Thant Myint-U: 'Creating a shared identity is Myanmar's top challenge'

U Thant Myint-U rose to prominence as an author and analyst on Myanmar. The Burmese historian has written four books, most notably The River of Lost Footsteps and Where China meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.

After a career at the United Nations, where his grandfather, U Thant, was once Secretary-General, he returned to Myanmar to head the Yangon Heritage Trust and to become one of four special advisers to President U Thein Sein, with a focus on the peace process. Frontier spoke to U Thant Myint-U about the issues involving Myanmar’s biggest political challenge: reconciling the minorities and finding lasting peace.

Bamar dominance in the U Nu and the Ne Win eras fuelled the civil war. How would you assess the current peace climate against this historical background?

Peace and an end to all forms of discrimination are essential for Myanmar’s democratic development.  That’s easier said than done.  Myanmar is not a country where a civil war broke out just a few years ago and the task is one of putting the pieces back together. Myanmar is a country which has never known peace since its creation as a modern state in 1948.  The pieces are not there. Instead we have power structures, economic dynamics, ways of governing, that have evolved together with insurgency and counter-insurgency over nearly seven decades. 

I think the climate is as good as we’ve ever had and as good as it’s going to get.  My sense is that all senior political figures and the country as a whole desperately want to move forward, see the country modernise and catch up with the rest of the region, and leave behind a better place for their kids. But that doesn’t mean a miracle peace agreement is around the corner. We have the beginnings of a ceasefire in parts of the country. We have the beginnings of some sort of political dialogue. But there’s an enormous climb ahead. There’s a need to enable the right negotiations amongst the combatants themselves, to begin to take the gun out of politics; there’s also a related but separate need for the country as a whole to rethink the very nature of the state and even more basically, issues of national and ethnic identity. It won’t be easy.

I wouldn’t agree though that it was “Bamar dominance” in the U Nu era that fuelled the civil war. The civil war began with a communist uprising.  The first two ethnic based insurgencies – that of the Karen National Union and the Mujahedeen in Arakan – started at a time when the armed forces commander-in-chief was himself Karen, the president was Shan, and the civil service, army, and parliament included people from many different minority communities. I agree, though, that narrow ethnic Burman nationalism has been a big factor in keeping the conflict going over the decades.

In the November 8 election, ethnic minority parties won more seats than the National League for Democracy in only two of the 14 states and regions. What potential effect could that have on the broader political dialogue between the minorities and the majority?

The NLD’s victory means that what happens next in the peace process will depend far more on the NLD than would otherwise have been the case. It’s really for the NLD now to state its vision for how it would like the peace process to move forward. The election results of course also mean that the influence of ethnic minority parties that did not do well will be less, but it doesn’t really change the importance of reaching a final agreement with the non-State armed groups themselves. The basic dynamics between the combatants, the armed forces and the non-State armed groups, remain the same.  We have to differentiate between a dialogue on the future of the state, on issues like federalism, and the very different discussions necessary to achieve and enforce a permanent ceasefire.

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We need to get beyond process and start to ask the central question of how will this war actually end.

How would you assess the peace talks so far?

I think the achievements so far have been incredibly important.  No one should underestimate the complexity of any multi-party peace process. Thousands of hours of informal and formal talks have created an atmosphere of familiarity, if not trust, that did not exist before. We have an initial ceasefire agreement whose text has been almost universally agreed, with parliamentary ratification and international recognition. That doesn’t lessen the challenges remaining. Many non-State armed groups have not signed and violent conflicts continue. We’ve taken big first steps but the light at the end of the tunnel is not really yet visible.

The ethnic armed groups that did not sign the national ceasefire agreement said recently that they rejected the political dialogue framework. How relevant will the dialogue be with eight participating armed ethnic groups and no observers from other ethnic armies?

The dialogue will be a work in progress. We only have to look as similar dialogue processes in other countries, say Yemen or Nepal, to know how vexing they will be.   We shouldn’t be stuck on process though. There are important things – like ending all forms of discrimination, creating more inclusive institutions of government, fostering local democracy at the state and region level, that can and should move ahead as quickly as possible. 

What is your role in the peace process and how do you envisage your future role in it?

I was appointed one of four “special advisers” by the President to the peace process in 2012, at the same time that he created the Union Peacemaking Working Committee and the Myanmar Peace Centre. I’ve been far less active than the two principal special advisers. I’ve always thought that my comparative advantage was my experience at the UN in several other peace processes.

