CONFLICT AND THE CHALLENGE OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN
(i) The Changing Political Context and Dilemma of Engagement
peaceful and lasting solution to the long-running ethnic conflicts in
doubts, of course, continue to dog how and when any reform process will be
brought about to the satisfaction of all Burma's long-suffering peoples -- and
this remains a central dilemma for international NGOs. But for those looking to
the longterm and hoping for peaceful change, it is
immediately significant that, since 1988, the new political climate has been
reflected in a number of initiatives, which -- in one way of another -- have
engaged all the key protagonists. Military rule still predominates but, despite
the lack of consensual progress, the very nature of these exchanges or contacts
marks a notable change in the pattern in Burmese politics from the "
contrast, during a quarter century of Ne Win's
isolationist rule (1962-88), national political and economic life had ossified
and, in many respects, could be separated into two different -- although
overlapping -- socio-political arenas: the Dry Zone, Irrawaddy plains and other
lowland areas where the Burman majority mostly live, and the ethnic minority
borderlands. In the major towns and Burman heartlands, Ne
Win's military-backed Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) attempted to build
up a monolithic system of government which would, it was intended, radiate out
The BSPP was to collapse almost without trace during the pro-democracy protests in 1988, but Ne Win loyalists reasserted military control through the takeover of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in September that year. This triggered one of the periodic but complex periods of shake-up and re-alignment in Burmese politics, which also saw the emergence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). The result is a pattern of political and social transformation that is still continuing. Most recently, for example, the SLORC restructured the military government to re-emerge itself last month as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
The political impasse thus remains, but what is immediately striking in the post-1988 scenario is that, on paper at least, the end goals of the leading actors and parties for the first time appear remarkably similar. As in many other countries around the world, much of the ideological dogma of the Cold War era has been abandoned. Instead, although the issue has hardly been broached, all parties profess to support change to a "market-oriented", "open-door", "multi-party" system of "democratic" government, all of which are elements that are generally considered essential building blocks in the development of civil society. Furthermore, in apparent acknowledgement of the failures of the past, all sides have pledged to pay greater attention, in Burma's future constitution, to the political, cultural, economic and social rights of Burma's ethnic minority peoples, who make up an estimated third of the country's 47 million population.
reality, of course, many observers would argue that, whatever the rhetoric, the
real struggle in Burmese politics over the past decade has been for control of
the transitional process -- and this has yet to be resolved. In particular, it
is frequently noted how, during this period of deadlock, the Burmese armed
forces have only continued to grow and increase domination over many aspects of
daily life.[ii] To concentrate on this alone, however, would be to underestimate just
how much the internal political context and structures have been changing
As evidence of such changes, two events stand out: the 1990 General Election and the ethnic cease-fire movement in the country's borderlands. In the former case, organised by the military government, the election was overwhemingly won by the NLD with 82 per cent of the seats; strikingly, too, not only did ethnic minority voters support the NLD in many parts of the country, but candidates from 19 different ethnic minority parties won the second largest block of constituencies. In the eyes of voters, therefore, the country had given a clear mandate for democratic change. Subsequently, the SLORC, proclaiming the duty of "national politics" to broaden the debate, announced a hand-picked National Convention, including representatives from seven other "social" categories (as well as MPs), to actually draw up the new constitution, but, in the eyes of the world, a clear marker of democratic hopes and intent had been laid.[iii]
However, in actually recharting the socio-political environment in the field, the second development has been equally significant: the cease-fire movement in the ethnic minority war-zones. Here there were no central government elections, but, also instituted by the SLORC government, today this movement has spread to include the majority of armed ethnic opposition groups in the country (see appendix). Indeed, in tandem with the government's "open-door" shift to a market-oriented economy, the very existence of these cease-fires has marked a major change in the political and social context of daily life and relationships within the country. In fact, not only is the NLD, which has been subject to many obstructions, currently barred from the National Convention after a series of disagreements with the SLORC, but representatives of several cease-fire parties have, by contrast, actually been continuing to attend.
examining recent history, then, this much is easy to document and analyse. But adjudging where such developments will lead
differences of opinion over social and political priorities are already having
a critical impact within
Similar contradictions also exist on the economic front, which is usually regarded as another main element in the development of civil society in any democracy. For example, while Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD have argued in support of international trading boycotts until there is substantive political reform, the state-controlled media has repeatedly denounced the NLD for allegedly holding up the progress of the nation.[vi]
such a debate also embroils foreign businesses and development agencies, and
this division of opinion is already marked in a number of ethnic minority
areas, notably in the Tenasserim Division in south
(ii) Realities on the Ground:
The entrance, then, of foreign agencies -- whether inter-governmental, non-governmental or business -- raises further difficult questions over priorities in reform and development, especially where the notion of "civil society" is included. Historically, the timing is striking, and
again, however, as recent experiences from
It is to reconcile such obvious differences that the subject of "civil society" has most recently been brought in, but as Mark Duffield has warned:
In both development and transitional thinking, civil society has become a central concept. This development is all the more interesting given the absence among aid agencies and donor governments of any consensus regarding what civil society is and how it works. At best, it is an ill-defined space between the family and state in which plural civic institutions hold sway.[viii]
debate is still continuing, but, amongst international agencies, two trends or
mooted solutions are becoming clear. In the humanitarian or development world,
emphasis is placed on the working practices of agencies themselves, including
working at the "grass-roots" level wherever possible (if feasible,
through local partnerships), with such longterm aims
as "capacity building", "social mobilization",
"participatory planning" and community "enhancement" or
"empowerment". In effect, while avoiding political alignment with the
state alone, agencies are trying to work within the presumed space that Duffield has described. Information sharing, too, with
