Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeOpinionA peace initiative for Myanmar should be led by its neighbours

A peace initiative for Myanmar should be led by its neighbours

Guest contributor

Maung Zarni

With spiralling violence throughout the country and the alarming resurgence of the genocidal destruction of the Rohingya in Rakhine, Myanmar is ripe for external political intervention by its neighbours. 

Since the 2021 military coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the ensuing violent conflict between the State Administrative Council (the coup regime, SAC) and a myriad of anti-coup resistance movements, has triggered the dismemberment process of Myanmar along ethnic lines.          

A clear and comprehensive understanding of Myanmar’s crisis is in order. Armed and political conflicts have been taking place over the last 70 years.   

I did a research interview with the late Colonel Chit Myaing, who, in 1947, was the deputy-commander of the 5th Burma Rifles stationed in Rakhine State. “I was still fighting Rakhine separatists in Western Burma the day the Union Jack came down and the new Burma flag went up with fanfare in the capital,” he told me.   

In those early years, Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine adjacent to what was then called East Pakistan (Bangladesh came into being after its 1971 war of independence) were also fighting the Burma Army.

At times the Rohingya made a common cause against the political centre with their co-habitant Rakhine Buddhists. Then the Karen and the various factions of the Burmese Communist Party launched their respective bids to take over the central state.  

Fast-forward to present-day Myanmar. 

In a nutshell, the emerging on-the-ground situation is a hybrid between a deeply fractured Syria of today and the early days of Yugloslavia’s break-up in the 1990s, which involved multiple genocidal acts and shifting alliances along ethnic lines.     

In Syria, the Russian-backed Assad regime remains unscathed in Damascus while the country’s territories have fallen into the hands of a half-dozen anti-Assad resistance groups, with ties to various external powers.  

Unlike the break-up of Yugoslavia – referred to as “Balkanization” – in the 1990s, Myanmar’s national boundaries with its immediate neighbours such as China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos have not changed.   

For no neighbouring country, particularly China and India – with their own respective issues of the “break-away province” of Taiwan and restive anti-Delhi northeast region – would stomach the birth of new mono-ethnocratic statelets on its borders with Myanmar, where inter-ethnic and communal tensions are brewing.    

Because of the loss of what legalists call “effective control” of territories, international supporters of Myanmar’s anti-coup armed resistance organisations have begun, rather prematurely, to project the collapse of the deeply unpopular SAC.  

They mistake the military’s troop withdrawal and battlefield losses in ethnic peripheries of the country as imminent SAC collapse.

To belabour the obvious, while better-armed and backed by China and Russia – with complete air dominance – the SAC has been forced to adopt tactical withdrawal from the regions which it considers peripheral to the its survival.    

But, it is empirically false to argue that its territorial losses to resistance forces are “irreversible”.     

A case in point is Myawaddy. The SAC successfully retook one of the most important border trading towns on Thai-Myanmar border, after weeks of its initial retreat.       

As a matter of fact, the resistance forces are susceptible to the whims and pressures of India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand.  

Ethnic Resistance Organisations (EROs) such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Chin National Front (CNF), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) have to rely on the neighbouring states’ tacit approval for their economic survival.

To its detriment, the SAC is fighting a multi-front civil war against a myriad of ethnic and pro-democratic resistance groups. It has resorted to scorched earth operations, including with hundreds of airstrikes and the destruction of key infrastructure such as bridges, wherever its troops have been defeated or forced to withdraw. 

My resistance colleagues on-the-ground told me that the areas, euphemistically termed as “liberated”, are in effect littered with rubble and ruins, devoid of human inhabitants.  

Barely able to feed their own internal war refugees, the resistance organisations are in no position to put the reconstruction of their communities on their agendas.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told the Security Council that Myanmar’s civil war has resulted in over three million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) since the 2021 coup.

The country’s informal economy is being ruined as the fighting has spread nationwide. 

Internally, other EROs such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) are grabbing towns and military outposts for the purposes of revenue collections, natural resource and trade route control, enraging local ethnic communities. 

This inevitably sets the stage for future inter-ethnic communal violence, even without the military’s ethnic divide-and-rule involvement in these horizontal conflicts.

Don’t forget, there are also almost one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, whose wholesale repatriation – and future reconstruction – to Rakhine has to remain on any international agenda.   

Alarmingly, the increased territorial control of their homeland in northern Rakhine by the AA, with its well-documented anti-Rohingya genocidal racism, has already resulted in a new round of death, arson and destruction. Against this backdrop, Bangladesh’s policy objective of Rohingya repatriation will remain unrealizable.  

Post-genocide Cambodia offers relevant lessons to Myanmar watchers and resisters, as well as the embattled SAC leadership.  

A week ago at the Future of Cambodia without Genocide Conference in Phnom Penh, I heard former Prime Minister Hun Sen offer his first-hand analysis of how the Western “champions of democracy and human rights” kept alive Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime for 12 years after it was militarily defeated.  

Currently there is a complete absence of any effective measures or viable approaches to the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Neither the Security Council, with its paralysis, nor the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – with its futile Five Point Consensus – has been able to stop the violence.

It is time for Myanmar’s neighbours to put their heads together to break this vicious cycle, and put an end to war in Myanmar. 

There is absolutely no denying that both the Bamar political and military elite, and the non-Bamar ethnic leaderships, have failed the 55 million diverse peoples living in Myanmar. 

The initially unifying rhetoric of “federal democracy” which emerged in the early months of the nationwide armed resistance, during which established EROs served as incubators of new revolutionaries for the thousands of young men and women from across Myanmar, has for all intents and purposes, faded away.   

Ominously, the garden variety ethnic-nationalisms informed by the “blood-and-soil” racist ideologies are taking root. To be specific, the AA have reportedly inflicted ethnically-motivated violence and arson targeting Rohingya genocide survivors.    

This ominous development is what prompted former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel – one of the most vocal supporters of the armed resistance in Myanmar – to express his alarm to Reuters on 27 May.  

“The situation [in Rakhine] is incredibly fraught and dangerous…In some ways, this is an early test of whether a post-military-ruled Rakhine State with significant autonomy can work,” said Marciel.

Internationally, the once rosy view of the Western actors – who are most vocal in their support for resistance forces, as peacebuilders and promoters of democracy, human rights, and rule of law – has faded away.

These same actors are collectively complicit in Israel’s ongoing genocidal destruction of Gaza and pouring more fuel in the Ukraine-Russia war in Eastern Europe.     

Against this backdrop, it is imperative that Myanmar people build our political courage to say that we need help from our neighbours. We are geographically, economically, culturally and historically wedded to them, for good or ill.  

Let our capable neighbours take the lead in restoring order and stability in our country. Let them kick start something like a Neighbours’ Peace Initiative. The leaderships of Cambodia and Thailand are reportedly keen to assist Myanmar to sue for peace.   

It is not the West but our old neighbours who effectively helped Hun Sen and his Vietnam-backed government to bring Cambodia’s post-genocide civil war to a close. Even with the devastating loss of a third of its population in the genocide and the war, Cambodia has bounced back. 

Advocating for peace and negotiations as the only way forward in Myanmar’s situation wherein every party in conflict has convinced themselves of eventual military victory invites wrath at best and all kinds of personal attacks at worst. 

I know this risk very well. Twenty years ago when no one in their right mind would touch Myanmar and when Aung San Suu Kyi could do no wrong, I urged the world principled engagement with the military generals – no less violent and murderous then.   

I am now urging Myanmar’s neighbours to adopt inclusive engagement with all parties – not just Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing – in its domestic conflicts. For there is no other way forward as the zero sum victory is not conceivable. 

Myanmar is haemorrhaging in all aspects. It is not just the SAC that has suffered troop depletion and low morale. The society at large is undergoing rapid depletion of its human resources and suffering from pervasive hopelessness. We cannot stop this on our own. We need to wage peace now and we need help.  


Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled scholar and revolutionary from Burma with 35 years of direct political involvement in Burmese affairs.  

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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