At the beginning of the year my son came to the Kachin state with his newly-wed bride to receive our blessings for his marriage. For the first time I began to think about becoming a grandmother, holding a tiny grandchild and then actually thinking that, at some time in the future, I would welcome a granddaughter or grandson to our home for another happy wedding. What can I pass on to this future generation? What will unfold before their eyes? Snow-capped mountains and orchids hidden in deep forests? Streams rushing downhill to join the great Irrawaddy? Flourishing farmlands?
I had a vision of reforested hills in Hpakant, travellers gathering pleasure from the peaceful countryside where camps for internally-displaced persons now dot the hills. I saw organic farmers, where today great swathes of monocultures for export have now displaced the original owners. And I could imagine thriving universities, where drug-addicted young people presently waste away their lives.
These reflections are not simply personal, but concerns that every parent has in our country today. We are now at a critical juncture in our history, more promising than at any time in recent memory. For the first time since the 1950s, the country will have a civilian-majority government that came to office through the votes of a multitude of smaller nationality groups for a pan-national party promising political change.
For non-Burman peoples, however, an underlying question remains, as it has in every political era since independence in 1948: can a multi-ethnic country of such cultural vibrancy and diversity be governed by a party that appears to be led by one majority group?
Problems Confronting the New Government
The transition to democracy in Myanmar has taken over 25 years, and it is still far from complete. The writing of the most recent constitution took 17 years, and it is still not democratic in many respects.
Now, the largely civilian government of the National League for Democracy must deal with a multitude of problems. First and foremost, there is the continuing civil war, which has cost so many lives, disrupted entire communities and prevented the development of a modern state such as we see in other ASEAN countries. Then there is the need for fundamental reform in many aspects of national life, including the judiciary, economics, infrastructure, education and health. And, if political transition is to succeed, poverty must be alleviated, corruption curtailed, drug abuse radically reduced, and a host of other social crises addressed that have long blighted our country.
The road ahead will not be easy for the NLD. With such a national mandate, voters have high expectations, so the party faces pressures not to stumble too obviously as it makes its way in establishing a new government. The NLD must be visibly active in the areas that it has emphasised, notably peace and the rule of law, and it must be able to make recognisable progress in the welfare of the poorer and least-advantaged sectors of society.
At the same time, NLD members have long been marginalised or faced repression because political opposition was not tolerated by previous military-led governments. In consequence, many party officials lack expertise and experience in governing, so capacity-building must be undertaken and outside expertise may be called for. Moreover, under the terms of the 2008 constitution, the national armed forces (Tatmadaw) are still able to influence, block or control many political issues and developments. This is through three special preserves: the reservation for military appointees of 25% of all members in the national and local legislatures; the military’s right to appoint the ministers of Defence, Borders and Home Affairs and effect decision-making in the civil service down to the village-level through the General Administration Department; and the majority of military officers on the Defence and Security Council, which is the highest state institution in the country. In effect, despite the overwhelming support of voters, the newly-elected government of the NLD will remain dependent on the goodwill of the armed forces to exercise power and initiate social and political change.
For the moment, speculation is rife as to how the new government and legislatures will function. This is understandable as the country faces change after decades of military rule. For example, there are concerns as to whether the armed forces are ready to move forward more rapidly on the road towards democracy. In particular, there are rumours that military leaders still want to have more powers and posts in the country, not least in the ethnic states that are rich in natural resources and continue to suffer from conflict.
However, the intentions expressed by the NLD and its first appointments in parliament have generally been seen as positive so far. In Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's speeches and in the manifest of the party, it has been clearly stated that the party intends to form an inclusive, coalition-style government. The establishment of peace will be prioritised; a genuine federal system will be supported; and the party will "work to ensure a fair distribution across the country of the profits from natural resource extraction, in accordance with the principles of a federal union." Most recently in her message to the organisers of the Mon National Day celebrations, Daw Suu again emphasised the party’s support for a "genuine federal system in Burma, with equal rights and self-determination" for all. After decades of political impasse, these are encouraging words to all our country’s peoples.
What are the key issues at this critical juncture?
Given the multitude of tasks and obstacles that the NLD government must face, this raises the question of what the Kachins, like other marginalised peoples, must focus upon now? What problems and what strategies demand the most immediate attention?
The situation at the moment appears open on the surface but it is not transparent underneath. In particular, the outcome of Daw Suu’s meetings with the military and retiring president is not yet known, and this is causing political uncertainties. In the meantime, it seems to me that it is of utmost importance for all citizens and communities to grasp opportunities to engage with the NLD and find common ground on the most pressing issues in our lives. The following issues can immediately be highlighted: the need for
- an inclusive ceasefire, an end to human rights abuses and subsequent peace process for all peoples
- putting a halt to natural resource exploitation, including the jade plunder at Hpakant, and initiating the sustainable management of all natural resources
- the guarantee of feasibility studies, based upon international standards, that measure each project’s social and environmental impact and involve local communities in decision-making and benefit-sharing
- land reform and the security of land tenure through legislation, with special attention on conservation and sustainable use
- drug eradication, eliminating production, supporting local communities and farmers, combating trading networks and corruption, and reducing addiction
- the final ending of the threat of the Myitsone Dam construction, not just by its suspension but by cancellation for all time.
