The World's Role in Burma's Peace Process

Despite the respectable reforms the country has seen in recent years, Burma remains stuck in Orwell's 1984 as a state that governs with an iron fist and speaks in contradictions.
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There is a joke in Burma* that George Orwell unintentionally wrote a trilogy about the country: Burmese Days about its colonial era, Animal Farm about its road to socialism, and 1984 about its military dictatorship. With Burma's national elections coming up in just one week, President Thein Sein has been using smoke and mirrors to persuade the world that dystopian Burma is history. The final act is the recent signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Ethnic Armed Organizations that have long been plagued by armed conflict with the regime. Burma has changed, the story goes: it is a democracy, it has made peace. Enticing though it may be, this narrative is just not true.

Despite the respectable reforms the country has seen in recent years, Burma remains stuck in Orwell's 1984 as a state that governs with an iron fist and speaks in contradictions. In truth, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed on October 15 is neither nationwide nor a ceasefire. The Burmese government has rejected requests by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army for inclusion in the ceasefire process. Although it claims that the groups must first commit to bilateral ceasefire agreements, there is a double standard at work: the same requirement was not imposed on the Kachin Independence Organization - widely considered a key player by the government. In fact, only eight of the 21 ethnic organizations have signed the agreement, so "nationwide" is doublespeak. Worse yet, the consequences for groups refusing to sign the agreement suggest a regression to old tactics of divide and conquer, which have defined the past half century of civil war.

As if Orwell had written it himself, the government spoke of ceasefire at the negotiation table while it shelled villages, killed civilians, and displaced thousands of people in Shan and Kachin States under the table. The message seems to be one of extortion: the ethnic groups refusing to sign the NCA will pay the price. Less than a week ago, a coalition of 50 Burmese civil society organizations penned a letter to President Thein Sein demanding an end to the government's aggression in Shan State. Hostilities began after the Shan State Army opted not to sign the NCA, prompting the Burmese military - known as the Tatmadaw - to attack the group in violation of their existing bilateral ceasefire agreement with the Shan group. The Tatmadaw has reportedly killed civilians and displaced 3,000 Shan villagers just this month, adding to the estimated UNHCR total of nearly 100,000 internally displaced persons from various ethnic nationalities in the region.

To help Burma leave 1984 behind, the international community needs to do more to ensure the same mistakes made leading up to the ceasefire agreement are not repeated during the upcoming peace process. With most of the thorny issues remaining on the table, the Burmese government may be hoping world pressure turns to applause. Unfortunately, President Thein Sein was given a pat on the back following the signing of the draft NCA in March. The United Nations heralded the draft as a "historic and significant achievement," while UNICEF referred to it as the "dawn of a new time of progress for the most disadvantaged children in Myanmar." The United States embassy in Rangoon joined the chorus with a statement lauding the draft as a "potentially historic step toward achieving peace and national reconciliation." This must have been music to Thein Sein's ears.

If the international public does not require a successful transition to the peace process before prematurely rewarding the Burmese government, President Thein Sein will be allowed to cross the finish line before even running the race. To avoid this, countries around the world must demand an end to the doublespeak. Fortunately, the United States tempered its earlier enthusiasm following the recent signing of the NCA by commended the agreement while expressing "concern" at the reports of Burmese military offensives in Shan and Kachin states. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough.

The Burmese government and its military should be called to halt all aggression against the ethnic groups in the country's periphery and to include them in the peace process regardless of whether they signed the NCA. To bring groups back to the table after losing their trust during the ceasefire negotiations, international stakeholders must push the government to show good faith by repealing the century-old Unlawful Association Act that criminalizes membership in or association with the ethnic organizations.

But bringing the ethnic groups back to the table does not change the fact that the cards remain stacked against them. The government negotiating team is well-funded by eager foreign donors, but the ethnic groups' negotiators are being largely overlooked and, as a result, have more limited capacity to work out a deal with the government as its equal. Given that western governments will soon launch a Joint Peace Fund amounting to as much as $30 million to support the peace process, it is essential that the funds are distributed equitably to balance the scales.

If countries around the world can help convince the government, and indeed all the warring parties, not to carry on with business as usual, Burma may one day leave Orwell behind. In the meantime, perhaps Orwell's words can serve to light the way: "political language . . . is designed to . . . give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." World leaders seeking a lasting peace in Burma would be wise not to confuse the two and extend their hand to all sides in the post-election months with cautious optimism and a watchful eye.

*According to Emma Larkin, the pseudonym of an American journalist and author of Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005).