other agencies is also desired so that the broader picture of needs can be kept
in view. And, in many respects, these are the patterns of engagement which are
already developing for agencies working in or around
then, are the kind of working practices that agencies have already evolved. But
many recipients and observers are beginning to find that, devoid of
socio-political context, such practices are not enough. As a result, a second
trend of analysis, highly relevant to
Instead, a number of observers now argue that the first priority should be to look at institutional and social problems from the ground up, by focusing attention on the diverse peoples who live in such countries and by gaining a greater appreciation of the depth and vibrancy of their cultures, as well as their problems, as they exist in the field. Perhaps not surprisingly, immediately paramount in such an analysis are usually two common features -- ethnic conflict and the weakness of the state -- which, although complex, have to be individually confronted according to the circumstances in each country. This, of course, is very easy to say, but as John Ryle, Save the Children Fund consultant for Africa, has recently warned those looking for simple solutions: "Each of these conflicts emerges from a particular history in which the pattern of colonial heritage, community politics and state formation or non-formation is quite distinct....generalisations are dangerous."[x]
are there any lessons in this for international NGOs with a working interest in
away from theoretical models, any discussion of civil society in
finally in this overview, it is important to highlight, from the perspective of
civil society, some of the particular problems and characteristics in the deep
socio-political crisis that has developed in
recent years, for example, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly
supported the call for "tri-partite" dialogue as a pragmatic first
step out of the current impasse. But this does not then mean that democracy can
not also be a main aspiration of the Tatmadaw or the ethnic opposition nor that there can be no ethnic minority representatives in
the Tatmadaw or NLD. Indeed, from the perspective of civil society, the very
reverse may be true; as civil society develops in Burma, if democratic
institutions and practices are to survive, all the many different social,
ethnic and political factions or institutions in this most ethnically diverse
of countries will have to share and respect common values. All sectors of
society must be engaged - even the Tatmadaw. As Chao
Tzang Yawnghwe, present-day academic and former Shan armed opposition leader, recently wrote: "Top generals will have to
learn how to deal with military pluralism and, by extension, with societal
where ethnic minority communities are concerned, the short-hand division between "black" (insurgent-controlled),
"brown" (no-man's land) and "white" (government-controlled)
will, one day, have to be abandoned. Inhabiting half the land area,
minority communities are not a marginal but an inseparable part of
200,000 Shans, for example, are estimated to live in
the Kachin state while over 100,000 Kachins live in
the Shan state.[xii] Here, too, there exists one of the most complicated ethnic and
insurgency situations in the world. Well into the last decade of the 20th
century, over a dozen armed ethnic opposition groups have continued to control
different areas of the state, from where they still vie for authority with the
central government in
In conclusion, then, when looking at the complex scale of the problems Burma is facing, it is important to stress, as is the modern trend, the underlying weaknesses of the modern Burmese state and, fifty years after independence, its historic role in generating rather than healing social and ethnic divisions. In this respect, Burma bears many of the characteristics of the phenomenon, much commented on in recent years, known as "strong societies" and "weak state", where post-colonial governments have been unable to achieve -- or countenance -- effective action across all social and ethnic sectors. (This, of course, does not reflect "military power", which the Burmese armed forces clearly possess.)
the post-colonial world, Burma is hardly alone in facing such an experience,
but what is immediately striking in Burma's case is both the predominant role
of military organisations (of different colours) in
national life as well as the strong ethnic undercurrents in political and social
movements. Indeed, in many respects, ethnicity is an ideology in
in another time of transformation, the question must be addressed as to why, in
the past five decades,
As Barry Buzan has written: "Weak states either do not have, or have failed to create, a domestic political and social consensus of sufficient strength to eliminate the large-scale use of force as a major and continuing element in the domestic political life of the nation."
key issue, then, remains whether the recent actions taken by the leading
political protagonists in Burma -- and, indeed, the notions of civil society --
will create the space needed for real "domestic political and social
consensus" to emerge. It is in this complex environment that international
NGOs have recently become engaged in both
CEASE-FIRES AND RECENT EVENTS IN ETHNIC MINORITY REGIONS
is with such perspectives in mind, of a post-colonial state in internal
conflict and crisis, that recent events in ethnic minority areas of
presents an immediate dilemma for international organisations entering such
long-divided regions. For, at such a time of transition, it is by no means
clear which parties or institutions will develop and grow -- and which
institutions, in contrast, will stumble and fall. The Union Solidarity and
Development Association (USDA), for example, which is increasingly the military
government's preferred vehicle for social and political action, was formed as
recently as September 1993 but, with government patronage, has already grown to
several million members. Similarly, while the once powerful Communist Party of
Burma (CPB) has collapsed,
Finally, in ethnic minority regions the human dimension can never be ignored. In many areas, decades of war, human rights abuses and confrontation have created a climate where nothing is ever certain, as many citizens have found to their cost. The desire for peaceful change may be widespread across the country, but the sad fact is that, for the moment, fear, opportunism and survival have all too often been the key motivations for action rather than reconciliation and reform.
follow the cease-fires, then, a great deal of history needs to be condensed.
The peace movement, in fact, began almost by chance in northeast Burma in 1989,
following a series of ethnic mutinies from the CPB, which was, at the time,
Burma's oldest and largest insurgent force. During 1980-81, under the former
BSPP government, there had been peace talks between the government and CPB as
well as with the Kachin Independence Organisation in northeast
the end of the 1980s, however, the mood was very different -- especially after
fierce fighting broke out after the SLORC assumed power in September 1988.
Armed opposition movements had been noticeably quiet during the dramatic events
that swept the country in mid-1988. This was partly due to their remoteness
(the democracy protests were largely urban-based), but it was also by design;
both ethnic and communist leaders had warned of the dangers of trying to
exploit the Burmese army's difficulties during such a time of political
awakening. The subsequent arrival of an estimated 10,000
students and other democracy activists (most of whom were Burmans),
seeking sanctuary in armed opposition territory after the SLORC takeover, only
acted as further confirmation of the changing political landscape.
