A state of peace for Myanmar?

This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 29 June 2015

When the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army declared a unilateral ceasefire earlier this month, the bloody war in Kokang faded from the headlines.

We can assume that all the attention focused on one corner of Shan State was getting inconvenient for the Kokang leadership, their Myanmar sparring partners and even the Chinese.

This ceasefire is another reminder that Myanmar’s long-running borderlands conflicts are about so much more than public demands for ethnic autonomy.

Wars fuelled by illicit trade – in drugs, guns, timber, gems and people – make it impossible to disentangle political demands from profit-making self-interest. And almost everywhere you look in Myanmar, for the past quarter-century, there has been a ceasefire, peace agreement or truce to further complicate local affairs.

For an entire generation, the Tatmadaw leadership premised its efforts to guarantee the non-disintegration of the Union on these shadowy deals. Some have proved resilient, particularly where new wealth has lubricated the crunching frustration of ceasefire stalemates.

Any long-term nationwide peace agreement will need to get to grips with exactly what has been going on.

Perhaps the most successful ceasefire – in the sense that it has limited armed hostilities – is the agreement with the United Wa State Army. It has kept tens of thousands of guns quiet in one of the most difficult corners of Shan State. Yet it has also created conditions for a so-called “narco-army” to enrich itself, bulk up its defences and play an outsized role in the regional drug business.

That business continues to boom, fuelled, in large part, by the cheap and unstoppable flow of methamphetamines produced in former battlefields across eastern and northern Myanmar.

The fact that this lucrative trade thrives in the messy conditions of long-term ceasefires is no surprise. While under such circumstances Myanmar military, police and intelligence units are in regular contact with their counterparts from armed ethnic groups, it has been in nobody’s interests to push too hard against former adversaries, or to allow real scrutiny of what has been going on.

With a wink and a nod, large parts of Myanmar have been surrendered to the pragmatics of ceasefire deal-making.

Certainly in Thailand there are no illusions about the enmeshment of above-board business and illegal activities on the Myanmar side of the border. Some even claim that Yangon’s sky-high real estate prices are a direct outcome of this situation. Those who profit from the sale of illegal drugs have likely found that bricks-and-mortar and concrete-and-steel provide a safe investment.

It is in this context that the peace-building efforts of the current Myanmar government have sought to find new compromises. There is still a large economic carrot being dangled for anybody who might be prepared to accept the government’s terms.

Of course the hope is that over the years ahead the narcotics business – as well as other illicit activities like people smuggling, the wildlife trade, and black-market timber and gems – might become less appealing.

One of the goals of the peace negotiations is to legitimise armed ethnic interests through economic and political incentives. The idea is that wealthier and more fully enfranchised people will have fewer reasons to rebel and can be discouraged from devoting their energies to illegal business.

The Myanmar and foreign peace brokers who have been involved in these processes can tell long stories about what has been required to nudge discussions toward a positive outcome. The day-to-day grind of liaison, monitoring, negotiation, compromise and rebuttal is no joke.

With such a traumatic history of internal conflict, the bottom line is that if Myanmar can get it right, the world will sit up and take notice. It will be a major turning point in the country’s political history and one of the most significant global peace-building achievements in recent memory.

Yet that could all be undermined by the continuation of the old patterns, where ceasefires merely mark a pause in the eternal push-and-pull for influence, control and better positions.

A further concern is that if the current government cannot finalise a deal in the next couple of months, we will be waiting until well after the election for peace negotiations to resume. In a best-case scenario, it could be at least six months after the poll before serious attention returns to the issue of peace building.

Experience from the aftermath of the 2010 election also suggests that dangers can lurk in that period. It was after the last election that the Kachin Independence Army went back to war and that new skirmishes erupted in Kayin State.

Given the tensions and sensitivities in 2015, there are serious risks that conflict could escalate yet again. One possible way to avoid that outcome would be to courageously agree the final terms of peace before the anticipated poll.

Nicholas Farrelly is the Director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre and co-convenor of the “States of Peace in Asia” academic forum being held on 29 June 2015 at the University of Yangon.