Collective strength or NLD impotence?

Two recent — seemingly well-intentioned — statements from the NLD leadership highlight only serve to highlight how far the government is from achieving peace and reconciliation.

By SAI WANSAI | FRONTIER

ON MAY 6, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar published quotations from State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint side by side. The point seemed to be that the de facto leader was willing to delegate more authority to the new president.

Win Myint’s quote was an excerpt from his speech to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw on March 30, the day he was sworn in. He said: “We have much to carry on fulfilling the hopes and needs of the people of the country. We must press on until our citizens have their dignity raised and our country can retain its former glory on the global stage.”

The state counsellor’s quote was from a speech marking the second anniversary of the National League for Democracy government, on April 1. She said: “Collective strength is vital to build peace and stability which we need. We need to have mutual understanding to bring to an end the armed conflicts which have existed for many years among the ethnic nationalities. We can make this foundation strong with our collective strength.”

These are both well-meaning statements. But can these sentiments pave the way for more concrete, pragmatic action to achieve reconciliation and peace?

Restoring citizens’ dignity and the country’s glory

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There are two crucial undertakings necessary to achieve the goals outlined in Win Myint’s statement. One is to limit the damage, in terms of both ethnic armed conflict and communal and religious strife, and the other is to build public awareness.

The challenge in limiting the damage is that it’s only possible if the relevant parties believe what they are doing is damaging the interests of the country. Given that we have war in Kachin, Shan, Chin and Rakhine states – and the real prospect of Kayin State joining that list – it seems the stakeholders in these conflicts, particularly the Tatmadaw, do not see their present actions as damaging to the country as a whole.

All indications suggest that ethnic armed organisations are keen for a political settlement within an acceptable federal union system. However, the Tatmadaw seems to be driving for negotiated surrender or outright surrender. Nobody really knows what has propelled the Tatmadaw to launch its recent offensives instead of striving for peace through negotiation and political settlement. But it shows that ethnic conflict is still not yet seen as something to be contained or limited; rather, it’s a contest to be decided by military force.

Regarding communal and religious conflict in Rakhine State – the much-discussed “Rohingya issue” – the NLD government’s position is evolving from outright denial to recognition of the international human rights concern, as seen by the recent United Nations Security Council visit. It now understands that for Myanmar to normalise its relations and earn back the respect of the international community it has to cooperate with the UN – there is no alternative.

The second crucial point is to build awareness that internal armed conflict has to be stopped through negotiation and that the conflict needs a neutral international mediation and facilitation team acceptable to all parties. The “self-help” peace negotiation process employed since 2011 has brought the country only heightened conflict.

In addition, public awareness on universal human rights values should be promoted, along with other efforts to combat racism and ethnocentricity. The trend of racial hatred indoctrination needs to be banished so that ethnic and religious harmony can be restored.

Collective strength to build peace

The collective strength referred to by the state counsellor requires cooperation from among the various stakeholders in the peace process. This seems unlikely when one key group, the Tatmadaw, sees itself as different from the rest, and is convinced that it’s the sole protector, guardian and referee of the democratisation process. It is reluctant to cooperate with others and more inclined to pursue its own agenda.

The NLD may be trying to coax the Tatmadaw to adopt a more reasonable position conducive to making progress on peace. But all indications are that the NLD has either failed to convince the Tatmadaw to stop the fighting in ethnic states or left it to conduct its own policy towards ethnic armed groups.

Another issue is that Aung San Suu Kyi has never made clear who she views as allies. Her tendency to address “the people” means many stakeholders are unable to determine whether they are counted as her allies.

“[I]t is important to know with whom she will build strength; whether she wants to work collectively with the ethnic groups to serve the Union, or to build a good relationship with the Tatmadaw to wipe out the EAOs,” Sai Nyunt Lwin, secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, was quoted as saying.

Outlook

If the NLD is to achieve its goals of restoring the country’s reputation and achieving peace, drastic action will be required.

One approach would be for the NLD to put forward a bill in parliament proposing a referendum on drafting a new constitution. With the NLD’s majority the bill would pass easily; the military cannot block it.

A second approach would be to try and reach an understanding with the Tatmadaw. The only way forward is for the military to abandon its zero-sum approach and gradually withdraw from the political scene. The hybrid civilian-military system is hindering the democratisation and reconciliation processes.

A third approach is to apply the decentralisation provisions in Schedule 2 of the 2008 Constitution as foundational steps towards a federal system. However, without a clear power-sharing structure agreement from the outset between the federal government and states/regions this will be putting the cart before the horse. Besides, it would only address some of the issues related to federalism.

For the country to restore its past glory and achieve peace, hard decisions have to be taken. The use of buzzwords will achieve nothing, unless accompanied by radical action.

By Sai Wansai

By Sai Wansai

Sai Wansai is a Shan political activist and commentator.
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