However, to the anguish of leaders and communities on all sides, over a
thousand lives were lost in the bloody battles that erupted, especially in CPB,
KIO and KNU-controlled territory where many democracy activists had fled. While
Clearly, all sides -- including the Burmese armed forces and the ethnic opposition -- had their own reasons for now considering cease-fires, and these were to subsequently come from two major blocks: those of former allies or defectors from the CPB, many of which still support the establishment of "autonomous zones" on the China model, or members of the 11-party National Democratic Front (NDF), which, established in 1976, has long advocated the formation of a federal union of Burma.
first to make cease-fires were five (subsequently four) breakaway armies from
the CPB, spearheaded by the United Wa State Party in
Equally important, despite a series of approaches from NDF members, the CPB mutineers rejected their political advances. Indeed, in September 1989, the main force of an important NDF member, the Shan State Progress Party, which had been close to the CPB in northern Shan state, also made a cease-fire agreement. It was a timely reminder of the historic lack of unity amongst what is loosely described as the "ethnic opposition".
fall-out, then, from these first cease-fires was to set in train a number of
unpredicted consequences. Whether by design or not, one of the most significant
was the newly "legalised" nexus between the
Burmese armed forces, armed ethnic opposition groups and business interests as
well governmental institutions and, ultimately, local community groups. This
was to set a precedent for future cease-fires as well as fundamentally change
the basis of the economy in many border regions. Previously, under the
however, for the first time in decades, the pattern was set for all legal
trading relationships in the border regions to be brought "inside"
the country. From the frontier with
has had the most profound consequences, both at home and abroad. Firstly, with
border regions increasingly within its ambit, the SLORC/SPDC government has
been able to build on its intention to end
However, secondly, and equally important from the perspective of civil society, in the past eight years the central government has been slowly "legitimising" or allowing new economic, political and social networks, which have been slowly coming to life inside all the ethnic minority borderlands. The permission, for example, for both UN agencies and international NGOs to visit or even work in these once forbidden areas is simply another manifestation of these broader changes, which would scarcely have been feasible without cease-fires and the new perspectives from Rangoon.
this stage it should be stressed that, back in 1989, only the most rudimentary
agreements were made and, in effect, there were no political discussions at
all. For example, it was agreed that, in this transitional period under the
SLORC, the cease-fire forces would be allowed to keep their arms and territory
As an interim measure, varying subsidies and supplies were also donated by the government until the different forces could become self-sufficient. In this regard, the complex question of opium production, which is the main cash crop in these areas, was also discussed and, although different protagonists have subsequently disagreed over specifics, it was mutually agreed to take a longterm view on the problem of abolition and, instead, work on a ten-year programme, also involving the help of UN agencies, to phase in different crop substitution projects. This, of course, has subsequently become one of the most critical areas of international concern, attracting particular criticism from governments in the West which have recognised that in some areas, opium production has, in fact, continued to rise.[xvii]
effect, then, the five cease-fire agreements in 1989 set a precedent for the
further cease-fires which were to come. Equally important, although there have
been frequent predictions of break-down, all five have, to date, survived
through the eight years since, despite a plethora of obvious day-to-day
problems. Moreover, the very existence of these cease-fires along the
In strategic terms, the first impact was felt by insurgent organisations in adjoining areas. These, for the first time, came under enormous pressures not only from their own peoples to consider cease-fires but also from the Burmese army, which no longer had to guard its rear. Once again, subsequent events were to reveal a new mood in the country -- this time within the National Democratic Front.
1988, recognising the unpredictable environment, a
number of NDF groups had also privately argued for the proposal of peace talks,
notably the late KIO chairman, Maran Brang Seng, and the PNO chairman,
Aung Kham Hti. Other NDF
members, however, and most especially the Karen National Union, were keen to
concentrate on the expansion of armed opposition forces in
Such developments, however, while well reported in the international media, were essentially border politics and had limited impact on the actual state of the conflict inside. Indeed, not only were many minority inhabitants unaware of such movements, but many minority leaders and communities were rather more focused on the implications of the 1990 general election, in which ethnic nationalist parties, after over a quarter century of banishment, were now legally allowed to stand.
with the NDF and DAB both hesitating, the Burmese army was quick to sense this
vacuum and, although leaving the door to peace talks open, during 1990-91
launched sustained offensives in northeast Burma, especially in Pao, Shan, Palaung and
Kachin-inhabited areas, in which hundreds of villages were relocated or
destroyed. Other military operations were also launched in northwest
By early 1992, therefore, the socio-political landscape in ethnic minority regions was rapidly changing. Military rule continued, but the 1990 election result had signified a massive victory for the NLD and also ethnic minority parties, most of whom were allied in the United Nationalities League for Democracy which was supported by 65 MPs. Already open contacts had been established between some of the victorious parties and cease-fire armies that had opened business and liaison offices in the towns. In addition, although controversial, the Border Areas Development Programme was now well underway, and, for the first time in decades, representatives of several UN agencies (especially UNDP, UNDCP and UNICEF) were being allowed into a number of districts in the long-forbidden hills.
too, the SLORC was preparing for the National Convention, which was to draw up
the principles for
To try, then, and accelerate the cease-fire process, in April 1992 the SLORC unexpectedly announced that the Burmese army was halting all offensive operations against armed ethnic opposition groups in "the name of national unity". This followed hundreds of casualties on both sides in one of the most publicised battles ever in the history of the country's long insurgencies: the unsuccessful offensive to capture the joint KNU/DAB headquarters at Mannerplaw. Subsequently, the Burmese army did remain on front-line patrol and sporadic fighting occurred, but, in many areas, the levels of day-to-day violence dropped to their lowest levels in decades. Indeed, as another warning of the unpredictability of ethnic conflict in Burma, it was in two new areas that most of the new violence was reported: in the Rakhine state, where fall-out from the flight of the Muslim refugees was still continuing, and in the southern Shan state, where the 15,000-strong Mong Tai Army of the "opium kingpin", Khun Sa, was isolated and briefly went on the offensive.
Subsequent events are still the subject of much conjecture, as the remaining NDF parties failed to agree on any concrete platform or strategy towards peace talks. Many veteran leaders recognised that the SLORC's April announcement was significant, since it laid the negotiable basis for a "nationwide cease-fire", something that they had themselves long advocated. In reality, however, the situation was very different from one ethnic nationality area to another, and this owed much to the different strengths and supporters of the different parties and armed forces, as well as the different sentiments in the local communities.
