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12 May, 2014

Myanmar’s Peace Paradox – Situation Getting Both Better and Worse

Bangkok – While businessmen have rushed into Myanmar to tap the profit potential, the country’s almost overnight shift from military dictatorship to quasi-democracy has created a slew of problems ranging from land grabs, more communal violence, higher drug production and terrorism related to business conflicts. The role of foreign aid has also come under scrutiny over the lack of full transparency about activities, finances or assistance plans.


Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel trade journalist to cover this launch event.

As part of their peace-monitoring brief, 13 independent media groups working under the name of Burma News International (BNI), launched the second edition of “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Reference Guide 2014.” A comprehensive collection of major developments in 2013 up until March 2014, the book is designed “to assist all players to map out the complicated components, actors and issues of the peace process.” It adds, “By making sense of the confusing relationships, it hopes to further improve understanding and communication between all sides, as well as assist key players to make informed decisions in the year ahead.”

The Reference Guide presents some interesting challenges to the Myanmar tourism industry. Although it is enjoying a long overdue boom, things could take a sudden turn for the worse if the conflicts escalate. Myanmar will host a Mekong Tourism Forum in June 2014 and is due to host its first ASEAN Tourism Forum in January 2015. So far, there is no indication that the industry has come up with any ideas on how it can be of help.

Addressing the launch press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on 07 January, Mr. Sai Leik, a director of Myanmar’s Peace Process Monitoring, said it was still not clear whether the transformation from a military dictatorship to a quasi-democracy, which began in earnest in 2011, is going to be a rosy road, or a thorny road or a twisted road. Says the book itself, “More work needs to be done to address the root causes fueling the various conflicts. Understanding all of the interests at stake, the government’s peace plan and its structure; and key stakeholders–from the ethnic armed groups, to the peace brokers–and other personalities will be necessary for lasting peace – not just ceasefires – to take root.”

According to Mr. Sai Leik, fighting is still going on. Communal violence has spread from Kachin state to the whole country, generating more refugees. “Myanmar is witnessing more violence, instability and increased poppy cultivation,” he said. “There is no rule of law in our country.”

Ms Nan Paw Gay, a Chief editor of Karen Information Center (KIC) cited the impact of the corporate gold rush. She said there are already two cement factories in Mandalay but now cement companies in India and China have approached the state government and the Karen National Union for permission to open two more factories. However, “the local people are afraid as the companies will make a land confiscation of those areas and destroy the environment.”

She said that the Asian Highway project has also led to loss of land for local people, many of whom only got their compensation payments after complaints were raised.

Ms Nan Paw Gay said that because people now have ID cards, many who could not even leave their villages are now free to go elsewhere. She cited the important role of the community based organisations in protecting the interests of the local people and ensuring that everyone is included in the process. “People are waiting for peace. Some are more interested in development projects than the peace process. But development is not for just for the governments and the corporations but the people. All should be included.”

Mr. Khuensai Jaiyen, an executive director of Pyidaungsu Institute, indicated that the distrust of the military still runs deep. Previously, he said, the military only used military means to suppress the ethnic movements. But “now they are using another tactic which is not military means by the peace talks means.

“If you look at the Chinese military writings, you will find it says that when you are fighting the enemy you should also use the indirect way. The direct way is to confront and the indirect is to attack it from the flank and the rear. This peace talks is they think an indirect way. This direct way and indirect way are complementing each other. They can also interchange – the military methods can become the indirect way and the peace talks the direct way, but the ultimate objective is the same – to defeat the ethnic armed movements. Mr. Khuensai added, “Many Burmese military commanders, they really hate the Wah.”

dec mya peace process 2014 cover by ppHere is a summary of the keypoints of the “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Reference Guide 2014” which can be downloaded free by clicking on the image.

Positive news

Since taking power in 2011, the civil military government led by former military general Thein Sein has announced plans to transform the political, economic and social sectors. Peace talks are under way with various ethnic armed groups, which have fought the central Myanmar government for equality, self-determination and a genuine federal union since independence in 1948. Since 2011, the government has signed ceasefire agreements with 14 out of 17 major armed groups.

