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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 50 New Delhi December 3, 2016

Burma for New Talks

Monday 5 December 2016, by Harish Chandola

The Myanmar (Burmese) Army has stopped Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the President of the country in spite of her party, the National League for Democracy, winning the country’s general elections in November last by a landslide. The Army continues to retain control of the country’s powerful Ministries of Defence, Border Affairs and Interior. Ms Suu Kyi is described as the State Councillor. The government, which has 36 Ministries, wants to merge them into 21 to create a streamlined government.

The most important event to unite various ethnic minorities in the country, divided since independence in 1948, was held on September 3 at its capital Naypyidaw for four days.

The next conference of its Army, ethnic states and Parliament is being prepared to be held in a few months to solve the problem of uniting its large number of minorities, with the Army trying to bring together this timber and mineral-rich country. The last attempt in this direction was made on September 3 for four days at a conference attended by its 17 militias, but boycotted by three. While the talks were going on, the Army’s fighter jets were attacking positions of the Kachin Independence Army around Laiza. It was, however, the first time that representatives of ethnic minorities were talking to the Army since independence.

The history of the country is very compli-cated. For its four-day peace talks with 17 insurgent groups since independence, delegates had come to Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, as clashes continued in Shan and Kachin states. Seventeen groups attended the peace conference, in which they talked to the Army for the first time and were listened to. On the streets of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, the unity conference was less remarkable. One young man of a Kachin school said Aung San Suu Kyi wants to show that she is doing great things, while another student said that she cares only for the Bamar (Burman) people.

Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities amount to about 40 per cent of its population and have a large number of guerilla groups operating in their resource-rich border areas. In 1947, on independence, the Burmans believed it would be hard to create a federal system and give up the idea that they (Burmans) are the country’s natural rulers. Its Constitution shields it from civilian control. The government has grown rich by snatching the resource-rich areas from the minorities and making deals with them, like with the United Wa State Area. The people there are unwilling to follow the Burmese law and abandon activities such as drug smuggling.

If such problems are solved, then it may be possible for the country’s many minorities to live with each other; they at the moment are divided into seven ethnic states and six official autonomous areas. Groups such as the Wa, Palaung and Pa-O will worry that the states in which their autonomous areas are located will simply supplant the Central Government. They would prefer states of their own. Some groups have autonomous regions while others do not. At the conference, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “We will surely be able to build the democratic federal union of our dreams.” The Army Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, promised to work towards peace. Ethnic minorities acknowledged that it was the first time they were talking to the Army and it was listening. The conference was televised. A few said later that it was a political illusion. But it was an improvement because a few years ago displaying a Kachin flag would have led to arrest. In 1947 Aung San, who led the fight for freedom from British rule, had signed the Panglong Agreement with the representatives from the country’s Shan, Chin and Kachin people, which had been promised “full autonomy in internal administration”. But he was assassinated before he could come to power and ethnic conflict continued to plague the country, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands. The Army struck deals with some of them.

The Myanmar Army, ruling the country, partially allowed civilian governments earlier this year but did not permit the formation of a federation. After her party’s election victory, Aung San Suu Kyi said achieving peace was her highest priority and explained that the talks were the first steps on that long road. The mandate she obtained and her personal stature gives her greater credibility as a negotiator than the military governments that preceded her. The insurgents said their fight for self-determination was not for secession but to run their own affairs without a federal union. The Army said the Constitution it wrote eight years ago gives powers to them but they should accept autonomous areas within the states and allow the powers given to a chief executive appointed by the Army for each area.

The next meeting of various ethnic organisations, it was agreed, will negotiate a frame-work for more substantive talks.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West, South and Central Asian developments.