Probably the most effective and united movement towards a cease-fire occurred in northeast Burma, where leaders of the Kachin Independence Organisation had long argued for dialogue and a peaceful solution to the civil war; the dilemma always had been over how to bring this about. Significantly, too, as in 1980-81, the peace movement here was under-pinned by a cross-community approach in which church groups and leading Kachin figures in government-controlled areas were also involved. Thus, not only were such movements able to play an important "go-between" role, but the question of peace was not just a topic of debate between the Burmese army and KIO, but the discussions were also keenly followed in other sectors of Kachin society, including the towns and villages or amongst business people and government servants.
In many ways, then, the depth of this prior discussion has probably reflected the greater energy behind the cease-fire movement in Kachin areas where, despite many cautions, perhaps the widest array of humanitarian, development and educational projects has been initiated following the 1994 military truce. Here a particular concern was the feeling that, while the KIO and Kachin people continued the political fight, other ethnic groups, especially Chinese, were coming in to take over business and trade under the SLORC's "open door" policy.
Other ethnic forces based around the Thai border, however, were not so convinced, and although in 1993 the SLORC said that it was prepared to meet a joint delegation together with Kachin, Mon, Karenni and Karen members of the NDF, the different opposition groups could not unite on tactics. Thus in February 1994, following its expulsion from the DAB, the KIO, which was probably the NDF's strongest force, became the next armed opposition group to agree a cease-fire with the SLORC.
again, a cease-fire in northeast
decades of being regarded as "buffer zones" by the Thai authorities,
the armed ethnic opposition was thus for the first time being seen as a
hindrance to peace and development in the region. Here the new talk was of
trade and commerce, infrastructure-building and power generation that crossed
international frontiers. Already, despite the objections of opposition voices,
unbridled trades in logging and fishing had developed between new
military-backed business networks emerging on both sides. In southeast
At this critical moment, the credibility of the KNU took a severe blow when several hundred Buddhist Karen troops, led by a local abbot, broke away to agree a cease-fire with the SLORC and set up the rival Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in the Paan area. Their initial allegation was of anti-Buddhist discrimination by some of the KNU's predominantly Christian leaders (most Karens are, in fact, Buddhists), but the end result has been the loss of the KNU headquarters at Mannerplaw and a desultory campaign of inter-Karen conflict which, to the concern of the international community, has also seen the DKBA attack and burn down a number of Karen refugee camps in Thailand.
Thus, in 1994-95, the cease-fire movement began to gather momentum again, although this time, it should be stressed, that the different ethnic minority forces were far more reluctant and cautious. None the less, a number of cease-fires were quickly agreed, including the Kayan New Land Party, Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front and Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organisation, all of which had previously been close to the CPB, and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), which were Thai border-based members of the NDF. Unlike in the KIO case, broad-based and effective local liaison between these groups and the military government presented a problem, except in some of the predominantly Christian communities of the Kayah-Shan state borderlands, where an important role was again played by the local church.
The SLORC also received an added bonus in January 1996 when the maverick, Shan-Chinese leader Khun Sa virtually delivered his Mong Tai Army over to the Burmese army in a surprise ceremony at his headquarters at Homong in southwest Shan state. This many Shan nationalists saw as more of a surrender than cease-fire between military equals, and it was widely recalled that, like the Kokang leader Lo Hsing-han, Khun Sa had twice served in the 1960s and 70s as a local "Ka Kwe Ye" militia commander on the government side; Khun Sa, like Lo Hsing-han, had also served time in government prisons, but the little-admitted fact is that, in the complex twists and turns of Burma's insurgent world, at the front there are commanders who have always played both sides.[xix] By now, however, there was little time for analysis: cease-fires were becoming commonplace around the country -- and being made on a variety of very different terms.
KNU, too, which was now badly weakened by the DKBA split, also became engaged
in a protracted series of peace negotiations during 1995-96. These, however,
broke down at the end of the year when the KNU, sticking to its longtime demand
for a "political settlement first", rejected two Burmese army
demands: that the KNU "enter the legal fold" and renounce the
"right to armed struggle". Subsequently, in early 1997 the KNU's
Seventh Day Adventist chairman, Bo Mya, hosted a
much-publicised Ethnic Nationalities Seminar at the
observers, then, were surprised when fighting quickly resumed, but, with the
KNU now weakened by surrenders and defections, few predicted the speed of the
Burmese army break-through. During 1997, remaining KNU permanent base areas
have been falling one after another. Once again, however, the main victims have
been the villagers caught in the cross-fire, with over 20,000 new refugees
attempting to flee into
in conclusion, at the time of writing and depending on where one is standing, a
number of very different perspectives can be taken on the current situation in
ethnic minority regions of the country. The fighting in Karen-inhabited
districts of southeast
number of the more recent cease-fires have also proven unstable. In 1995, the
cease-fire of the Karenni National Progressive Party quickly broke down,
following unreconciled disagreements over territory
and trade, while, more recently, there have been
reports of clashes between Burmese army units and the Kayan
New Land Party. Equally serious, major fighting has resumed in southwest and
central Shan state where a veteran nationalist faction, the Shan United
Revolutionary Army, has rejected the terms of Khun Sa's MTA surrender and is
attempting to resume the Shan resistance. According to the UN Special
Rapporteur on Human Rights, as a consequence of these conflicts, over 700
villages have been relocated in the Shan and Kayah
state borderlands in the past two years alone.[xx] Completing this picture of confusion (and leaving aside the politics of
Nevertheless, despite this present picture of uncertainty, according to many of those most actively involved in the cease-fire process, this would be to miss the underlying point. Not only are many of the main protagonists and battle-field foes now in dialogue -- and experience from Northern Ireland to Palestine or South Africa has demonstrated how long it can take to lead from cease-fires to reform, but many long war-torn regions are also at their first peace in decades. This, in itself, is seen as an enormous first step. Foreign tourists now travel the road to Lashio, whereas only four years ago the most usual sights were army convoys and Chinese trucks.