The report says that trust building and communication between the two sides have improved dramatically, peace brokers are no longer necessary to mediate and meetings have increased in frequency. There is a general sense of optimism as both sides have reiterated their commitment to peace. “The leaders also recognise the benefits of peace over conflict, and fully understand their responsibility in meeting the overwhelming demand of their people for long-term peace.”

Locals in affected areas have reportedly seen a consistent decline in military activities and human rights abuses. Surveys have also found they enjoy more freedom to travel, do business without fear for their security or the need to pay taxes to different militia groups. Local media reported Myanmar’s border trade increased 26% to US$1.881 billion in the first five months (April-August) of the fiscal year 2013-14, compared to the previous year. Roads are being improved and the requirement for tourists to hold special permits before traveling in the state was dropped in early 2013.

Despite these positive changes, there remains a general skepticism among the ethnic population about the sincerity of the government’s peace talks. “The deep-rooted trauma as a result of decades of abuse by the military has made many highly distrustful of the government and fearful that clashes would recur.”

Negative news

The level of conflict has not improved with the KIA and TNLA seeing an increase in battles during 2013. Ceasefire violations continue, with especially intense fighting in Shan state.

Communal Violence

The spread of communal violence is especially worrying and threatens another kind of war in Myanmar which will be much harder to tackle in the long run than the ethnic civil war. Increasing Buddhist radicalism with the rise of the 969 movement across the country, is being met with growing militancy of Muslims in Myanmar. There was a rise in communal conflict as well as terrorism inside the country with a spillover impact in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and most of all in Indonesia. The result has led to increasing numbers of refugees and human suffering.

The 969 movement and its leader Wirathu have been accused of fanning anti-Muslim sentiment by promoting a “buy Buddhist” campaign and legislation that discourages interfaith marriage. The leader has even been accused of being “The face of Buddhist terror”, as declared controversially on the cover of Time Magazine’s 20 June issue (currently banned in Myanmar). The 969 movement however claims that it is pro-peace and only supports the protection of the Buddhist religion. Nevertheless the visibility of the 969 symbols in areas that experienced communal violence, for example on destroyed mosque walls, is evidence that it is being used by perpetrators of anti-Muslim attacks whether it intends to or not.

Both the Rohingya-Rakhine issue and 969 movement remain a highly sensitive topic in Myanmar – notably, media groups have received death threats for reporting on the Rohingya issue and the UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana was attacked by a 200-strong Buddhist crowd during his visit to Meiktila in mid-August. As a result of the sensitivity, the government has been slow in addressing the religious problem.

Opium Drug Problem

According to the UNODC’s 2013 report, opium cultivation increased 13% (from 51,000 to 57,800 hectares) and opium production increased 26% in 2013 to an estimated 870 tonnes, despite eradication efforts. Surveys of farmers in Golden Triangle poppy-growing villages show that money from poppy cultivation is essential for villagers suffering from food insecurity and poverty.

This is because militia groups also have longstanding income source from drugs, according to one researcher. His study found that the “drug trade has become embedded in the Myanmar Army’s dual strategy of extending its territorial reach and using local militias more or less subservient to the Army, with little or no burden to the government expenditures”.

The ethnic groups see this as yet another sign of the government’s “insincerity and poor commitment to the peace process as a whole.” The drug trade increases instability, armed clashes between BGF and NSAGs and distrust amongst groups. This in turn leads to stronger government surveillance and restrictions in NSAG active areas, as well as preventing implementation of peace agreement terms.


Various unresolved issues and grievances have fuelled acts of terror and continue to be a constant threat. Media reports show that at least 22 bombs were found or exploded. The motive for these acts are not always clear, but have generally been connected to the ethnic struggle, religious tension and most recently in October, attempts to scare off foreign competitors in Myanmar.

A series of bomb blasts hit the country in October 2013. Eight suspects arrested were traced to a group of mining businessmen. One suspect, who manages a mining project in resource-state Kayin State was said to have been offered a permit for a gold mine by a group of Kayin businessmen if he planted bombs at hotels and restaurants — a move intended to discourage foreign businessmen from coming in.

Protests Against Land Confiscation and Development Projects

The country has seen a major increase in protests and violence over land rights and negative impacts of development projects. Repressed grievances, primarily over land confiscation by the previous military regime and damages caused by large-scale development projects, are now being aired. On several occasions this has resulted in violence, arrests and deaths. At the beginning of 2014, two townships were under curfew due to violence related to development projects and land confiscation.

