4. Mai 2016

The run for Asia’s last frontier has started. What does it mean for Myanmar’s internal conflicts?

With over 50 years of prolonged violent internal conflicts, a persistent risk of inter-communal and religious violence, dozens of armed groups and more than 600000 displaced people, Myanmar’s peace process certainly has a long way to go. Yet, while fighting continues in some parts and ceasefire reminds fragile in others, the country, which used to be regarded as one of the most enduring authoritarian regimes in the world, is going through a democratic transition. In the past few years the press has been liberalised, several hundred political prisoners released and the path has been paved for national elections. In March 2016, after the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD), the parliament elected Myanmar’s first civilian president after 53 years . Blocked from the presidency due to a constitutional clause inserted by the military specifically for her, Suu Kyi nominated a close friend and ally, U Kyaw Tin.

A complex environment for international engagement

Compared to other regime changes around the world, the one in Myanmar has been relatively peaceful. It is really more a transition than a revolution. In the gold-rush mood that is currently gripping the country, it is easy to forget that many elements of the old system are still in place. The same 2008 constitution that blocked Suu Kyi from the Presidency also grants a huge role for the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s Armed Forces) in governance arrangements for the country. They still control the police force and Myanmar’s most influential ministries that carry the essential mandates for peace related matters. The military also maintains a 25% allocation of seats in Parliament, which means they effectively hold a veto on any constitutional change, as this requires the parliament to attain over a 75% majority vote. This leaves the NLD bitterly dependent on the Tatmadaw in order to address urgent development needs, govern the country effectively, or influence the fragile ceasefire process. It therefore remains highly unlikely that the NLD will tackle issues that the military regard as its core tasks, for fear of a backlash or breakdown in communication.

Despite these challenges, reforms in Myanmar has been rewarded by the international community with lifting the sanctions that have been in place for more than 20 years and with it, the run for “Asia’s last frontier“ started. Myanmar’s diverse natural resources and its key geographic location between China and India attract much investment. Only four years ago an ordinary cell phone SIM Card cost around $2000 – hardly imaginable today where it is widely available for $1. With the end of the sanctions, the country also witnessed a massive influx of donor and development agencies on the ground and a significant increase in funding. From 2007 to 2012 official development assistance doubled, leaving Myanmar in 2013 – 2014 as the world’s top Official Development Aid (ODA) recipient, even before Afghanistan. Given the complex governance arrangement and the fragile peace process, how does aid effect Myanmar’s conflict dynamics?

International politics and local realities

Let us zoom out for a moment. With the increasing awareness of the interlinkage between state fragility, development and international security as well as the simultaneous admission of the failures of statebuilding initiatives such as the one in Afghanistan, the international community is desperately searching for new ways to deal with weak statehood. One of the results has been the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States that proposes new peacebuilding and statebuilding goals for the international community. One of the key goals of the New Deal focuses is to strengthen trust between the state and society. The main idea is to increase the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the local population through increasing and enhancing its governance services. For this reason “international partners will increase the percentage of aid delivered through country system”. At a first sight, this doesn’t seem like a ground-breaking new idea. Well, let us return to the situation in Myanmar.

Big parts of the territory that officially constitutes the state Myanmar as we know it on the map have never been under state control. These territories are mostly controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and are located at Myanmar’s border regions. While the sanction regime was still in place, humanitarian aid and development assistance was provided into these territories mostly by supporting civil society groups and diasporas close to the border or via border-crossing. Now humanitarian and development aid patterns have shifted and more aid is provided through the state system into conflict affected areas . This bears new challenges for conflict sensitivity.

As opposed to the implicit assumption of the new Deal that areas of limited statehood are white spots with regard to governance provision, in Myanmar some of the EAOs have developed their own constitution and set up administrative and governance systems including schools and hospitals. Furthermore, in the absence of state structures many communities developed their own mechanisms for coping with issues such as injustices and security threats. In contrast, hitherto the government’s sole engagement in many of these regions has been militarily, leaving the local populations highly mistrustful of the state. Certainly, informal governance services are far from being perfect or broadly available. But development assistance that strengthens the state’s capacity to provide services such as health or education in these contested areas ignores that conflict has been driven, “to a large extent, by questions of how, and by whom subnational governance should be carried out”.

Furthermore, the state often used development projects as ‘soft entry points’ into contested regions in order to follow its very own identity politics. Schools, for instance, are being built with the financial support of external donors in contested areas with the state determining the school’s curriculum, the language of instruction and the dress code. In a situation in which the ethnic minorities are struggling for greater autonomy for decades– including the preservation and right to live their distinct ethnic identity – this is perceived as an imminent threat to their culture and self-determination.

The New Deal: No Deal for Myanmar?

This is not to say that this is all due to the principles laid out in the new Deal. Also donor agencies operating in Myanmar were found to have very weak conflict sensitivity mechanisms in place. If humanitarian and development assistance does not want to cause or exacerbate existing conflict, it needs to account for the realties on the ground much better than currently practiced. This means applying international development principles with greater flexibility for the local contexts. It means understanding the needs and perceptions of the affected population rather than ticking a checkbox for conflict sensitivity that was developed in the headquarters in Washington or elsewhere.

Map of Ethnic Armed Organizations operating in Myanmar