no one is expecting the next stages to be easy. Given
as the cease-fire movement edges towards its first decade, questions will
inevitably arise over what has actually been achieved in the field. This is an
especially important question for international NGOs who are now working or
considering working within
The short answer, of course, is that all sides in the cease-fires have agreed to place immediate political problems to one side, including questions of state, while different initiatives are begun (e.g., health, business and education) to try and cement the peace by finding new methods and institutions for effective social representation and progress. This may appear an uncertain scenario for international agencies, who have to decide whether, how and with whom they should engage, but this is the reality that they must confront in whatever part of Burma they become engaged.
may also be a temptation for the international community to try and create
different models or agendas, but as Mark Duffield and
John Ryle have warned, in the final analysis,
effective actions can only be based upon real understanding of the peoples,
situation and problems of state as they exist on the ground. Thus in Burma's
case, although the term civil society itself is not much discussed, it is
important to recognise that there are different protagonists and peoples in
Burma who are now urgently trying, in their own ways, to build confidence and
strengthen elements in their own societies with the view to reform. This is a
struggle as vital for the future peace and stability of
We want to establish peace in our country. It is not a time to confront each other because we need national reconciliation. We have reached cease-fire agreements and the next step is political dialogue. We must establish trust. After bloodbaths lasting nearly half a century, we must establish trust with the view that one day reconciliation will come about.[xxii]
Generalising on particulars of life in ethnic minority
for the uninitiated, travelling around ethnic
minority regions of
Not all ethnic minority areas, of course, are war-zones, although many of the same basic difficulties prevail. But in the cease-fire areas, at least, the first practicality to be taken on board is that virtually all the cease-fire agreements have their own differences, and this often has as much to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different military forces in the region (including the Burmese armed forces) as with the character or goals of the different protagonists. The KIO and UWSP, for example, control substantial standing armies as well as large regions of territory, while the NMSP and KNPP, by the time of their 1995 cease-fire agreements, had largely been pinned back to the Thai border where their troops were demarcated scattered "flag" positions, out of which permission is needed to move. (Government forces similarly need permission to enter or cross armed opposition territory.)
However such limitations are not, in themselves, a major stumbling block. Indeed, from the perspective of civil society, the cease-fire forces should only be considered one element in the much more complicated social mosaic. This has long been understood by leaders on all sides, especially ethnic minority groups who have already begun to shy away from such terms as "war-zones" or "cease-fire territories", preferring, instead, the much broader term "war-affected" to describe the broader communities of their peoples. Although long in use, armed struggle is a tactic, not a goal, of most nationalist movements, and it has always been a major source of grief and political concern that many minority communities have become divided way beyond the current front-lines.
Thus, regardless of strength, one of the first and most notable impacts of the cease-fires has been the ability of long-separated communities to openly re-establish contacts and for representatives of formally opposing groups to have access (although conditional) to formally-restricted areas in each other's territory. This includes towns, villages, sea-coasts and borderlands as well as the many natural resources they contain. This, in turn, raises difficult questions over "give and take", but, in the search for peace, all sides initially decided that this was a gamble that had to be taken. In effect, a high-risk strategy had been embarked upon which opponents privately recognise could be far more dangerous to their individual interests than actually continuing the war.
From these initial steps towards peace, then, subsequent developments in "war-affected" areas can be divided into two main categories: the political and the social, both of which have implications for civil society. It is still very early days yet, but, given their marginalisation in the recent past, many ethnic minority leaders believe that a number of important points have already been established for the future.
The first key breakthrough has been that of political recognition, even if tangible or constitutional agreements have yet to be made. Fuelling this desire for respect in the governmental arena has been a long-held belief that ethnic minority communities have often paid the highest price for the general political volatility in the country at large, and this, they claim, has happened on at least four occasions in the past: 1948, 1958-60, post-1962 and 1988.[xxiii]
time, during what all sides recognise may well be a rare moment of political
reorientation, they want, like the Tatmadaw or NLD, to be on the inside of the
political process in
For the present, it should be stressed, any reform or transition process is uncertain. The SLORC/SPDC's chosen vehicle for constitutional discussion, the National Convention, has not formally met for over a year, and not only the NLD but also many ethnic minority parties have not been attending. New "self-administered" zones have been promised for the Wa, Pao, Palaung, Danu, Kokang and Naga, but specific details have not been discussed on most ethnic minority issues. Instead, most attention has focused on the self-proclaimed "leading role in national political life" that the military government has been seeking to preserve for the Tatmadaw.[xxv] Uncertainties also remain over how ethnic forces that are still fighting -- notably Karen and Shan who make up the country's largest ethnic minority populations -- will eventually be brought, like the NLD, into the same reform discussions.
in many ethnic minority regions of the country, there is undoubtedly a greater
freedom of association and mobility within society than recent decades. On a
political level, for example, previously divided Kachin factions have now
achieved a consensus, while the armed opposition PNO and the Union Pao National Organisation, which won seats in the 1990
election, run themselves in tandem. Similar exchanges
have taken place between different Shan parties and organisations, while in
of these organisations also run schools, hospitals and their own local
administrations, and they also interact with other community groups, including
business companies and religious organisations. In addition, it should be
pointed out, they also liaise, often closely, with
different levels of the government, from both local Tatmadaw outposts to
different ministries in
although elsewhere in the world international NGOs have often become involved
in such "crisis" situations through training courses in
"political" topics, including democratisation,
conflict resolution, institution-building and media-training, this is not a
realistic option at present in the field in ethnic minority regions. For the
present, the first emphasis must be on humanitarian and development issues,
and, in most respects, the military government still prefers to deal with
inter-governmental organisations, especially the UN. If any reminder were
needed, the extraordinary withdrawal of the International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC) from
then, leads to the second arena of recent developments: the social. An
important element here is the economic, which is not dealt with in detail in
this paper. For the moment, with the exception of the Total-Unocal pipe-line
and cross-border logging, penetration by international commercial (or
development) organisations is relatively little into ethnic minority regions.