It must be emphasised, as demonstrated by the Save the Irrawaddy campaign, that the threat of the Myitsone Dam represents a national crisis that unites all citizens and peoples in our country, transcending ethnicity and religious affiliation.
In facing up to these tasks, it needs to be recognised that the political landscape has changed with the result of the 2015 general election. Many Kachin voters – like other nationality peoples – chose Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. This means that, while political hopes and aspirations remain the same, we are not – or cannot justifiably be – any longer in a state of “opposition” to the ruling party as was the case in the past when the Union Solidarity and Development Party led the government. This means the need for more cooperation, more focus on common goals, and more consciousness that every agreement and political decision should be made with the intention to create a “win-win” situation among all peoples. And this, in turn, means that not only specific “Kachin” but also “national” goals from the perspective of the NLD must be kept in mind.
Successful reform must be built upon a two-way exchange between the communities and government, and this requires that the new government engages with the real concerns and representatives of the people and not rely on token appointments or symbolic acts that too often characterised national politics during the parliamentary era of the 1950s.
With this in mind, there are many reasons to look forward positively in addressing the grave social and political challenges listed above. Almost all are concerns that are deeply shared with the Burman majority. If the civil war is brought to a close, soldiers from every ethnic background can return home. If resource governance improves, all peoples will benefit because the extractive industries are scattered throughout all states and regions. And if land tenure becomes more secure and the Irrawaddy River flows freely into the future, farmers and communities across the country can enjoy prosperity and security. In short, resolving these grave social and political issues will bring benefits to all; they should not be simply the concern of one people or part of the country.
In the coming months, then, there needs to be a renewed sense of ambition and hope. We all have an ally in the prospect of democratic government that we must seek to engage with. After decades of impasse and military rule, the success of the NLD government will be of the upmost importance to the development of a sustainable peace, a real democracy and a growing economy. It is surely in our interest, in the interest of our political parties, our civil society organisations and our people as a whole, to support and contribute to this process in any way possible.
And this need for cooperation should not be simply an issue for the relationship of communities with the NLD or new government. This need for reconciliation and collaboration is equally true among all ethnic nationalities as well. At this critical moment of change, it is equally important to find common ground among ourselves, finding compromises where they are needed and taking the same paths toward shared goals. Our objective should be to participate in and contribute to forums, negotiations and agreements that will resolve conflict and relieve ethnic grievances.
In summary, at the dawn of the NLD government, it is vital that new cycles of instability and unrest do not begin due to political inertia or the renewed marginalisation of any people or party once again.
Conflict and Peace
Because of Myanmar’s troubled history, it is important to remain informed and realistic. There have been too many unfulfilled promises and disappointments before. Most recently, the so-called “nationwide ceasefire agreement” has proven to be just the contrary: a spark to set off new armed conflicts that are now flaring up between signatories and non-signatories, with reports that the Tatmadaw has opened up a new front to support one nationality force in trying to take over new territory. The “nationwide ceasefire agreement” presently appears anything but these three words.
In this vacuum, we Kachins and other nationality peoples should therefore take every opportunity to engage with the NLD and new government on the vital subject of conflict resolution. Up until now, the NLD has kept its distance on recent peace talks and may not yet be very knowledgeable. On the other hand, the NLD’s distance has left room for negotiators from the ethnic armed organisations to develop their ideas in preceding years. On a positive note, it has also been reported that leaders of the main ethnic alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council, have now formed a committee to hold dialogue with an NLD-led government, and they have also said that they are on the same side as the NLD in their views on federalism and other key issues of ethnic reform.
Of course, many challenges lie ahead, both in the detail and processes for peace and reform. In the future, for example, it may be necessary to open up dialogue to include additional issues and initiate parallel processes for topics that are not strictly military or political, with a committee to coordinate between them. But whatever the structures for dialogue and political agreement, it will be essential to:
- ensure peace talks are genuinely inclusive and open to all peoples
- include new stakeholders in negotiations from broader sectors of society, especially women
- consider third-party facilitators
- monitor ceasefires effectively
- halt offensives and guarantee the withdrawal of Tatmadaw combatants as well, perhaps through reducing numbers step-by-step or retreating from one area after the other
- disband government-created militias that do not represent the interests of any community or nationality group but control areas where the state cannot exercise its power
- organise humanitarian access for internally-displaced persons and support their voluntary resettlement
- define the future role of ethnic armed forces
- encourage the national armed forces to revise the last of its six principles: “to march towards a democratic country in accord with the 2008 Constitution”.
