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Thant Myint-U -- Myanmar beyond the peace process

A TNLA (Ta'ang National Liberation Army) soldier on guard-duty at a Palaung village in upper Shan State during recent clashes with the Myanmar Army, in February. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Myanmar's national level peace talks, known as the Union Peace Conference, to convene in Naypyitaw on Aug. 31 will almost certainly be a symbolic success. Nearly all the country's myriad "ethnic armed organizations" will be there, both those who signed and many who did not sign last October's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The military's commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will attend, as will State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the new government and the conference's principal architect. There will be a supporting cast of hundreds, from across Myanmar's political spectrum, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

No one expects the conference, scheduled to last five days, to achieve a break-through. But the symbolism is in itself important and underlines a real desire on all sides to bring about a peaceful settlement following almost seven decades of violent conflict. No ethnic armed organization is promoting secession and the idea of a federal system of government, long advocated by ethnic minority leaders, is no longer hotly contested. Aung San Suu Kyi's national and international stature can be a singular asset to any process going forward. The time is ripe for peace.

But it is what comes next that will be of paramount importance. And what is needed is a multi-dimensional strategy that connects complex sets of issues: first, the future of Myanmar as a multi-ethnic country; second, the broader democratic transition; third, peace-making and peacebuilding in the actual conflict-affected areas; fourth, China's interest and influence over its southwestern neighbor; and fifth, and critically, the economy.

People in Loi Tai Laeng, a small town in Shan State, Myanmar, in February 2012. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Myanmar as a multi-ethnic democracy

Since independence from Britain in 1948, one of Myanmar's principal challenges has been finding a form of government acceptable to all its many and diverse ethnic communities.

Few now disagree with the devolution of considerable authority, including fiscal authority, to state or regional levels. The devil though will of course be in the detail. Myanmar is not and never has been neatly divided into ethnically based areas; smaller minority communities are often intermingled with bigger ones. Getting both sequencing and timing right will be critical; until good state institutions are in place, simply devolving power may only add a new layer of inefficacy and corruption.

It is also necessary to think out of the box. Millions of people in Myanmar are of mixed ethnicity (including my own family and most people I know). Migration, urbanization, and a telecoms revolution are reshaping the country and will likely reshape identities. Language policies will need to be carefully reconsidered. Local autonomy may have been an answer in the 1950s but devolution can only be a part of the solution today. And any solution can only be a work in progress, as we have seen even in the most advanced democracies.

Far more straightforward is the related aim of equality. There is no need to wait for a peace process before moving at maximum speed to end all forms of discrimination, make state institutions, including the police, judiciary and civil service, far more inclusive, and create more equitable economic opportunities across the country.

Second is the matter of Myanmar's overall political transition. It is impossible and unwise to disassociate discussions on peace from the broader debates over the country's democratic future. And again, there are the challenges of sequencing. Without a new concept of citizenship and strong liberal institutions, democracy can slide easily into majoritarian rule by the dominant Bamar population. Carefully pacing the shift toward democracy and devolution will be important. Engaging public opinion and civil society will be essential.

Third are the issues around peacemaking and peacebuilding in conflict-afflicted areas. Myanmar has been at war with itself for generations. The fighting once involved communist insurgents as well as ethnic rebels. The situation today is far from all-out civil war. There have been periods, including over the past few years, of heavy fighting. In general though the confrontations are low-intensity, with dozens of small clashes each month, across an area of northeastern Myanmar, along the China border, about the size of the United Kingdom. The humanitarian impact though of militarization, instability, displacement and occasional fighting over nearly seven decades has been enormous.

This is a region of blurry front-lines, co-habited by the Myanmar army, ethnic armed organizations, so-called "border guard forces," and hundreds of smaller militia, where men with guns usually stay out of each other's way, often do business together, sometimes try to expand their territory, and occasionally, fight. The dynamics in places have less in common with Syria 2016 than say Chicago 1926.

