Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why There’s Less to Burma’s Peace Process Than Meets the Eye

Why There’s Less to Burma’s Peace Process Than Meets the Eye

If you’ve been following the news from Burma over the past two months, you’ll have probably heard encouraging talk of a looming end to the country’s decades-old civil war. According to the headlines, negotiators from the government and ethnic rebel groups have been closing in on the holy grail of a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA), which aims to halt 60 years of ethnic conflict. Lately, though, it’s become painfully apparent that there’s a bit less to the whole story than meets the eye.

In a meeting last week, President Thein Sein urged the leaders of Burma’s political parties to work with him on launching an inclusive national dialogue aimed at creating a lasting basis for peace. The dialogue, which will include representatives from a wide variety of groups and institutions, is supposed to take a place before the general election later this year. The president described the dialogue process as a crucial precondition to reforming the constitution and establishing a federal state. According to the government’s peace roadmap, the conflict parties are supposed to draft a framework for political dialogue within 60 days of official signing of the ceasefire. The dialogue process is supposed to start within another 30 days after that.

The president is clearly eager to achieve a ceasefire agreement — a goal that has consumed enormous amounts of his administration’s energy over the past four years — as soon as possible. It’s important to remember that, even though the point of the NCA is to stop the various sides from killing each other, it’s not supposed to be a comprehensive peace agreement. Even so, reaching a ceasefire would be a major accomplishment for the Burmese president, and it’s clear that he doesn’t have much time in which to make it happen. By early 2016, he’s almost certain to have left office (since there’s little indication that he’s planning to run for a second term), and he’s eager to conclude the NCA and launch the dialogue while he’s still in power.

Yet his strategy raises questions. First of all, is it really feasible to reach the ceasefire agreement before the election? The answer is a qualified “yes,” since an NCA signed in haste will almost necessarily be fragile and incomplete. Second, will the ceasefire agreement necessarily lead to a political dialogue prior to the elections, thus promoting the broader peace-building process? Here the answer is almost certainly “no.”

Several of the major armed groups and the government reached a preliminary agreement on a draft text for the NCA on March 31, but the deal has yet to be signed. (The photo above shows President Thein Sein presiding over the March 31 negotiation.) Delegates of the rebel groups that agreed to the draft, and who have said that they would submit the text to a gathering of the ethnic leaders for final approval in early June, are now saying that they want to amend key sections.

While the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic groups, has been insisting that all armed groups should be included in the NCA, the military has refused to deal with one of the alliance’s members. That exception is the MNDAA, the political organization of the Kokang, who are currently locked in intense combat with the Burmese military in their remote northeastern territory along the border with China. Even though the alliance keeps insisting on an inclusive deal, I suspect that the government can eventually manage to persuade most of the ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA, thus putting the Kokang issue aside temporarily.

And this could lead to a rather ironic situation – namely that the ceasefire might end up being signed at a moment when more people are fighting and dying in Burma’s internal wars than at any other time in recent memory. In the northeast part of the country, the Burmese military is continuing its fight with the Kachin and the Kokang and their allies; in the west, government forces are still clashing with the Arakan ethnic rebels. The Burmese military has a long history of using “divide and rule” tactics against its ethnic rebel enemies; given the current situation, one is tempted to suspect that this is one area where little has changed.

And what about the groups that do sign up for the deal? Here, too, there are a whole series of problems that have to be addressed.

Signing on to the NCA is just the first step in a long and complicated process. Ensuring that the signatories live up to their commitments under the ceasefire is going to be a challenge. Based on past practice in other conflicts, a full-fledged ceasefire agreement should commit each conflict party to establish a military code of conduct dictating how their troops should behave, as well as an independent ceasefire monitoring mechanism to enforce the code. In Burma, though, the parties have not made any corresponding agreements, so there is no real mechanism to prevent backsliding.

