Tim Heinemann | July 10, 2015
This is in response to recent assertions about the goodness of “partial peace in Burma”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reality: The Government of Burma and its supporters are waging an effective international information campaign that hides the real issues and pushes for “partial peace as good enough”. Some, however, characterize this effort rather as one of strategic disinformation. Regardless of how it is labeled, this is a well-funded effort, which ethnic opposition groups are inadequately resourced to counter. In the past they have relied on the international community to champion democratic causes in Burma and matters of ethnics’ equal rights. Today this community has distanced itself in favor of Burmese elites in power by skimming the surface of vague notions of Peace and Reform, but without fathoming the depths of all relevant facts.
Today the Government of Burma has turned the word “Peace” into a whipping point by which it paints ethnic negotiators as “fickle recalcitrants”, while it systematically woos international favor as it concurrently attacks certain ethnic groups on the frontier. After all, “Peace” sounds good and briefs well, but the plain fact well known in the region is that “Peace” and the Nation-wide Ceasefire process itself have been weaponized by Burmese elites to retain and expand their power. It is deemed impolite to openly assert this, so ethnics are compelled by circumstance to “shut up and stay in line or else…” But they now make it clear that they will not. This now pressures the Burmese to ramp up the “ethnics are foot dragging” rhetoric which we are now witnessing in various media. This makes good sense to uninformed international audiences, who may not fully grasp the full basis of ethnics’ caution in accepting what many consider a flawed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), let alone appreciate the government’s strategic manipulation of NCA processes themselves.
A few facts bear mention here. First, “Peace” or “the lack of shooting and overt conflict” is a surface condition that masks many forms of Burmese aggression that take place without a single bullet ever being fired. By these methods ethnic lands are stolen, Burmese business monopolies destroy local ethnic economies, Burmese-controlled international aid and development further strengthens the Burmese military’s holds on ethnics and ethnics’ land, and much more. None of this sees the light of day in the Burmese negotiators’ dialogue. Convenient.
Second, the Nation-wide Ceasefire process has the quality of essentially being a brilliant Burmese power brokers’ strategic manipulation by which they have accomplished the following: (1) portrayed themselves to internationals as leaders of Reform, while continuing open warfare against a number of ethnic groups, (2) expanded, consolidated and hardened forward Burmese Army bases and outposts on ethnics’ lands, (3) expanded intelligence and reconnaissance efforts directed against ethnic leaders, forces and bases, (4) installed Burmese bureaucracies in ethnic zones with the support of international aid and development, (5) confiscated ethnics’ lands, (6) undercut ethnic capacities and international support by threatening to black list internationals supporting ethnic groups, (7) pursued international mega-economic development on ethnic lands without the consent of the grassroots ethnic communities impacted, and (8) corrupted or otherwise coerced certain ethnic leaders to serve as Burmese proxies. This also does not grab headlines in international media, and so the simplistic notion that “Nation-wide ceasefire must be Good” steals the spotlight continually.
Third, four years of purposeful behind-the-scenes maneuvering and power grabbing by the Burma Government intent on targeting ethnic leaders to keep them divided and in turmoil, has resulted in Burmese consolidation of economic power, international legitimacy and the presumed stature to now point at ethnic leaders as “delaying progress”. This is because the Burmese are now keen on being seen as peacemakers just in time for national elections. So now we are hearing from many spokespersons for the government talking in platitudes in terms of “Partial ceasefire is good enough”, “Ethnics need to take what they can get now”, and “No further time delays”.
Truth and Fact. The truth today is that Truth has been driven from Burma like a snake. There are now so many self-serving international agendas at work in this country that the real Truth is now a threat to many stakeholders. Fact? There is only one….and that fact is Freedom….the very basis of Life itself. Ethnics and others at the bottom of Burmese elites’ food chain do not have this. To make things worse, complex systems and processes of Burmese-led oppression are now being solidified by international resources under Burmese leaders’ control or influence. Experts in the international community are now seeing this as brilliant 21st Century counter-insurgency which harnesses globalization as a weapon. In effect, Burmese elites in power, who attained this power through over six decades of armed aggression and exploitation of ethnics, are now actually in the consolidation phase of final power control. This is now being executed using “Soft Power” appearances on the surface, while continuing “brutal business as usual” on ethnic frontiers and in the shadows. Internationals will cry foul at this assertion, because of all the signs of progress they are seeing across the land. After all, there is now KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) in Burma, as but one of many indicators of “Reform on the march”.
