No Picnic for Suu Kyi on Ethnic Reconciliation

Touring Myanmar’s ethnic states before her party's landslide win in the Nov. 8 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly emphasized peace and reconciliation as one of the National League for Democracy’s priorities in the event it would get to form a government. It has now been given the opportunity in the form of a landslide vote in which the army’s party was soundly drubbed.

But the army is unlikely to make peace and reconciliation an easy task. Now that official results for the elections have been fully disclosed, the NLD has won 135 parliamentary seats to just 11 for the Union Solidarity and Development Party – the army proxy – although the army retains 25 percent of the parliament seats while the Army commander in chief appoints three crucial ministers: Ministers of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

The NLD now faces a huge challenge before taking on the task of running the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), the government-affiliated body in charge of the peace process with Myanmar many ethnic armed groups. Suu Kyi openly talked about her future personal involvement in reaching peace with the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO). That involvement was confirmed by NLD senior member Win Htein to the Irrawaddy magazine last week: “The peace process will be led by Suu Kyi, don’t think about the others,” he said.

But she has inherited a very confused situation, deliberately and hastily created by President Thein Sein's government, in an attempt to get credit before the elections.

Thein Sein's government has worked very hard these last three years through the Myanmar Peace Center to put an end to the country's persistent, decades-old civil conflicts. In March, the government and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team – a negotiating body from 16 armed groups – both approved a draft for a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. In the end, rushing to find an agreement before the elections, the government only managed to secure the signing of eight EAOs as they are known.

That result proved to be very far from the all-inclusiveness implied by the previous draft. According to the non-signatories, the ethnic groups were under heavy pressure to sign without hesitation before the elections, so that the government could flash the ceasefire agreement around as their own success. But in September, splits occurred in the ceasefire team between those who were not ready and those who were willing to sacrifice the all-inclusiveness of the previous draft and still call for the end of the conflicts in Shan and Kachin State.

On Oct. 15, a ceremony of self-congratulation welcomed the signing of the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which some argued should lose the “Nationwide” part. Among the signatories, the powerful Karen National Union saw divisions rising in their own ranks. The KNU has been in a very awkward position, with pressure from international NGOs and from the Thai government, which has been allowing thousands of Karen refugees to roost at its border for 20 years, not to mention economic interests in Karen State that have helped to push KNU leaders to sign.

“What’s happening now is that there was some pressure from the government, and the KNU had to sign the NCA,” David Tharckabaw from KNU told the Irrawaddy last month. “Some foreign NGOs have destroyed the house of the United Nationalities Federal Council (Burma’s main ethnic alliance).”

Other armed groups felt the same pressure, but just didn't bend to it. “We regularly received NGOs who try to urge us to sign. But as long as it is not a solid agreement including everyone, it will just break and that is why we won't be pressured into signing a fake NCA,” said Dau Hka, a spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army.

On the other hand, for good or worse, ties have been built in the three-year-long peace talks with the current government and some armed groups feel weary to have to try again to build trust with a new government and to start over again.

Now, however, conflicts are escalating in different parts of the northern Shan and Kachin States. Sporadic clashes continue, while the Tatmadaw -- the Burmese army -- intensifies its presence around the ethnic regions in an effort to force the recalcitrant parties back to the table, creating an insoluble situation for the NLD to deal with.

In Kachin State fighting, apparently initiated by the Tatmadaw, has been occurring on a regular basis since a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army met a dead end in 2010.

“Since then, we have had endless talks to resolve the issue. And the talks just serves as leverage for the next conflict,” said Dau Kha, a KIA spokesman. The truce period has just become a preparation period for the next fighting. We learned that a ceasefire is not enough without a political dialog. For now they just won't give it to us.”

While everyone across the country was hailing the NLD victory, the continued fighting doesn’t point to a bright future on the ethnic front. The political transition to a new government hasn’t prevented Tatmadaw aggressiveness from complicating the situation even more for the ceasefire agreement, which NLD will have to deal with.

“They are trying to tighten their grips around our territory,” Dau Kha said. “It is a move designed to show how, nevertheless, they are indispensable for the country's security. So if you refused to sign the NCA, you are a potential target in the coming months.

The Tatmadaw appears to have its own alternative agenda regarding the transition period, reassessing their positions to have the upper hand when the political situation shifts with the arrival of NLD's new players.

During and after elections, no one spoke out against the continued fighting among the political figures, an absence of reaction that gave the Tatmadaw comfortable space to operate on its own. With the current 2008 constitution, which protects the Tatmadaw's interests, space for the next government will be narrow. “For now, we have no reason to be happy or not about Aung San Suu Kyi stating that she will get involved in the peace process. We will just wait and see how she can play it out,” said General Secretary Khu Oo Reh of the Karenni National Progressive Party, the political wing of the Karenni Army, another EAO that didn't sign the NCA.

According to article 20f of the 2008 constitution, the Tatmadaw is in charged with safeguarding the constitution. In that political framework, it is hard to imagine NLD as a miracle worker in the peace process.

“We remain very skeptical about NLD's capacity to really improve the ethnic situation,” said Dau Kha. “The Army still has too much power and this is not going to change. I think we will witness a tough power struggle soon.”

As Suu Kyi recently stated her admiration for Tatmadaw, for her father General Aung San is one of its founder, the peace process could take a turn for the worse if, forced to negotiate with the military, she turns a blind eye on the peace process’s inextricable state.

The NLD's manifesto in the election period mentioned a need for federalism and ethnic self-determination. Ultimately, most of the EAOs will wait for her to fulfill her promise, knowing the decision will ultimately never be in her hands. No matter the coalition agreement, the political dialog that is supposed to follow will turn out will shape the next steps of the peace process.

For the Kachin, “for the ethnic people, peace can only mean federalism. If federalism is not achieved, then the armed groups will keep their revolutions going on.”

Among the rebels, with or without a ceasefire, pragmatism and moderate hope reign for what's coming. Even for the All Burma Student Democratic Front – one signatory -- constitutional issues remain a key focus that the NLD victory and momentum cannot erase.

“In the end, the country's changes are beyond her, said the retired battalion commander Richard Htay Reh. “She is an icon for peace, but time has to pass and political structures slowly transform. Otherwise it will never work.”