Establishing a political dialogue will also require plenty of complicated negotiations. First the various parties have to agree on a group of “inclusive representatives” who will draw up the framework of the dialogue. Then the parties have to figure out who will actually take part in the process.

Another major obstacle on the path to a lasting peace is the Burmese military’s declared “six-point principles.” Its most controversial demand is that the ethnic armed groups must adhere to the 2008 constitution written by the military junta that then ruled the country. The constitution maintains a leading political role for the military, including an effective veto over future amendments. The ethnic groups worry that accepting the constitution could limit their room for maneuver in future negotiation with the government. An insightful report recently published by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute neatly captured the sentiment among the ethnic groups when it noted that “acceptance of the present political system could mean envelopment in a constitutional straitjacket that will make meaningful dialogue impossible.”

At some point the peace process also has to address even more fundamental questions arising from the need to reform Burma’s political institutions. How should a new federal structure allow the regions to share power with the center? What about policies for disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating rebel fighters, as well as for reforming the Burmese military itself? And what can be done to end the broad range of highly destructive economic habits that have emerged during the long years of civil war, such as illegal resource extraction, land grabbing, and a rampant drug trade?

Finally, all the parties involved in the ceasefire also have to figure out how to reconcile the dialogue process with the possibility of a change in the government as a result of the election. (The precise date of the vote has yet to be determined, but right now a date in November looks most likely.) Sources close to the government have told me that the ethnic groups should seize the opportunity to sign the ceasefire agreement and enter the political dialogue before the vote. The implication is that the ethnic groups should seize what’s on offer while they can, since the next government could prove either unpredictable or more hardline. Ashley South, a consultant who has advised some of the ethnic groups, warns that a future government may not prioritize the peace process the same way that the current one does: “Indeed, a future government (especially if led by the [democratic opposition]) is likely to press the ‘reset button’ on political negotiations,” he noted.

Despite all these difficulties, though, it’s important to point out that at least one thing has changed for the better. President Thein Sein and his team deserve credit for creating a culture of dialogue where, until recently, only the principle of confrontation reigned. Today both the Burmese military and the major ethnic rebel groups are constantly being nudged back to the negotiating table by the president and his peace team even as bloody battles continue. The long-standing enemies are still talking. This is to be welcomed — even if the bar seems low to some critics.

So yes, talking is better than shooting. But those involved in the peace process still have plenty of work ahead of them if they want to prevent a return to war.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Real Problem With Myanmar

