As the Rohingya crisis dominates world headlines, Myanmar continues to struggle with other ethnic conflicts as well after nearly seven decades of independence from the British.
On November 8, the Arakan Army (AA), an insurgent group based in Rakhine state, ambushed the Myanmar military’s machine-propelled boats in the Paletwa area of Chin state, leaving a dozen or so troops dead and many wounded. Since then, the military has heightened its offensive against the AA, with no sign of ending them soon.
As everyone knows, peace negotiations with Myanmar’s ethnic groups have been going on since 2011, during the tenure of president Thein Sein. Now, after more than six years, the guns are still not silent, and the stagnation of the peace process is there for everyone to see.
Maybe it is now time to look at the underlying theoretical shortcomings of the process, rather than just muddling through on the details, so that stakeholders will be on the same wavelength on instilling an awareness that is in tune with altruism and the aspirations of the people as a whole.
Seen from a logical point of reasoning, the order of sequence ought to be, first, a nationwide ceasefire; second, political discussions (negotiations); third, reaching an agreement; and fourth, a political settlement.
If this is so, the first stage of the sequence, a nationwide ceasefire, should be given priority, and everything that hinders achieving that goal has to be taken into account and ironed out so that an atmosphere genuinely conducive to the peace process can be followed.
It is true that the military code of conduct and terms of reference cannot be ignored in relation to monitoring adherence to the ceasefire. But before this is done, the theoretical underpinnings or basic concept of the ceasefire have to be agreed by all stakeholders, which has not been the case so far.
Basically, the military and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are negotiation partners and as such should be equal in the negotiation process. But in reality, the military is not only a negotiation partner but also plays the role of enforcer, as the sole owner and protector of the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity. This in turn makes the military the decision-maker on the nuts and bolts of the relationship between itself and the negotiation partners, who are also opposition EAOs at the same time.
In other words, the military can choose either to have good relations with an EAO or attack it according to its mood at any time, anywhere, without explanation.
This tremendous amount of decision-making power, even more than that of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) civilian government, which makes the Tatmadaw – as the armed forces of Myanmar are officially known – “a state within a state”, comes from the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which creates a hybrid quasi-civilian-military system of governance.
The constitution allows the Tatmadaw to occupy, without election, 25% of the seats in the parliament and administer the three most important ministries – Home, Defense and Border Affairs. And as amending the crucial articles of the constitution needs more than 75% endorsement from the parliamentary representatives, nothing can be done without the Tatmadaw’s consent.
On top of this, the Tatmadaw also call the shots in the peace negotiation process.
One example is the policy of all-inclusiveness for all the EAOs. Originally, the NLD civilian part of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to involve all the EAOs and literally implement this policy. But later the NLD had to yield to the military’s wish to leave out the Northern Alliance members of the Kokang, Palaung or Ta’ang and Arakan ethnic armies, which have a very keen interest in participating in the peace process but have to be engaged in running battles with the Tatmadaw because of being rejected from the process for the past few years.
Another example is that the Tatmadaw continues its offensives against the EAOs, especially in Shan and Kachin states, under the pretext of its role as the sole protector of sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity, when in fact it should be facilitating the peace process and refrain from armed confrontation.
After all, isn’t the peace process all about adjusting the nation to shared responsibility on the issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity?
To put it differently, the minority (non-Bamar) ethnic groups want shared sovereignty in place of the Tatmadaw’s sole ownership. Likewise, the responsibility for protection of territorial integrity of the whole union should also be a shared burden, not the sole domain of the military. Only after this is worked out can the question of national unity be tackled through an agreed federal union system of government.
But why should the military then act as if these are all taken for granted, when in fact the armed forces are the main source of political grievances and dissatisfaction that have triggered the ongoing ethnic conflicts in the first place?
Many would still recall that during Thein Sein’s tenure the military rejected the presidential directive to end the attacks on the EAOs so as to be conducive to the peace process. To the contrary, the Tatmadaw has never listened and has instead even escalated the conflicts.
The same thing is happening over and over again, and it is not a wonder that all-inclusive participation cannot be achieved and that the war with the EAOs cannot be stopped.
In sum, the Tatmadaw must get off its moral high horse of being sole protector of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and become an equal negotiation partner like the others. It cannot be a negotiation partner and play the part of enforcer or judge at the same time.
Besides, it is also essential that it takes orders from the civilian regime and not operate on its own self-formulated policies or to its liking, especially where the peace process is concerned, as is now the case.
Thus this hybrid civilian-military rule needs to be changed, as the present dual administration mode is confusing and contradictory, with the two elements of government competing with each other, hindering efforts to come up with a unified directive that could be conducive to the whole peace process.
In a nutshell, until civilian authority over the military can be established, or at least a cooperative, coordinating working relationship between the Tatmadaw and civilian part of the government can be worked out within the mold of all-inclusiveness, there is little hope that the guns will go silent and peace and reconciliation restored within the country.