The Myanmar context

For the first time since independence, government forces and most Ethnic Armed Groups have stopped fighting. This is an historic achievement in peace-making. However, the ceasefire process has yet to be transformed into a substantial and sustainable phase of peace-building.

Ashley South
28 March 2014
An internally displaced peoples (refugee) camp in the Laiza City Hall, Myanmar

An internally displaced peoples (refugee) camp in the Laiza City Hall, Myanmar. Demotix/Ryan Libre. All rights reserved.

Good demographic data is hard to come by in Myanmar. While the census scheduled for April 2014 may help in this respect, it is also likely to reinforce arbitrary and unhelpful categorisations of ethnic identity in the country. Such caveats notwithstanding, non-Burman communities make up at least 30% of the population.

Burman and minority elites having failed to successfully negotiate a pacted transition to independence in 1948, the following decades were marked by armed conflict between a militarised government dominated by elites within the Burman ethnic majority, and dozens of Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs) seeking to represent the grievances and aspirations of marginalised minority communities. In the decades which followed, EAGs became increasingly associated with economic agendas - but in most cases they also enjoy significant (if often contested) legitimacy among their own communities.

Armed conflict in Myanmar has been marked by serious and widespread human rights abuses on the part of both the Tatmadaw and - less systematically - EAGs. In late 2012 there were an estimated 650,000 IDPs in Myanmar, and 415,000 refugees originating from the country. In addition, millions of migrants have also left the country, often fleeing similar conditions to those faced by documented refugees and IDPs.

The election of a semi-civilian government in November 2010 represented a break with the past, despite the continued role of the military in government and politics. Since late 2011, the new government under President (and ex-General) U Thein Sein has agreed or re-confirmed preliminary ceasefires with 10 major armed groups.

Despite such positive developments however, in June 2011 the Myanmar Army launched a major offensive against the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in northern Myanmar, breaking a 17-year ceasefire. As a result, at least 80,000 people were displaced along the border with China, with tens of thousands of more IDPs in the conflict zones and government-controlled areas.

This resurgence of armed conflict included some of the most significant battles of Myanmar’s 50-plus year civil war. Although the government and KIO agreed a preliminary ceasefire in March 2013, the subsequent 12 months were characterised by continued clashes, in both Kachin and neighbouring Shan States, including direct Myanmar Army attacks on civilians.

Notwithstanding such disruptions and caveats, for the first time since independence, government forces and most EAGs have stopped fighting. This is an historic achievement in peace-making. However, the ceasefire process has yet to be transformed into a substantial and sustainable phase of peace-building.

In areas where ceasefires have held (e.g. most of southeast Myanmar), these have resulted in significant improvements in the lives of conflict-affected communities. Many villagers say they can now travel more freely, and livelihoods are beginning to improve in some areas, with villagers having better access to their fields and decreases in predatory taxation by Myanmar authorities. However, the government and EAGs have so far failed to agree monitoring and other measures which would secure and consolidate the ceasefires.

In addition to the need to consolidate the ceasefires, the peace process in Myanmar is unlikely to be sustainable without the start of political dialogue between the government and ethnic stakeholders.

Serious doubts remain whether the government and Myanmar Army will be willing to accept ethnic demands such as federalism, either in principle or in practice. There is an urgent need to agree to a framework for talks. In addition to EAGs, ethnic political parties and civil society actors must also be involved - as must conflict-affected communities, including refugees and IDPs.

Community-based organisations in Myanmar have developed extensive networks, often providing life-saving assistance to conflict-affected communities. This is particularly the case in the Thailand-Myanmar borderlands, areas where EAGs and associated civil society actors have long received international support, provided under the ‘umbrella’ of the refugee camps in Thailand.

‘Inside’ the country, in government-controlled areas, there has been a revival of civil society networks over the past decade, including within and between ethnic nationality communities. The convergence of these different civil society actors, and the integration of non-state and government service delivery systems and governance regimes, is one of the most significant challenges in the peace process.

