Thu 8 Mar 2012
Filed under: Opinion,Other
The government of President Thein Sein has had considerable success in wooing Western countries with a flurry of reforms. A transition to peaceful democracy, however, will be simply impossible without overcoming decades of mistrust and acrimony between the state and armed ethnic groups. Third-party mediation, whether through the U.N. or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), is the way forward.Representatives of the government recently signed agreements with the United Wa State Army, the National Democratic Alliance Army, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Chin National Front, the Karen National Union, the Shan State Progress Party and the New Mon State Party. Despite these agreements, and promises by the regime to follow up with development projects and parliamentary discussion, some groups refuse to negotiate and violence continues. Kachin state is currently experiencing its worst fighting in decades in some areas, with continuing reports of gross human rights abuses by the military against ethnic minorities.
In fact the government’s strategy to improve relations with armed ethnic groups is in serious need of repair. The recent ceasefires are questionable in their validity as steps toward lasting peace, and in many cases have fomented further distrust. Some ethnic leaders claim they were hoodwinked and misled into joining the talks by a government that has no sincere intention of peace, but only to use them in the public relations offensive to woo foreign observers. As such, these talks should not yet be taken as serious progress toward national reconciliation. Many ceasefires have been signed and broken over the years.
Many ethnic groups do not recognize the legitimacy of the military government’s 2008 Constitution, which essentially renders redundant the 1947 Panglong Agreement and 1948 Union Constitution, signed between the myriad ethnic groups and General Aung Sang. The Panglong Agreement secured certain autonomy for the ethnic areas under a federal system. It is this agreement that they wish to re-enact under any future national peace process.
For national-level peace talks to be effective and binding, they need to be held in a neutral environment and with the benefit of a neutral third party as host. Burma is opening up—enough so that allowing a third party to organize peace talks follows naturally. Mediation could be arranged regionally, through Asean, or internationally through a U.N.-authorized team involving the EU, U.S. and Asean. Alternatively, an individual host nation, such as Indonesia, could take the lead. The key is to bring neutrality and legitimacy to a difficult process.
Third-party mediation is tested, and has shown results in Aceh in Indonesia, Cambodia and many African countries. If the Burmese regime truly wants peace, and to join the world community on equal footing, inviting a foreign organization to oversee talks will demonstrate its sincerity. This will, in turn, increase trust in the Burmese regime abroad and speed the removal of foreign sanctions and other investment barriers—the regime’s ultimate goal.
It is to the advantage of ethnic groups to publically pressure Naypyidaw for third-party talks. The United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella organization that incorporates most of the ethnic groups, has already complained that the regime has been using military might in suppressing some groups, while luring those who have signed ceasefires with the incentive of regional development in a deceitful attempt to unhinge their struggle for political equality.
As third-party talks work to unite Burma’s factions from the ground up, the parliamentary process can work from the top down. The country’s laws and Constitution do not yet match the dream of a united, federal Union of Burma. They do not incorporate the views and visions of all parties, especially ethnic groups. When opposition National League for Democracy members hold parliamentary seats again after the April by-elections, this goal can become a top priority.
Burma is a nation poised at one of the most important junctures of its short but often tragic history. Its future as a strong and united democracy is reliant on peace. Now is the time for all concerned parties to take the first step toward that end and push for third-party mediated peace talks. Hope is descending on this conflict-ravaged country of enormous potential; but its government, its Parliament, its people and the international community can ensure this hope is not lost, as it has been so many times in the past.
Ms. Sundari is the president of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, an Indonesian member of parliament for the Democratic Party for Struggle and member of several parliamentary commissions, including the Parliamentary Commission on Law and Human Rights.