In this contrived context on a playing field that vastly favors Burmese controllers of political, military and economic power, ethnic negotiators who have the responsibility to protect fundamental rights of their peoples for eternity, are now being cast as “impediments to progress”. Nobody mentions that ethnics’ new negotiating team is actually a backlash against the Burmese targeted corruption, intimidation and coercion of ethnic negotiators in the past. Reality: There are subsequently fundamental flaws and omissions in the draft National Ceasefire Agreement that ethnics are trying to bring to the table for correction. This fact does not get fair billing in mainstream media, though.
In weighing the basis of ethnics’ negotiators’ stubbornness, consider the confounding context of these forgotten facts: (1) Various forms of Burmese and their supporters’ aggression continue beyond the scope of ceasefire by which ethnics are substantially harmed, significantly diminished, systematically marginalized and ultimate destroyed through what is called “Burmanization”. (2) The international community seems to have forgotten that most ethnic groups (many of which were the first inhabitants of Burma millennia before Burmans ever arrived) already have the status as “states in being” according to internationally-recognized standards, and, as such are collectively on par with central government to negotiate for full and inclusive balance of power. (3) Burmese generals and their partners still in power have never been brought to accountability for decades of human rights violations against ethnics. Finally and most ironically (4) many ethnic leaders and commanders have been the frontline defenders of democracy against totalitarianism, while not a single Burmese general past or present can make such a claim. All this now impacts ethnic leaders in terms of carefully selecting the proper scope, content and verbiage of the draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, by which the collective and individual futures of their peoples will depend. These leaders are today, however, unfairly blamed for what many in the region consider to be well-merited prudence.
The noise of Burma’s mouthpieces “on the move” today conspicuously distinguish themselves by one-sided viewpoints portraying ethnics as “problematic to work with by patient Burmese negotiators”. The counterpoints to this are many, but largely unstated, because of the fact that long-oppressed ethnics with diminished capacities after decades of armed Burmese aggression, are totally focused on survival. Ethnic leaders today have come together to find clear voice inclusive of all, and are only insisting on demonstrating thoroughness in the National Ceasefire Agreement process. They insist on representing all ethnic voices – a move which the Burmese have vigorously protested. This is significant for those who know Burma’s history, because Burmese repressive regimes have long used divide-and-conquer strategies against ethnics as their primary basis of retaining power. Nothing new at work here.
The Bottom Line. Burmese in power fear ethnics’ insistence on inclusion of all ethnic voices in the establishment of a federal union. The prospect of “undividable ethnics” has dangerous implications politically, militarily and economically for Burmese power brokers. They subsequently fear losing their present advantage of an imperfectly structured Nation-wide Ceasefire Agreement, because they will thereby lose freedom of action to both manipulate ethnics and evade international scrutiny and accountability. Vague and incomplete NCA verbiage conspicuously favors the Burmese by making such wording too unclear to be reasonably verified and unenforced.
Partial Peace? Full Peace? These are the wrong questions being put to the international community today, as well as to all the peoples of this country. The most primal and vital of all questions are these: “Non-aggression against ethnics in all forms and formations. Yes or No?” “Adequate exposure of NCA shortcomings exploitable by the Burmese to be reflected in an addendum of Ethnic Concerns as part of the NCA. Yes or No?” “Intent for full inclusion and balance of political, military and economic power among all ethnicities (Burman and Non-Burman) within a federal union that respects states’ rights and local autonomy. Yes or No?”
The almost deafening “Hurry up and get it done” messaging that is now ongoing by proponents of one side of the competition today in Burma, needs to take a back seat to a more even-handed one: “Let us all proceed from the sure foundation a complete and fully inclusive Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement upon which reciprocal good will and durable progress can be based.” Patience, candor and thoroughness here are a protection for all the peoples of Burma. This nation’s promising future as a rising powerhouse in Southeast Asia depends on this solid, balanced starting point. More importantly, its potential as a model of inclusive freedom and prosperity for all, could set the standard for a world in conflict between The Haves and The Have Nots in many societies today. The global community is, thus, in dire need of Burma’s success. “Partial Peace” is not the way forward.
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Tim Heinemann is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, who teaches ethics, conflict resolution and counter-terrorism on a worldwide basis for the US Government. He is also a humanitarian non-profit organization founder working is support of pro-democracy ethnic minorities in several countries around the world. He is a published author and co-author on ethnic matters in Burma in Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Huffington Post and Asia Times On Line.