Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Myanmar’s peace process contributes to ASEAN stability

For the past six years, successive governments in Myanmar have struggled to build trust with more than twenty ethnic armed groups in a bid to end seven decades of civil war. Progress was made in 2015 with the signing of a National Ceasefire Accord by eight of the groups after an exhaustive period of negotiation that in itself built bridges between the Union Government, Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations.

This agreement paved the way for a resumption of dialogue under the NLD-led government elected in 2015, which State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has dubbed the 21st century Panglong Conference. Two formal meetings of the Conference have generated a set of agreed principles to govern a future federal structure to help ensure that all of Myanmar’s component groups feel secure in belonging to a united Myanmar.

To be sure, the process has a long way to go before all the parties agree on a mutually acceptable federal framework. Most of the more heavily armed ethnic armed organisations have yet to sign the National Ceasefire Accord; consequently, violence and upheaval continues to plague many of the ethnic areas and people are still being displaced by ongoing armed conflict.

But in the meantime, the contribution the ongoing peace process makes to overall ASEAN stability cannot be underestimated. For one thing, there were long-running ceasefire agreements before 2011 but no viable process of dialogue. Both the Thein Sein government and that led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have committed to constructive dialogue to consider ways to finally end the region’s longest running civil wars.

This is an important step towards preventing the continued exodus of refugees into neighbouring countries such as Thailand, which currently houses at least 100,000 refugees who have fled fighting. Another 150,000 IDPs are said to have fled across the Chinese border from Kachin State.

These short-term humanitarian concerns are in many ways dwarfed by the longer term social and economic returns the peace process will bring to the region. The long decades of conflict have reinforced a lucrative conflict economy that generates billions of dollars in revenue from illicit narcotics and jade, the profits from which mostly benefit those who control the guns. The UNODC’s Asia regional Representative Jeremy Douglas in a recent media interview described Myanmar as “the epicentre of the drug trade, at least in the Mekong region.”

The Myanmar government as well as ethnic armed groups have made efforts to curb the cultivation of opium poppies and the production of Methamphetamines, but the persistence of violent conflict has slowed the effectiveness of these eradication efforts.

The successful negotiation of a federal union will at last offer all citizens of Myanmar a chance to abandon the largely illicit conflict economy that benefits the few and plug into a formal economy that can take advantage of the ASEAN Economic Community and Myanmar’s strategic position between the huge consumer markets of China and India.

What can the rest of ASEAN do to help this process along?

Myanmar has made it clear that the peace process is home grown and does not require outside mediation. But there is a palpable need for indirect support in the form of capacity-building in the formal government sector and civil society. Indonesia has played a particularly constructive role in helping to build infrastructure in under-developed Rakhine State. Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia have contributed aid and technical advice. Indonesia’s armed forces has had a long association with the Tatmadaw, which is keen to learn from the Indonesia’s experience of managing political transitions.

Much more of this kind of constructive support is needed. For example, Thailand could do a lot more to share the experience it had in the 1980s of replacing the illicit narcotics economy with one that was more integrated with markets and services that helped reduce the marginalisation of hill people in the North of Thailand. This involved active schemes for crop replacement, but also ensuring that infrastructure was in place to help people bring goods to market and gain access to health and education services, which eventually loosened the grip ethnic armed groups had over the population of remote areas.

It is important that Myanmar sees the immediate neighbourhood as a source of support and assistance as it moves forward with the peace process. Hard feelings certainly linger over the treatment of Myanmar by its ASEAN neighbours during the long years of military rule, but the recent ASEAN Ministerial retreat in Myanmar convened by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi indicate that quiet diplomacy is possible.

Myanmar’s integration with ASEAN is felt in other ways too; millions of Myanmar nationals live and work in more developed ASEAN countries, where they help realise the vision of the ASEAN Economic Community. The hope is that peace in Myanmar’s ethnic areas will open up vast areas of the region for development and tourism that have never seen their potential realised.


Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.