But suffice to say, economic regeneration is one of the foremost aims of ethnic
minority organisations and leaders. Compared to the restrictions of the past,
there has been a relative upsurge in business activities, although, as
However, as evidence of deeper change, cease-fire organisations such as the New Democratic Army on the China border have developed their own hydro-electric plants, while the KIO has re-opened the large sugar-mill at Namti and the NMSP and SSA have both had fishing fleets out on the Andaman Sea. Parallel to these developments, many local entrepreneurs and business-people, who were often important supporters of the cease-fire movements, have set up a host of new companies of their own, although it remains very much to be seen whether the people, in general, become "stakeholders" in the newly emerging economies in these regions. Without capital or development assistance, many communities have already complained that they find it impossible to compete.
it is in the aid and humanitarian areas of social reform that most local or
grass-roots energies have been directed -- and it is in this capacity that the
few international agencies, to date, have become involved. This has both been
through actual presence in the field, including both UN agencies and
international NGOs, as well as through funding which has been channeled through
local organisations in the community. It is also very striking that, ever since
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Nederlands) and World
Vision (UK) pioneered the return of NGOs to
A pencil sketch of health and humanitarian problems certainly confirms the extent of need:
· decades of constant warfare have devastated many communities; even government leaders have confirmed over one million deaths in the fighting since 1948[xxvii]
· only one third of the country has access to clean water and proper sanitation, little of which is available in minority areas
· with only one doctor for every 12,500 people, national health care does not even extend to half the area covered by the country's 319 townships - and, again, notably not to ethnic minority areas
· since 1988,
· HIV/AIDS are increasing at alarming rates, with national estimates of HIV-carriers increasing from near zero to 500,000 over the past seven years. Again, such local problems as intravenous drug use, the migration of sex-workers and other transient labourers are particular factors in the disturbing scale of these problems in many minority communities
· finally, it is
treatable or preventable illnesses, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis,
malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria, which are the
largest causes of unnecessary death and suffering in
Briefly, then, in recent years a new start has been made in many minority communities in trying to confront such serious health issues. For aid and development agencies there remain very real problems over accurate information and access to all areas, while in too many areas such underlying causes of suffering, such as armed conflict, forced labour and forced relocations, remain unaddressed.
Nevertheless, in the cease-fire areas, the greater freedom and safety in travel has meant better access for many communities to the facilities (mostly private and expensive) in the towns, while new clinics under the government's BADP have reportedly brought health outreach into new areas, although shortages of medicine are, as elsewhere in Burma, a perennial problem. In another change since 1988, the government-backed NGOs (or GONGOs), the Myanmar Medical Association (MMA), Myanmar Red Cross (MRC) and Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA) have also become more active, but again many of their programmes are town-based, where they work in conjunction with the local Township Medical Officers who, in turn, come under the Ministry of Health. The quasi-political Union Solidarity and Development Association is also being increasingly mobilised for such local health programmes.
Meanwhile, many of the cease-fire organisations, as well as religious-based groups (including Buddhists, Christians and Muslims) have begun to launch programmes of their own. Many of these programmes, especially emergency relief, had continued during the fighting, but since the cease-fires much greater emphasis has been given to resettlement, as well as health, skills training and education. In none of these areas has there been a set programme or plan, but different organisations have generally used what resources and means they have at their disposal.
the cease-fire, for example, the KIO has resettled, under its own auspices,
10,000 refugees from
Meanwhile, in the towns and rural villages, Christian church groups, in particular, from a number of different denominations, have become increasingly active in both relief work as well as education and training. In addition to power generation, sanitation and well-building, job skills in such industries as carpentry and tailoring are regarded especially important to try and help anchor dislocated communities back in their homes. In response to another urgent need, HIV/AIDS awareness training has accelerated and, with help from different international NGOs (financial as well as training), many at risk communities and sectors of society have now been targeted and reached.
Christian communities, especially, the understanding and co-ordination with
international NGOs has often been easier to establish. Firstly, through past
travel and pastoral study trips abroad, many church workers and leaders in
By contrast, the involvement of Buddhist groups in this deeply religious land has been more limited. Partly, this is due to the greater political problems in the country at large, where many monks and monasteries have been involved in anti-government protests since 1988; the organisation and practice of the Buddhist Sangha remains a sensitive issue. But partly, too, there is no tradition for Buddhist monks in Burma to become involved in the same array of NGO and development projects as today exists in, for example, neighbouring Thailand. Nevertheless, Buddhist monks do play a pivotal role in many communities, and the general scope of their activities can be expected to increase in future years.
In minority regions, for example, monks from the government-backed "Mountain Mission" have monasteries in all seven ethnic minority states, where, like many Christian churches, they have established dormitories so that orphans and children from the war-zones or remote hills can come to study in the towns. Equally important, although details are still unclear, in the past few years government spokesmen have several times declared that the monasteries should (or can) run local primary schools, a role they once widely performed in the past and have continued in many rural villages.
is, therefore, into this still evolving array of new contexts that
international NGOs must fit in. Initially, as mentioned earlier, it appeared
that the government preferred only to allow access to UN agencies. Since 1991,
for example, the UNDP and UNDCP have begun pilot crop-substitution programmes
in the Shan state, UNICEF and the WHO have both
instituted various health and HIV/AIDS awareness projects in a number of
targeted regions, while the UNHCR has become involved in the resettlement of
the 250,000 Muslim refugees that were returning from
in October 1994, in apparent line with the opening of the door to NGOs
elsewhere in the country, a decision was made by the SLORC to accept
"offers" of assistance from international agencies and NGOs in areas
covered by the Border Areas Development Programme, "as long as they do not
threaten national security and solidarity".[xxx] To date, the majority of foreign NGOs that have established a permanent
Individual aid organisations will, of course, speak for themselves. So to finish with, just as the evolution of engagement has been described, it is necessary to highlight -- from the perspective of civil society -- some of the more pertinent problems or obstacles as they have occurred. This is only a brief summary, but a number of difficult issues have already emerged.
The first is undoubtedly a shortage of trained personnel to implement many aid and development schemes on the ground. In ethnic minority regions, decades of warfare have decimated many communities, disrupting all educational progress. As a result, many organisations and communities in the field are still headed by ageing or inexperienced individuals who, although well-motivated, often do not have the vision or skills for the immense tasks ahead. Education must be revived.
