Beware of false peace in Myanmar

By Htet Myet Min Tun, ASEAN Undergraduate Scholar, Yale-NUS College

Despite recent rhetoric from the State Administration Council seeking ‘peace talks’ with ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar, the prospect of true peace will remain elusive for as long as the generals are selling old wine in new bottles, writes Htet Myet Min Tun.

In his televised public address on the first day of the Burmese new year, 17 April 2022, the leader of Myanmar’s State Administration Council (SAC) junta Senior General Min Aung Hlaing announced his plan to designate 2022 as the year of peace. Soon afterwards, he invited the leaders of the country’s ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) for face-to-face discussions. The purported goal of those discussions is to resolve the decades-long conflict between the EAOs and the central government, so that all ethnic people could enjoy ‘the essence of peace’.

There is little doubt that the SAC wants a ceasefire with the EAOs at a time when a full-blown security crisis in central Myanmar demands its attention. However, the SAC is more concerned about the survival of the junta itself than for a true national peace. Since the February 2021 coup, it has been clear that one of the junta’s imperatives is to prevent a coalition from forming between Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies and the anti-junta resistance movement, which would pose real threats to the SAC’s survival. Min Aung Hlaing’s public invitation for renewed peace talks with the EAOs comes at a time of increasing military pressures on the SAC’s forces from the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), the armed wing of the main opposition National Unity Government (NUG), in Bamar-majority regions of Myanmar.

This tactic of striking ‘peace deals’ with EAOs during crises of legitimacy and security is not the junta’s new strategy. After the 1988 military takeover amidst widespread public resistance, the then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) junta – later renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – entered into unofficial ceasefire agreements with numerous armed organisations that had been fighting with the military for decades.

Between 1989 and 1997, SLORC-SPDC made ‘ceasefire accords’ with seventeen organisations including major groups like the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The junta’s initial motivation in forging these accords was to isolate the threats from pro-democracy movements and ethnic armed opposition in urban areas and borderlands respectively. As the 1990s drew on, its motivation shifted to viewing the maintenance of existing peace accords and the creation of new ones as possible sources of legitimacy. Although SLORC-SPDC did not regain legitimacy in the eyes of public, it managed to persuade ceasefire groups to participate in the junta-organised 2004 National Convention which drafted the new Constitution.

Min Aung Hlaing’s SAC likely seeks a ‘new peace’ with the EAOs as a way to break up pro-democracy anti-junta resistance and to restore its legitimacy. However, his proposed peace dialogues have met with cold resistance for the most part. Ten EAOs have agreed to meet with him but most of them are insignificant small groups. The only three with considerable clout which have signalled willingness to participate are the UWSA, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP). However, only the SSPP has engaged in armed conflict with the junta since the 2021 coup. Groups that have fought fierce battles with the junta in the past year and half, such as the Karen National Union (KNU) in the southeast, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in the east, the KIO in the north, and the Chin National Front (CNF) in the west, have uniformly rejected Min Aung Hlaing’s invitation to talk.

Myanmar’s political landscape has changed significantly in the last three decades and the junta’s old ‘peace strategy’ might not work as it used to in pacifying EAOs at the time of crisis. In the late 1980s, when it faced urban protests, Myanmar’s military was not the only party desperate for a ceasefire. EAOs and ethnic populations also felt combat fatigue after decades of fighting. Especially by the 1990s, Myanmar’s military had regained the upper hand and was able to pressurise EAOs to enter into temporary ceasefires. In contrast, the current junta does not have even that advantage and cannot risk waging wars on multiple fronts in central Myanmar and in the borderlands.

Furthermore, many EAOs now see that they have roles beyond fighting only for the interests of those ethnic groups that they represent. In the context that has emerged in the wake of last year’s coup , these organisations have participated in the effort to reshape Myanmar’s national politics. They are under public pressure not to hold talks with the junta unless a truly federal constitution is up for discussion. This was less of a concern thirty years ago, when the EAOs were more focused on territorial control and narrower ethnic interests, which made them more amenable to limited peace deals. While this is still the case for some groups such as the UWSA, which has little interest in national politics, others such as the KNU have broadened their perspective and see themselves as championing democracy and federalism. They have reason to worry that accepting Min Aung Hlaing’s invitation will erode their own public trust and legitimacy.

For a durable peace to be achieved, the SAC cannot trot out opportunistic deals that serve narrow interests but neglect to address underlying national issues, which was the way that most of the SLORC-SPDC’s peace deals worked. Nonetheless, Myanmar’s current junta appears to have less concern for genuine peace than for its own survival. Although the Senior General has mentioned ‘democracy’ and ‘federalism’ again and again in his speeches, his rhetoric lacks concrete plans or clear vision. ‘Peace deals’ that are not inclusive, people-centred, and transparent will do more harm than good for Myanmar’s future. They are also probably doomed to fail.

Htet Myet Min Tun is an ASEAN Undergraduate Scholar at Yale-NUS College. He was previously a research intern at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Banner image: Street violence following the Myanmar coup - March 10, 2021. Credit: Shutterstock.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on June 1, 2022.