Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts - Hold fire, if not ceasefire

IT HAS become something of a holy grail for the government of President Thein Sein—a nationwide ceasefire ceremony, witnessed by the world’s diplomats and photographers. For the reformers in Mr Thein Sein’s government such a scene would cap their efforts to transform Myanmar from a strife-storm, impecunious, isolated military dictatorship into a peaceful, democratic and fully integrated member of the world community—a process that they feel only really began when their man was appointed president in March 2011

Aung Min, the gung-ho minister in charge of all the negotiations with Myanmar’s various ethnic rebels on the fringes of the country, has managed to sign ceasefire agreements with 14 of the relevant ethnic groups, leaving only two outstanding: the Kachins and the Palaung. Of these two the northern Kachins are much the most important as they are more numerous and, as many of them are Christian (mainly Baptists), they attract much more attention and support from the West, particularly America. Since the deterioration of a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), and the government in 2011, thousands have been killed in renewed fighting and more than 100,000 Kachins displaced. The continuing Kachin violence, together with the slaughter of the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine state last year, have been major blots in the reforming government’s copybook.

Last week, however, brought hope that the Kachin conflict might be easing, even if not exactly ending. After the latest round of negotiations between the leaders of the KIO and the government, both sides agreed to a seven-point plan for the further reduction of hostilities and new arrangements for the resettlement of displaced civilians. There was some disappointment that this was not the much hoped-for “ceasefire agreement”, but that, surely, was expecting a bit too much.

After all, only six months or so ago the two sides were engaged in some of the most ferocious fighting ever witnessed throughout the ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country since independence in 1948. For the first time, for instance, Myanmar’s army was using jet fighters to attack Kachin positions around their capital of Laiza. More recently there had been fresh fighting around Putao district in northern Kachin state. Untangling the two sides at this point was going to be that much harder than it already was. As it is this new agreement sets up new ways to monitor and mitigate new clashes; hardly a grand breakthrough, but another step towards a someday ceasefire, nonetheless.

For now the dream of a nationwide ceasefire agreement remains on hold. And for the Kachins, Palaung and other ethnic militias negotiating with Mr Aung Min, the government’s publicly expressed desire to hurry along strengthens their hands; they are in less of a hurry to settle. The national government wants it all done and dusted well before the general election in 2015, in order to burnish its reformist credentials at the polls and to give Mr Thein Sein his legacy. The ethnic groups are happy to wait and use the self-imposed pressure on the government’s negotiating team to extract maximal concessions from them. Thus the government’s deadline is slipping all the time—originally they had hoped for July, then October, now it could be November or beyond.

And after that comes the really hard business of securing final peace settlements with all the ethnic groups, a general disarmament and all the rest of it. But decades of conflict with the Myanmar government has bred a great deal of hatred, distrust and cynicism among the ethnic groups. All this won’t be wiped clear in a few months, or even years, of peace negotiations. A nationwide ceasefire is one thing—a genuinely peaceful, integrated Myanmar is quite another, and still a long way off. By Banyan for The Economist

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