(Commentary) The fighting that erupted in Kokang on February 9 has disturbed a normally tranquil landscape and created tremendous ripples in today’s ethnic political arena.
Inter-ethnic conflicts, accusations of a proxy war of aggression from a neighbouring country or the personal vendetta of a deposed don staging a spectacular comeback have been given as the reasons behind this outbreak of conflict. However, no single reason is comprehensive enough to explain the explosive situation that has unfolded. The truth, however, is likely to be a mix of all the facts mentioned above.
After the fighting began the Myanmar regime accused the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army of using mercenaries from China and of conducting its offensives with the help of the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army North, Ta’ang National Liberation Front, Arakan Army, United Wa State Army and the National National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Mongla group. The second allegation from the regime concerned the infringement of Myanmar’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, with the help of foreigners from across the border and the collaboration of ethnic resistance forces, which in effect meant, abettors of a foreign power. That made them enemies of the state who must be dealt with decisively.
As fighting continues in the Kokang special region with little likelihood of the military activities of the MNDAA and its allies being forcefully ended, the conflict is likely to spread. MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng’s homecoming could be prolonged, despite the determination of the Union Solidarity and Development Party-military regime to flush him and his troops out of the area.
The Democratic Voice of Burma reported on March 6 that the MNDAA claimed to have increased its deployment to about 5,000 troops since the fighting began on February 9. The report quoted MNDAA spokesperson U Tun Myat Linn as saying that about 1,000 civilians from the ethnic Kokang population in northeastern Shan State had joined the rebel militia’s ranks in the previous weeks.
“The people support us and they want to join with us because they have a sense of duty to protect their people and their homeland,” U Tun Myat Linn told DVB.
The regime’s accusation that it is not against the people of Kokang, but against drugs traffickers and criminals who seek to overthrow the legitimately elected self-administrative body of Kokang, holds no truth, if the swelling MNDAA ranks can be regarded as evidence of a popular uprising.
The fighting in Kokang that began with an MNDAA offensive on the regional capital, Laukkai, is part and parcel of the whole ethnic conflict spectrum. The regime’s attempt to portray the fighting as a conflict with drug trafficking gangs who want to disturb law and order, is unconvincing. The regime needs to accept that the inter-ethnic conflict needs to be resolved in a holistic manner and that a “piecemeal” solution will go nowhere. We should all remember that Peng Jiasheng was a respectable national race leader until 2009 when he fell out of favour with the previous military regime over his group’s refusal to become a Border Guard Force under Tatmadaw command.
The problem with the successive military-dominated regimes has been their refusal to acknowledge legitimate ethnic aspirations of self-determination and to instead portray the issue, rightly or wrongly, as one of development and poverty reduction. In short, the regimes have been downplaying the aspirations of non-Bamar ethnic groups and even refusing to accept that ethnic conflict exists and this is the main core problem that must be resolved if Myanmar is to get out of conflict mode and make further progress.
Wsevolod W. Isajiw, in a research paper titled “Approaches to ethnic conflict resolution: paradigms and principles”, writes:
Three types of such preconceptions are singled out: the preconception of ethnic groups as pre-modern, the self-conception of the majority group in society as non-ethnic and the often-assumed “command” character of the mandate carried out by appointed administrators dealing with minority ethnic groups. These preconceptions have contributed to ineffectiveness of efforts at interethnic conflict resolution in as much as they have excluded the principle of identity recognition, regarded here as a basic metaprinciple of interethnic relations.
Let us reflect on Isajiw’s three types of preconceptions, in relation to Myanmar’s interethnic conflicts.
The traditional preconceptions of ethnic groups have existed for as long as humanity and would likely continue for the foreseeable future. Isajiw wrote that “researchers have identified 575 ethnic groups as being actual or potential nation-states, and one has estimated that there are as many as 3,000-5,000 ‘nations’ in the world.”
As such, there is little that social scientists could do to curb the rising tendency other than to devise a compromised, co-habitation model, acceptable to all parties. But Myanmar’s interethnic conflicts situation could be seen as fortunate, or a blessing in disguise, because armed ethnic groups have abandoned demands for independence in favour of federalism to resolve conflict. The initiative lies with the quasi-civilian regime of President U Thein Sein and how much political accommodation it is prepared to extend.
If one compares the self-conception of the majority group situation to Myanmar’s ethnic conflict spectrum, the Bamar or Burman majority group has assumed itself as a non-ethnic society and since independence has taken over the mantle of the British colonial master. Bamar has never has a state of its own, but instead, as Burma proper, usurped the powers of the Union, at the expense of all the non-Bamar ethnic states. In other words, Burma proper’s refusal to become a state, as all the other states within the Union, effectively blocked the realisation of a federal union. The result is that the military’s monopoly on political power continues to be the order of the day, even though the setting now might suggest it is already a quasi-civilian government.