A second major problem is the dearth of accurate information, and most especially information which reflects the divisions in society. Malaria and HIV/AIDs are often picked out as urgent or "fashionable" health issues, but cholera epidemics still pass unreported in the hills, while TB and various water-borne diseases also take a constant toll in human life. Epidemiologists already point out the inherent failures in tackling any such health issues with only access to partial information or from only one side of the community.
then, leads to a third major difficulty for international NGOs,
and this is what organisations or institutions they should work with or
through. As discussed earlier, at a time of political volatility and
transition, there are already many institutions and organisations in the field,
including government departments, government-backed NGOs such as the MMCWA or
USDA, cease-fire organisations and their various departments, church and
Buddhist groups, and, finally, headmen and the local village structures
themselves. Clearly, there are few clear choices if the notion of civil
society, which may be arbitrary, rather than humanitarian need, where lives will
be saved, is the priority. Moreover, although there are now a few beginnings,
truly independent or single-issue NGOs have yet to become firmly established in
a number of UN agencies, in line with the requirement of the UNDP's Governing Council to work at the grass-roots' level,
chose to work through the government and its preferred NGOs or GONGOs. UNICEF, for example, helped develop a national
project on the "Control of HIV/AIDS through Reproductive Health" in
conjunction with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry's three chosen NGOs,
the MRC, MMCWA and MMA. Generally such programmes have been regarded as
successful and also valuable training in different health practices for Burmese
health-workers and institutions. A similar approach was also taken by the UNHCR
in the resettlement of Muslim refugees from
More recently, increasing concerns have been expressed elsewhere over the extent to which the MMCWA, MRC and USDA are becoming dominated by the government. It has been reported, for example, that throughout the country the wives of the local government (LORC/PDCs) chairmen are also expected to act as chairpersons of the local MMCWA (although, at the local level, health workers do not necessarily see this as a problem). It is still also by no means clear where the real decision-making and divisions of power lie between different government departments, such as the Ministry of Health, Border Areas Development Programme and Ministry of Social Welfare. That there are many committed officials in all these organisations and departments is not in doubt, but individual support and personal patronage still count for much. Moreover, in the field, local regional commanders frequently have the last say.
It was in response to such concerns that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wrote to Mr Gustave Speth, Administrator of the UNDP, in January 1996, claiming the discrimination that many citizens felt in gaining access to aid and requesting that, in future, UN agencies should consider ways of implementing programmes "in close co-operation with the NLD"; in this way, Daw Suu Kyi argued, the UN would be working with the only organisation in Burma which, through the 1990 election result, had been shown to represent the "will of the people".[xxxi] To such comments, the military government's response was immediately hostile.
However, international NGOs which try to avoid the above dilemmas by turning to other community groups will find other problems that could still be waiting. For example, to date, the government has accepted the pastoral and humanitarian work undertaken by various church-based groups, as long as it is carried out under "evangelical" auspices. Indeed, many army leaders have been openly supportive and praised the work of such groups. However, despite the recent encouragement of monastery schools, a similar degree of social work is not allowed -- and, indeed, may have been deliberately discouraged -- amongst Buddhist groups. At the same time, it should be stressed that most Christian and Buddhist organisations want to progress as they are; not only are there issues of institutional capacity but religious leaders would oppose any agendas outside their remit or which they felt were unsuitable.
Similarly, although many international NGOs have long had cross-border contact with various armed ethnic opposition organisations, some are clearly better supported by their people and more able than others. Since the cease-fires, for example, some organisations have recognised that they have to evolve politically, socially, economically and militarily -- especially if they are to build social bridges within the community; they can not afford to stand still. There are other forces, however, where individual leaders and military commanders have built up personal fortunes by monopolising on trading (including, in some cases, opium), leading the Shan academic, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, to claim that the cease-fire movement represents a new cultural evolution in Burmese politics: a new informal alliance between "warlords" in the "Burman" and "government" spheres (governmental warlords) and those in the "non-Burman" and "non-governmental" spheres (non-governmental warlords).[xxxii]
then, finally leads towards to what, in the short-term, may be the greatest
difficulty for international NGOs in instituting effective programmes in the
ethnic minority regions of
As one Burmese physician told this writer:
All this talk about
communities and NGOs has become a bit of a smokescreen which every side can
use. If health standards are really to improve, what is really needed is an
integrated approach, where every health agency is energized and health
information and techniques are freely shared and acted upon. This is simply not
happening at present.
a nutshell, then, this is the dilemma which faces international NGOs concerning
every area of development and engagement in
in conclusion, as this paper has tried to demonstrate, recent history in
APPENDIX: LIST OF ARMED ETHNIC OPPOSITION GROUPS IN
Cease-fire Organisations (in order of signing) Year
State Party (or
National Democratic Alliance Army
New Democratic Army (northeast Kachin state) 1989
Kachin Defence Army 1991
Pao National Organisation 1991
Kayan National Guard 1992
Kayan New Land Party 1994
Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front 1994
Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organisation 1994
New Mon State Party 1995
Other Cease-fire Forces (but not always listed by government)
Democratic Karen Buddhist Army 1995
Mongko Defence Army (splinter group from MNDAA) 1995
Shan State National Army (front-line status often unclear) 1996
Mong Tai Army 1996
Mergui Mon Army 1997
Main Non-Cease-fire Forces
Karenni National Progressive Party (1995 cease-fire broke down)
Shan United Revolutionary Army (reformed 1996 after MTA surrender)
National Socialist Council of Nagaland
Chin National Front
Small Non-Ceasefire Forces
Mergui-Tavoy United Front (ex-CPB, mainly Tavoyans)
National Unity Party of Arakan
Wa National Organisation
Lahu National Organisation
[i]. These issues are analysed more fully in, Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993), pp.322-401.
[ii]. See e.g., Andrew Selth,
[iii]. The 702 delegates to the ongoing National Convention, which was first convened in January 1993, included representatives of eight categories: elected MPs, representatives of other legal parties, ethnic nationalities, peasants, workers, civil servants, intellectuals and other specially invited guests. Since 1988, the military government has always distinguished between "national politics", which it sees -- like national security -- as its exclusive preserve, and "party politics", which is the responsibility of democratic organisations and parties.