Towards durable solutions?

Of particular concern are the future of health and education service delivery systems implemented by – or in close association with – EAGs, and more the status of non-state ethnic administrations in conflict-affected areas. These non-state structures are generally quite effective, and are often considered by local people as more legitimate than those of the militarised state. The international aid community in Myanmar should be encouraged to support these locally owned and delivered regimes, until such time as a comprehensive political settlement is agreed.

Solutions to forced migration in Myanmar depend on the broader political framework - in particular the resolution of decades-long armed ethnic conflicts. As yet, IDP and refugee issues have not featured prominently in negotiations between the government and EAGs, beyond general expressions of concern.

Some EAGs (e.g. the KIO, and along the Thailand border the Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party) have sought to engage with displaced communities regarding the peace process, explaining their positions and eliciting input.

In general however, forced migrants’ involvement with the peace process has been quite limited, particularly on the part of marginalised groups (e.g. women, and ethnic ‘minorities-within-minorities’ - e.g. Muslims in refugee camps in Thailand).

In some areas, international and national or local organisations have undertaken ‘pilot projects’, to test the possibility of helping IDPs either to return to previous settlements, or enhance human security in their current location. The ‘IDPs first, refugees later’ approach seems to be favoured by government, EAGs and the international community. Given their significant agency and resourcefulness, it seems unlikely that IDPs will wait until a comprehensive peace process and framework for refugee return is in place, before adopting their own locally-appropriate (at least semi-) durable solutions.

Assistance and protection to displaced people should be based on an understanding of, and support to, IDPs and refugees' often brave and ingenious self-protection and coping strategies. Conflict-affected communities in Myanmar demonstrate high levels of 'human capital'. It is important that external interventions understand and support these capacities, and do not inadvertently harm local rehabilitation and peacebuilding efforts. If durable solutions are to be sustainable (really ‘durable’), it is important that these build on local initiatives.

While displaced and other conflict-affected communities have wide-ranging needs, IDPs across the country (and refugees outside it) repeatedly express the need for protection - from human rights abuses and inequitable and unsustainable livelihoods (and from premature repatriation from neighbouring countries). There is a clear role here for mandated international organisations (such as UNHCR).

Previous international efforts to assist and protect displaced communities (for example, in the 1990s) were hampered by limited mandates and political will, in a context where Myanmar remained under authoritarian military rule. In the context of the current peace process, and broader government-driven reforms in Myanmar, it is essential to recognise the authority of EAGs - which enjoy significant (albeit often contested) legitimacy among ethnic nationality communities, and in many cases provide much-needed services to conflict-affected communities.

Failure to engage constructively with these key actors could undermine the broader peace process. International donors and aid agencies should ensure that their efforts to assist forced migrants and other vulnerable populations do not inadvertently cause harm, in a context where the state is perceived to be using the peace process to expand its authority into conflict-affected areas under the control or influence of EAGs.

These recommendations focus on the importance of asking communities about their concerns, hopes, intentions and activities. Some (perhaps many) IDPs will prefer to stay in-situ, having found semi-durable solutions to displacement in a new location (the equivalent option for refugees being local integration). Others will want to return to a previous location - raising the question of where is ‘home’, if an individual or family has moved dozens of times over decades.

People’s hopes, fears and intentions will vary, both within and between families and communities, and over time, depending on the options available and the security, political, social and economic context. Therefore, consultation should not be a one-off activity, but a continuous exercise.

Consultations should seek out a broad set of stakeholders. In the past, it was difficult for outside actors to talk directly with IDPs and other conflict-affected communities inside Myanmar. Therefore, exile-based and activist groups had a special role to play, speaking on behalf of vulnerable communities inside the country. While such networks continue to be significant actors, it is increasingly possible to engage directly with conflict-affected communities.

In this complex context, external actors should seek to understand locally articulated needs, and support the significant agency of forced migrants and related civil society and political groups. For many donors and aid agencies, this will require a significant shift in organisational and political culture.  

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