Wed 12 Sep 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma,International,Military,On The Border,Opinion
CHIANG MAI – A Norwegian government initiative in support of peace talks between the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups fighting decades-old insurgencies has come under fire. New efforts to overhaul the so-called Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI) may or may not allay those concerns, let alone achieve lasting peace in Myanmar’s long restive ethnic minority areas.
The Norwegian initiative was launched after a visit by then railways minister Aung Min, President Thein Sein’s chief negotiator with armed ethnic groups and exiled pro-democracy organizations, to Oslo in January. MPSI has aimed to facilitate talks between the government and armed ethnic organizations through funding for consultations with local communities, needs assessments, and the establishment of liaison offices near conflict zones.
MPSI is bidding to address conflicts where ceasefires already exist and a peace process between the government and non-state armed groups has been established. Some of the insurgent groups, such as the New Mon State Party (NMSP), have previously held ceasefires with the government. Others, like the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), have only recently agreed to tentatively stop fighting.
A pilot project launched earlier this year with the KNU in Kyauk Kyi township of southern central Pegu Division provides emergency assistance to internally displaced villagers living in surrounding areas. Since then, MPSI has conducted consultations with ethnic-based organizations in Karen, Mon, Shan, Rakhine, and Chin States.
MPSI intends to work with the government, armed and political non-state groups, non-governmental organizations, and civil society and community organizations to establish and run projects ranging from emergency assistance to internally displaced villagers, to landmine clearance, to employment generation. Naypyidaw’s apparent willingness to work with MPSI has been interpreted by many analysts as a positive sign for potential peace.
Initial criticism of the initiative was sparked by perceptions that funding for the initiative would divert funds from aid groups that assist vulnerable populations inside and outside of the country. Oslo had earlier made a decision to cut funding to several aid groups in a move Norwegian officials have said is unrelated to MPSI and had been scheduled for some time.
Norway has earmarked some US$5 million for MPSI and asked other donors to contribute additional assistance. The funds are to be channeled through government-approved organizations based in Yangon. Norway’s ambassador to Myanmar, Katja Nordgaard, said in May that if border-based aid groups set up offices in Yangon then they would also be considered for funding.
Charles Petrie, head of the MPSI and former United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, said in June that he favors new opportunities to work openly inside the country. The group’s initial internal report, which was leaked to the press, noted the potential for groups working on the border to be sidelined by MPSI.
That has not gone down well with several groups that feel the humanitarian and other services they provide are still relevant in sight of ongoing armed conflicts. With the still strong potential for a breakdown in ceasefires and negotiations, several of these groups are wary of moving their operations inside the country. Indeed, many remain skeptical of the sincerity of the government’s reconciliation efforts.
These criticisms have surprised some ethnic leaders, especially those involved in providing assistance to internally displaced persons. Rather than complaints from international human rights groups and advocacy organizations, grievances are arising from the various community-based organizations established by locals, often with the assistance of foreign activists, donors and support organizations.
Groups such as the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, and the Women’s League of Burma were created specifically to give voice to Myanmar’s disenfranchised populations and chronicle abuses during military rule. Many have continued to provide similar services with the recent transition to quasi-civilian rule.
They flourished in the past 10 to 15 years as Myanmar’s plight emerged as a popular cause overseas, and money, volunteers, and advice became more readily available. Often working in conjunction with the political wings of non-state armed groups, they have put forward platforms for change in Myanmar. At the same time, they have largely maintained their independence in reporting on the situation inside Myanmar and in carrying out international advocacy work.
Some of these groups are using their established platforms to advocate for greater inclusion in the Norway-backed peace process. This has forced certain ethnic organizations, including the KNU and SSA-S, to deal with civil societies they perhaps never realized existed. Many ethnic leaders apparently believed that their people were narrowly committed to the struggle against military rule but lacked a grassroots vision for what form an eventual peace would take.
Grass roots uprising
As political organizations engaged in fighting against the government, many saw themselves as the exclusive owners of the peace process and until recently sought little advise from community organizations. Ethnic officials who spoke with Asia Times Online said that for years their use of funds and activities went largely unquestioned by community-based organizations. With the advent of MPSI, these same community groups are pushing for more inclusion in the process, with many using calls for more transparency as a way to win a seat at the negotiating table.
That grassroots push comes at a difficult time for groups like the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), among others. They must contend not only with delicate negotiations with the government – which are not universally popular among their own rank and file – but also a burgeoning civil society movement that they tacitly helped to create in pursuit of their insurgency strategies.
Many ethnic leaders are also wary of the Norway-led initiative, although for different reasons. Their chief concern is a perception that assistance may further the government’s push for economic development and the laying down of rebel arms before political settlements are reached. While many of the peace negotiations have progressed farther than previous attempts, so far little has been done to iron out the political differences that underlie the various rebellions.
For the government’s part, it seems to be holding to a revisionist idea that the rebellions have been motivated by underdevelopment and that ramped up economic activities in ethnic areas will bring peace through prosperity. This interpretation, however, runs counter to the narratives many ethnic groups have forwarded to perpetuate their struggles. In almost every case, ethnic political and military groups were formed out of political grievances with the central government, including demands for more ethnic rights and self-governance.
MPSI has rejected claims it supports the government’s position, saying in public statements that economic assistance should not replace political dialogue. The initiative’s draft plan envisions aid as a strategic tool to “test and build confidence”, but not one that replaces the need for political resolution.
Decades of war and mistrust cannot be undone in a few months. Ethnic groups and the government will need to gradually build trust in each other before any meaningful political discussions can be held. Some predict these discussions may be years off and that until then there is a need to care for internally displaced populations and build basic capacities among ethnic groups.
MPSI has recently bid to repair its image in the wake of the leaked report. On August 31, it called a second meeting in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai to explain its aims and commitment to be more inclusive of community-based organizations. Few community organization representatives, however, showed up for the meeting, a signal that many believe the process is inherently flawed, according to people familiar with the situation.
An open letter signed by five of these community organizations and addressed to Norwegian Ambassador Nordgaard criticized the meeting, saying “We feel Norway is unable to demonstrate a good practice for MPSI consultations.” The groups referred to the MPSI’s consultations as “flawed, rushed and un-transparent” and that they “have been and never will be acceptable to ethnic communities and community-based organizations.”
These individuals – often better-trained in capacity building and community organizing than the political cadre of either the government or the ethnic political organizations – are generally in closer touch with and thus better suited to help their communities transition from war to peace.
With funds just beginning to be disbursed to the new liaison offices established by the government and armed groups, it is still too early to appraise MSCI’s peace prospects. Hopes are that these new offices will transcend the handling of local complaints and provide a focal point for broad consultations with communities.
Ethnic political organizations, meanwhile, are pushing ahead with their respective peace processes, for now giving the government the benefit of the doubt. While these tentative talks move ahead, a negotiated settlement between ethnic organizations, MPSI, and community organizations will also be necessary to achieve a meaningful peace.
Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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