This last need is especially sensitive and requires handling with care. It will mean Tatmadaw leaders dropping their insistence on maintaining every aspect of the 2008 constitution. But for political reform to move forward, it will be an increasing contradiction to try and create a representative and democratic political system in accord with a constitution that explicitly stipulates that a quarter of the parliament must be reserved for military appointees who are not elected. For its part, the NLD has not been very concrete about its peace talk intentions. Nevertheless, in the light of the NCA failure, ethnic nationality leaders should use the advent of a new government and this time of change to seek to improve the composition and process of the negotiations.
Many areas for improvement could be picked out. But to highlight just one long-neglected issue: there is a real need to include more women in all levels of dialogue. This is not simply a “gender-equality” question or because women are often the greatest victims of conflict. Rather, the equitable inclusion of women will be a real contribution to the peaceful resolution of a critical and life-defining issue for both the communities and nation.
Recently, for example, a study by the Peterson Institute in Washington, which covered 22,000 companies in 91 countries, demonstrated that the more woman are employed in middle and upper management the more profitable the business becomes. If, in fact, the number of women in senior management rose from 0 to 30 per cent the profitability of the concern rose by 15 per cent. This trend held true everywhere, and it is doubtless true for any institution in which women are active. The lesson is clear. The inclusion of women benefits society in general, and it is a necessity in terms of the human rights, democracy and economic progress that our country has long needed.
Let us hope therefore that future generations can look back with pride at a central role for women in our country’s peace process as a model for inspiration and success. For too long, the unhelpful reality has been one of exclusion and neglect.
Resource Management and Resource Sharing
Like all nationalities, the final key area of concern for the Kachin people is that of the management of natural resources. The regulation of extractive industries and the distribution of the benefits or revenues is a complicated process and should not be undertaken without the necessary expertise. But however it is conducted, it needs to be coordinated under a process of decentralisation or, in Myanmar’s case, federalisation as the most commonly-agreed goal. Presently, step-by-step decentralisation appears a realistic prospect, but the establishment of federalism depends on constitutional change that could require time.
In the meantime, it is reasonable to:
- focus on a discussion – perhaps within the framework of a future Union Peace Dialogue – of how a sharing system can be administered
- negotiate with the government to slowly delegate resource management and expenditure responsibilities to local officials to enable them to gain competency
- negotiate with the central government to combat and reduce illegal mining, smuggling and under-reporting and make information available to local governments so that they can verify the value of minerals extracted and be assured that they get their fair share.
It is easy to aspire to laudable goals. But in Myanmar we have already learned from bitter history to be realistic and that we cannot hope for immediate results in every challenge that we face. Progress is only likely to be incremental: one small change for the better, one after another. In the meantime, we must always be ready to grasp opportunities as they turn up in order to maintain our focus, to initiate suitable measures and to reach our goals. This will mean combining efforts to mobilise public support with the work of civil society organisations, with local and national parliamentary backing, and with legal measures to end conflict and deal with poverty, corruption and impunity.
We need, however, to be prepared for new difficulties as we deal with the legacies of the past. National transition is unlikely to be a smooth path. A current example is the question of poppy-growing and drug eradication in the Kachin and Shan states which has come to a head with the activities of the anti-narcotics Pat Jasan organisation. Here we see conflicting imperatives on the local level tied up with powerful stakeholders on the national level. Long-suffering communities seeking to take action on issues that harm their lives are threatened by local militias often connected to influential interests in the previous government, who are complicit in drug trafficking. At the same time, farmers deprived of their livelihoods need an alternative which frees them from dependence on illegal trade.
All such issues need to be addressed if they are not to undermine the prospects of national dialogue and peace-building in our country. While the peoples suffer, resources, trade and conflict have become closely inter-linked. This means that, in the coming years, we must bundle diverse strategies together to achieve agreements with the relevant parties on issues that are of urgent importance to us all. Whatever the difficulties, we must sustain national focus on these critical issues, seek ways and means to include all stakeholders, lend our strength to the civil government and legislatures as peace moves forward, and avoid threatening the chances of urgently-needed success. We can only wish for the success of the first democratically-elected, civilian government since 1960, now so many long years ago.
I have a simple vision of peace in my native Kachin land: a healthy environment and fair chances for my grandchildren. Is that too much to expect? After struggling for 55 years since conflict began in 1961, is this too much to hope for? We must dare to dream and we must dare to join all efforts to achieve the necessary change. Theirs must be the generation to enjoy peace.
Lahpai Seng Raw is a 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati.
This commentary is part of a TNI project funded by Sweden.