The ceasefires are fueling mining and economic projects in fragile conflict areas. On 3 October, Molo Women Mining Watch and Karenni Civil Society Network issued a joint statement explaining that mining projects in Kayah state have increased from 3 before the March 2012 ceasefire, to 16 in just over a year. This they claim is causing increasing grievances among the local population due to loss of farmland, rivers, livelihoods and environmental destruction.

Development projects are meant to boost the economy of ethnic areas, but are frequently criticised for their adverse effects. Business interests have been quick to enter previously inaccessible areas, several CBOs have campaigned to stop all major projects before genuine peace and stability are achieved. They warn that the adverse effects on citizens will only increase grievances that threaten the already fragile peace and vulnerable conditions of a transitioning society.

From the government perspective and some NSAGs, the benefits of large-scale developments for the country as a whole outweigh the costs. Below are some development projects related to the peace process that made news in 2013.

1. Tasang hydropower dam in Shan State: work has reportedly resumed and had been relocated to a site on the Salween River near Mongton town. The group said 123 villages would be forcibly relocated to make way for the US $12-billion project, which is being funded by Chinese and Thai investors (20 Mar). Work on the massive 7,000-megawatt dam began in 2010, but was suspended due to the ongoing ethnic conflict in the area.

2. Myitsone Dam in Kachin state remains stalled since 30 September 2011 due to intense opposition and environment assessments of the damage it would cause. In 2013, the Chinese government as the main investor in the project continued to lobby the Myanmar side to resume construction.

3. Mining exploration: Myanmar’s Ministry of Mines will begin tests for metal mineral (Nickel, chromites, coal and copper) exploration in Chin State (11 Mar).

4. Shwe gas pipeline opened: Pipeline to China is ready for gas transport at the end of May 2013.

5. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, jointly implemented by Myanmar and India, is expected to be completed by mid-2014. The project is an Indian government initiative to provide India with trade and transport links to its northeastern states, which are otherwise inaccessible overland via India’s rugged mountainous region.

6. SIZ: A new industrial zone has been created in Hpa-an, Kayin state (2011), which in April 2013 was reported to have three private factories and a list of foreign and domestic companies lined up to rent spaces; these include food and beverages, garment factories, purified drinking water factories and mineral refinery plants.69 RCSS has demanded an SIZ in their area as part of its union level peace agreement with the government, but no developments have been reported.

7. SEZ: The development of a 288-acre Special Economic Zone in Muse, Shan State facing the Chinese border was announced on 15 June 2013. It is designed to facilitate the growing transport and infrastructure demands e.g. construction of cargo yards and a traffic detour designed to combat congestion caused by an increasing number of cargo vehicles. The Dawei Project (that crosses KNU Brigade 4 area) industrial zone, which was set to include an $8 billion deep-sea port, a refinery, gas and coal power plants and steel mills, is currently stalled due to a lack of investment. Myanmar and Thailand are looking to Japan to revive the project.

Role of international actors

Foreign aid and assistance has been vital in expediting ceasefire implementation, trust building and policymaking. Foreign presence at peace meetings is also regarded as important in making the agreements more binding. Like the rest of the peace process, international aid is equally complicated by the politics resulting from the competing agendas of the different donor countries.

This explains why, despite the formation of a Peace Donor Support Group (PDSG) to coordinate international aid, there is still a lack of transparency and cooperation. It has also come under harsh criticism for serving economic or political benefits of foreign governments instead of local interests. The Norway-led peace initiative (MPSI), which was the first immediate response to assist the peace process, is expected to end in April this coming year. Though it has initiated several important programs, it has especially come under fire by CBOs for favouring development over political settlement and pressuring NSAGs to sign ceasefires before completing their goals to ensure ethnic rights and self-determination.

Foreign actors play a difficult role balancing their engagement with the government and opposing ethnic side, and have been cautioned to better understand the politics behind the conflict.

However, foreign aid is also complicated by the politics of conflicting national interests which might explain why foreign actors in the peace process have not always been fully transparent about their activities, finances or assistance plans. Moreover, foreign aid has also come under criticism for putting development before political settlement which ethnic NSAGs feel works in favour of the government against their interests.