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BURMA: Third Party Mediation Crucial to Burma’s Peace Talks

By Sai Wansai  • 

Originally appeared in Shan Herald Agency for News

September 6, 2011

It has been a few weeks now, since the 18th August announcement by Naypyitaw inviting “national race armed groups wishing to make peace” to peace talks.

So far, Naypyidaw has used its concerned state governments to contact various armed ethnic groups to make its peace overture known, through letters and also verbal communication.

The positions of the non-Burman ethnic armed groups and the Naypyidaw seem incompatible or one would say “not communicating on the same wave length”.

The heart of the problem is that the insistence of Naypyidaw to negotiate on the basis of 2008 constitution, which the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC) sees as a racial and military supremacy one, is totally unacceptable and instead would like to iron out the political problems through the 1947 Panglong Agreement that had guaranteed autonomy, democracy and human rights for the non-Burman states. These pre-conceived ideas, on both sides, is indeed the most formidable stumbling block to the peace process.

Naypyidaw has flatly rejected the Panglong Agreement and made it known that peace process is only possible within the basis of its self-drawn 2008 Constitution. Other than that, the UNFC proposal of negotiating as a unified political entity, on behalf of the combined ethnic armed groups, have fallen on deaf ears, while Naypyidaw is sticking to its group-wise peace talks proposal.

If this is the situation, the show might have already ended before it even started.

But still, both adversary camps have one thing in common, which is the strategic decision-making to “talk”, rather than “fight”. And actually this is quite a logical stand point, no matter if this conclusion is taken out of sheer good will for the people or to create a softer fall-back position, foreseeing the historical trend, somewhat like “Arab Spring” might soon reach Burma. Either way, the desire of wanting to talk on both camps is a positive starting point, which should be carefully nurtured and endorsed.

What so far, Naypyidaw is doing is a “self-help” negotiation initiative, which has been tried time and again for decades, without success. Unless President Thein Sein is in full control and don’t have to take orders from Senior General Than Shwe, who is said to be calling the shots from behind the scene, there is very little likelihood that he will be transformed into “Burma’s de Klerk”. Frederik Willem de Klerk of South Africa brought apartheid to an end and opened the way for the drafting of a new constitution for the country based on the principle of one person, one vote.

And thus, the possibility of a third party mediation to end the ethnic conflict and as well, to start a process of genuine democratisation process becomes a necessity to keep the engagement alive.

The UN, EU, ASEAN and various international establishments have been urging for years to the successive Burmese military regimes and the semi-military government to embark on a real democratisation process and end the internal armed conflict, without success.

The urging stance should now be transformed into result-oriented participation of the UN and regional organisations, if the deadlock of political settlement is to be broken, which has already lasted for six decades. In other words, the regional and international powers have to use their leverage that the Thein Sein government accept their mediation to end the conflict, once and for all.

As a start, “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar”, formed in 2007, consisting of Australia, Indonesia, Russia, United States, China, Japan, Singapore, Viet Nam, France, Norway, Thailand, India, Portugal and the United Kingdom, should be knocking at Naypyidaw’s door.

ASEAN as a concerned regional power needs to be more active, in pushing the Naypyidaw to accept third party mediation, and shouldn’t be satisfied with being just a talk shop. In short, it should not make an excuse and hide behind the façade of “non-interference” and “territorial integrity”.

The urgency of striking while the iron is hot is now and the need for third party mediation is most crucial, at this point in time. For failing to grasp this opportunity, that is if Thein Sein government is really committed to the strategy of “talk” than “fight”, would derail the peace process and the speedy action leading to third party mediation should be on the said concerned regional and international organisations’ agendas.

Otherwise, Naypyidaw’s self-help peace initiative is doomed to fail for there is no mechanism of give-and-take involved, if 2008 Constitution should be the basis for negotiated settlement. To put it differently, so long as it insists on its self-drawn game plan, no one would turn up to the show, even this might be the only one in town.

From the point of UNFC, involving third party mediator would be a welcomed approach for it has already ask EU representatives, on 9th July,  to mediate a political solution to the decades old armed conflict with the successive Burmese regimes, including the present one, in Bangkok.

True, the disappointment over the UN and EU among the ethnic nationalities is quite understanding, as could be seen in a recent opinion piece in Democratic Voice of Burma, titled, “Burma: Crimes Against The Karen Must End”:

Not only has the EU not supported an Inquiry, it hasn’t even commented on the serious increase in abuses taking place. EU governments instead focus on a speech made four months ago by Thein Sein, the new President of Burma. This week, the dictatorship even got praised for not attacking Aung San Suu Kyi when she travelled out of Rangoon. The EU and UN seem happy to wait and see what the ‘new’ government does, as if there is no urgency, as if women are being not raped every day, villages burned, people used as slaves.

But the UNFC might have reasoned that the desperate need to cling to a faint hope is much more practical than just giving way to disappointment and inaction. The UN and as well EU should not let the non-Burman ethnic nationalities down, in their quest for peace, democracy and rights of self-determination.

As for the Thein Sein government, this has to be translated into “political will”, aside from having a free hand to conduct the political bargaining, without General Than Shwe breathing down his neck; and the acceptance that a fair third party mediator is needed to further the peace process.

In case their mind is made up, the contending parties could choose from “Consultation, Pure Mediation, or Power Mediation” for third party intervention in the peace process.

Fisher and Keashly developed a typology of third-party interventions, which is composed of the following six processes: conciliation, consultation, pure mediation, power mediation, arbitration and peacekeeping. Of these six processes, the following three are more relevant.

  • Consultation – third-party facilitates problem-solving through communication and analysis of the conflict by taking a role of an adviser;
  • Pure Mediation – third-party facilitates a settlement through reasoning, persuasion and suggestion of alternative ways;
  • Power Mediation – while being similar to the case of pure mediation, it also involves the use of leverages or coercion by third-party mediator. This includes both promise of inducement and threat of punishment. (Source: Playing Cat-and-Mouse: Conflict and Third-Party Mediation in Post-Soviet Space – Kristine Barseghyan and Zainiddin Karaev)

It now seems that the ball is in Naypyidaw’s court to further its own peace initiative. Otherwise, the danger of calling off the show before it even started is quite real, which would lead all contending parties to the square one.

The author is General Secretary of the exiled Shan Democratic Union.

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