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“Peace Process” Versus “Peacebuilding Project” – Why Nuance Matters in Myanmar’s Development Landscape

gender myanmar

This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. The first article in the series is linked here.

Development practitioners in Myanmar should view the phenomenon of “peacebuilding” as two separate, but intersecting projects—one driven by Myanmar nationals, and the other driven by international actors. The “peace process” is a closed system invested in the balance of power between ethnic communities and the Myanmar government, while another project—what I call the “peacebuilding project” represents, among other things, an international contest for geopolitical control in Mainland Southeast Asia. In this piece, I will discuss the nuances of these two different, but intersecting projects, the limitations of development practice within them, and the implications of all of this for women on the ground.

Since Myanmar opened its doors to the world in 2012 after decades of isolation, many international organizations and the governments supporting them have turned their efforts to repairing a nation perpetually reliant on armed conflict to solve disputes over ethnic autonomy and resource control. The UK, The US, Norway, the European Union and others have bolstered funding for peace-related programming and inter-communal violence reduction, resulting in a flourish of new initiatives by civil society, local and international organizations. This investment has occurred alongside the lifting of economic sanctions—a policy shift that Western governments believe is key to helping the country transition to democracy.

Despite the international community’s desire to be involved, Myanmar’s peace process is highly internal—what I would, in fact, call a “closed system.” The country’s Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, comprised of sixteen Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union Peace-making Work Committee, the peace-making arm of the government (now termed the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee) have been in dialogue since 2013, all the while resisting international involvement. One notable exception was the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, which international and local actors were invited to observe.

Myanmar’s peace process differs from that of other countries in recent history. The 2004 peace agreement in Aceh, Indonesia, for example, was brokered by the government of Finland, with the goal of allowing the international community to provide humanitarian aid to a country reeling from both conflict and natural disaster. Similarly, the Bantay Ceasefire agreement of Mindanao, in The Philippines, incorporated an international ceasefire monitoring team. Unlike these countries, which championed international involvement in ending civil conflict, Myanmar’s peace actors seem committed to keeping the international community at bay.

But the international community is not just sitting idly by. Parallel to Myanmar’s peace process, another project is underway, which operates independently of ethnic armed actors and the Myanmar government. This project, led by international actors, is also invested in helping Myanmar achieve peace—only for different reasons. I call it Myanmar’s “peacebuilding project”—a movement led from the outside by international governments who, in addition to advancing humanitarian aims, are also working to further their own geopolitical interests in Mainland Southeast Asia.

These objectives, while shared by a number of Western governments, are heavily US-dominated. With tens of millions of dollars in aid invested in Myanmar’s development in 2015 alone, the US has taken the lead among Western governments in engaging the former pariah state—now making sweeping economic, political and social reforms. Doing so is part of the US’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region—a process of re-orienting foreign policy toward an area of the world that the US sees as central to the political and economic gains of the 21st century. As part of this re-balancing act, the US’s engagement with Myanmar has already been hailed as a success.

Within this context, the US is playing out a number of agendas in the form of its “peacebuiliding project.” The primary goal involves balancing against China’s rise in the region. Seen as a heavy-handed northern neighbor intent on plundering Myanmar of natural resources in the form of its hydroelectric dam, oil and gas pipeline, copper mining and logging projects, China’s reputation in Myanmar has recently diminished. Myanmar’s government has accused China of stalling the peace process by supporting ethnic autonomous organizations such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in the north—groups who refuse to sign the NCA due to grievances over the its non-inclusivity. Capitalizing on this unpopular sentiment, the US seems intent to drive home the point that by contrast, its own peace agenda is benign in nature.

The second goal of the US’s peacebuilding project is to divert international attention away from the US’s disastrous involvement in the Middle East. Helping Myanmar achieve peace represents a step in the right direction for the US as it struggles to uphold its brand of promoting democratization and human rights around the world. Ever concerned with the potential decline of its image, the US is relying on the success of Myanmar’s democratic elections coupled with advances in the peace process as a marker of its own foreign policy gains. The hard part, of course, comes with the slow progress being made toward actual peace.

Finally, in addition to these political motivations, I suggest that there is a genuine ethical incentive on the part of the US government to advance a peacebuilding agenda in Myanmar. While a decisive end to armed conflict has yet to be seen, US agencies are investing in programs being implemented by international, local and civil society groups that work to empower people on the ground in conflict areas. Examples include a US Embassy small grants program that supports local civil society organizations conducting human rights, environmental awareness and civic engagement training; USAID funding for humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations in conflict-affected areas; and peace education and social integration programs that have successfully impacted ethnic communities. While geopolitical concerns do steer the peacebuilding project, I suggest that this project should not simply be seen as a form of Western dominance. Rather, like all complicated processes, it should be understood according to its nuances, and not painted over with too broad a brush.