The Real Problem With Myanmar

The Opinion Pages  | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR 

The Real Problem With Myanmar

Burma Takes a Big Step Backwards

Burma Takes a Big Step Backwards

Earlier this week, the Burmese authorities staged a violent crackdown on unarmed student protesters and their supporters, arresting at least 127 and seriously injuring dozens of others. The latest violence took place after a weeklong standoff between students and police in the town of Letpadan, 90 miles north of Rangoon, Burma’s largest city. It was the second such incident within the space of just a few days. On March 5, pro-government plainclothes thugs charged protesters in Rangoon itself. Burmese civil society groups and international watchdogs are decrying the violence. The U.S. State Department has also condemned the crackdown.
Since January, thousands of students, including high schoolers, have been marching — in some cases for hundreds of miles — from major provincial cities to Rangoon. They’re doing so as part of a protest against Burma’s new national education law, which they believe is explicitly designed to curb academic freedom. After a series of talks with student representatives, the government agreed to amend the controversial law, and a special parliamentary committee is now debating the proposed changes. But the students pulled out of the discussions last week in response to a police blockade of their main protest group in Letpadan. Then the government attacked. In a country where students have played a crucial role in advancing political change — from the independence movement in the early twentieth century to the democracy movement of the late 1980s — the latest brutal crackdown does not bode well for Burma’s political transition.
In the past, the regime has successfully combined harsh violent reactions to dissent with political ploys to weaken the opposition, confuse the public, and defuse international pressure. Perhaps the regime is now studying this page of their old playbook and considering whether to apply it again. If it does, we can expect several rounds of talks between President Thein Sein (or Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing) and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Though such talks are not likely to facilitate a political breakthrough, they could eclipse the headlines of students being beaten and jailed.
Nonetheless, if previous patterns are any indication, Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), will probably swallow the bait again and seize the opportunity to downplay the student movement while advancing her political agenda. “The NLD never supports the use of violence,” she said when asked to comment on the latest violence. “There is nothing special we have to say. The rule of law is for everyone.” Later the NLD joined the general chorus of condemnation, stating that the government’s harsh action against the protestors was “not appropriate in a civilized society.” In fact, both the government and the Suu Kyi-led mainstream opposition view the student protests as an unwelcome challenge.
For the government, the student reform campaign is a conspiracy by radical veteran communists seeking to unseat the regime through confrontation. Late last month, the Ministry of Education circulated a confidential memo among senior university administrators alleging that the education bill the student protesters propose is nothing more than a communist attempt to overthrow “the current democratic system of governance.” For her part, Suu Kyi views the protests as a distraction from her own focus on changing the current military-authored constitution, which contains a number of provisions specifically aimed at preventing her from becoming president. Only by getting rid of these provisions can she hope to be elected to the country’s highest office. In recent speeches and interviews, the Lady has cautioned the students against exerting pressure on parliament about the education bill, while urging the public not to lose sight of the priority of constitutional reform.
It is true that some student leaders hold increasingly strong views and employ increasingly radical tactics. But this is because they have noted the obstructionism, the broken promises, and the delaying tactics of the government since it tabled the education bill early last year. It is true that some veteran activists, who the government alleges are communists, aim to exploit the students for broader purposes (such as regime change). Nonetheless, most student activists remain focused on the goal of educational reform. More importantly, the conspiracy theories fail to address the people’s genuine grievances or offer any viable solutions.
It’s also true that the protests have become a distraction, at least temporarily, from much-needed constitutional reform. But this has far less to do with the students’ demands than with the government’s brutal crackdown and the opposition’s conspicuous inaction. The student movement has gained momentum because the mainstream opposition (above all the NLD) has failed to speak up about injustices ranging from land grabs to ethnic conflict, labor unrest, and, of course, educational reform. It is also possible that the opposition feels intimidated because the student protests mark the first national grassroots movement in 25 years which stands outside its purview.
“The students are the winners” has now become a major slogan on Burmese social media. But the reality is rather more complicated. Ironically, the first winner will probably be Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. Because this latest crackdown calls to mind the military’s past brutalities, people are more likely to cast protest votes against the military-backed ruling party in the next general elections scheduled for later this year. This will give an added boost to the NLD, which already enjoys strong public support.
If more urban protests ensue, however, and if instability intensifies as a result of the military’s latest campaigns against rebellious ethnic regions, the generals could step in to declare a state of emergency and postpone the general elections. The constitution allows the armed forces to sideline parliament and rule the country directly when a state of emergency is declared. The recent military takeovers in Egypt and Thailand are attractive models to Burma’s generals. After the Thai coup, Burmese army chief Min Aung Hlaing visited Bangkok as the first leader from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to meet with the military junta. The Burmese general made a point of praising his Thai counterparts for “doing the right thing.”
Senior Burmese officials have told me in private that there are regular high-level exchanges between two armies. Burmese generals are keen to learn how the Thais managed to pacify their notoriously fractious country, while the Thai army admires Burmese constitution that enshrines the army’s leading role in politics. The officials I interviewed last November told me that senior Burmese officers have also been carefully studying the situation in Egypt with interest as well. One thing’s for sure: In this case, the army will be the real winner.
It’s highly unlikely that the victims of this week’s violence will ever see the perpetrators — above all the minister of internal affairs — brought to account. As usual, the government will set up investigative commissions run by its own officials, but there will be little in the way of substantive follow-up. Senior spokesmen have repeatedly asserted that what happened in Rangoon and in Letpadan was in accordance with the law. Though the government has now released 17 of the detained students, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that any unlawful activity or “attempts to destabilize the country” will be charged and punished. Failing effective disciplinary action by the executive branch of government, it will be left up to parliament, which was quick to unanimously condemn the United States for sanctioning a notorious regime figure, to demand an accounting. Will its members live up to their responsibilities? Will the country’s unreformed judiciary allow attempts by victims to sue their abusers? The answers to these questions will show whether Burma’s embattled political transition has any life left in it at all.
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A New Generation Takes to the Streets in Burma

