Plausible Dialogue in Burma

Following the pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks and the violent crackdowns in August and September by the Burmese junta (SPDC), Burma has made headlines in ways it has never before.

According to the latest news, the world should prepare for some kind of transition in Burma. The international community seems to have come to terms with one painful reality – the impossibility of completely eliminating the Burmese military from the equation. As U.S. envoy to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad put it, “The military, as a national institution, has its role to play in the transition and post-transition but it’s very important that a serious dialogue on transition begins and that the international community, regional players, play their roles.”

What seems missing from the current discourse is the role of the armed resistance groups and the interests of the ethnic minorities of Burma. World opinion is demanding a dialogue between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, namely the National League for Democracy (NLD). Burma’s ethnic minorities support such a possible dialogue. But it is simplistic to believe the equation includes only NLD and SPDC.

The questions of democracy, military rule, and the constitutional arrangements for Burma’s ethnic minorities are intrinsically intertwined. Therefore, what is necessary is a “tripartite dialogue” – the SPDC, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, and the ethnic nationalities. To be sure, a call for tripartite dialogue is not a new invention. The UN General Assembly has made this call since 1994. Yet, each of the ethnic groups has its own special set of concerns, so they should not be lumped together in the negotiations. In truth, then, the tripartite dialogue should be better understood as a multipartite dialogue.

Minority Positions

Although the UN continues to recommend tripartite dialogue, there has never been any effort to prepare ethnic minorities as the third party to come on board. Despite the call for tripartite dialogue, every effort made so far, no matter how insignificant, has encouraged only bilateral talks. In October 2002, for example, on his return from a 12-day fact-finding trip to Burma, Sergio Paulo Pinheiro commented that Burma was still far away from the long-awaited tripartite dialogue. Though it was not meant to be discouraging, he added, “that’s the way it is.” Throughout his term, the envoy maintained that the first thing was to “break the deadlock.” No group has contested such an approach.

The regime has claimed ceasefires with 17 or so armed groups, but such agreements are verbal and fragile. Far from acquiring a much-needed peace, those ceasefires have only helped to create puppet armies for the SPDC. Historically prominent groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army (SSA-South), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), to mention a few, are among the remaining ethnic-based forces. An alliance of these ethnic minority groups dates back to 1975 when they formed a National Democratic Front (NDF) with the objective to establish a federal union in which ethnic equality and right to self-determination are fully recognized. While military cooperation among these groups is impractical because of distance and the Burmese regime’s military dominance over their territories, the formation of the NDF nevertheless brings the minority groups together and minimizes divisions and tensions among them.

At present, a more inclusive and politically significant group like the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) best represents the voice and position of ethnic minorities in Burma. It is made up of political parties, groups, armed organizations as well as women’s networks and youth organizations. The ENC should be viewed as a corresponding partner for the United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD), an umbrella organization of the non-Burman nationalities formed in 1988 to participate in the tripartite dialogue. Especially while the UNLD has been effectively and severely paralyzed by the regime, the ENC is a force to reckon with in any tripartite dialogue.

Undoubtedly, each group will have to discuss its specific needs and grievances with the government in power. For example, while the ethnic minorities fundamentally agree to the establishment of the federal union of Burma, each group wants to negotiate what powers will be entrusted to the federal government and what powers would remain with the states. Similarly, they would like to be able to negotiate with the bordering states to demarcate their respective states constitutionally. While autonomy to protect, preserve, and promote local cultures and traditions including languages is a common desire, each state would like to implement these protections according to their right to self-determination. They want assurance that they will never be forced into a melting pot again. Nevertheless, the basis principles on which these groups have built their alliance, their commitment to negotiations, and their willingness to compromise are far more functionally realistic than one would imagine.

Democratic Challenge

The current effort by the UN envoy and members of the UN Security Council for dialogue between the ruling junta and NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi is undoubtedly plausible, but plausible only if it leads to subsequent dialogues that are more inclusive. Otherwise, the continuation of the vicious circle of internal armed conflict seems likely. We should learn a lesson from October 2000 “secret talks” exclusively between NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi and SPDC. Any resumption of such talks would be unacceptable.

While the UN has called for tripartite dialogue, others believe that the only acceptable solution has been the absolute transfer of power to the NLD, which won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections. NLD resolutions, declarations, and statements have all supported this transfer of power. Several U.S. statements follow suit. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, for instance, begins: “The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has failed to transfer power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) whose parliamentarians won an overwhelming victory in the 1990 elections in Burma.” As a result, the quest for an answer to Burma’s problem has been deadlocked for years because of such nonnegotiable positions.

Now that the international community is again pursuing dialogue, ethnic minorities and the armed resistance groups still remain absent in the current equation. The numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons serve as effective political weapons to discredit the ruthless regime, yet there is no mention of the ongoing war against minorities in the current analysis of the political crisis.

Burma’s problems cannot simply be solved with the arrival of democracy. If ethnic minorities have not had a place at the bargaining table before the fact, Burma’s new democracy will not likely protect them after the fact. Another emerging theory, then, is that ethnic minorities are either on their own or they must face two forces in the country – SPDC plus NLD. That would be a tragic ending to the long and sad story of Burma.

May Oo is a former Karen refugee from Burma, a graduate of San Francisco State University, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). She is currently a Ph.D student in law and social science at Indiana University School of Law and a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies.