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A controversial Burmese peace initiative backed by the Norwegian government is likely to end in the coming months, less than two years after it was launched, a spokesperson has confirmed, although he insisted that it had been a “success”.
The Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MPSI), a multi-million dollar scheme supporting humanitarian and peace efforts in Burma’s conflict-torn border areas, is currently undergoing an internal review, which is expected to conclude that there is no “added value” in its work, according to its lead consultant.
“In terms of MPSI we want to make sure whatever we do adds value, and there’s a clear sense that if there isn’t we won’t continue,” Charles Petrie told DVB, adding that it was “probably” going to end. He cited “more complex” local circumstances and an influx of other actors as reasons for the decision.
The MPSI, which was formed in March 2012 at the request of the Burmese government, has courted criticisms from the start, with some accusing Norway of jumping into bed with Naypyidaw to secure lucrative business deals.
Thai-based community groups have repeatedly complained about a lack of transparency and local consultation, fearing that the initiative could destabilise the ethnic peace process.“I take it as a positive step for them to reflect on what has gone wrong so far and find ways to correct or make damage control of this failure.” – Khin Ohmar, Burma Partnership
Many have suggested that the MPSI is prioritising economic and humanitarian development projects ahead of political dialogue in ethnic minority areas, where rebel groups have begun a slow reconciliation process with the central government following decades of civil war.
An internal review document released by MPSI in March 2013 conceded a significant lack of confidence in the peace process and suspicions that the MPSI was trying to “buy peace”, along with pressure from Naypyidaw to deliver quick and large-scale “peace-dividends” for ethnic communities.
Khin Ohmar, Coordinator of Burma Partnership, told DVB she would “not” be surprised if they chose to end the initiative, which she sees as a fiasco. “I take it as a positive step for them to reflect on what has gone wrong so far and find ways to correct or make damage control of this failure,” she said.
She said that Norway had “rushed” into the process with little understanding of the local challenges, including the “mindset of Burman chauvinism” which ethnic minorities say fuelled decades of conflict with the former military regime.
Ashley South, another consultant for the MPSI, recently acknowledged that most Burmese government officials view the ethnic conflicts as a problem of under-development rather than political rights. In a subsequent op-ed for the Myanmar Times, he accused international donors of carelessly pumping funds through government channels without delivering capacity-building support at the local level.
“We are worried that the government and donors are pushing ahead with their own plans without consulting us – and that the aid agenda is getting ahead of the political agenda,” says an ethnic leader, cited in the article.
However, Petrie denied that the MPSI was adding to the problem, saying its financial contribution was “too small” to make a difference. “We provide taxi change to the situation, we don’t provide money at all.”
But Norway also chairs the Peace Donor Support Group (PDSG) – a consortium of international donors, which has already pledged over US$500 million in development aid to support Burma’s peace process.
A spokesperson for the Norwegian government told DVB it would remain “fully committed” to its work with the PDSG, which recently established a secretariat and is poised to take over some of the MPSI’s activities.
“The MPSI was meant to be an immediate response – because of the urgent [need] to support the fragile process – and as well a short term initiative. And it was therefore always meant to be followed by a more long term initiative as the peace process progressed,” said Arne Jan Flølo, Norway’s Chargé d’Affaires to Burma.
Flølo explained that Norway has not yet determined how much money it will contribute to the PDSG, but projects will be aimed at promoting both political dialogue and socio-economic development, such as the sustainable use of natural resources. He added that the PDSG, whose members include the EU and the World Bank, are committed to “discussing issues of concern” with the local community.
Last week, PDSG member Japan pledged a fresh US$100 million grant to the Burmese government, which has been described by some as an attempt to counter the influence of China while boosting its own investment interests in the resource-rich country. A previous US$12 million grant was channelled through the government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre, which works closely with the PDSG and has been accused by analysts of “bribing” rebel leaders into ceasefires.
“We knew from the very beginning the kind of danger that big aid money would bring to peace building,” said Paul Sein Twa, Executive Director at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network. “For example, although there is a big decline in armed conflicts, there are more economically driven conflicts as a direct result of land grabs and the extraction of natural resources.”
He called on the PDSG to invest more resources into understanding the complex dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Burma, while improving its consultation process and communication strategies. Khin Ohmar added that the transparency and accountability of peace fund activities are pivotal to the outcome of the peace process.
“I can’t imagine how fake the outcome of this government-led peace process would be by now if there had been no consistent and united demands from the ethnic groups throughout 2013,” she said.
Ethnic minorities make up roughly 40 percent of the population in Burma, where they have endured decades of political and economic exploitation at the hands of the military junta, which was formally disbanded in 2011.
The MPSI’s future is set to be revealed at a workshop in February. But Norway says that existing pilot projects, including an educational project in Chin State and IDP resettlement programme for Karen State, will continue under the management of local stakeholders in any case.
Petrie was adamant that a decision to end the MPSI would not represent a failure, but rather a recognition that the initiative was no longer needed.
“It’s not going to have an impact on the peace process at all, because we are not that significant,” he said. “The way I see it ending is nobody noticing that MPSI stopped.”
Hanna Hindstrom is a freelance journalist covering Burma and Southeast Asia.
This article was edited on 23 January 2014 to correct the following: A US$100 million grant from Japan to the Burmese government will be channelled through Japanese NGOs, not, as previously reported, by way of the Myanmar Peace Centre.