Over guns and whisky, a peace process picks up speed

Earlier this month in Myanmar, two events of huge significance took place largely unnoticed outside the immediate region.

On Feb 7, the Shan people celebrated their national day openly for the first time in 20 years. On Feb 20, another ethnic minority, the Chin, openly and officially celebrated Chin national day in the state capital Haka.

Like the Shan, the Chin National Front was once at war with the government. The open celebration was the first in 30 years.

The Shan holiday commemorates the unification of several Shan principalities into a single state in 1947. Sai Leik, a spokesperson for the Yangon-based Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, told the journal The Irrawaddy that in past ceremonies they were not allowed to use the term “Shan National Day” or “Shan State Day”.

“By allowing us to do so, I think it is a chance for our ethnic Shan people to gain fundamental rights.”

The peace process is backed by millions of dollars from the governments of Norway, Australia, Britain and the European Union, Japan’s Nippon Foundation, and other non-government organisations.

President Thein Sein’s negotiating team led by minister U Aung Min and underpinned by a team working out of the Myanmar Peace Centre established last year in Yangon, have managed to sign ceasefire agreements with a range of armed ethnic groups.

Most critically, it signed a ceasefire with old enemy the Karen National Union (KNU) which in 1949 responded to the militant nationalism of General Ne Win by overrunning a large part of northern and central Myanmar and reaching the suburbs of Yangon itself.

So deep was the mistrust in what was reckoned to be the world’s longest running war, that in an early meeting with government delegates, KNU delegates declined to touch the food provided for fear it had been poisoned.

From that to a reception in Yangon in April 2012, and sending a senior leader to encourage peace with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) at a meeting in Ruili, China earlier this month, has been a huge step.

It has also been emotionally wearing for all sides, says professor Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who used to lecture at National University of Singapore and the City University of Hongkong, before returning to Myanmar to work for peace with the non-government organisation Myanmar Egress.

Getting over a bitter past has been a challenge. But the trump card of the current negotiating team is that they are willing to “give face” to armed ethnic groups, allowing them to decide their own policies and also allowing political rights - hence the remarkable breakthrough of ethnic national day celebrations.

Still, the process is complex and sensitive. The government team walks a tightrope between various parties and leaders with their own factional, nationalist and individual agendas - and it has to keep the Tatmadaw on board.

The ethnic leaders also have to navigate the sometimes savage internal politics of their own organisations. Some of the older generation leaders are still “stuck in the 1980s” and have trouble adapting to the new peace drive, says Paul Keenan, a researcher at Chiang Mai University's Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies.

Every word in joint statements matters and is negotiated. Much of what transpired through last year, was confidence building: simply sitting down and talking, eating and drinking together.

Minister U Aung Min, a former general himself, once told a friend: “I can deal with this; all my life I have been dealing with men who have a gun in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other.”

There are several organisations and individuals who remain skeptical of the peace process. After spending almost an entire lifetime fighting the Tatmadaw - the Myanmar army - or lobbying against opaque and implacable military regimes, adjusting to the rapid peace process is itself a challenge.

Some objections include that the current government is stuffed with former generals and is thus much the same as the previous ones; that ceasefires only make it convenient to rape and plunder rich natural resources from the ethnic areas; and that the real goal of the ethnic groups - a federal system - has been sidelined.

But while cautions over investment in natural resource extraction are valid, and political agreements remain in the future, the arguments are rapidly becoming out of date and old paradigms and processes are disintegrating.

China’s prodding, and the support of the Shan and the Karen, coupled with reverses in the battlefield, brought the KIO to the table in Ruili, China earlier this month, and the fighting in Kachin state appears to have stopped.

The KIO has little choice, says Paul Keenan. “One a half years ago there were no refugees in Kachin state, today there are 100,000. Has the KIO leadership put its own political organisation above the people?”

The détente remains fragile of course, but if it can be sustained then it is clear that Myanmar’s peace industry is in full swing, and with elections looming in 2015 the government is in a hurry. The elections will not be credible if large parts of the country are not stable enough to hold them.

After a meeting in Chiang Mai last week with the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), Myanmar Egress president Tin Maung Thann, one of the drivers of the peace process, said there was no precedent in the world in terms of dealing with so many armed ethnic groups - at least 14 major ones - simultaneously.

“There’s no reference, it’s like going into the jungle without a map,” he said.

Reaching a framework agreement for ending the long running conflict in Mindanao in the Philippines took 17 years, he said.

“We only have 34 months.”

nirmal@sph.com.sg