Ending Myanmar’s civil war

The relationship between government and ethnic minorities may be the pivotal issue blocking proper reform.

Aung San Suu Kyi may need to step into her father’s shoes to promote peace [Al Jazeera]

Beijing, China – In the past year, Myanmar’s government has implemented a surprising series of liberalising reforms. Facing strong environmental and labour protests by activists and NGOs, President Thein Sein has halted construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam, which would have been one of the largest dams in the world (152m tall) and was projected to supply 3,600 to 6,000MW of electricity, largely to Yunnan Province in China.

In response to similar concerns, Thein Sein also stopped the building of a 4,000MW coal-fired power plant in the new Special Economic Zone, Dawei, where Thailand’s largest construction company, Italian-Thai, is building a deepwater port to support container shipping to compete with Singapore and China. He created a human rights commission that subsequently advocated for the release of the remaining political prisoners in the country.

Then Thein Sein released many of the remaining political prisoners in the country, including comedian Zarganar, and former prime minister Khin Nyunt. International observers, with long entrenched feelings of animosity towards Myanmar’s military rulers, may be feeling somewhat breathless.

Thinking optimistically – and there appears to be cause for optimism – the April by-elections will be truly free and fair, the government will draft sophisticated laws to attract foreign investment while accommodating domestic concerns (and officials have so far very intelligently requested technical assistance from the IMF, Singapore and the Japanese), perform well in its duties as ASEAN chair in 2014, and comply fully with AFTA (the ASEAN Free Trade Area) requirements by 2015. However, there remains a significant issue, a problem that will likely not go away unless properly dealt with.

Myanmar signs ceasefire with ethnic rebels

That problem is the civil war that has been going on and off since Myanmar’s independence from the British in 1948. Myanmar is a country of diverse ethnicities, and the Bamar (after whom the country gets its other name, Burma), Kachins, Karens, Kayahs, Mons, Chins, Shans, Arakans, Mon, Wa and Pa-O are just a few. Many of these ethnic minority groups have armed factions, fighting battles with the military junta, groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army (with a South [SSA-South] and North [SSA-North] division), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Of the more prominent groups, SSA-South, SSA-North, Chin, NMSP and Wa have recently signed ceasefire agreements with the new government. The KIA has not, as of this writing. The government earlier declared that it had signed a ceasefire agreement with the KNU, but recently the KNU has denied it signed such an agreement. More troubling, the ceasefire between SSA-South and the government has likely been destroyed as hostilities recommenced in early February.

KNU Vice-President David Tharckabaw said that the government “wanted to show the world that the longest-running war between the government and a rebel group was over”, but the KNU “want a genuine federal system where the states will have their own autonomy”. The government is optimistic that ceasefire agreements will soon be signed with all armed ethnic groups and the issue will fade, eliminating a major obstacle to Myanmar’s drive to become the next Vietnam in terms of economic success. As always, the actual story is more complicated.

British rule

After the British won three Anglo-Burmese wars, the last being in 1885, Myanmar was called Burma by the British and divided up into the Frontier Areas and Ministerial Burma. The Frontier Areas, the periphery of the country where ethnic minorities were located, was distinct from the centrally located Ministerial Burma, the latter containing Yangon (called Rangoon by the British), the Mon and Rakhine States and the bulk of the Bamar population.

The British ruled Ministerial Burma separately from the Frontier Areas, contributing to a tradition of Western imperialists creating distinctions in conquered countries that led to longstanding armed conflicts post-independence. (To be fair, Myanmar has a rich history of separation and unification, going through several reunifications and frequent warfare among kingdoms long before British rule.)

Divides were not only drawn on ethnic lines; religious distinctions were forged as well. While Buddhism was left relatively unimpeded in Ministerial Burma, missionaries struck out into the Frontier Areas, where they converted many ethnic minorities to Christianity, notably the Karen. Further, ethnic minorities came to respect the British, with many feeling the British presence was a welcome respite from the years of kingdom warfare. The missionaries also provided education to the ethnic minorities, earning the latter’s respect. The British heavily recruited ethnic minorities into the British army. By contrast, Bamar were heavily suspicious of British rule and foreign influences.

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, returned with his Thirty Comrades, his Burma Independence Army (BIA) and the Japanese to oust the British – on the rationale that Asians should unite to fight against Western imperialism and European colonialism – pro-British ethnic minorities were seen as traitors. Former soldiers of the British Army tended to be Karens, and two Karens were stabbed with bayonets in public in front of the BIA headquarters, one allegedly for rape, one for theft, and the bodies were subsequently hacked into small pieces. A BIA unit was sent to subjugate Karens in Papun, imprisoning and massacring the elders, looting and incinerating the villages and molesting women.

The BIA unit occupying Kadaingti announced that the Japanese had licenced them to kill Christians. In Myaungmya, the BIA massacred 152 men, women and children in cold blood, set fire to a priest’s house and burned the priest and the two men who were looking after him. Aung San, horrified at the actions of the BIA, managed reconciliation with some Karen leaders, but the Karens never forgot the bloodshed, fighting the government to this day.

In light of these atrocities, ethnic minorities wanted the British to remain behind long enough for Burma to gain full independence so that the British could develop a constitution that would protect them against the Bamar. Several groups, including the Shan, Karen, Kachin and Chin, wanted separation from the union. It was here that Suu Kyi’s father, perhaps the George Washington of Myanmar – fighting off the British, then returning with the British to fight off the Japanese when the Japanese indicated their similar affinity for imperialist rule – used his substantial charisma and influence to broker a deal with the ethnic minority groups to keep the country from Balkanisation a year before independence.

