Opinion: Why Burma should look to Belfast

Last week, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi visited Belfast to learn about Northern Ireland’s hard-fought peace process and its viability as an analogue for Burma’s current sectarian troubles. It turns out the Lady may be on to something.

Speaking at Wellington College in Belfast, Suu Kyi remarked, “what we have learned here…will help us a great deal back in Burma.” The significance of the remark cannot be overstated as it reveals a previously submerged awareness that solutions to Burma’s troubles may exist outside the state’s borders.

Yet this statement was overshadowed by what many Burma observers consider to be a series of policy missteps during Suu Kyi’s whirlwind European tour. When she was not accepting peace prizes and freedom medals from European leaders, she was rebuffing claims of an ethnic cleansing in Burma. The irony is impossible to ignore.

Over the last two years, Burma’s quasi-civilian leadership has moved to shed its pariah status through a series of tectonic reforms. From releasing thousands of political prisoners (Aung San Suu Kyi included) to holding nominally free and fair elections, the world has been quick to applaud, and reengage with, the State. All of these reforms are at risk now as Burma’s image as the Southeast Asian poster-state for economic growth are yielding to images of sectarian violence.

Since communal violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s predominantly Muslim Rakhine State last year, more than 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced and hundreds – if not thousands – are believed to have been killed. The picture is changing for the worse.

While Suu Kyui was in Italy receiving “Rome’s Award for Peace and Humanitarian Action,” Tomas Ojea Quintana was testifying before the United Nations Third Committee on Human Rights. Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, urged the Burmese government to address the most serious threat to the state’s present reforms and future viability, that being a widespread “anti-Muslim narrative.”

The government, from President Thein Sein down to MP Aung San Suu Kyi, can prove their commitment to tackling Burma’s sectarian violence by going back to school – in Belfast.

So what lessons are there to be learned in Northern Ireland and Ireland? First, Burma’s leaders – many of whom are former military officers – need to get comfortable with the idea of decommissioning. During period of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) successfully worked to see paramilitary organizations lay down their arms. Burma is home to over 135 different ethnic groups, many of whom have their own militarized branch, and these groups frequently enter into small-scale civil wars with government troops. Such has been the story for nearly a half-century.

Second, Burma’s government needs to break from tradition and engage in an inclusive peace process. Peace negotiations in the state often have the government brokering a single ceasefire agreement with a single ethnic militia. These do not work. Such was the case at the start of October when the government brokered a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization. Within two weeks, renewed artillery barrages and airstrikes replaced the peace. Going forward, Burma might take a cue from the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and sit down with all ethnic groups, not just one at a time. A lasting peace is achieved through an inclusive peace process, and Burma’s government must stop addressing ethnic conflicts as if they exist as single strands. The web is far more comprehensive.

A third point to be noted is that a sustainable peace is not forged overnight. Depending on the source, a conservative date range for the Northern Ireland Peace Process spans 4 years from the April 1994 “Temporary Cessation of Hostilities” to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. And discussions on improving relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland are ongoing. If Burma’s government is serious about resolving ethnic unrest as indicated by Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, then they must match this rhetoric with reality. And that reality may take years to realize. The patience must cut both ways, and humanitarian observers noting Burma’s own troubles must allow for the embers of peace to breathe and catch fire.

The Northern Ireland analogue should resonate with the United States as well and recall the efforts of Senator George Mitchell. Appointed by President Clinton as the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland in 1995, Mitchell’s work was instrumental in bringing multiple governments and political parties to the negotiation table ultimately leading to the Belfast Agreement. As the US faces increasing criticism for being premature in applauding Burma’s reforms, America’s humanitarian commitment to seeing Burma succeed should be deepened. And this commitment should begin with President Obama urging the Ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, to take a more aggressive role in engaging Burma’s government in discussions of the sectarian violence.

Burma is on the precipice of a serious ethno-religious conflict, perhaps even genocide when considering the violence in Rakhine State. It would be wise to consider the Northern Ireland analogue as Burma’s government searches for peace. Should Burma choose to look abroad for assistance, the United States should be ready to provide the government with any and all tools necessary to make peace and see it endure. It’s rare for a country to admit they don’t have all the solutions for their own internal challenges. Here’s to hoping Burma decides to invest as much time and energy in its people as it has in its booming economy.

(Reid Lidow is an undergraduate researcher at the University of Southern California in international relations and political science. He has previously conducted research in Burma.)