Problematic polarizations

The problem, however, is that many actors working in the peacebuilding arena—as well as those critiquing it from the outside—do just that. Because the West’s “peacebuilding project”—a project that means many things to many people—is so complex, national actors in Myanmar often conflate the “good” development work being done around peace with the West’s less altruistic geopolitical aims. This, in turn, has created a culture of mistrust in Myanmar’s development space—an ongoing assumption that international actors are trying to “meddle” in a process that should remain internal. Some national actors have suggested that international organizations are moving too quickly to implement humanitarian and economic strategies in a country still fragile and rife with conflict. Others have gone so far as to suggest that the international community “take its money elsewhere,” expressing disdain for what they see as being a disingenuous agenda.

These actors represent a diverse array of civil society human rights activists and organizations, many of whom worked in exile prior to Myanmar’s “opening” in early 2012. Indeed, the history of Myanmar’s civil society activist culture is characterized by an “inside-outside” dichotomy, in which numerous groups were forced to conduct their efforts across the border in Thailand for fear of being discovered by a repressive and hostile government. Many suffered the consequences of their bravery in protesting, demonstrating, and taking up arms. Now, the country has officially “opened” to these groups and their constituents, in a radical reversal accompanied by an influx of donor support.

An example of this reversal can be seen in the case of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, or KWAT, a civil society organization with whom I worked between 2011 and 2014. Prior to 2012, KWAT was wary of being coded as a “rebel” organization by the US government, who, the organization members suspected, viewed them suspiciously because of their involvement with the Kachin Independence Organization. Now, KWAT receives support from that very same government in the form of a grant to research the trafficking of women in Kachin State. Given the quick and quite radical shift in support for civil society actors like KWAT, it is understandable why critics would be skeptical of international involvement.

I suggest, however, that this “broad brush” suspicion of international involvement in peacebuilding can be dangerous for those who live under the conditions of armed conflict. As other scholars have noted, peace processes in which international communities play an ambiguous role can end up entrenching existing conflict dynamics, even after peace agreements are signed. This can happen when ethnic armed groups are authorized to make vague deals that circumvent the rule of law—deals legitimized by an international community whose involvement is too weak to put pressure on national actors to adhere to human rights standards.

This occurred in Bosnia, where, as Mary Kaldor (2016) has explained, following the Dayton Agreement that officially brought an end to war, police and judicial reform processes were implemented at the behest of international community. These reforms, however, were obstructed by corrupt political leadership. While the peace agreement held, the power dynamics of the conflict actors became entrenched. Kaldor notes that this often occurs in post conflict situations, where remnants of the conflict and the return to war loom as constant possibilities. Police rarely attend to human rights violations, and a historic culture of impunity leaves people in fear.

These dangers are ever-present in the Myanmar context, where armed conflict still rages, and gains of the ceasefire agreements in place are fragile, at best. Thus, a strong international presence that holds conflict actors accountable is not only desirable, it is essential. For this reason, Myanmar nationals who genuinely want to empower their communities should resist the temptation to see all international actors as nefarious.

Implications for women

All of this has implications for women living under the conditions of conflict. By viewing international involvement in the peace process with suspicion, national actors reinforce an agenda of keeping that process “closed.”  In doing so, however, women who are affected by the outcomes of this process could end up at a stark disadvantage. This could happen in a number of ways.

First, keeping the peace process internal leaves open the potential for social norms that do a disservice to women to go unchanged. Cultural practices like customary laws that discriminate against women, for example, often hold strong under the guise of ethnic nationalism. By resisting—or flat out rejecting—international involvement, national actors risk creating barriers for women who need these structures to change. As I will discuss in my next article, international efforts around gender advocacy could make important strides in resisting these norms.

Moreover, keeping the process internal risks cementing women’s inequality in peace agreements themselves. In the Myanmar context, the continuous breaches of bilateral ceasefire agreements, the escalation of conflict in various parts of the country during the signing of the NCA, and the NCA’s vague stance on gender inclusivity reveal the weak nature of the agreements in place. Until these agreements are strengthened and taken seriously, women’s needs will go unaddressed. While there is a call on the national level to strengthen gender equity within the NCA, this call risks being overridden by the need to achieve consensus around its signing. In the rush to bring all parties to the table, neither the gender inclusion component of this agreement, nor the rule of law that would enforce it are being adequately addressed. International actors could put pressure on the parties involved to make gender equality an imperative in the NCA, and in rule of law capacity building more broadly.

Finally, if the international community doesn’t take a hard look at its own contradictory agendas, it risks mis-stepping in ways that could have detrimental consequences. Clarifying the agendas of the “peacebuilding project” will require international actors to make some difficult decisions about which investments best serve the needs of communities in Myanmar.

For example, relief programs for internally displaced persons that fail to comprehensively assess the conditions of conflict areas can create more harm than good. Weak accountability mechanisms of international financial institutions investing in development projects pose threats to women in rural environments where those projects are operationalized. Additionally, power relations between ethnic armed organizations and women who live in the territories they control should be taken into consideration in programming that engages these actors. As development practitioners, we must constantly interrogate our own interventions to ensure they are not doing a disservice to the very people we are trying to help.

The politics of peace are not without consequence for women. The closed system of the peace process poses specific risks—as does the international peacebuilding project, if its complexities and contradictions are not fully understood. One resists outside involvement, while the other balances multiple, sometimes competing aims. Understanding the nuances of these projects will not only advance development practice around peacebuilding, it will also illuminate the pitfalls and possibilities for ethnic women in Myanmar, who stand to lose the most from the continuation of armed conflict.

This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. Read on to the third part here. The first article in the series is linked here.  

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Myanmar accidentally bombs China, worsening tense relations

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

Fighting between ethnically Chinese Kokang rebels and the Burmese military spilled over the border into Yunnan on March 8. China Central Television reports a plane from Myanmar’s air force mistakenly dropped bombs on a Chinese village in Gengma County (耿马县), near the prefectural capital of Lincang.

The house of a civilian surnamed Luo was destroyed by one of the bombs, but no casualties or injuries were sustained. Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, confirmed the accident during a March 10 press conference, saying, “The Chinese side has expressed grave concerns to the Myanmar side, asking them to get to the bottom of this incident as soon as possible and take effective measures to ensure that such [an] incident will never happen again.”

Indeed, a similar mishap happened two years ago, when three errant mortars fired by Burmese troops exploded in a different Yunnanese village. On that occasion, Burmese troops were fighting against the Kachin Independence Army, which is in Myanmar’s Kachin State.

On Sunday, the Burmese military’s intended target was Kokang guerrillas fighting for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). A slow-burning civil war between the Kokang and Myanmar’s government has been ongoing for decades, and although a ceasefire was agreed to in 1989, hostilities resumed again in 2009.

The most recent flare-up in violence began last year when rebels ambushed and killed seven Burmese soldiers at an outpost along the Chinese border. The conflict has escalated further over the past month, causing at least 10,000 Burmese civilians to flee across the border into Yunnan to escape ongoing airstrikes.

The refugee situation, combined with the accidental bombardment of Chinese territory, has strained already difficult Sino-Burmese relations. Spokesman Hong voiced concern at his press conference, saying:

Conflicts in the Kokang region in northern Myanmar have been raging on for more than a month, disturbing the stability and normal order of China-Myanmar border areas. China once again urges relevant parties to exercise restraint, calm things down on the ground at an early date, and restore peace and stability in northern Myanmar.

Despite Mr Hong’s rather moderate tone, an accident such as this could seriously challenge China’s stance of non-interference — a cornerstone of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy. As journalists writing in The Diplomat recently pointed out, “It may be China’s state policy not to get involved, but that doesn’t mean individual actors from China are following suit”.

Making things more confused, China has been accused by members of the Burmese military of supplying Kokang rebels with weapons and other supplies. The allegations, which were categorically rejected by Beijing, are based in part on historical assumptions. In the past, before the 1989 ceasefire was signed, Chinese officials openly supported the pro-communist MNDAA, who are ethnically Han Chinese and speak Mandarin.

In addition to the official denials emanating from China’s capital, Kokang rebels have also disavowed receiving any military support. Nonetheless, Chinese authorities recently launched an investigation into the actions of Huang Xing, a former senior strategist from the People’s Liberation Army. He stands accused of corruption and leaking state secrets to Burmese rebels as long ago as 2009.

This article was written by Chiara Ferraris and originally published on GoKunming. It is reprinted here, with permission, in its entirety. 

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Meet the Salween

salween

I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.

Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.

There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.

And this is how the story goes:

One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.

After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.

It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.

Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.

The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River  (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.

The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.

Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.

7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.

But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.

Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.

“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.

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