In this commentary on Myanmar’s recent progress toward establishing democratic governance and ending decades-long civil war, I will try to look beyond the known facts into the background of Burmese politics that frames, directs and conditions the course of developments, but is also continuously influenced by them. That is why this environment is neither static nor monolithic or heterogeneous. I will pick up some pieces of this dynamic puzzle to better understand what is happening in Myanmar and, more importantly, why it happens as it does.
In the course of four days, from 31 August to 4 September 2016, the government and military of Myanmar held a peace conference with rebel groups over the country’s future political and administrative set-up. The conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw was the first broad based, inclusive of (almost) all stakeholders event dedicated to this issue in nearly seventy years, since gaining the independence in 1948.
The importance of this event is difficult to overestimate. It was the largest and most representative forum bringing together government officials, members of parliament, political party representatives, military officers, and representatives of ethnic armed groups in decades. Its significance is twofold, given that it demonstrated the legitimacy and credibility of the first democratically elected government and set the course toward the implementation of the negotiated peace that shall result in a new, federal political and administrative organisation of the Burmese State. It was not perfect (what is in political realm?), for it did not live up to (rather elevated) expectations of achieving tangible outcomes except for demonstrating commitment, formally launching the process, and offering all the sides an opportunity to share their opinion. But that is already a firm step forward, in a manner that appears to be characteristic of political processes in Myanmar—testing ground and moving from one milestone to the next as conditions allow.
The conditions are ripe for making the move to another milestone toward peace and democracy in Myanmar, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building a momentum, to be ready by this point in time.
This kind of decision making based on ecological rationality (that is when inferences are made through exploiting the structure of information and the environment to arrive at adaptively useful outcomes) shows itself in many instances in Myanmar, including the timing of holding the conference. Many external observes grew impatient over the prolonged negotiations and the delay with holding this landmark event; they missed the point, I am afraid. The conditions must be ripe for making the move toward another milestone, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building momentum, to be ready by this point in time:
— The military have made another step on their ‘roadmap’, by allowing the democratically elected government to take public office; in so doing they retained their power and control of certain decision-making domains (such as defence, police and border control where they continue appointing the ministers and their deputies).
— The government is fresh and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi commands respect internally and internationally and enjoys credibility with majority of population; thus hopes and willingness to cooperate are high for the time being (this is not going to be always like that, because there will be unavoidable delays and failures in addressing the mounting problems that will eventually lead to certain frustration and disillusionment).
— The rebels are exhausted and they realise that they have achieved maximum of what they could have secured through the armed conflict. It is not a secret to either side that violence leads to more violence which only aggravates the situation but does not bring any result in and by itself. Since the signing of National Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 all but three rebel groups in the north have put the arms down.
— This explains why all the rebel groups (even those who did not sign the agreement) agreed to its text last year. And in fact accepting the peace agreement is being kept firmly by the government and military, as a precondition for participating in the follow-up peace- and state-building process. On the other hand, the negotiation process was long enough (it took four years) for all the parties to hold internal consultations and to weigh all the pros and cons. In turn, the military’s powerful commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy signing the agreement in person had demonstrated their commitment.
— And finally, the process has got high level of attention and support from the international community. At the moment it is at its pick, which means strong political backing but also availability of financial and technical aid which are much needed to revitalise the economy and to address Myanmar’s numerous social problems (this should be taken with caution though, first, because of ever important to Myanmar strategic goal of balancing its relations with China, and second, recalling the waste in supply and spending when the country first opened for the external assistance in 2011, after the sanctions imposed back in the 1990’s). The fact that the agreement signing ceremony last year was attended by ambassadors of forty-five countries, the UN and World Bank in presence and co-signed by six international witnesses (among them the most important politically and economically neighbours China and India, along with Japan, Thailand, UN and the European Union) already speaks for itself. This year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the conference, while the former SG Kofi Annan will head a commission for examining the situation with Rohingya Muslims and offering recommendations.
Recognizing the complexity of Burmese society
Any society represents a complex system due to broad variety of societal groups which constitute it and the diversity of their interests and intra-group and inter-group interactions (as stakeholders in an array of issues). Complex systems, as a rule, are characterised by the interaction of their components and therefore the resulting ‘emergent’ properties of the system as a whole cannot be derived from generalized quality of its components but reflect the properties of those numerous and multidimensional interactions between its constituent parts. Those interactions, in turn, tend to constantly change in their dynamics, directions, forms and magnitude. That is why it is so difficult to categorize any society, even when assessed against the criteria of one given category (for example, using political rights and civil liberties for judging the degree of democratic freedom).
