Why Burma’s Top General Is Playing Peacemaker

The leader of Burma's military is leveraging peace talks to position himself for next year's epochal presidential election.

Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages
Patrick BODENHAM/AFP/GettyImages

It’s election season in Burma. The 2015 general election, which promises to be the first more or less free vote of its type in more than half a century, is already looming large. The leader of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is already giving glimpses of his strategy for victory: a breakthrough in peace talks with the ethnic rebels who are still at odds with the central government.

Burma’s liberalization process has generated high expectations within the international community. What outsiders often tend to miss is that the 60-year-old civil war between the central government and ethnic minorities continues today — despite all the positive talk about peace from the country’s leaders. This is the most daunting hurdle that Burma has to cross before it can establish a stable, open democracy. Min Aung Hlaing has decided to take on this challenge, and has spent the last few months making the rounds among ethnic armies. He has met with some success: In early April, he managed to bring the leaders of all major groups to the table for peace talks in Rangoon — the largest meeting of its kind since Burma achieved independence in 1948. The talks have so far been a success: After the four-day-long peace negotiations, the attendees approved a draft of a national ceasefire agreement. Under Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership, the military has put ethnic reconciliation squarely at the center of its agenda.

The reason for this is clear. Success at the peace talks could be a game-changer for Min Aung Hlaing, who is rumored to have his eye on the presidency. With presidential elections just around the corner, substantive progress in talks with the ethnic armies can bolster the commander-in-chief’s chances in two key ways: First, it will help him develop a political platform and a clear image, both crucial to making the shift into electoral politics. Second, it will help him win votes in parliament. As member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) commented, the army chief’s priority, as he has told senior military officials, is to obtain not just an end to the fighting, but a durable peace that will last for a long time to come.

Needless to say, such a result won’t come easy. Just a few days after the first meeting, in mid-April, there were signs that not everything was going well. When General Gun Maw, the leader of an ethnic army in the conflict-ridden Kachin state, visited the United States recently, he revealed that continuing fighting between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been getting in the way of substantive dialogue, and implored the United States to take part in the talks. Gun Maw’s message shows that the government has yet to earn the trust of the country’s ethnic armies. And earning that trust — a vital prerequisite for the success of the talks — depends on Min Aung Hlaing.

For more than six decades since the last British forces pulled out, Burma has been ravaged by civil war between the central government and the ethnic armed groups. In 1947, independence hero General Aung San reached a deal, called the Panglong Agreement, that guaranteed ethnic minority groups broad rights and full administrative autonomy for frontier regions. Unfortunately, Aung San — who is also the father of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi — was assassinated a few months later. Later governments, which were dominated by ethnic Burmans, failed to live up to the spirit of the Panglong Agreeement. That prompted many ethnic groups, including the KIA, to take up arms to push for greater autonomy and ethnic rights. (In the photo above, a KIA rebel overlooks the Mung Lai river near the militia’s headquarters in Kachin state.)

The ethnic armies, then, have good reason to mistrust the government. Yet today the ethnic groups have shown that they’re willing to give the peace process a try. Last year the Thein Sein government stepped up its efforts to conduct political dialogue with all ethnic rebels based on a ceasefire that was accepted by many of them.

It’s important to note that the military has often used ceasefire agreements as part of a broader strategy for containing the rebellions on the country’s periphery. The military concluded temporary ceasefires with certain groups while using the respites thus granted to intensify pressure on others. There were 14 ceasefire agreements between the military junta and the ethnic armed groups from 1989 to 2004 (including one with the KIA that only broke down in June 2011). This containment strategy did reduce clashes to some extent, but was unable to produce any lasting solutions because there was no genuine political dialogue between the ethnic groups and the junta. The recent draft ceasefire agreement suggests that the sides are making progress, and could indeed sign a long-term peace agreement by the declared deadline of August 1.

If Min Aung Hlaing can bring the negotiations to a successful end by the end of 2014, it would be an enormous boost to his prestige. A deal would mark a major breakthrough for the country, which has suffered from an intractable civil war for more than six decades. It’s a high return wager for his potential presidential bid.

It would also offer some very practical advantages. Burma’s parliament, as it presently exists, is divided up according to a quota system that gives a certain number of seats to various interest groups. Support from the ethnic groups represented in parliament could help give his candidacy a crucial boost. As it stands, the military bloc within Burma’s parliament would be enough to make him one of the country’s three vice presidents — but the military holds just 25 percent of seats, not enough to make him president. A peace deal, and the ensuing support from Burma’s ethnic minorities, would give him an edge on his competitors both inside parliament and in the country’s ethnic regions.

So far, however, Min Aung Hlaing’s peace deal efforts are far from perfect. One of the major issues is that the deal hinges on the military’s list of six conditions, including the controversial demand that the groups respect the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Ethnic armed groups find half of these conditions unacceptable, stalling the talks. But as the army chief’s retirement looms, the military has shown a willingness to tackle any remaining obstacles within the next few months. General Gun Maw, the Kachin leader, predicts that the military will compromise on the six points, stating that President Thein Sein and Gen Min Aung Hlaing will change policy if that was what they had to do to reach a peace agreement. If this is the case, it could mean a true conclusion of the world’s longest civil war.

With a ceasefire in hand, there would be enough room
for Min Aung Hlaing to maneuver for the presidency to outstrip his potential rivalries: Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still barred from running under an obscure article in the 2008 constitution, and the leaders of the ruling party, who have little or no public support. Meanwhile, escalating social unrest caused by the heated sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims, continuing conflicts over land ownership, and a general lack of rule of law continue to destabilize domestic politics. Ultimately, the military chief’s success will depend on how shrewdly he manages the peace agreement and whether he can present himself as a strong, effective leader in the country’s fragile transition.

A genuinely peaceful and federal Burma remains an ambitious and elusive goal. If Min Aung Hlaing can show decisive progress toward that end, he’ll have a realistic chance of winning the presidency. But as things stand now the senior general still has a lot of work ahead of him.

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