding of how fragile progress has been thus far can they hope to proceed under new leadership.