I’ve tried to help mainly on issues related to international support for the peace process. Also, through the Beyond Ceasefires Initiative (BCI), I’ve tried to help bring ideas from other peace processes; BCI have held a number of conferences and workshops with government ministers, senior armed forces personnel, leaders of non-State armed groups, political parties and civil society organisations, not to discuss the Myanmar situation per se, but to learn lessons from other peace processes, bringing to Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw the top people who’ve been involved, for example in Columbia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Aceh, East Timor, Burundi, Guatemala, and Liberia. I’ve had a role with BCI since its inception in 2014.

It is unclear what is the NLD’s stance on peace, and if there’s a focal point or a committee within the party, other than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What advice would you give the incoming government about achieving peace in Myanmar?

I think it’s important to take a step back, be mindful about what’s worked and what hasn’t in other processes around the world, really try to understand the drivers of conflict in Myanmar and the vested interests that benefit from the status quo, think of how best to leverage the tremendous popular desire for peace, and have at least a working strategy on how this war will actually end. Again, we need to get beyond process.  And I think part of the answer is shaping a new vision for the future of the country, one that all peoples, regardless of ethnicity, race or religion, will feel they have an equal part, a country that will do well over the rest of the 21st century.

Do you feel the Bamar majority is ready to make the political and economic concessions, for example on resource sharing, that are needed to achieve a political settlement and lasting peace?

I don’t believe there is a single ‘Bamar majority’ that thinks as one. We are all individuals with different views.  And I don’t believe that millions of ordinary “Bamar” people benefit at all from the current situation. I do believe it’s important that no part of the country is ruled by people from a different part of the country. We can either have a centralised government where all central institutions, for example the civil service, are genuinely inclusive or there has to be devolution of power, or a mix of both.  I don’t think anyone is against this in principle, but getting from here to there will throw up lots of challenges.

It seems that many in Myanmar feel that federalism is the ultimate solution. But which form of federalism and do the involved leaders fully grasp what federalism entails?

Federalism can mean anything and everything.  I personally feel the solution lies in a mix of inclusive central institutions and local democracy, coupled with strong measures to end all forms of discrimination. I think setting up proper state institutions in areas of conflict is actually going to be a far more difficult task that devolving power to these institutions later on. Devolution without working state structures can mean just adding a layer of corruption and inefficiency.

Thant Myint-U at the office of the Yangon Heritage Trust in downtown Yangon. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

Thant Myint-U at the office of the Yangon Heritage Trust in downtown Yangon. (Ann Wang / Frontier)

Is there a common identity under which all Myanmar can unite?

No. It’s essential that there be a shared and inclusive identity. Creating a shared identity is Myanmar’s No. 1 challenge. But I’m not sure it can be a top-down process. Getting away from colonial era ethnic categories towards a more imaginative understanding of ethnicity in the 21st century might be a good start. Teaching a more critical approach to history might help as well.

A multi-donor peace fund is in the making. How do you view the role of the international community in the peace process?

First is to do no harm. These are armed conflicts that at one time or another have involved the governments of the US, Thailand, China, both the RoC and the PRC, India and the UK. The “international community” have been part of the problem for a long time; I see more self-reflection on the part of many Myanmar actors than on the part of foreign governments on the track record of their policies here over the decades.

Having said that, I think international support over the past few years has been important and will continue to be so over the coming years, especially if the peace process evolves. The multi-donor peace fund can be a very useful component of assistance going forward. I hope that the new government will consider working together with its counterparts in the peace process in together setting up structures that can steer international assistance, perhaps with help from the United Nations.

What will the road to peace look like and how long will it be before there is a final – probably federal – solution?

Impossible to say. My guess is that other dynamics – urbanisation, the spread of modern telecoms, the impact of new roads, migration both internal and international, the boom in tourism, the continuing rise of China, all these things will transform the borderlands over the coming decade far more than the formal peace process. My hope is that the Myanmar actors on all sides will have the desire and wherewithal to manage these transformational changes to the benefit of ordinary people.

You returned to Myanmar after years abroad and are a member of an historically significant family. How do you want to help your country forward? Do you aspire to hold political office at some point?

I’m happy to help in any way I can. Right now I’m thinking of writing a new book.

(Title photo: Ann Wang / Frontier)

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