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Myanmar makes a new attempt at unity

A peace conference between Myanmar's long-embattled government and ethnic minorities has begun under Aung San Suu Kyi's supervision. Can her history and charisma help overcome decades of civil war and mistrust?

A peace conference between Myanmar’s long-embattled government and ethnic minorities has begun under Aung San Suu Kyi’s supervision. Can her history and charisma help overcome decades of civil war and mistrust?
Civil war has been raging for nearly 70 years in Myanmar; from the moment, not long after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, when its ethnic minorities and political groups first took up arms. No government since has succeeded in producing a country-wide peace.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), which last November rocketed to power through democratic elections under the popular leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, wants to now change that. Peace was one of the NLD’s central campaign promises.

As a first step, it restructured the controversial Myanmar Peace Centre that was established to support the reconciliation process. The Peace Centre has been accused of “insufficient transparency and partisanship,” said political analyst Khin Zaw Win. And he called the cease-fire that it reached last October between the government and only eight of more than two dozen ethnic groups “a meager result.”

The restructured Peace Centre is now led by the NLD with Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi is chairing the five-day peace conference, which started on Wednesday, August 31, in Naypyitaw.

“If Suu Kyi is able to find a common ground between the representatives of ethnic groups, Myanmar’s military and the government, then it would be a historical achievement,” Marco Bünte, an associate at the GIGA Institute for Area Studies and professor at Malaysia’s Monash University, told DW.

Naing Hantha, deputy chairman of an umbrella group representing eleven armed ethnic groups, agrees that the conference is important, but he is not very enthusiastic about the outcome. “We cannot expect a breakthrough, albeit there have never been so many groups involved in the peace process,” he told the DPA news agency.

Eighteen out of 21 ethnic groups are taking part in the UN-backed talks.

‘Unimaginably’ high hurdles

But the hurdles remain enormous, starting with matters of geography and demography. The Burmese, Myanmar’s ethnic majority, live in the center and the coastal regions of the country. The minorities live in along the country’s border region, where valuable resources like wood, jade and ruby can be found. Natural gas and oil lie off the coast in the Bay of Bengal, and a pipeline to China is running through minority-held territory.

Balancing these interests would be tricky, especially given that many of the ethnic groups have been fiercely fighting over resources and profiting from a war economy. They have little incentive then to reach a comprehensive peace agreement.

Another problem regards the mistrust felt among the different groups, which has been deeply embedded by decades-long civil war, political turbulence and military dictatorship. The military is looked upon with a special sense of suspicion.

This is seen particularly with the sensitive issue of disarmament. The military insists on the principle of one state, one army, demanding that the armed ethnic groups give up their weapons before they take their seat at the negotiation table. But given the level of mistrust in Myanmar, Analyst Khin Zaw Win considers the prospect that the ethnic groups will voluntarily hand over their weapons as “unimaginable.”

Paths forward

Still, experts believe that the changed political situation in the country offers some opportunity. For one, Suu Kyi herself has suffered under the military, having spent decades in detention for promoting democracy under the Myanmar’s dictatorship. She also brings charisma and negotiating skill to the table – as well as democratic legitimacy. Ethnic groups may be more inclined then to listen when she tells them, “let’s create something new,” said analyst Marco Bünte.

Sun Kyi’s personal history and qualities though won’t certainly be enough to dissolve concerns, Bünte added. “The ethnic groups know precisely that Suu Kyi is speaking up front, but that the military is standing behind her.” But the military has actively cooperated in the peace process in recent years. “Earlier they wanted a centralized state, but in the meantime they have come to accept the idea of federalism,” Bünte said. “That shows that even the military is ready to learn.”

The leader of the negotiations must first and foremost find out what each group wants out of a federal system. But the groups differ in their opinion, and many lack even a concrete vision. It’s one thing if a group demands to be able to speak their own language and send their children to their own schools. It’s another if they simply call for autonomy, a vague, wide-reaching concept.

Each ethnic group has its own history. Some that live in the highlands have never experienced living under a state, even in the colonial era. “They have been autonomous for their entire history,” said Bünte. “For them, federalism will be equated with dependence, while a distribution of power would be understood as submission.”

The upcoming negotiations are therefore not only about peace but also about founding for the first time a modern state of Myanmar, one that all ethnic groups can identify with. A tall task.

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