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Can Suu Kyi’s NLD resolve ethnic issues in Myanmar?


Nizika Sorokhaibam
research intern, Cdps

Just before the national elections in the end of 2015, the military government of President U Thein Sein concluded a partial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with a number of ethnic insurgent groups in Myanmar. The groups which entered the truce included the All-Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Liberation Party, Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen National Liberation Army – Peace Council, Karen National Union, Pa-O National Liberation Organization and Shan State Army – South. However, several frontline outfits like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) decided to keep away from the truce deal, keeping the ethnic insurrection alive in the nation of 54 million people who are ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse population. The signing of the agreement was attended by international delegations, including India.

Myanmar is a diverse country with 135 sub-national groups under eight major ethnic communities. The majority is the Bamar (Burman) which constitute at least 60% of the population. Most of the Bamars are Buddhists, the religion practiced by a majority in the country. The ethnic minorities who make up one-third of the total population in Myanmar have been neglected for long by the military junta. This resulted in one of the longest running civil wars in the world, for over six decades, after it attained independence from the British in 1948. They demand for greater autonomy, self determination, and/or complete separation or independence from the ethnically Burman dominated Myanmar.

The Panglong arrangements signed in February 1947 between General Aung San and the representatives of Chin, Kachin and Shan groups promised them a good amount of autonomy over their own territories in exchange for their support for Burma’s independence. However, this promise was left unfulfilled with the assassination of General Aung San. U Nu, the new Prime Minister, did not implement the agreement. The agreement allowed the ethnic groups self governance and the ability to pull out from the federation of Myanmar after a period of ten years. This unfulfilled promise forms the basis for the insurgents’ struggle today, and they stress on tenets of this agreement to demand for autonomy.

Several insurgent groups sprung up: the Karren National Liberation Army (KNLA) was formed in January 1949, Karrenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) in 1957, Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was formed in February 1961 with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) as its military wing, New Mons State Party (NMSP) came into existence in 1962, Shan State Army (SSA) led by the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) in 1964, Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) in 1980, United Wa State Army (UWSA) was formed in May 1989, and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) came into existence after it had split from the KNLA’s political wing, the KNU, in 1995.

The insurgents that emerged after 1948 expressed that their religion, language and culture was suppressed by the Burmese government; the government also imposed on the people a socialist economic system which they resented; human rights violations such as torture and forced labor were at its peak and grievances arose because most of the fighting took place in the ethnic minority areas, which led to government abuses infuriating the locals and thus, this led to the locals supporting the insurgency rather than co-operating with the government in suppressing it. Horrific actions of the Burmese military against villagers and innocent people further enraged the locals. Both, army and the insurgents, used landmines to deter one another from advancing in each other’s territory. Caught in the middle of the fight, the civilians were helpless, had to abandon the warring territories and flee to neighbouring countries and live in refugee camps. International forces and pressures could do nothing to help the situation in Myanmar. Some of the Insurgents resorted to drug trafficking and opium trade to finance their activities. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) control a large drug trade at the northern border.

It is notable that under the British Raj, Myanmar was prosperous as it was the ‘rice bowl of the world’ exporting almost half the global yield. But under the military rule, Myanmar became worse than it was and slowly degraded into a strife-torn hostile country. The military government was never interested in negotiating with the insurgents and was only focused on crushing them and eliminating them completely. Neither General Ne Win nor Senior General Than Shwe wanted to come to a satisfying and enduring peace but rather dictated the terms of peace. This made the resistant groups dissatisfied and more aggressive with the military junta.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), after the military coup in 1988, accomplished ceasefire agreements with various ethnic militant groups and tried to assimilate them as the Border Guard Forces (BGFs) in 2009. It was a failed attempt and the ceasefire agreement lost its context.

The government under President Thein Sein tried to make some efforts and come to definite conclusions by taking steps to achieve a ceasefire agreement with the rebels. He even excluded the clause of making the insurgents join the BGFs to further pacify the insurgents into signing the agreement.

A total of 12 armed groups, agreed to sign the peace agreements by early 2012. The carefully crafted peace efforts was being carried out in three phase- the first phase is ceasefire between the rebel groups and the army, set up liaison offices and allow the entry into each other’s territory without carrying arms; the second phase is confidence building, holding political dialogue, implementing regional development process such as education, health and communication facilities; and the third phase is to sign the peace agreement in the presence of the parliament represented by nationalities, political parties and others. However, one of the strongest groups, the Kachins was not part of the peace agreements and later the ceasefire did fall apart due to mutual suspicion and mistrust.

The NCA signed in 15 October 2015 was considered a success but lacked the co-operation and attendance of strong Ethnic militant groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the United WA State Army (UWSA). Those who signed the agreement were considerably smaller and weaker than the KIO (an insurgent group that has no history of signing a peace settlement with the government) and UWSA and this proves as one of the drawback of the NCA. Regarding the peace settlements, there are many speculations. Some believe that the reform process undertaken is legitimate and the help rendered by the Western countries as well as a few South-East Asian countries will pave way for the appeasement of the insurgent groups. However, others are of the belief that the peace processes are undertaken because of the pressure of Western governments. Without pressure, the reform processes will slow down and naturally come to a standstill. The 2011-12 ceasefire agreements were also hastened due to the pressure of the west to sign the agreement on condition that they would lift the economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (khaplang), based in Myanmar and said to have close link with KIA, was excluded from the 2015 peace agreement. Thein Sein may have taken this step owing to the presence of Indian government officials at the signing ceremony, as NSCN (K) continues to fight the Indian Government.

It falls upon the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) to take the peace process beyond the ceasefire agreements. The NLD led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed that she supports the ethnic cause and is sympathetic towards them. It is their task, an important one at that, to win over the support of the rebels and come to definite and satisfying outcome. The rebels need to be more accommodating and flexible as the new government may propose different political agreements and could come up with altogether different suggestions.

An Ethnically diverse country such as Myanmar is best suited for a federal system rather than a unitary system where all the power is centralized. Working together might be the best outcome for both the ethnic militant groups and the government.