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Can Norway forge peace in Burma?

At a glance the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative seems littered with good intentions. Agreed with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store on a state visit to Burma in January, it promises hefty chunks of foreign aid to develop the conflict-torn border regions from Karen to Kachin state. Punctuated with phrases like “positive interaction” and “community development” it hits all the right notes.

But there are ample reasons to worry.

Civil society groups have already bemoaned the lack of transparency of a process they say has systematically excluded them. Cross-border NGOs have haemorrhaged funding, as Norway redirect aid to inside Burma. Some have openly questioned Norway’s economic motives, while others fear it could coerce rebels into joining the government under the 2008 constitution. All observers have been baffled by the sheer speed of the project – initially set to commence last month.

The most potent concern is of course that it risks derailing, rather than consolidating the fragile peace processes in Burma’s ethnic regions. This view is underpinned by the fact that the Scandinavian initiative – much like the Burmese government’s three-step peace plan – prioritises economic development ahead of political dialogue. The draft plan conceptualises aid as a strategic tool to simultaneously “test and build confidence” in the nascent peace processes, though ostensibly without supplanting political resolution.

However, this is not Norway’s first application of such a peace model. In 2002, the Norwegians were invited to assist the Sri Lankan government in ending their decades-long conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – the military wing of the country’s Tamil ethnic minority. It ended seven years later with the complete annihilation of the Tamil Tigers at the hands of the government.

“We all thought Sri Lanka would be their last attempt,” said Professor Stokke from the University of Oslo, addressing a workshop of Burmese grassroots activists in Chiang Mai in June. “But now Norway is reappearing as a peace actor in Burma.”

The Sri Lankan initiative, much like the Burmese one, prioritised ceasefire mechanisms and humanitarian rehabilitation, but postponed discussions on thorny political issues. Unfortunately, the delivery of aid and economic development programmes failed to connect with political reforms. So instead of acting as a social and ethnic adhesive, the initiative ended up politicising aid. In the end, military hardliners regained control in both the government and LTTE, concluding that the conflict had to be resolved through war.

“Without a joint roadmap to peace, every step became a battle field,” said Stokke. “Many people felt harmed by the development process and it led to growing scepticism rather than support. The key lesson for Norway should be that money cannot buy peace.”

[pullquote]“The key lesson for Norway should be that money cannot buy peace”[/pullquote]

An independent assessment of the Sri Lankan failure, commissioned by the Norwegian government, concluded that “Norwegian peace efforts were largely constrained by [domestic political] dynamics, but also partly contributed to them.” It criticised the government for poor contextual awareness and underestimating the difficulty of the task ahead, subsequently becoming a “pawn in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics”.

The inherent dangers of a similar outcome in Burma should be obvious. Most analysts agree that the country’s ethnic divisions will be the biggest challenge for the fragile democracy to resolve. It is difficult to envision this happening without addressing deep-rooted concerns surrounding the 2008 constitution and political mechanisms for self-determination. Foreign interference that trivialises or ignores these issues could be very dangerous.

The focus on aid and economic growth is particularly risky in the context of Burma’s resource-rich ethnic regions, where conflict and development are destructively entwined. A prominent reason behind the breakdown of the 17-year ceasefire in Kachin state was the exploitation of hydropower resources by China at the expense of the local population.

Since the outbreak of violence in June last year, humanitarian aid has become equally politicised – with Burmese authorities blocking UN convoys from gaining access, while the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) persistently reject government aid.

Using aid as “both carrot and stick” is likely to fuel distrust between rebels and a government that is no stranger to manipulating economic resources in their favour. While Norway insists that it will channel all funding through established NGOs, these would still need to be sanctioned by the regime. In order for exile groups to participate in the process or access funding, they must register in Rangoon.

Similarly, rebel groups risk isolation if they do not collaborate with the increasingly legitimised government. In Sri Lanka, the LTTE’s failure to respect the ceasefire led to their successful rebranding as a “terrorist organisation” by the government. Conversely, if rebels do join the government, they risk alienating themselves from larges swathes of an ethnic population that still feel aggrieved.

Of course, the lingering question is why Norway seems determined to repeat the mistakes of history?

It is possible that they believe that the Burmese context is different to Sri Lanka. It is certainly difficult to conceive that they would set out to fail. They have also taken on fewer roles than in Sri Lanka – shedding the mantles of peacekeeper and maker to focus exclusively on “peace-building” – and made some minor adjustments to their strategy in response to criticisms. But the fundamental tenets remain unchanged.

According to Stokke, the architecture of Norwegian peace initiatives is largely assumed. He describes it as a top-down, politically liberal, market-driven process that strives for a speedy cessation of violence, but tends to be elitist, narrowly focused and operates within existing power structures. Subsequently, the government has faced accusations of callously pursuing their own economic interests in Burma’s vast energy resources. But Stokke argues that their motives are largely geopolitical – rooted in a desire to re-establish itself as a global political player.

“During the Cold War, Norway had a very strategic geographical location, as a buffer between west and east. Now that the Soviet Union is gone and the Cold War is over, Norway is no longer so important,” said Stokke. “Norway has to find another way to be taken seriously and listened to.”

He cites Norway’s relationship with the United States as critical factor in its new role — even suggesting the peripheral nation is being strategically used to “test out” geopolitical manoeuvres that the superpower cannot. External pressure would certainly help to explain some of the urgency and poor research on Norway’s behalf. The government recently announced “support from all stakeholders” as the outcome of a May workshop with civil society in Chiang Mai, where the vast majority of participants expressed concerns about the initiative.

But whatever the political motives, a neo-liberal agenda remains implicit in the very design of the peace strategy, even if it is not the primary driver. With the rapid shedding of Norwegian sanctions, and more recently of the United States, ethnic distrust is already simmering. Doubts will only be fuelled if Norway continues to ignore community voices. In the end, the success of Norway’s initiative rests largely on capturing their trust and support. And so far, it is not looking good.


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