What does the NLD’s re-election mean for Myanmar’s stalled peace process and the country’s deeply rooted ethnic conflict?

By: Amy Dwyer

Author bio: Amy Dwyer previously served as a programme development advisor on programmes in Myanmar, focusing on human rights, freedom of religion and belief and sexual violence in conflict. She currently work in international policy and research.

The National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide rise to power in 2015 was expected to catalyze Myanmar’s transition from an autocracy under military rule to a governing democracy, considered by many to be a symbol of hope.

Five years on, trust in the country’s peace process has declined as signatories have withdrawn from the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Unmet demands for autonomy from Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs) have resulted in heightened tensions and increased communal violence. The long-term persecution and expulsion of more than 700,000 Rohingya made news around the world in 2017, bringing to light the deeply rooted ethno-nationalist beliefs that continue to fuel divides and conflict across the country.[1]

Defending the Rohingya remains a particularly unpopular political position and one which Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has so far being unwilling to publicly take. Ethnic minority leaders have repeatedly accused the government of instituting a “Burmanization” policy to suppress non-Bamar religions, while the government’s tepid attempts to calm nationalist agitation and emphasize the importance of democratic pluralism have been read by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups as a threat to the country’s dominant religion.

The November 2020 national elections, Myanmar’s third in six decade, saw the NLD’s landslide re-election. With over a million minority groups disenfranchised, experts argue that the result has validated the “personality cult” surrounding the party’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi as “the only icon for the Bamar majority”. This, accompanied by heightened economic hardships due to Covid-19, threatens a rise in open conflict.[2]

On the other hand, the NLD’s renewed mandate provides a timely opportunity to reassess the government’s role in the country’s peace process and reinvigorate the NCA. The party already highlighted its desire to build a democratic federal union in its election manifesto. To meaningfully achieve this, the NLD must address the past grievances of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic minority groups, build their trust in public institutions and implement a more flexible and inclusive approach to peace negotiations.

This op-ed provides an overview of ethno-nationalist roots in Myanmar and how this has impacted peace dialogues, before outlining what this means for rebuilding trust in the peace process and how likely this is.[1]

Ethno-nationalist roots and manifestations

Ethnic identity in Myanmar, arguably the country’s most politically significant marker, is stratified in policy, law and socio-behavioral norms. Myanmar’s transition from a wholly closed society to a gradually open one has seen the fragile union of 135 (recognized) ethnic groups and the carving of a national identity that defines people in fixed, exclusionary terms (Buddhist or non-Buddhist, Bamar or non-Bamar, and taingyinthar lumyo, which translates to “the kind of people who belong in the country).”[3]

The International Crisis Group notes a recurring perception in Myanmar that Buddhism is an inherently peaceful and non-proselytizing religion, therefore vulnerable to oppression from more “aggressive” faiths.[7] Research suggests that increasing Islamophobia in the West and “anti-Buddhist” actions in the Middle East and South Asia has exacerbated and legitimized such concerns.[8]

Britain’s colonial legacy played a significant role in generating division. As Great Britain started to promote separate ethnic states, including non-Buddhist ones, anti-colonial movements started using religious education to preserve a perceived loss of Buddhist culture. Buddhist teaching started to be reinforced through dhamma (Sunday) schools that continue to operate across the country to this day – including in non-Buddhist states.[9] The Buddhist Young Men’s Association emerged to counteract increasing religious antipathy among youth,[10] and patriotic organisations known as wunthanu aimed to mobilize disillusioned communities in support of Buddhist nationalism.[11]

As Myanmar entered a new democratic era in 2015, the debate over the role of Buddhism within politics was recast leading to a further surge in ethno-nationalist groups. Buddhist groups expressed ongoing concern that the NLD’s “pluralistic” approach placed the country’s majority religion at risk, resulting in emergence of ultra-nationalist groups such as the Ma Ba Tha (the Committee to Protect Race and Religion), which consider it their duty to protect Buddhism. Led by monks who are considered to hold greater legitimacy on religious issues than the government, its tactics have been legitimized by an old Myanmar saying that is also the motto of the current Immigration Ministry: “A race does not face extinction by being swallowed into the earth, but from being swallowed up by another race.”