What is important is to prevent discussions on the broad political goals mentioned above from becoming a substitute for the nitty-gritty negotiations and confidence building measures needed to end the fighting. Talks on the political future of the country should be an open, inclusive, and ultimately democratic exercise. But any negotiations to actually end the fighting in the northeast need to focus on the key combatants: the armed forces, the ethnic armed organizations and the militia.

With so many different parties to the conflict, it will be difficult to balance locally tailored solutions with a more comprehensive approach. There is understandable resistance to a "divide and rule" formula, but a lowest common denominator approach needs equally to be rejected.

Kachin independence Army soldiers confront Myanmar army troops at the Hkaya Bhum mountain post in Laiza, in Myanmar's Kachin State, in January 2013. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Chinese 'elephant'

This links to the fourth set of issues and the elephant in the room: China. Myanmar's armed conflicts once raged across the country. They are now mainly confined to areas close to China, where many like the United Wa State Army are successors to the communist insurgencies once armed by Beijing. China (or any foreign country) should not be involved in national political talks on Myanmar's future, but it must be a partner in any diplomacy aimed at peace along the border.

Much attention has been focused on the future of Myitsone dam, China's planned $3.6 billion hydropower project in northern Kachin state that was suspended by the previous administration. But this is almost certainly not Beijing's focus. Yunnan in southern China is now more than self-sufficient in electricity and in general, any benefits from economic projects in Myanmar will be a drop in the bucket for China's $10 trillion economy. China has a strategic interest in Myanmar as a bridge to the Indian Ocean and is more likely to prioritize development of its proposed deep sea port at Kyaukphyu, on the country's west coast.

At an even more basic level, Beijing is keen simply to make sure that Myanmar, if not always a reliable friend, is never a threat. It would like peace along the border but wants to shape this process as it moves forward, maintaining the dominant international role. It has deep ties with some of the ethnic armed organizations and will not give these up easily. Beijing's nightmare scenario would be to lose its grip over the still unstable borderlands, only to see Western or Japanese interests take its place.

Aung San Suu Kyi's recent trip to China may have helped assuage Beijing's fears. It will be critical to find China the right seat at the right table, leveraging its influence, whilst protecting Myanmar's sovereignty. There are potential win-win scenarios. Myanmar's armed conflicts are taking place in one of poorest parts of Asia but also next to one of the greatest industrial revolutions ever.

Kachin independence Army soldiers in a mobile phone shop in Laiza, Kachin State, northeastern Myanmar. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Myanmar's economy

The fifth and equally important set of issues, issues related to the economy, have been almost entirely left out of peace discussions over recent years. Part of the reason has been the fear among some, especially among ethnic armed organizations, that the government would try to "buy them out," and that offers of aid or business investment would dilute their political agendas. Given past history, this is understandable.

At the same time, the absence of a more transparent discussion on economic issues will only lead to backroom deals, bringing in the carpet-baggers, and leaving local communities with little say over the economic forces changing their lives.

Moreover, omitting the economic dimension would leave out the most dynamic potential catalyst for peace. Myanmar has had nearly 70 years of peace talks and decades of ceasefires that have led nowhere. What is different today are the economic opportunities that can transform the country, quickly. Harnessing this energy in a way that builds peace is crucial.

Missing is better analysis of what the various regional economies can become say in 10 or 20 years time. A menu of options for the different regional economies -- linked both to a booming central economy and dynamic cross-border ties -- would help steer negotiators away from a simple focus on dividing the current pie.

Last October's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement included unprecedented commitments to jointly improve the lives of ordinary people. Yet efforts to implement these "interim measures" have barely begun. In the country's southeast, where the ceasefires are holding well, a key next step should be mutually agreed economic programs, joining both private investment and international aid, in ways that will maximize benefits to local communities and build trust among combatants.

Myanmar is closer now to peace than at any time since independence in 1948. Long-term vision and versatile diplomacy over the coming months - if it can be achieved -- will make all the difference.

Thant Myint-Uis a historian and an author, most recently of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia (2014).

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