Playing with Peace in Myanmar

Soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army in northern Karen State  (photo by Kim Jolliffe)

Soldiers from the Karen National Liberation Army in northern Karen State (photo by Kim Jolliffe)

As ceasefires in Myanmar enter their third fragile year, international aid commitments geared towards “peacebuilding” have proliferated, particularly from the West and Japan.

Although aid remains one of the few tools available to these governments, and there are countless implementing agencies keen to carry out programs, little evidence exists on how — or even if — such strategies can really assist the kinds of transformations necessary for peace. Conflict-torn areas can benefit from aid in multiple ways, particularly to support affected populations. But the central proposition that it can and should be used to achieve inherently political agendas in these areas begs far greater scrutiny.

A more realistic and patient approach to engagement in Myanmar’s long-standing civil wars should be sought, for as long as a political solution remains illusive.

Since Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011, the country has seen its most intense period of violence in decades, primarily in the north — where the Myanmar Armed Forces have been fighting with multiple ethnic armed groups. At the same time, however, a series of ceasefires have been achieved in other parts of the country, paving the way for multilateral talks between the government and a core bloc of ethnic armed groups — including those still fighting.

On March 29, both sides announced that a draft document for a nationwide ceasefire accord had been agreed in principle that, if signed, will commit the government to comprehensive political dialogue. Through the dialogue, the coalition of ethnic armed groups aims to push for the establishment of a federal and democratic Union of Myanmar, and significant security sector reform.

In a dramatic turn of events, the announcement came after a week of discussion in which it was agreed that the most contentious issues could be put off until later, for the sake of getting beyond a long-standing impasse. Despite the inherent positive signs of compromise, the shift confirms once again that although the will exists among a large number of leaders to continue negotiations, key differences remain seemingly intractable in the near term. This accentuates fears that the military-dominated government remains unlikely to allow the degree of change being called for, while there is little clarity what will happen after upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, as aid relations between the international community and the Myanmar government have normalized, regions ridden with conflict since the Second World War have overnight become the theater for extensive international interventions. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated by donor countries for projects focused — at least in part — on peacebuilding aims. In 2015, the number of projects implemented with these allocated funds, primarily by international NGOs, will rise significantly.

History of Ethnic Armed Conflict

Myanmar’s ethnic armed conflicts, which have persisted since the country’s independence in 1948, have been fought primarily over access to roles in governance.

Myriad minority nationalist actors have contested the dominance of the majority Burmans for an equal stake in national affairs and greater autonomy in their own minority regions. The response of Burman rulers — particularly since the military took power 1962 — has been to further restrict access to the powers of the state, claiming that strong centralized control is necessary to stop the country from disintegrating. This has inevitably led to a cyclical security dilemma, where attempts by either side to defend their own interests are immediately experienced as an offensive action by the other.

In the most intractable regions, the state has a long history of offering its rivals truces, and providing them with varying combinations of territory, military resources, and economic concessions in return for official subordination. Though multiple designations have been used since the 1950s, these actors now form either border guard forces or People’s Militias. They consist of tens of thousands of troops in total but widely vary in size group-by-group. Some have affiliates who gained seats in the 2010 election, mostly for the military-backed party that currently holds office, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). There also remain dozens of ceasefire groups who have refused to transform, generally foregoing official positions in the government but sometimes maintaining client-like relations with the state.

Although such efforts have reduced open hostilities and consolidated the state’s military dominance across wide swathes of the country, most rural areas in border states remain deeply fragile. Such areas are characterized by overlapping and generally hostile claims to territory by state security forces, local state-backed militias, and opposition groups both actively fighting and holding ceasefires. Some opposition groups hold exclusive control over large territories on borders with China and Thailand, which the government is unable to access.

Meanwhile, even the most institutionally established armed groups tend to suffer from internal factionalism, adding to the complexity of the political geography. New conflicts have continued to rise and fall periodically, the most intense of which are currently in the north of the country between the government and the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

Elsewhere, protracted ceasefires have become ingrained as the state has not been able to achieve decisive victories, nor has it been able to compel other actors to hand over power entirely. This is largely because the original grievances persist, in that non-Burman elites have been deprived of meaningful political or administrative roles in local or national affairs. Furthermore, ceasefire economies have proven highly profitable for key power-holders, often providing some disincentive for openly opposing the state but also discouraging moves towards their disarmament. Even many of the state-sanctioned militias have all but given up on their political aims, but see little benefit to relinquishing power.

Meanwhile, newer ceasefires rest on unclear terms, where some areas of operations have been permitted but the armed forces have avoided clear demarcations of territory and official codes of conduct, leaving areas deeply fragile and communities in constant uncertainty.

As in previous decades, persistent insecurity continues to drive military expansion. In February, the state announced its largest defense budget in history, with around $2.7 billion earmarked for increases in salaries, upgrading of infrastructure, and the procurement of new hardware, including fighter jets. Air units have been used increasingly since 2012 for airstrikes and strafing insurgent positions in Kachin and Shan states. In ceasefire areas in the southeast, air force capabilities have also been expanded, as have the number of infantry facilities, alongside significant improvements to fortifications.

