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Time for a Fresh Start for Genuine Peace

By Burma Partnership  •  January 20, 2016

military Irrawaddy 19 jan 2016Between 12-16 January, 2015, the ‘Union Peace Conference’ was held with over 700 representatives of the Burma Government, signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), Members of Parliament, political parties and other invitees in Naypyidaw. This much-heralded event is a continuation of the flawed and exclusionary peace process that the President Thein Sein Government has been pursuing since 2011. The lack of trust that ethnic communities and the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) Government place on this conference is a telling sign of the lack of good-faith from the Government and the Burma Army in pursuing a genuine peace, as well as an overall failure of the peace process. This failure is demonstrated by the continuing military offensives by the Burma Army in ethnic nationality areas and further displacement of local communities, a blatant manifestation of the obvious contradictions to the rhetoric of peace that the current Government and its international backers are espousing.

The dialogue is aimed to be a political dialogue for a sustainable peace. Yet as many of the major players in Burma’s decades-long civil war are not present due to the exclusionary process of the NCA, seen by many as a ‘divide and rule’ policy of the Burma Army, it is difficult to attach any meaningful conclusions to the holding of this event. Indeed, the largest ethnic armed organization (EAO) in Burma, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), did not participate, describing the event as “meaningless.” A key alliance of EAOs, the United Nationalities Federal Council which counts some of the strongest EAOs including the Kachin Independence Army, as members, also declined the invitation to attend, criticizing the “discriminatory” attitude towards certain EAOs. Furthermore, despite making a speech on the first day, NLD leader, Daw Aung Suu Kyi, described the process as merely an “acknowledgement” of the NCA and the real work will commence when the NLD comes into power.

Most tellingly, the communities that have suffered the most from this conflict, represented by civil society organizations (CSOs), also raised their concerns over the lack of inclusiveness and meaningfulness of the process. A statement signed by 126 CSOs articulates that the holding of the Union Peace Conference is “an act of negligence and disregard of the ongoing armed conflicts occurring in Northern Shan State and Kachin State.”

The rejection of the Union Peace Conference, by major EAOs, by civil society, and by the incoming NLD Government is not without reason. On 12 January, 2016, the first day of the Union Peace Conference and also Ta’ang National Revolutionary Day, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army reported attacks on its troops in northern Shan State by the Burma Army. The week before the beginning of the Union Peace Conference, the Burma Army stated that it would “eliminate” the Arakan Army, adding to the displacement of hundreds of villagers at the turn of the year caused by military offensives it was engaged in in Rakhine State.

It is not just the continuing military offensives that cause this distrust. It is the intransigence of the Burma Army to compromise that is blocking a successful peace process and creating major obstacles to a sustainable agreement. At the Union Peace Conference, the Burma Army refused to budge on the issue of the 2008 Constitution, the document that institutionalizes the centralization of power and military control over the country. A familiar stumbling block was Min Aung Hlaing’s call that EAOs must disarm before substantive talks commence; “Bearing arms, we cannot talk about political affairs like democracy and federalism for our Union. That’s why we need to set a timeline to follow an international standard of DDR/SSR [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration/Security Sector Reform] process to solve internal conflicts.” This stance was rejected by ethnic leaders such as Khun Htun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, “I guarantee that will never work if the government doesn’t try to talk with ethnic armed groups first.”

Additionally, the shift from a tripartite dialogue, comprising of the Burma Government, EAOs and political parties, to a dialogue that includes two more actors, the military and Parliament, “weakens the seriousness of the focus upon democracy and ethnic equality issue” according to the aforementioned civil society statement. If the political dialogue was on equal terms, the military should be under the Government.

The reality is that this peace process has failed. It has been rejected by most major EAOs, by the democratic opposition, and by the communities. Armed conflict in Burma over the last 12 months has seen the worst casualties in many years and despite the Union Peace Conference, there are no signs of this abating. It is time for a fresh start in Burma’s peace process, a start that can be initiated by the incoming NLD Government. The peace process must be inclusive of not just all EAOs, but one that ensures meaningful and full involvement of women and ethnic civil society as these two groups most accurately reflect the realities on the ground for those who have suffered through decades of war yet whose voices have been systemically side-lined by the current government. The international community must also swallow their pride and accept that their efforts have been at best misplaced, and fully support an all-inclusive and genuine peace process to start on the road to national reconciliation that is truly meaningful and lasting.

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