The Ma Ba Tha has played a prominent role in civic education, service delivery, justice and dispute resolution in areas where the government is perceived to be weak. It has provided a channel for women to meaningfully participate in local community development initiatives, and it is an anchor for youth who faced high unemployment and uncertainty during Myanmar’s rapid transition. Underlying the popularity of nationalist narratives is a sense of economic anxiety and a feeling that “ordinary” people are not seeing tangible benefits from the reforms the NLD promised in 2015.

Democratic transition

Before assuming power, the NLD symbolized Myanmar’s biggest cause: the struggle against authoritarianism. Following fifty years of military rule, the party represented a victory in the uphill struggle against injustice and repression, assuring voters that one of its three key priorities would be to end the country’s long-running ethnic conflict and civil war.[12]

Despite concerns that the military (Tatmadaw) would continue to rule Myanmar in practice and that the NLD’s position would be largely symbolic, the government has built a working relationship with the Tatmadaw, which under the 2008 Constitution still occupies 25 per cent of Parliamentary seats and has the authority to appoint senior ministers. In 2018, the NLD announced plans to transfer the General Administration Department – the country’s leading agency for public administration – from the Tatmadaw-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs to a civilian government ministry, demonstrating a promising step towards greater civilian control of the government.

Hopes were also high that the NLD would consolidate the complicated peace process it inherited from the previous Thein Sein administration. In 2015, Myanmar’s National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed between the government and non-state ethnic armed groups (EAGs) following an 18-month negotiation period. The agreement granted federalism and security sector reform to EAGs in exchange for their disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.[13] Despite six EAGs not signing the agreement and concerns being raised regarding its lack of inclusivity, it paved the way for a political dialogue process. The following year, the NLD hosted the first 21st Century Panglong Conference with the goal of achieving a permanent peace accord.

Stalled peace process

Nevertheless, the peace process has faced ongoing challenges and the NLD has struggled to maintain formal dialogue with the ten NCA signatories, resulting in the temporary withdrawal of organisations such as the Karen National Union and Restoration Council of Shan State in 2018. Negotiations with non-signatories have also stalled. Only EAGs that signed the NCA were invited to the first Panglong Conference, and past human rights violations were excluded from discussions.[14] Reports have referred to the dialogue as largely “performative”,[15] and despite commitments to host talks every six months, a third Panglong Conference has been postponed four times.[16]

The International Crisis Group (2020) argues that the NLD made a fundamental mistake in adopting a formalized approach to peace talks, missing an opportunity to gradually build trust with and credibility among EAG leaders through regular, informal meetings. Efforts to reach bilateral ceasefires with various armed actors,[3] as a precursor to signing the NCA, have failed due to unrealistic demands placed on the groups to accept major restrictions within their operations, demonstrating a lack of understanding and legitimization of their grievances.

The peace process has equally faced challenges from EAGs and the military, the former of which has articulated broad, non-specific “ideals” that hinder progress in negotiations. The military has been blamed by ethnic groups for continued operations against them, only announcing unilateral ceasefires ahead of increased attention during the election campaign.[17] A Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JCMC) was set up by the government to implement and monitor adherence to NCA provisions, but all national and local bodies are chaired by military officers, while EAGs are only able to appoint vice chairs.[18] An independent evaluation in 2019 found that the JCMC remains a “passive monitoring operation”, relying on reporting from members and lacking capacity to ensure the protection of civilians against violations committed by NCA signatories.[19]

Disillusion among ethnic groups

As hopes for decentralization and reconciliation have diminished, disillusion with the government and electoral democracy has increased, and threats from insurgent groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and Kachin Independent Army have intensified.[20] White the latter supported the NLD in 2015, by 2018 it condemned Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to address ethnic minority concerns in the peace process.

Exclusion is most evident in Rakhine State, where the government refused the Arakan National Party the opportunity to form its own state government after performing strongly in the 2015 elections. In early 2018, state police targeted an anniversary gathering organized by ethnic Rakhine to mark the end of the independent Rakhine kingdom and its fall to the Burmans.[21] What followed was the government’s arrest and imprisonment of the state’s leading political figure and an escalation of clashes between EAGs and the Tatmadaw. UNHCR referred to the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine State as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” International pressure[4] against such military operations, including from the International Court of Justice, grew and as recently as 2020, Amnesty International collected evidence of airstrikes on civilians targeting Rohingya and Christian minorities.[22]

As the NLD struggled to harness the grassroots energy of ethnic groups which originally supported its cause, and as groups conceded that it has not lived up to the high expectations placed on it when first taking office, ultra-nationalist groups such as the Ma Ba Tha risked filling its role, offering a sense of order and cause to disillusioned communities and using this to propagate its concerns.

