KAYIN STATE, Myanmar -- As clashes between ethnic insurgents and military forces in northern Myanmar continue, a Japanese-funded venture is endeavoring to help fortify the peace process between two of the oldest foes in the country's 70-year conflict-- the Karen National Union and the military.
In 2015, the KNU was one of the leading ethnic armed groups to sign a nominally nationwide cease-fire agreement with the government. But the NCA - which was signed by only eight of more than 17 armed ethnic groups involved in negotiations -- has delivered neither the peace nor the political equality the KNU was seeking. Nevertheless, the KNU has remained at the negotiating table, with Japan now providing incentives for the group's leaders to stay.
On March 10, after more than two years of political negotiations and thanks to $10 million in funding from Japan's foreign ministry, the Nippon Foundation, a Japan-based nonprofit organization, unveiled an ambitious scheme to construct hundreds of houses for conflict-affected families in areas of southeastern Myanmar controlled by the KNU.
Building the 1,250 houses, along with wells, health clinics and schools, required forging an amicable working relationship among the KNU, the military -- also known as the Tatmadaw-- and the state and central governments.
Enlisting the former combatants in a tentative peacebuilding alliance represented a milestone. "We have fought, we have killed each other. We have seen them burn our houses and take our land ... So it is very difficult for us to trust the Burmese," P'doh Saw Mutu Say Poe, the KNU's chairman, said at the March 10 project launch, referring to Myanmar's Burman majority population. Despite past animosities, he urged people to place trust in the current peace negotiations and the beleaguered cease-fire agreement.
"Without the NCA, you cannot move forward," Tin Myo Win, deputy chair of the government's National Reconciliation and Peace Commission, said at the same event.
By encouraging all parties to work to overcome decades of distrust and to address social and economic drivers of the conflict, the Nippon Foundation's initiative aims to cement the KNU cease-fire. It also hopes to create a positive example to persuade other ethnic armed groups to engage in the peace process.
Desmond Molloy, the Nippon Foundation's Myanmar program director, believes the project has contributed to stabilization. "We're not out there in order to build houses; we're trying to help ensure the irreversibility of the peace process," he said. "Infrastructure just happens to be the medium."
So far, 60 families have moved into one of the Nippon Foundation's 24 project sites: Lay Kay Kaw village. The tenants newly settled into the modest, one-story houses include KNU soldiers' families, as well as refugees who fled the fighting decades ago, and whose children were born in camps across the border. Even as the neighborhood started filling up four months ago, the 100 units built across the road from an existing refugee community retain a transient feel. The families say they are uncertain how long they can stay without any source of income, and without clarity over whether they rent or own the houses.
"I am happy to have been able to move back [to Myanmar] but there is no support. The big challenge is that there are no jobs here," said Ma Zar Zar, a former refugee who moved to Lay Kay Kaw with her husband, father-in-law, and 16-month-old son. She and her husband take turns driving a motorcycle taxi in the nearby Myawaddy border hub, but their earnings do not cover even daily food expenses, and do not compare to their earnings as day laborers in Thailand.
While the Nippon Foundation's rehabilitation project established the infrastructure for resettlement, further details like housing allocation and refugee support fall to a joint committee made up of former foes. Japan has provided incentives for all parties to cooperate in what is the largest reconstruction project in Karen state by promising to invest millions of dollars more in a second phase to include additional housing sites and, crucially, job training programs.
However, the program's directors do not yet know if their resettlement venture will enter a second phase. The project was approved by the previous administration of President Thein Sein, but the National League for Democracy-led government has only recently voiced support. A Nippon Foundation official said the project is still awaiting the imprimatur of Myanmar's de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the peace process.
Certainly the need for resettlement housing already far surpasses the 1,250 units built by the foundation, with demand expected to grow precipitously among tens of thousands of displaced people and refugees ultimately expected to return home.
Sally Thompson, executive director of the Thai-Border Consortium, said food rations will soon be discontinued at five camps in Karen and Shan states. "[About] 9,000 people in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps close to the Myanmar-Thailand border will no longer receive any food assistance beyond September," she said.
