An end to the longest-running war in the world is within reach. The peace process in Myanmar is at a pivotal stage. If successful, the prospect of further democratic reform will be strengthened and the door to the country’s economic potential unlocked. The map of Asia will fundamentally change. If the peace process collapses, the impact will be catastrophic, not only for Myanmar.
Fighting in what was then Burma began after independence from Britain in 1948 and has continued ever since. It is not one war but a palimpsest of conflicts featuring a bewildering array of combatants, from Chinese-backed communist insurgents and ethnic minority armies battling for self-determination to opium warlords and democratic revolutionaries.
Today, there are no fewer than 17 major ethnic-based armed organisations holding sway over remote and mountainous frontier regions, the biggest of which, the United Wa State Army (with an estimated 30,000 troops), is one of the most powerful non-state armies anywhere in the world.
Over the past two years, the government and the ethnic armies have agreed to no fewer than 16 bilateral ceasefires. Although clashes continue, with the talks has come progress – the level of fighting in Myanmar is now at its lowest in 65 years, a testament to the political will on all sides to remove the gun from politics for good.
Three weeks ago, at an unprecedented summit, the Myanmar government, including the army, and leaders of all ethnic armed organisations reached a historic understanding on the process ahead.
The first step is a nationwide ceasefire. This is far more than a simple truce. It includes, for example, measures to allow freedom of movement across front lines, codes of conduct to be followed by all sides, and the establishment of joint monitoring mechanisms.
This will be followed by “framework discussions” about a political dialogue (the participants, the agenda, the structure of the talks), and then the political dialogue itself. The dialogue will bring in a much broader array of voices, such as political parties and civil society organisations. It could last for months and it aims at nothing less than a permanent peace.
In recent days U Aung Min, the government’s chief negotiator, has said that – other than secession from the Union and any infringement of Myanmar’s sovereignty – all issues are negotiable, including constitutional amendments to create a federal government, opening a window for peace that has never before existed.
The challenges are Herculean. The issues are familiar from other ethnic conflicts and range from language policy to natural resource sharing to security sector reform. But Myanmar is a particularly tough case, with so many ethnic groups (more than 100, by some counts), overlapping territories with weak or non-existent governing institutions, and a reform process that is far from complete. As well as the main ethnic armies, there are dozens of smaller militia – some allied to the government, others not.
There exists, moreover, a political economy that has evolved over generations and will be extremely hard to undo. The jade industry in Kachin state alone is estimated to be worth more than $5bn a year; the illicit production and export of methamphetamines along the Thai border a good deal more. There is mistrust to be overcome and political deals to be struck, but the far thornier obstacle may be the moneymaking interests on all sides that have a lot to lose from reform.
Success, however, will be a game-changer. Myanmar’s greatest natural asset is not its vast hydropower potential or its offshore gas fields but its unique strategic position between the markets of China, India and southeast Asia. With peace and the emergence of strong, representative local government, an end to the country’s isolation and new investments could quickly lift millions from poverty. A new Asian crossroads would emerge, based not on the exploitation of Myanmar’s instability, but on local consent and shared prosperity.
The process so far has been entirely homegrown. Maximum support from the international community in the coming weeks will be essential. Global leaders simply voicing their strongest backing for the process will be immensely valuable. All parties in Myanmar need to understand that the world is watching. Financial assistance is required urgently for the process itself and, for example, to help with demining. Perhaps most importantly, the outside world needs to help create not only the national but also the local institutions needed to attract and manage new businesses, create jobs and transform the old battlefields into centres of sustainable development.
The price tag will be far lower than the vast sums spent in recent years on peacebuilding in other countries. The reward will be nothing less than a truly multi-ethnic democracy at the heart of Asia.
The writer is a special adviser to the Myanmar Peace Centre
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