Myanmar and the ‘Ripe Moment’

Then there are some 5000 militia groups scattered throughout Myanmar’s conflict areas. This is an absolutely alarming figure for anyone familiar with any peace negotiations. Some of them are allied with the government while some fight alongside their ethnic brethren. Some exist just to make money on the pretext of defending their communities. They regularly upset the fragile balance of Myanmar’s peace process.

Posted on 04/11/14
By Aung Naing Oo | Via Myanmar Times
Myanmar Peace Center official U Hla Maung Shwe (right) speaks with an ethnic official in Yangon on April 4. (Photo by Thiri via The Myanmar Times)
Myanmar Peace Center official U Hla Maung Shwe (right) speaks with an ethnic official in Yangon on April 4. (Photo by Thiri via The Myanmar Times)

In a book called Elusive Peace that he co-wrote and edited in 1995, I William Zartman described what he called a “ripe moment” for negotiations to end an armed conflict. However, at the same time he cautioned that it is “most difficult to define and to find the appropriate moment for negotiations”.

 

Zartman explained that “turning points” should herald the ripe moment. But at the core of the ripe moment, he outlined three conditions – a mutually hurting stalemate, a presence of valid spokespersons and a formula for a way out – that were necessary for successful negotiations. Considered against the conditions Zartman proposed, where does Myanmar’s peace process stand? For a start I strongly believe we do have all these conditions – if not in full then to a large extent.

 

The current round of negotiations to end the armed conflict in Myanmar has been going on for more than two years. Fourteen out of 16 armed ethnic groups signed bilateral truces. Negotiations on a nationwide ceasefire agreement are nearing completion.

 

All protagonists – the government of Myanmar and each armed ethnic group – have formal structures, and identifiable and recognized leaderships. Whether they have assumed leadership positions through formal elections or not, they have represented their groups in battle and in negotiations. Most crucially, they have support within their communities and can make decisions, meeting the “valid spokespersons” condition.

 

In Myanmar now there is also a formula for a way out: political dialogue that the government has promised time and again to find a solution to end the war. This is what the ethnic groups have demanded for years. The government has also promised that these political negotiations will be all-inclusive. The key element of the formula is the establishment of federalism, which is also the major ethnic demand. Political dialogue will iron out what sort of federalism or what kind of power-sharing and reintegration arrangements we can all agree upon. But at least for now we can safely say that Myanmar has a formula for a way out of 64 years of armed conflict. Myanmar has met the last of Zartman’s three conditions.

 

But how about the very first condition – a mutually hurting stalemate? One may not define the situation in Myanmar as such. But what we have is something similar to an impasse that is not conducive to all parties concerned. In fact, there is acknowledgement – tacit or open – that all sides are fighting an unwinnable war.

 

This thinking has allowed negotiations to begin. At the very least, such a reasoning has led to negotiations with varying degrees of expectations. Some want to test the water to see if the conflict can be resolved on the table rather than on the battlefield. Some truly believe that there has never been a better time for Myanmar to negotiate an end to the civil war. However, if some think the current situation does not constitute an optimal condition for negotiation or do not consider it a mutually hurting stalemate, then there is the possibility that the current negotiations will drag on. The greatest fear is a resumption of hostilities.

 

Beyond this simple analysis, one may need to look at the complexities of the armed conflict and peacemaking conditions in Myanmar.

 

Unlike conflicts elsewhere, Myanmar has many armed ethnic groups. Officially there are 16 groups, but more are asking to be included in the negotiations. The predicament for the government is that allowing groups not on list to be around the table may encourage the proliferation of armed groups. Their exclusion, however, may also be a source of continuing conflict.

 

Then there are some 5000 militia groups scattered throughout Myanmar’s conflict areas. This is an absolutely alarming figure for anyone familiar with any peace negotiations. Some of them are allied with the government while some fight alongside their ethnic brethren. Some exist just to make money on the pretext of defending their communities. They regularly upset the fragile balance of Myanmar’s peace process.

 

On the government side, the executive is leading the negotiations with the help of the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, and the Union Parliament, or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. As it stands now, extra-constitutional issues – for example, changes to the constitution in relation to federalism – are being discussed that are beyond the jurisdiction of President U Thein Sein’s government. For talks to result in a “way out” that is agreeable to the armed groups, the government will also need the qualified consent of the armed forces and the parliament.

 

Equally crucial to the already complicated picture are issues such as resources, arms smuggling, geopolitical conditions, and political and economic reforms. Another often-cited obstacle is the deep-seated distrust that is hard to dissipate. Then there are smaller groups that are making bigger demands because they have more to lose from the current negotiations.

 

There are also policy issues. Chief among them is the policy of all-inclusiveness, which is necessitated by the large number of armed groups involved. It is a great idea – politically salient and practically essential. But a side effect of the policy is that it provides all groups – big or small – with similar powers. If one is not ready to enter negotiations or wants to prolong the process for whatever reason, then progress is very likely to be stymied.

 

So what might be Zartman’s “turning points” – windows of opportunity to herald a ripe moment – in Myanmar’s current situation? For me, two such turning points are the reintroduction of democracy and the election of U Thein Sein as president.

 

While democracy has enabled multiple avenues for conflict resolution to be explored, tried and tested, the president’s personal commitment and willingness to negotiate peace with armed ethnic groups has changed the conflict landscape. Without doubt, the picture would not look as it does today without the collective response that armed ethnic leaders have shown toward the government’s peace overtures.

 

That being said, one has to be realistic. The successful conclusion of a conflict goes beyond the ripe moment. Most importantly, a ripe moment does not last forever. For the conflict to end in Myanmar this ripe moment will have to seized – and seized with the conviction that there is only one way forward.

 

Aung Naing Oo is associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program at the Myanmar Peace Center.

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