Peacebuilding in Theory

In this context, donor governments hope to bring about peace through the highly bureaucratized practice of committing funds to NGOs and intergovernmental agencies to carry out development projects, often alongside local government and non-government actors.

Dominant in peacebuilding policy and practice globally are the related concepts of “statebuilding” and “peace dividends.” In essence, the statebuilding theory goes, if hostilities can be reduced by bringing conflict actors to the table for talks, aid can be used to strengthen the role of the state as a dominant authority, and to improve its relations with society — particularly among marginalized groups. At the same time, if aid can provide immediate tangible benefits or “peace dividends” to populations and combatants in conflict-affected areas, confidence can be assured that peace is in everyone’s best interests.

These approaches recognize that asymmetrical civil wars are rarely solved holistically through negotiations, since the state has the upper hand militarily and thus is unlikely to submit to demands sought by minor actors through violence. “Peace processes” are therefore typically protracted undertakings that aim to keep antagonists at the table, give respite to all those affected, and provide the time and space for détente.

International aid, therefore, is seen as a useful tool in using this space to restructure institutions and provide material development, in the hope of speeding up this process.

Risks in Practice

However, as research from the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project of Princeton University found, “sending aid into conflict-affected regions can actually worsen violence in some cases.” Indeed, these relatively loose “peacebuilding” theories are yet to be proven effective anywhere in the world. Without much clearer evidence that aid can and should be used to manipulate what are deeply political conflicts, significant risks exist.

Given the complexity of the political landscape, it is extremely hard to predict the broad impact that an influx of vast new resources will have on power dynamics. In areas governed and contested by a complex patchwork of armed actors, and where the only form of state governance has been widespread stationing of infantry for counterinsurgency, very little is known about the right way to implement projects.

Risks include elites from all sides capturing programs for individual and/or political benefits as well as the onset of local disputes over if and how aid should be accepted — particularly given the extreme difficulties in properly gauging the legitimacy of local power-holders in the eyes of populations. Communities in these areas have long struggled with the overlapping and incompatible demands and expectations of rival authorities, some they support and others they mostly fear. Though some small-scale pilot projects have been successful in identifying legitimate local actors and forming partnerships between various sides to conflict, scaling up these programs to accommodate expected large-scale funds will be a much harder task.

The broader danger is that given a long history of the government using economic incentives to buy off revolutionaries, “peace dividend” programs that imply that peace is more about material development than holistic political change risk generating skepticism in the peace process itself.

Such an approach to counterinsurgency was seen most starkly in ceasefires signed in the 1990s that provided economic concessions to quiet ceasefire groups alongside promises for political dialogue with the long-awaited post-junta government. As economic concessions systematically shrank over time, the government heavily militarized the armed groups’ areas and coerced some of the smaller factions into disarmament. To this day, political dialogue has not emerged, and the related economic projects have largely harmed local livelihoods and environments while empowering the armed forces, local warlords, and their cronies.

Thus, a popular narrative has emerged that ceasefires are mostly about personal economic gain for all those holding arms, including the Myanmar Armed Forces.

Today’s ceasefires are increasingly being seen as ploys to reduce hostilities so that the government can extend its leviathan state through military expansion, extract valuable resources, and establish its own administration and Burman-centric education system. For ethnic commanders still holding significant territories, skepticism remains high, particularly among the powerful Kachin Independence Organization, which held a ceasefire between 1994-2011 and saw its popular support diminish while the Myanmar Army slowly encircled it. Conversely, despite the disastrous impact on civilian livelihoods as a result of war, the group’s popularity has surged since conflict recommenced, for it is once again seen as a legitimate revolutionary group rather than a business army. This experience is a major reason for the group’s ongoing reluctance to sign another token “ceasefire” without guarantees for political change that can bring the region greater autonomy and a stake in national affairs.

The use of aid to persuade groups to give up on their nationalist aims therefore risks further driving their fears that the government still lacks the will for genuine peace.

This is of particular risk within the Karen National Union, which initially held the stance that development in its region should only be encouraged once political dialogue had been successful. Although a dominant faction of the group has invested heavily in attempts to bring about political talks and has been entertained by negotiators in the president’s office, full commitment from the government and Myanmar Armed Forces has remained elusive. In the meantime, some powerful and more conservative elements of the KNU have remained deeply mistrustful of the process, and of the state, which has pushed ahead with its own development agenda in their areas with international support while maintaining an aggressively forward military posture.

Meanwhile “statebuilding” approaches run the risk of directly aggravating the precise grievance that generated the conflicts in the first place, by empowering the Burman military-dominated state to push through its own vision of nation-building at the expense of those that contest it. Although lasting peace will indeed depend on the emergence of a functioning state, this cannot be achieved without the political foundations necessary for it to gain legitimacy and to regulate political competition between antagonistic elites. Providing resources and “capacity building” to strengthen the current state, which is based on a constitution that centralizes power and puts military-controlled ministries in charge of subnational administration, will likely have the opposite effect.