A New Generation Takes to the Streets in Burma


The fighting peacock rides again. That long-standing symbol of the Burmese student movement, an emblem of resistance to authoritarian rule, once again adorns countless bright red flags held aloft by student activists. Thousands of the students, including high schoolers, are now marching — in some cases for hundreds of miles — from several major provincial cities to Rangoon. They’re protesting against the country’s National Education Law, which was approved by parliament in September 2014 despite objections from student unions and expert networks. The students and their allies view the law as explicitly designed to curb academic freedom.
Students played a crucial role in the Burmese independence movement against British rule in the early twentieth century. Later, in 1988, they even succeeded in toppling the military government (though the generals soon staged a ferocious comeback that kept them in power for another quarter century after that).
For this reason, the significance of the current student campaign goes well beyond education reform. The new student protest movement marks the first national grassroots movement in 25 years that stands outside the established opposition, embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which has been effectively co-opted by the system. While the frustration with the dismal state of Burma’s education system is real enough, the student protests are also reflecting a deeper dissatisfaction with the halting pace of the broader reform process. For this reason it’s quite possible that this new wave of student activism may also signal a major generational shift within the opposition.
The marchers certainly enjoy broad support. Local residents welcome the students when they pass through town, often giving them food. Monasteries provide the students with shelter at night. Local physicians give free medical treatment to marchers who need it, and well-known social service groups in Rangoon, such as the Free Funeral Service Society, have sent ambulances and medical supplies. Teachers living in cities along the route of the march have also embraced the students. In some cases they even give the marchers extra lessons to make up for the work they’ve missed.
The country’s education system, one of the best in the region until the military seized power in 1962, has crumbled under decades of military rule, especially in the aftermath of the student-led pro-democracy in 1988, which was subsequently crushed by the military leaders.
In the period that followed, the military responded to persistent student activism by shutting down many civilian universities, in some cases reopening them in locations far from urban centers to prevent students from staging protests that might gain sympathy among the general public. Until 2011, when the government began its cautious opening of the political system, a mere 1.2 percent of the national budget went to education while defense spending soared to at least 23 percent. That latter figure even excludes a number of special funds drawn from a range of military-backed businesses and other unknown sources. (The junta did not release the budget to public scrutiny for a number of years.)
The current government has pledged to raise the amount spent on education to 5.9 percent of the $19 billion total national budget for fiscal year 2014-15, while reducing the amount spent on defense to 12-13 percent. Yet despite the promises, the current budget allocates some $2.4 billion for defense versus a mere $110 million for education. While generations of civilians suffered under what is now one of the worst education systems in the world, the military and their cronies sent their children to private schools at home and top universities in the region. The ethnic minority populations were especially disadvantaged, since curricula tend to favor the majority Burman ethnicity, in part by prohibiting instruction in minority languages.
According to student leaders and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a network formed in 2012 with representatives from around 200 civil society organizations, religious groups, education professionals and experts, the government’s new education law fails to address fundamental problems. Student unions and NNER have issued a list of 11 demands to lawmakers, calling on them to amend the law to decentralize control, allow the formation of student and teacher unions, reintegrate students who left school for political reasons, and increase educational spending to 20 percent of the national budget. In November, student unions issued a 60-day deadline for the parliament to negotiate amendments of the law. The current protests began when the deadline passed.