Studies argue that the NLD adopted a “staunchly nationalist position,” failing to introduce legislation to overthrow such groups.[23] Minimal attempts to restrict the influence of the Ma Ba Tha merely pushed coordination of members into the shadows and resulted in “branch-off” nationalist groups now beyond the Ma Ba Tha’s sole control, such as the 969, Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita and various myo-chit (“love for one’s own race”) youth groups. Any further restrictions risk inciting clashes with armed groups that hold informal alliances with the Ma Ba Tha and have promised to defend Buddhism with force where required.

2020 elections: rebuilding trust

In a transitional country like Myanmar, interpersonal trust and tolerance are fundamental to a democratic society. Despite nominally boasting the trappings of a developing democracy, institutions and mindsets in Myanmar change slowly. A positive appreciation for the “other” is still poorly rooted in the country’s human rights arena, with many civil society actors – though traditionally allies in promoting inclusivity and protecting the most marginalized – operating as representatives of their own groups rather than proponents of wider agendas. Speaking out for minority rights is still considered by many to be a taboo, carrying a heavy risk of reprisal under the country’s repressive legislation.[5] A nationwide 2018 survey by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections found that only 18 per cent of 2,364 citizens respondents felt other ethnic or religious groups could be trusted.[24]

The recent elections represent a pivotal milestone for Myanmar’s democratic transition, presenting both challenges and opportunities. Despite the announcement of solidarity among Kachin, Kayah, Mon, Chin and Karen parties,[25] Myanmar’s first-past-the-post system has continued to facilitate a “winner takes all” culture that excludes ethnic parties from having a political platform.[26] Nevertheless, the NLD possesses unparalleled political capital, placing it in a unique position to rebuild momentum for the peace process and defuse tensions in line with its manifesto. This can only be achieved if it rediverts its focus from garnering political support among its ethnic-majority Burman base to building trust with the country’s minority ethnic groups. The NLD must re-examine its own role in the peace process and ensure a more inclusive approach to dialogue, recognising that its neutral stance perpetuates perceptions of the party being a “manifestation” of Burman Buddhist ideals aligned with the military. Finally, if communities do not feel their grievances have been addressed, lasting reconciliation is unlikely.[27]

Recommendations

State

  • Encourage greater inclusion of minority ethnic groups in the peace process through introducing quotas for representation, providing training and incentives, ensuring access to information and addressing barriers to participation.

International community

  • Advocate a truth commission to address past human rights violations.[28] This should fully comply with international human rights special procedures, including cooperation with fact-finding missions investigating crimes against the Rohingya.

EAGs

  • Build consensus across ethnic lines where possible and organize, coordinate and amplify common positions to the government, including specific requests with timeframes and lines of responsibility. These should be realistic as trust is built over time.

Military

  • Gestures towards ethnic groups should not be tokenistic but instead build on trust and commitment to a more collaborative peace process. Provide opportunities for ethnic groups to chair and exercise genuine leadership within the JCMC and invite non-NCA signatories to engage in dialogue.

Civil society

  • Document, organize and articulate the concerns of ethnic minority communities to decisionmakers. Critically question and explore prejudices within the human rights community and consider the perspectives, interests and needs of “the other”. Promote a more collective sense of identity where ethnicity and religion become less of a divider and common beliefs, customs and norms become more of an equalizer.

 

References

[1] Several organisations and actors are cited: the country’s governing party (the NLD); the military (Tatmadaw), which occupies 25 per cent of Parliamentary seats; ethnic, state-level parties represented in the Assembly of the Union (such as the Arakan National Party); non-state ethnic organisations not currently represented, and their armed insurgent wings – some of which are signatories of the NCA (Karen National Union, Restoration Council of Shan State, Kachin Independence Party, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Arakan Army); ethnic groups (including Shan, Rakhine/Arakan, Chin, Mon, Karen, Kayah, Rohingya, Buddhist, Bamar, Kachin, Ta’ang); and ethno-nationalist groups (the Ma Ba Tha, 969, Dhamma Wunthanu Rakhita, myo-chit).