A historic agreement

On February 12, 1947, General Aung San and 23 signatories from the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups signed the historic Panglong Agreement, which indicated the minorities’ interests in working with the interim government and to agree to the formation of a Union of Myanmar. Four Karen observers attended the conference, along with Mon and Arakanese representatives, but they were considered as part of Ministerial Burma and thus without a proper voice at the table. Other groups, such as the Pa-O, Palaung and Wa, were subsumed under the Shan State. 

However, in reaching the agreement, Aung San made several concessions to the ethnic minority groups, which left unsettled issues of autonomy and rights of minority groups. Even then, the Karen leaders refused to agree, and remained opposed to the elections, engaging in the longest active civil war against the military, lasting 63 years, until signing a ceasefire in January 2012. Most important, Clause 5 of the Panglong Agreement stated: “Full autonomy in internal administration for the Frontier Areas is accepted in principle.”

The spirit of this clause was embodied in the right of secession granted in Myanmar’s first constitution in 1948; only the USSR has had a similar constitutional right. Indeed, the right of secession, which did not vest until ten years after ratification, played a critical role in precipitating the first military takeover (Shans and other ethnic minority groups started voicing their desire to secede around 1957), which eventually led to the permanent instalment of the junta in 1962, which ruled the country through the November 2010 elections.

This discussion is far from being merely academic. This year, the General Secretary of the Shan Democratic Union (SDU), Sai Wansai, wrote in an op-ed for the Shan Herald:

[T]he Panglong Agreement of 1947 was breached by the Burmese military regime in 1962 and also nullified the 1948 Constitution, which formed the basis of the Union of Burma… the union ceased to exist in a formal and legal sense. In other words, there is no more such a political entity called “Union of Burma”

Wansai also pointed out that Thein Sein’s government has inserted non-secession clauses in ceasefire agreements with SSA-South, UWSA, NDAA and DKBA, indication that the Panglong Agreement’s Clause 5 and the right of secession in the 1948 constitution were at the forefront of the new government’s concerns:

The conditions are: not to secede from the Union, [to] agree to non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national unity and perpetuation of national sovereignty, [to] agree to co-operate in joint economic programmes, agree to cooperate in anti-narcotics programmes, formation of political party or to contest elections, accept [the] 2008 constitution and legally amend it as necessary, and [establish] one national armed force.

While Thein Sein has managed to enter into ceasefire agreements with many ethnic minority groups, the issue is one of duration and scope, not of legality. Contractual obligations are likely only a tenuous papering over of brutal histories. Many of these soldiers have been fighting in a civil war for their entire lives. It is what they know.

As Tharckabaw said in 2010: “It’s very difficult to trust people that have been killing, displacing and abusing your people for over 60 years.” He said this year, “We felt that there are positive changes taking place that leave room for cautious optimism. Although it’s more caution than optimism.” The leader of the KIA on January 30, 2012, said that they want a formal “political dialogue” with Thein Sein’s government, not “ceasefire talks”.

Optimistic future?

The people of Myanmar and the international community want peace and prosperity for the country’s people. Nothing would be more desirable. Indeed, perhaps the most effective solution to the civil war issue is to ensure that legal and economic development improves the lives of ethnic minorities in the periphery, many of whom are devastated by poverty, just as such development improves the lives of those in the centre.

The burden falls on the government to continue to show its good faith and good works in improving and liberalising the country and the people. The international community, particularly the US and EU with their sanctions regimes, will have to continue to apply pressure on the government to continue its reforms.

A pivotal year will be 2015, when the all-important full elections take place. President Thein Sein, who has received the endorsement of Senator Mitch McConnell (a co-sponsor of the US sanctions on Myanmar) as a genuine reformer, will likely need to be re-elected, both in the national elections and by the parliament to his current presidential post. His likely successor at the moment, Thura Shwe Mann, recently delivered a reformist speech – welcome news, but there is greater uncertainty to the pace and nature of reforms with him at the helm instead of Thein Sein, not to speak of someone else entirely.

Locals have worried that Thein Sein’s removal from office could destroy the whole reform process, and they worry about reactionaries and conservatives in the government and military who might backlash against his moves in the near future.

Aung San Suu Kyi may need to step into her father’s shoes to promote peace. Acknowledging the secession issue, in 2010 she advocated for a Second Panglong agreement, which ethnic minority groups supported, an intriguing proposal. Deputy Chairman of the Shan Nationals Democratic Party, Sao Saung Cee, said then: “We support her idea to work on a second Panglong. We believe this is the only way a peaceful union in which all people come to respect and love each other can be built in Burma. Everyone in Burma will be happy if she can do it.”

Indeed, Suu Kyi’s role will likely be essential, and many in the country are worried about her well-being, one commenting that he is scared that she “will be killed like Benazir Bhutto” while campaigning, and hoping that her security detail is strong. 

Perhaps, the government is taking notice of the Second Panglong idea: Aung Thaung, leader of the government’s peacemaking group, has announced that a conference similar to the Panglong conference will be held in Naypyitaw and attended by all ethnic groups. This is a hopeful sign: a Second Panglong may eventually be needed in order for all sides to come together and cement the notion in all stakeholders that Myanmar intends to rise in unison to meet the rest of the world.

Michael Lwin is a lecturer at the Peking University School of Transnational Law.  A longer version of the views expressed in this piece, How Aung San Suu Kyi Can Free Burma From Fear, is published in the Columbia Journal of Asian Law.