Among myriad fiercely debated issues, three words are obstructing Myanmar’s peace process negotiations: demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration.
Myanmar has been fighting a civil war for more than 68 years, and although many of the Ethnic Armed Organizations—a series of armed rebel factions—have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government, the powerful Kachin Independence Army continues to battle Myanmar’s state military, the Tatmadaw, in the jade-laden North. Moreover, even those groups that have agreed to a temporary truce are far from at peace with the Burmese state.
Speaking anonymously with the HPR, a member of the KIA described the situation: “The Tatmadaw call demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration a trade-off with peace. Even conceptually, this is wrong: peace cannot be traded. Neither can it be given to the other group as if one were superior in deciding such a thing.”
Much rides on the success of the peace process. Myanmar is a country of incredible ethnic diversity, with the majority Bamar group making up two thirds of the population and the remaining one third being comprised of ethnic nationalities, including the Mon, Shan, Kayah, Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, and Chin, who collectively make up Myanmar’s seven states (which were drawn along ethnic lines) and form the basis for the Ethnic Armed Organizations.
Seeds of Distrust
Myanmar is a country that has been forged in the fires of war. Independence hero Aung San founded the Burmese Independence Army, and its armed struggles against the repressive occupation of the British and then the Japanese defined the state’s emergence. It is a country whose history is written in blood and arms, where coercion and violence have been the currency of politics and government since 1962. The ethnic nationalities have felt the pressure of this violence: they have been fighting against the Tatmadaw in the world’s longest-running civil war. This war finds its roots in the arrogance of the British colonial administration. Under British rule, colonialists employed administrative simplifications along territorial and racial lines that created “two Burmas”—the Burman-majority Burma, which was incorporated into the British Raj, and the frontier ethnic nationality regions, which remained under indirect rule.
The British militarized the separation between the “two Burmas” during World War II. In 1941, the “Thakins,” an anticolonial group led by nationalist hero Aung San and Burma’s future first prime minister U Nu, helped the Japanese invade Burma with the hope of deposing the British. The British leveraged ethnic national guerrillas (e.g. the Kachin and the Karen) and exploited racial enmity between Burmans and the minority groups in widespread propaganda praising the “loyal” nationalities and denigrating the “treacherous” Burmans. In the proxy war between Japan and the Allies—fought out between ethnic Burmans and Karen—whole villages were arrested and executed.
As the Burman nationalists realized the Japanese had no intention of giving their country the independence for which they were hoping, they began to collaborate with the British and eventually defeated the Japanese. However, the independence process was not completed until 1948, after which Burma’s state building was left entirely in the hands of ethnic Burmans. And so the independent state that the British had promised the Karen for their loyalty during the war never materialized.
Following the war, the Karen began to organize their armed guerrillas under the Karen National Defense Organization, which started a full-scale insurrection in 1949 against the newly independent but centrally controlled Burman state. That year, the First Kachin Rifles also revolted, and the Shan, Wa, Mon, Arakan and Karen were not far behind.
The Burmese military remained in power throughout the conflict and ruled for 68 years, only giving way to democratic rule very recently. In 2015, the National League of Democracy won by a landslide in the first democratic elections since 1962. And Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s leader, and the NLD are making the peace process a central priority. However, an understandable, but toxic, lack of trust permeates the peace process. The coalitions of ethnic armed groups at the table categorically reject demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration as a path to reconciliation.
Although coercion is no longer the currency of politics in Myanmar, arms are still the currency of sovereignty. The same army that raped, tortured, and burned down entire villages during the civil war is now making DDR a condition for peace—forcing independent militias to give up their arms and potentially be absorbed into the military themselves. Mikael Gravers, an associate professor at Aarhus University who has done extensive research in Karen State, said in an interview with the HPR that whenever he travels “to Karen State and talk[s] to civilians and tell [him] it will take at least 10 years after genuine peace before [they] will get rid of the weapons.” Disarmament, it seems, is an unattractive option in such a trust deficient climate.
“They look upon the weapons [as] their defense and their security.”
While Gravers conceded that some groups would perhaps be more cooperative with the idea of DDR than others, he maintained that others would firmly oppose the idea. Take the Wa for example: “They have modern, highly sophisticated weapons, they control a lot of border trade, especially opium and heroin, and the army has never even attacked the Wa state army.” The incentive for such a group to turn over their arms to the state military is weak at best.
Furthermore, the ethnic groups’ arms do not just protect sovereign
ty; they also safeguard locals’ access to public amenities. For the past 60 years, ethnic armed organizations have not only functioned as independence fighters but have also become de facto providers of public goods. According to the KIA member, they “provide electric power where the Burmese military cannot.” The fact that ethnic armed organizations are already fully integrated into their regional communities makes the idea of reintegration all the more complicated. “We are a functioning government in Kachin state.”
The Karen National Union is a government in all but name. Gravers said of the KNU: “They’re not a political party. They’re not a business organization. They have many departments, and they are a semi–state structure.” In the Brigade 6 area of the Thailand–Myanmar border, they have historically provided education and healthcare. However, the recent ceasefire agreement has seemingly undermined the KNU’s role in the area. “It [is] quite obvious that the army has moved in,” explained Gravers. “They are building administration buildings, schools, clinics—they haven’t staffed them yet but they are preparing this silent conquest.” With DDR still a subject of controversy, the army seems to have gone ahead and implemented some changes according to their own vision of peace. “The ceasefire has [already] weakened [Karen state],” even though no terms of peace have yet been agreed upon.
Indeed, despite the democratic transition and peace talks, there is little to hold the army in check. Gravers reminded us that “Than Shwe [Myanmar’s former military dictator] is still pulling the strings behind the scenes—he is meeting with the government every week to discuss matters, and at a local level the army commanders are the same as they’ve been for years.” With the weak connection that the central government in Nay Pyi Taw has with the outlying states, it is these local commanders that determine government policy on the ground.
A Glimmer of Hope
Demobilization and disarmament are unlikely to be achieved in the near future. Even if ethnic armed organizations sign a peace agreement, arms will remain an undercurrent of their bargaining power. However, there are still waypoints for a viable negotiations process. Ethnic groups have advocated for security sector reforms—“a set of policies, plans, programs and activities that a government undertakes to improve the way it provides safety, security, and justice.” David Dapice, an Ash Center economist currently working on agricultural policy in Myanmar, is optimistic. “You can turn some of the militia into construction workers and pay them good salaries: not shovellers or pickmen, but people with heavy machinery skills who do things like build roads that are badly needed,” he suggested in an interview with the HPR. Dapice also spoke of setting up a joint police force separate from the army as another reform that could enhance security and gradually reintegrate local militias.
Concurrent to peace talks are talks of Myanmar becoming a federal union, which would give states the local autonomy to implement security sector reforms. A federal constitution would address issues of revenue sharing and resource sharing but give states jurisdiction to determine most policies locally. This would likely not only appease ethnic groups who have become accustomed to autonomy but also loosen the military’s current monopoly on power.
If Aung San Suu Kyi can deliver on her promise for democracy in the legislature and at the bargaining table, perhaps Myanmar can rebuild itself with the pen rather than the sword.
Image Source: Wikimedia/Peerapat Wimolrungkarat