[iv]. David Steinberg, Burma: Prospects for Political and Economic Reconstruction (World Peace Foundation and Harvard Institute for International Development, WPF Reports No.15, 1997), p.39.
[v]. Reaffirmed the Kachin Independence Organisation in a press release on 16 April 1997: "At this critical moment, the KIO thus trusts that all parties will reflect on the tragic lessons of Burma's recent history, confirm a new commitment to the establishment of trust and national understanding, and find ways to support peace and dialogue as the immediate bridges to heal the divisions of the past."
[vi]. See e.g., New Light of Myanmar, ?
[vii]. Total, Unocal, PTTEP, MOGE, The Yadana Gas Development Project (Paris, 1997), pp.6-7; for a contrasting view, see, KNU Mergui/Tavoy District, Development and the Cry of the People (Mergui/Tavoy, 1994), and, Earthrights International and Southeast Asian Network, Total Denial (Kanchanaburi, 1996).
[viii]. Mark Duffield, Evaluating Conflict Resolution: Context, Models and Methodology (Discussion paper prepared for the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway, May 1997), p.6.
[ix]. See e.g., UNDP, Summary
Report: UNDP Assistance to
[x]. John Ryle, October 1997
Nuffield Lecture (
[xii]. For an analysis of this issue from the SLORC
perspective, see, Aung Min, "Can there be a Kachin republic?", Working
[xiii]. See e.g.,
[xiv]. For example, there were hundreds of fatalities of
both villagers and combatants during September-October 1988 in non-stop battles
after the CPB briefly captured the town of
[xv]. Shortly after their mutiny, the UWSP made a broadcast
on the former CPB radio station aimed at troops on the government side:
"Every year the burden on the people has become heavier. The streams,
creeks and rivers have dried up, while the forests are being depleted. At such
a time, what can the people of all nationalities do?";
[xvi]. For a brief discussion of a programme which has been
much criticised, see, Martin Smith, Ethnic Groups in Burma: Development,
Democracy and Human Rights (Anti-Slavery International, London, 1994),
pp.100-2. Subsequently, the BADP claimed 228 million kyats (or US$ 38 million)
was spent in the first two years on such projects as road-building, health-care
and schools, with 727 million kyats (or US$ 121 million) projected for the next
six years. See also, e.g., BADP, Measures
Taken for Development of Border Areas and National Races (3) (
[xvii]. See e.g., US Department of State, Plan for Implementation of Section 570 of
Conference Report 104-863 to Accompany H.R. 3610 (Omnibus Appropriations
Act, 1997), submitted to US Congress 13 June 1997. Notably,
[xviii]. See also, n.3.
The National Convention, which is still intermittently continuing, is beyond
the theme of this paper. Eventually, like the NLD, a number of ethnic minority
parties have either been banned or ceased to attend. Similarly, representatives
of some cease-fire groups (e.g. PNO, UWSP) have attended, while others have
either not been invited or have stayed away. Nevertheless, from the perspective
of institutions and civil society, it should be noted that, as of March 1996,
representatives of eight ethnic minority parties, which had legally stood in
the 1990 election, were still attending: Shan Nationalities League for
Democracy, United Karen League, Union Pao National
Organisation, Shan State Kokang Democratic Party, Mro (or Khami) Unity
Organisation, Kokang Democracy and Unity Party, Lahu National Development Party, and Wa National
Development Party. Indeed, representatives of only two other "legal"
parties, the pro-government National Unity Party (ex-BSPP) and the NLD, which
has since withdrawn, were also still in attendance. For a discussion, see,
Janelle M. Diller, "The National Convention: an
Impediment to the Restoration of Democracy", in, Peter Carey (ed.), Burma: The
Challenge of Change in a Divided Society (Macmillan Press & St.
[xix]. See e.g.,
[xx]. Note by the Secretary General, Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar (Fifty-second session, Agenda Item 112 (c), 6 October 1997), paras. 75-6.
[xxi]. Only the KNU, SURA and, to a lesser extent, KNPP
remain opposition forces of any real size without cease-fires today. However,
small Chin, Naga, Rakhine and "Rohingya" Muslim forces (see appendix) also still
operate along the
[xxiii]. i.e., post-independence in 1948, during Ne Win's Caretaker Administration of 1958-60, after General Ne Win seized power in the 1962 (when many of the government's Burman opponents, including both the CPB and later the deposed prime minister U Nu, waged armed struggle from ethnic minority lands), and, finally, after the pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
[xxiv]. Martin Smith, "
[xxv]. It has already been announced, for example, that 25 per cent of all seats in the future parliament must be reserved for military candidates. See also, n.3 and n.18.
[xxvi]. By 1995, for example, at least 15 NGOs had representatives or programmes in the country. Not all had Memoranda of Understanding and some later left or were rejected by the SLORC, but amongst other NGOs reported to be present were: Action Internationale Contre la Faim, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, Australian Red Cross, Bridge Asia Japan, Care International, Groupe de Recherche et d'Echanges Technologiques, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Federation of Eye Banks, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Leprosy Mission International, Medecins du Monde, Population Services International, Sasakawa Foundation, Save the Children (UK) and World Concern. Most only arrived in 1994-95.
[xxvii]. In 1989, in the first ever public admission of the
scale of loss of life, the then SLORC chairman, Gen. Saw Maung, announced the
true death toll in fighting since independence "would reach as high as millions,
I think. It really is no good." He also revealed that 28,000 families in
[xxviii]. Many of these statistics and issues are analysed more
fully in Martin Smith, Fatal Silence? Freedom of Expression and the Right to Health in
[xxix]. See e.g., Return to Myanmar: Repatriating Refugees from Bangladesh, Information Bulletin, June 1995.
[xxx]. Smith, Fatal Silence?, p.119.
[xxxi]. Smith, Fatal Silence?, p.119.
[xxxii]. Letter to the Editor, Independence: The Shan Herald Agency for News,
This paper is one of four presented at the
conference 'Strengthening Civil Society in