International donors are also reducing or ending funding for nine refugee camps along Thailand's border, putting pressure on the estimated 100,000 refugees to return.
But resettlement remains a gamble. A missionary recently relocated to Lay Kay Kaw said he feels safe so long as the KNU remains in control of the area, but that such an arrangement cannot necessarily be counted on.
The Nippon Foundation's project is operating in a fragile environment where cease-fires have broken down before, and where soldiers of all allegiances remain deployed.
"I would not deny that there is some possibility of conflict in the area where we built the houses. But that is beyond our control," said Yuji Mori, the Nippon Foundation's executive director.
Troubled outlook for peace
The resettlement effort comes amid deteriorating confidence in the peace negotiations. For the ethnic armed groups, any expectation that the NLD's assumption of power would result in meaningful engagement and reform has waned, especially amid the recent escalation of hostilities.
Aung San Suu Kyi has agreed to federalism in principle, but dissatisfied ethnic leaders say her main mistake is pushing for a cease-fire before negotiating a political settlement regarding ethnic autonomy. This strategy effectively limits the political clout of the ethnic armed groups, since they are first being asked to surrender their arms and then establish political parties to contest elections -- even though they feel entitled to authority in the areas they control.
In an increasingly uncertain environment, donor projects seeking to support peace through development tread on eggshells. Many ethnic armed groups, including factions within the KNU, perceive development initiatives as a long-standing pretext for the state to exert control over ethnic territory and hobble the fight for self-determination.
According to a recent report by the Asia Foundation, "Ceasefires, Governance and Development: the Karen National Union in Times of Change," there are historic precedents for such skepticism. In the 1990s, the military government "championed the goals of peace and development as one and the same," urging all the ethnic armed groups "to come back 'into the legal fold,'" and "cooperate with the Tatmadaw's vision for stability and economic progress," the report noted.
A splinter faction of the KNU was among groups that participated. But the cease-fires soon collapsed as little political change materialized, while the promised "development" led to economic exploitation, large-scale natural resource extraction, land confiscation and forced displacement.
In 2011, Thein Sein's new "Roadmap for Peace" pushed the concept of peace through development. But, noted KNU vice-chair Naw Zipporah Sein, "the new Burma military government uses development as a weapon to destroy and wipe out the resistance groups and to persuade ethnic groups to forget about their struggle."
In negotiations with Thein Sein's government, the armed groups demanded a cease-fire that would enshrine their territorial authority and equality. Yet the finalized NCA contained only a vague recognition of the role of ethnic armed groups. Instead, it emphasized the need to cooperate with the government and the military in governance, creating a stumbling block that continues to prevent many groups from signing.
"The trend in the cease-fires has been to use development to expand administrative control while political talks trundle along slowly," said Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher and author of the Asia Foundation report.
A delicate balance
Today in Kayin, formerly known as Karen state, the territory has been fragmented into a kaleidoscope of often competing claims for authority.
"If territorial and governance arrangements are left as fluid and fragile as they are, a breakdown of the cease-fire will be an ever-present risk," the report said.
The Nippon Foundation's program helps address these overlapping systems of governance by trying to build communication and cooperation. The project invests in the idea that bringing all groups into dialogue over a collective mission can help avert tensions and keep the cease-fire conversation going.
But critics argue that such an arrangement also legitimizes the presence of the military and central government, and in doing so, reinforces the perceived neo-colonial "Burmanization" of ethnic areas.
Most battalion commanders in the KNU's armed wing see the expansion of the government's administration as "the most urgent security threat they face," according to the Asia Foundation report.
Others fear that a "peace-through-development" agenda in Kayin state risks empowering only those already willing to cooperate, while further eroding the trust of those who lobby for substantive political changes as the foundation for peace.
"Changes to the status quo and progress in the peace process really depends on meaningful political change and whether there will be an end to people's experience in the current order with the [Burmese] military everywhere dominating people's lives," Jolliffe told the Nikkei Asian Review.
"At the moment, it is unclear if the Tatmadaw, or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, are really committed to comprehensive political changes. Unless that is made clear, an eventual return to conflict will remain inevitable," he added.