The exclusion of ethnic identity recognition, which is a basic principle, is what we are witnessing today. Successive military-dominated regimes paid lip-service to the idea of ethnic identity but failed to recognise non-Bamar as equals with the corresponding rights that ethnic groups are entitled to enjoy. In other words, as a result, only the subordinate type of ethnic groups, without rights of self-determination, exist in today’s Myanmar.
The biggest stumbling block, however, is the deeply rooted conceptual differences between the regime and nonBamar ethnic nationalities.
Successive military dominated regimes, including the ruling USDP-military regime, have regarded Myanmar as a unified nation since the reign of Anawratha (1044-1077?). As such, the non-Bamar, including the Shan, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Mon, Karen and Karenni, are seen as minorities that must be controlled and suppressed lest they break up the country.
On the other hand, the non-Bamar maintain that the Union of Burma is a political, territorial entity, founded by a treaty, the Panglong Agreement, in which independent territories merged together on equal basis.
Against this backdrop, negotiations between the government’s Union Peace-making Working Committee and the armed ethnic groups’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, resumed at the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon on March 17.
Myanmar Peace Center officials say this seventh round of peace talks will be a “make or break” event. If the former, a formula involving moving forward in stages will be devised. If the latter, there will simultaneous and parallel negotiations on a national ceasefire and on a framework for political dialogue. The government and armed ethnic groups have had a total of more than 200 meetings but a decisive, positive outcome is still not in sight, mainly because of a pre-conceived, acquired mindset and a reluctance to think out of the box. As such, the forthcoming seventh round of peace talks will likely be the same.
Recently, two significant developments crucial to Burma’s ethnic conflict have been hitting the headlines. One is the accusation of China that Burma’s military plane has intruded into China, presumably when trying to hit MNDAA targets, killing five Chinese and wounding eight. The other is the positive KIO/KIA delegation calling on Naypyidaw, meeting President U Thein Sein, Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Accordingly, it was a courtesy call to make known the KIO/KIA position that it is in no way trying to break up the country, and is keen to reach ceasefire agreement, ready to negotiate for a genuine federal structure for the benefit of the whole country.
While the Chinese military deployment along the common border to ward off any future air space violation by the Burma Army, together with decisive retaliation threat, have poisoned China-Burma relation to an extent, the KIO/KIA overtures is definitely a positive move, which must be viewed as conducive.
For now, the Chinese are calling for restoration of peace and normalcy through peaceful negotiation between warring parties and there is no indication that it will rein in the MNDAA to disarm or withdraw. Such being the case, the government would be well advised to engage in political settlement, within the setting of NCCT/UPWC negotiation, rather than employing an all out war of win-lose.
As for the KIO/KIA overtures, the aspirations have been all along realization of right to self-determination, equality and democracy, within the mold of genuine federalism.
The peace talks have been going on for more than a year, using the so-called “single text negotiation” procedure. But the problem is that it is neither a single text nor a negotiation process structured according to the original framer. For example, agreed issues were back-tracked at will or continuously amended, apart from not using a mediator, or third party team, to oversee the fairness of the process, which is crucial for positive outcomes. In short, it is single text in name only and all can see it is going nowhere.
The name of the game should be “win-win” oriented negotiations, which is at the heart of single text negotiation. But the situation on the ground is that while the armed ethnic groups want maximum devolution within a genuine federal structure, the regime wants a solution in the mould of the existing, presidential unitary system. In other words, the regime is against any move that would make Burma proper – now diversified as seven regions – an equal state, like all the other ethnic states.
The armed ethnic groups and nonBamar ethnic nationalities have already conceded their demand for total independence in favour of opting for genuine federalism. The USDP-military regime should also abandon its aspirations for a monopoly on political power and accept that federalism is only possible if all states are equal.
Refusing to acknowledge the fallacy of preconceptions in resolving interethnic conflicts will eventually lead to the failure of the peace process. If the regime is sincere, there is no way forward other than to rethink its failed strategy and embrace Isajiw’s three types of preconceptions as guiding principles to resolve interethnic conflict.
The only way to build trust and move forward will be for the Bamar to reject their assumption of a non-ethnic society and the posture of new colonial master and recognise the non-Bamar as equal negotiating partners. The powers-that-be also need to wean themselves of their ethnocentrism, better known as Burmanisation, if the pre-conceived mindset is to be altered. There will never be progress unless there is a radical change in mindset.
The basic theoretical concept must be changed. Otherwise, we will never escape the vicious circle of petty bargaining and long hours of senseless debate over the meaning of words, that will not bring us any closer to resolving interethnic conflict.
(This is an edited version of a commentary published in the Shan Herald Agency for News. Sai Wansai was born in Taunggyi and attended Mandalay Arts and Science University and Hamburg University in Germany, where he ran a restaurant from 1986 to 2012. He has been active in many Shan political and cultural organisations).
This Article first appeared in the March 26, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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