Students are calling for a four-way negotiating process, to include student representatives, the NNER, the government, and the parliament. As the student marchers gained momentum, Minister of the President’s Office Aung Min announced the start of a national dialogue with the students on Feb. 1. The government, however, postponed the second meeting until after Feb. 12, and refused to grant equal rights to student representatives. The government then muddied the waters by releasing a statement accusing student protestors of being manipulated by political groups aiming to destabilize the country. This is just the same sort of threat that previous military regimes made before launching crackdowns on protests. Students rejected the threat and have continued their marches to Rangoon amid increasing public support.
So what is the role of mainstream opposition groups in this student struggle? Local veteran student activists and members of the opposition party have been crucial in supporting the marchers. But the leadership seems to have a different view. Though the NLD initially opposed the bill, it has remained silent about the law since its passage. When education expert Dr. Thein Lwin, a temporary member of the NLD central executive committee, attended the national dialogue with the students in his capacity as an NNER member, the NLD issued a statement warning that it could take legal action against him for violating party discipline.
Aung San Suu Kyi declared that Thein Lwin must resign from the party’s central executive committee of the party if he wishes to continue his work on behalf of the NNER. The party then removed him from his position on Feb. 9. Many criticized the party’s handling of Thein Lwin, a British-educated reformer who is one of the very few technocrats in the NLD with exposure to western educational systems. The party runs the risk of playing into the hands of the government, which appears to be getting tougher on the student movement.
Two possible scenarios present themselves. In the short term, the student movement could be weakened by the lack of support from the NLD, which has declined to make any statements warning the government against a crackdown on the protesters. This is particularly worrisome in light of the government’s increasing intolerance of dissent. The authorities could seize upon this by making some sort of partial concession to the students’ demands in order to weaken their movement’s momentum, by using force to disperse the student marchers on their way to Rangoon, or by deploying religious extremists to stage parallel protests (for example about the hot-button issue of extending voting rights to the Burmese Muslims known as Rohingya) to divert attention from the reform movement and to provoke violent and chaotic situation. The government could, of course, even resort to all of these tactics at once. Under these circumstances, the student marchers will have no one to rely on but the international community should the need arise to pressure the government into refraining from violence against the protesters.
Over the longer term, meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that this movement could produce a new generation of Burmese activist leaders — like those who emerged from the student unions during the Independence Movement in the late 1930s. (Intriguingly, those student leaders also arose after the mainstream opposition, consisting of leading Burmese nationalists of the 1920s, had been co-opted by the British colonialists – a situation that’s potentially reminiscent of the current one.) That new generation of student leaders included independence hero Aung San, who once chaired the student union and remains the model for student activists today. (He, of course, is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.)
Many Burmese worry that the current mainstream opposition, represented mainly by the NLD, is failing to capture broader public discontent. If that continues, these flag-waving students could come to represent the future of the opposition sooner than expected. Burma has been there before.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can Burma's Civil Society Find Its Voice Again?