In areas that have never been ruled by Burmans, where armed groups have operated as proto-governments, and where local social service and administrative structures have been built around community efforts and local nationalist aspirations, attempts to expand the role of the state have been seen as an intrusion on long-established political societies. Across much wider portions of the country’s north and east, although the government has secured control over towns, roads, and key economic sites it has failed to implement any kind of effective administration throughout mountainous areas in the periphery.

This failure is not for want of the resources and external capacities provided through development: Given the limited tools at the disposal of international actors, most would be wise to lessen expectations, curb their interventions in such areas, and take a more realist approach to engagements in the conflicts.

Toward a More Pragmatic Approach

Ceasefires in some parts of Myanmar, alongside the implementation of a marginally less autocratic political system and notable economic improvements, have brought significant benefits to the lives of conflict-affected populations.

Changes have been rapid as people have experienced significant decreases in human rights abuses while gaining far greater mobility, citizenship rights, and access to information. Grandmothers in some areas have for the first time seen relations warming between long-antagonistic military actors. Armed groups with new ceasefires are also undergoing internal reconfigurations as they reform administration structures and build new partnerships with other groups in their areas. Additionally, the 2015 election could bring further political development to Myanmar’s center — perhaps through partial regime change or simply by building the confidence of current leaders to loosen authoritarian policies.

These multiple transitions are still in motion and, despite positive signs, could still go in numerous directions. External aid actors flocking to Myanmar should therefore take time to let the dust settle, to work on building genuine local relationships, and tread extremely carefully in conflict-affected areas. Particular care ought to be taken with agendas geared explicitly toward manipulating the political situation that few — if any — outsiders could claim to truly understand.

The outlook in new ceasefire areas compares to what happened after the 1994 agreement between the KIO and the military government. Over time, the truce allowed around 80,000 displaced people to return to their homes, others to resettle, and bamboo settlements to evolve into those of wood and brick. Roads, schools, places of worship, and restaurants were built over time, and a new generation grew up in relative stability. However, without a political solution, amid extremely hostile relations and constant militarization, conflict erupted once again in 2011, leading to some of the most destructive violence that the country has seen since the early 1990s. Most of these people are now displaced again as their settlements have been ransacked and left littered with landmines.

A lasting transformation that surpasses fragile truces will depend on political pacts that allow for the conceptualization of a joint vision of the nation and institutions that allow for the sharing of power among nationalist elites. If a broad enough coalition of actors committed to building a stable Myanmar can be created, the task will then be to build an authoritative and responsive state that can successfully counter the vast number of illegitimate forces benefiting from violence and instability. From the perspective of most opposition actors and foreign observers, a federal system of government would the best foundation for such a state.

In the meantime, attempts to merely strengthen the capacity of the current state will further undermine confidence in ceasefires and lead to the augmentation of institutions that are antithetical to lasting peace. Although international actors are currently not in a position to broker a more inclusive political environment from the outside, they must be careful to not to work against it with their own interventions.

Ceasefire areas are certainly in need of certain forms of aid to improve the lives of those who have suffered. Rehabilitation programmes for the displaced and those returning home, as well as more long-term efforts to tackle poverty and health crises, are rightly being designed and implemented even in vulnerable areas. Larger-scale developments such as roads and infrastructure are also underway and — despite carrying significant risks — have already been clearly welcomed in some areas where people have benefited greatly from improved transportation and communication. Programs founded on cooperation between antagonistic authorities, and which work with existing community-level mechanisms for social support, can do a lot to improve confidence in ceasefires and prepare the foundation for stability.

However, these crucial forms of support should not bring about rapid socio-economic changes too quickly in areas where the impact is hard to predict.

In particular, eager attempts to base programs around political objectives (i.e. peacebuilding) where so little is known about the specific power dynamics in a locality pose unnecessary risks to the stability of otherwise slowly improving environments. Given the ineptitude of modern aid instruments to properly monitor and evaluate their impact on conflict, or even politics generally, the results will be largely unpredictable. Even where clear development benefits can be achieved, this must always be balanced against the potential risks of unintended impacts on local power dynamics, or on specific grievances. Most crucially, interventions that explicitly redefine the role of the state in a specific area should be sequenced carefully with the peace process so as to reflect agreements that have been made at the table.

Overall, foreign governments should reassess the potential for aid to create peace in such fragile regions. Instead, diplomatic engagements that enhance the government’s will for democratic, administrative, and security sector reforms, for laws and institutions that protect people’s rights, and for the evolution of a more open access state will be far more useful in building the foundations for peace, however slow.

Continued attempts to commit resources and capacities to such ends without clear government will are likely to produce mixed results and have unintended political impacts. Therefore, foreign governments should take a more realistic and patient approach to engagements in conflict-affected areas, and should be careful when playing with peace.

Kim Jolliffe is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.