Now imagine how complex is society where one-third of population is comprised of ethnic minorities. Moreover, there are more than a hundred of those minorities living together in these territories literally for ages. Add seven decades of most recent violent confrontation between them and the government led by military junta (of ethnic majority)—a civil war resulting in further erosion of social fabric and deeply running mistrust, physical destruction, economic backwardness, poverty, massive scale human rights abuses, hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad and displaced people in-country, and more than one hundred thousand of fighters belonging to a dozen-and-half of armed rebel groups spread across the land (which are linked to each other but do not form a single cohesive entity, thus may act independently).
There cannot be democracy without equality and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations.
There are two processes running simultaneously in Myanmar, since its independence day. One is the process of political transformation (presumably toward democratic governance, but in a localised fashion). Another is civil war between the ethnic majority and minorities. In the shadows of it is taking place another localised violent conflict, driven by religious divides. These processes are intertwined, although may vary independently, and what happens is that only a solution (or rather, a set of solutions) that addresses core issues at the heart of them has a chance to be effective and sustainable. It is impossible to meaningfully achieve one goal without attaining the other: there cannot be a democracy without equality and fundamental human rights and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations.
Understanding the local contexts and institutions
This is a sketchy present-day portrait of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, set within the country’s unique contextual features and underlying institutions. Take just some of them, most prominent ones, and you will see the random events, individuals and groups as parts and parcels of political processes occurring in their natural environment.
The country has a long history of statehood—existed as an independent kingdom, at times strongly centralised, for centuries (since the mid of 11th century until British colonization in the end of 19th century). Therefore, sense of nationalism and pride of own history and traditions, in each ethnic group and nation-wide, runs very deep. Perhaps this is one reason that in spite of violent infighting, almost all the rebel ethnicity centred groups do not seek to secede but strive to have equal rights and autonomy thorough building a federal state within the present borders. They take pride of the fact that Burma did not join the Commonwealth because they ‘refused to accept the British sovereign as head of state’.
On the other hand, the colonial rule not only disrupted the continuity of sovereign rule but also exacerbated and exposed the country’s major social vulnerability by stressing its inter-communal ethnicity based differences. This was recognised at the time of gaining the independence, and political equality was reflected in an agreement of domestic forces. Unfortunately this agreement was not implemented, thus effectively leading to armed conflict between the ruling majority and ethnic minorities.
Religion (Buddhism) has been one of distinctive building blocks of identity in Burma over the course of its long history, and has greatly influenced the individual, group, and inter-community behaviour and relations. However, group identity is not a permanent ‘solid enduring fact’ but rather a ‘situational construct’ which, first, has many layers and, second, evolves as part of the advancement strategy in response to changing circumstances (for example, by changing the hierarchy of its ingredient parts/layers). Therefore the Buddhist identity has not always played a dominant or unifying role in inter-communal relations, especially in the framework of the civil war unfolding.
In addition to ethnic diversity, there is a religious minority of Muslim population living in compact pockets; they are seen as aliens and discriminated against by nationalist Buddhists, at times brutally. In the western state of Rakhine, about hundred and twenty thousand Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps after being driven from their communities four years ago (it is also indicative that no one represented them at the peace conference).
Economic inequality has been another driver of the conflict, since the minorities live in most remote and underdeveloped areas but also have been neglected by the central government for long. Decades of civil war have devastated the country’s resources and destroyed its economy’s productive infrastructure while creating the opportunities for illicit economic activities, especially drug related, thus contributing to the conflict’s sustainability.
The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of community aspirations and a workable mechanism for their relationships.
The change from within
Myanmar has demonstrated that by following its own path it slowly by surely progresses toward the end goal. The goal itself is broadly defined; it is shaped and reshaped along the journey, with multiple intermediary milestones determining the pace, the direction and the current and possible future settlement formats. Its smooth transition from military rule to democratically elected government (even though with the power and special position of military constitutionally guaranteed) took too long in the eyes of many observers, but what is important is that it worked out and already started delivering its first results. Another process, of ending the civil war, has too, entered its maturity phase after many attempts, iterations, and prolonged negotiations.
It well may be that, after decades of dominating mostly grim news Myanmar is about presenting to the world a lesson on how internal differences could be overcome. Whatever comes in the end (both in terms of governance and peace), is going to be a Burmese product, a local model that may not (and most probably because of that won’t) fit into Western or any other models of democratic government and peacemaking or work as a model for replication elsewhere.
I am convinced that the Burmese (and similar) experiences of dealing with their problems deserve to be closely studied and learnt from. I see the success factors of this approach in its domestically-driven energy and localised solutions, built with recognition of political culture, traditions and institutions, with adjustments made to local contexts and, through this interaction, influencing those contexts to allow the change occurring and taking root. The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of its various communities’ needs and aspirations and a workable mechanism to accommodate them together through diverse and respectful relationships.
The country makes cautious steps in progression and there is a long way to go. But one thing is clear today is that they do it their own way in Myanmar, and even if it does not match everyone’s expectations or standards abroad, it may work well for their people. And that’s what matters in the end.
About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan. Being posted in the field (such as office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international projects and missions, he has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.
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