Myanmar’s Ethnic Peace Talks: A Landmark Towards Conflict Resolution?

The Myanmar government and military called for participation of ethnic minority armed groups to attend a new round of peace talks in the capital, NayPyiTaw, this month. The peace talks are aimed at resolving the prolonged conflicts between various ethnic minority armed groups and the government. 17 out of 41 ethnic armed groups attended the peace talks alongside the government, military, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Myanmar has been suffering from the ethnic conflict since its independence in 1948. The ethnic separation during the colonial era, the control of natural resources and drug trades by the ethnic minority armed groups, and the deep distrust between different parties are the major factors that contributed to and sustained Myanmar’s prolonged ethnic conflict.

During the British colonial era, all of Myanmar’s ethnicities were ruled under two different administrative systems. The majority, Burmans, mainly inhabited the central area of the country under the administrative system called the ‘Ministerial Burma’ or ‘Burma Proper.’ The ethnic minorities were sent to the broader area, under the administrative system called the ‘Frontier Areas.’ The separation of ethnicities had boosted different ethnicities’ self-determination. At the dawn of Myanmar’s independence, several ethnic groups believed that the British would support their self-determination. In light of the quick withdrawal of the British, the ethnic minorities had to arm themselves to fight for their rights.

The natural environment in the broader area gives the ethnic minority armed groups a natural condition to start and sustain their insurgency-styled fighting against the military. The broader area is largely forests or mountains. It is hard for a conventional military to win decisive wars against insurgency groups in a complex landscape. Moreover, the trade of natural resources in the broader area also provides ethnic minority armed groups with an economic means to sustain their ongoing struggles against the military.

Throughout more than six decades’ of conflicts, various human rights violations were conducted by both the military and the armed groups. The human rights violations created deep distrusts between the armed groups and the government. As the conflict continues, it is anticipated that the distrust will be deepened. In light of the complexity of Myanmar’s ethnic conflict, whether the peace talks could effectively resolve the ethnic conflict is questionable.

The first obstacle is the military. Although the military attended the peace talks and expressed their willingness to de-escalate Myanmar’s ethnic tensions, it is arguably in the military’s interests to keep the conflict ongoing. As reported by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, the military has never put enough efforts into fighting with the minority armed groups. Interestingly, the timing of the military operation has a clear linkage with the general election. For example, during the 2015 election campaign, the military launched a large-scale military attack against the Shan State Army-North. Through their military operations, the military keeps it at the frontline of Myanmar’s politics and society. The military would also have a legitimate reason to extract national resources to sustain its organization as the conflict continues. Indeed, Myanmar’s constitution granted 25% of the seats for the military in the National Legislature. This 25% of the seats gives the military a constitutional veto. The military can veto any civilian government’s proposals if it is not in the military’s interests. The military is certainly the biggest obstacle to Myanmar’s conflict resolution.

The exclusiveness of the peace talks is another obstacle to the conflict resolution. As indicated, only 17 out of 41 ethnic armed groups attended the peace talks. Whether the agreement can successfully represent all 41 groups interests is questionable. If all the group’s interests cannot be represented in the peace talks, it will be impossible for the government to de-escalate the ethnic tensions successfully. Moreover, tens of thousands of Rohingya people are living in temporary camps and their issues have not been addressed.

Lastly, the government could not offer ethnic minorities a bigger stake. Although Myanmar’s GDP is growing at approximately 7% annually, the military controlled economic sectors are still the biggest beneficiaries of the economic growth. In other words, the civilian government could not offer ethnic minorities enough economic favours. On the other hand, the ethnic minorities also control economic sectors. This is precisely why the United Wa State Army (UWSA) exited the peace talks. The UWSA controls the illegal drug trade. Joining the central union is certainly not beneficial for the UWSA, and this is the same for other groups because they will need to sacrifice more.

In light of the complexity of Myanmar’s ethnic issue, whether the peace talks were a solid development towards conflict resolution remains to be seen. To successfully address the prolonged ethnic conflict, Myanmar’s civilian government should have enough leverage over the military. The longer the military controls the absolute power, the less likely for Myanmar to de-escalate ethnic tensions. Moreover, the majority of Burmans should also change their negative perceptions toward ethnic minorities, namely the Rohingya, to make the peace process possible and smooth.