[2] During the review, the state reiterated its stance that there existed no minority community under the name of the Rohingya.

[3] Such as the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

[4] The NLD have refused to cooperate meaningfully with UN Fact-Finding Missions into the investigations against senior military officials for the genocide of ethnic Rohingya Muslims, rejecting visas for Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee and limiting access to the country by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (see Human Rights Watch, Myanmar Events of 2019, 2019).

[5] See Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, which is used to detain human rights defenders.

[1] Amnesty International, Caged Without a Roof: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State (London: Amnesty International, November 2017)

[2] Mahtani, S., and Diamond, C., Suu Kyi’s Godlike Status Drove her Myanmar Election Win. It Threatens to Rip the Country Apart (Washington, DC: The Washington Post, 18 November, 2020)

[3] Callahan, M. and Zaw Oo, Myo, Myanmar’s 2020 Elections and Conflict Dynamics, No. 146 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, April 2019)

[4] Human Rights Watch, Burma: Discriminatory Laws Could Stoke Communal Tensions (New York: HRW, 23 August, 2015)

[5] U.S Department of State, Burma Human Rights Report (Washington, DC: U.S Department of State, 2016)

[6] Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Burma: The Rise of Ethnic Parties in the Political System (Part II) (Washington, DC: CSIS, 17 April, 2014)

[7] International Crisis Group, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar (Brussels: ICG, 5 September, 2017)

[8] Ibid.

[9] openDemocracy, What’s Attracting Women to Myanmar’s Buddhist Nationalist Movement? (London: openDemocracy, 30 January, 2018)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tharaphi Than, Nationalism, Religion, and Violence: Old and New Wunthanu Movements in Myanmar, Volume 13, No. 4 (Arlington: Institute for Global Engagement, December 2015)

[12] International Crisis Group, Rebooting Myanmar’s Stalled Peace Process (Brussels: ICG, 19 June, 2020)

[13] Institute for Security and Development Policy, Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (Washington, DC: ISDP, October 2015)

[14] Mon, Y, Controversy, Progress at the Third Panglong Conference (Yangon: Frontier Myanmar, July 16, 2018)

[15] International Crisis Group, Rebooting Myanmar’s Stalled Peace Process (Brussels: ICG, 19 June, 2020)

[16] Ganesan, N. Taking Stock of Myanmar’s Ethnic Peace Process and the Third Twenty-First Century Panglong Conference (South Korea: The Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, October 2018)

[17] International Crisis Group, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar (Brussels: ICG, 6 August, 2019)

[18] Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, Joint Monitoring Committee Guideline for Each Level (Draft) (Yangon: JCMC, 2015)

[19] Banim, Guy P. and Maung Maung, Tin, Final Independent Evaluation of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC) Support Platform Project (SPP) Myanmar (UN: New York, September 2019)

[20] International Crisis Group, Myanmar: A Violent Push to Shake Up Ceasefire Negotiations (Brussels: ICG, 24 September, 2019)

[21] The Independent, Myanmar Police Shoot Dead Seven Buddhist Demonstrators and Injure 12 as Celebration in Rakhine Turns Violent (London: The Independent, 17 January, 2018)

[22] Amnesty International, Myanmar: Indiscriminate Airstrikes Kill Civilians as Rakhine Conflict Worsens (London: Amnesty International, July 2020)

[23] International Crisis Group, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar (Brussels: ICG, 6 August, 2019)

[24] People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, Citizens’ Mid-Term Perceptions of Government Performance (Yangon: PACE Myanmar, September 2018)

[25] The Irrawaddy, Ethnic Political Parties Merge to Seek Stronger Representation in 2020 Election (Yangon: The Irrawaddy, 11 September, 2018)

[26] International Crisis Group, Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar (Brussels: ICG, 6 August, 2019)

[27] Pierce, P., and Reiger, C, Navigating Paths to Justice in Myanmar’s Transition (New York: International Center for Transitional Justice, June 2014)

[28] Huchet, L, Dealing with Myanmar’s Past: A Call for a Truth Commission (Bristol: E-International Relations, 29 December, 2019)

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