Can Burma's Civil Society Find Its Voice Again?


The Burmese military is staging a comeback. Since the government launched its tentative liberalization process four years ago, the armed forces, the notorious Tatmadaw, have taken a backseat. Though it has members in key roles in all government institutions, it has refrained from fully exercising its coercive and all-encompassing constitutional prerogatives. But now the generals are signaling that they're no longer willing to keep a low profile, and instead hope to exercise the full extent of their power in the country's ethnic regions and in its parliament, in which 25 percent of the seats are reserved for military representatives. The army's Nov. 19 attack on a training facility of the Kachin ethnic rebel group -- which killed 23 cadets -- is a clear case in point. (In the photo above, an activist lights candles at a memorial to the attack's victims on Nov. 24.) At a moment when many Burmese are expressing growing dissatisfaction about the undemocratic nature of the military-imposed constitution, the generals are determined to show that they won't brook any further challenges to their authority. If things continue as they are, it's only a matter of time until the Tatmadaw decides to suppress public protests. The question thus becomes whether Burmese civil society is capable of pushing back.
Unfortunately, Burmese civil society is in limbo. The country's diverse constellation of student unions, human rights organizations, and other citizen-led groups were once known for their resilience in the face of oppression and for their creative ability to connect with each other, with their fellows in exile, and with the international community. These groups rallied behind democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her drive for national reconciliation. Her stunning return to active political life in 2012 with a sweeping electoral victory was possible in part due to the support she received from the grassroots. And earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi called on civil society groups to rally behind her during her constitutional reform campaign -- which eventually lost steam with its ambiguous endgame, weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context.
Since the Lady's political return, the groups that once rallied behind her have found themselves marginalized and unable to play a meaningful role in the country's ongoing political transition, which has assumed a marked top-down nature. Burmese civil society appears to have lost its voice.
There are three cases that clearly demonstrate this demobilization. The first was in November 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi chaired a parliamentary inquiry into police violence against a protesters' camp outside a mining project in northwestern Burma. She failed to hold any officials accountable for that bloody crackdown. Instead, she allowed the project to continue, triggering intense protests from locals and victims. She has refused to criticize the government's renewal of the war in the Kachin region in 2011, which has led to massive human rights abuses, including the rape of displaced Kachin women. The Lady's silence on this matter has alienated her Kachin supporters. Perhaps best known to the international community is Aung San Suu Kyi's silence about rampant anti-Muslim violence which first took place in the west and has since spread throughout the country. 
In all of these cases, Burma's civil society groups looked to the Lady -- their one-time icon and hero -- for ideological, political, and strategic guidance. Unfortunately, she failed them. Perhaps naïvely, she put her trust in the ruling elites and failed to sustain her grassroots bases either at home or abroad. As a result, the partial integration of the opposition into mainstream politics has remained largely symbolic. Civil society groups work hard and make headway on their own individual projects, but few feel that they have been able to make a difference in the country's overall direction.
It wasn't always this way. Burma's civil society organizations were once known for their tenacity and effectiveness. After the military launched a massive crackdown on the democracy movement in 1988, large numbers of these groups were forced into clandestine politics. With basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly severely curtailed, they continued to operate underground. They were often able to combine their covert activity with whatever mainstream political participation was allowed. This led to some impressive results. 
A 2007 protest led by Buddhist monks soon attracted youth groups and many other formerly clandestine organizations, soon evolving into a full-scale uprising known as the "Saffron Revolution." Though suffering a harsh government crackdown, these groups did not wither away. When the devastating Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008, costing over 130,000 lives in the delta region, civic groups made an indispensable comeback to deliver humanitarian support to disaster victims. New volunteer groups proliferated. It was civil society that made up for the military state's criminal negligence toward its own citizens in the aftermath of the cyclone. Despite harassment and repression, civil society proved its resilience and effectiveness in assisting the survivors. 
Moreover, civil society groups joined together to protest against the construction of the Myitsone Dam, a multibillion-dollar Chinese investment that would dam the Irrawaddy River at eight locations with grave environmental and cultural consequences. The new government's partial concession in September 2011, when it agreed to suspend construction of the dam, illustrated the strength of Burmese civil society.
Ironically, then, Burmese civil society -- sidelined and demoralized during a relatively open period -- was once capable of great things, even during the harshest periods of military rule. Will it find its voice in the new Burma?
It's possible that the recent resurgence of the armed forces will prompt civil society groups to regain their strategic focus and their willingness to coordinate their actions. If the military decides once again to project its power on the streets by intimidating or attacking protestors, that might force activists to reconsolidate their defensive capabilities and reclaim ownership of Burma's regime-driven political transition. If not, civil society can expect to remain on the sidelines for years to come.
Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.