Ethnic tensions as fragile as ever in Myanmar
Despite ceasefire agreements between the government and armed ethnic groups, clashes are still going on, but new talks offer hope of lasting peaceThe recent military clash between Myanmar government troops and rebel Shan fighters reflects the reality that ongoing negotiations with the armed ethnic group have yielded no effective results for the people or the country.
The clash happened despite the fact that there have been many recent truces between the various armed ethnic groups and the government. Yet these ceasefires are fragile and unproductive, and armed battles have not ended. Myanmar thus needs to expand its political space for peace negotiations with the various armed groups in order to end the chronic disputes and establish a sustainable peace.
The Shan signed a ceasefire agreement on January 28 last year. But since then they have reportedly been engaged in more than 50 clashes with army columns "trespassing" in areas under their control, according to Shan media sources.
The Shan are among 16 ethnic groups that have so far concluded ceasefires with the government, which is now engaging separately with the groups to upgrade the level of negotiations.
There are three steps in the peace talks. The initial step takes place at state level, the second is held at union level, and the final step is held in the parliament, where all the ethnic groups sit with the government to determine their future. Many groups such as the Karen National Union, United Wa State Army and the Restoration Council of the Shan State/Shan State Army are now at the union level. Others, such as the Mon and Karen National Liberation Army, are still at the state level.
Some groups, notably the Kachin, have been unable to establish ceasefires, and combat is still going on. The government is set to have a second round of talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation early next month, after the first round in the Chinese border town of Ruili, with Chinese help, yielded more positive results than previously.
However, neither the authorities nor the ethnic groups have anything to celebrate yet, since the ceasefire agreements are far from genuine peace. These ceasefires are simply temporary agreements to stop fighting until liaison officers can make contact with the opposition. Many groups have obtained promises from the government to develop infrastructure and health-and-education service in their areas, but little has improved since the talks began. Some groups such as the Shan have managed to upgrade talks to the union level and now have direct negotiations with the central government in Nay Pyi Taw, but the sound of gunfire can still be heard in Shan State.
A cessation of gunfire is necessary, but the peace processes should have clear ultimate goals that aim to settle the conflicts with the ethnic minorities at their root. These conflicts are just a part of the world's longest-running civil war, which erupted when the country gained its independence from Britain in 1948. At that point, many ethnic armies took up the battle against the Burmese government, demanding autonomy, if not separation or independence, that in some cases had been promised and then was denied.
A truce during the 1990s failed to address the problems at their root. Fifteen armed ethnic groups agreed to lay down weapons in exchange for business concessions in their territories. Some of them turned the concessions into illegal businesses, such as the sex and drug trades. That previous truce was also fragile and easily broken. As a result, the government and the ethnic fighters never lower their guard, and clashes are an ever-present risk.
The new peace process is a bit better than previous ones because it has emerged during a period of political reform and under the watchful eye of the international community. It seems that President Thein Sein has a clear policy to make peace a crucial part of the overall reforms.
The good news is that talks in Thailand's Chiang Mai a week ago between the government and the United Nationality Federal Council, a coalition of a dozen ethnic groups, resulted in an agreement to hold further "political dialogue". The statement issued after the meeting on February 20 did not spell out the terms, but gave hope that a truce this time will be based on a political solution that is acceptable to all sides and which will tackle the problems at their root.