A Karen Family Flees from Their Village in Northern Karen State

Threats To Stability As Myanmar Awakens

The recent economic opening of Myanmar is a huge chance for the country. However it has also given rise to threats to its stability, and especially to populations in areas affected by ethnic conflict. International actors will need to be careful not to exacerbate the situation further.


A Karen Family Flees from Their Village in Northern Karen State


Sitting at the crossroads of India, China and South East Asia, military-dominated Myanmar (known by many in the West as Burma) is under transformation. March this year marked two major milestones: 50 years since the military first seized power, and 12 months since the incumbent quasi-civilian government was inaugurated. The months following have seen the country all but shed its burdensome pariah status, with high-level diplomatic dialogues becoming an almost weekly occurrence, and most Western sanctions being lifted or indefinitely suspended.

While Myanmar remains a deeply fractured state along geographical and ethnic lines, the country appears to be rapidly entering a new era, one that will be defined primarily by a military-heavy centralised elite, aiming to play off Western and Asian interests in pursuance of economic growth. While many benefits will be felt throughout society and further transformation should certainly be encouraged, a new set of security risks are emerging, most acutely for populations in areas affected by ethnic conflict.

Economic and Strategic Imperatives

In the public sphere, the West’s shift in approach has largely been attributed to the allowance of the country’s most popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi into the parliament, alongside half-baked efforts to implement less draconian policies on matters such as freedom of speech, expression and association. The government has also been praised for the signing of preliminary ceasefires with many of the country’s pro-democracy armed opposition groups and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.  Perhaps most encouraging has been the 180 degree shift in leaders’ rhetoric on such issues, with former generals not only admitting the downfalls of their autocratic approach to governance but stating commitment to genuine reform.

Such ameliorations have been crucial to fostering greater engagement and should not be overlooked. However, the causes are rooted in the convergence of Western and Myanmar economic and strategic imperatives, most significantly those relating to China.

Pushing primarily to meet its vast energy needs, China has become a dominant force in shaping the economies of developing countries across the world. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in neighbouring Myanmar, which holds a wealth of natural resources and a key corridor connecting China’s landlocked south western provinces to the Indian Ocean. Somewhat aggressively permeating much of the country’s decrepit economy, China has attracted vicious opposition among much of Myanmar’s population as well as many of its military leaders. As a result, following the former dictator’s recession from power, progressive elements of the former junta led by President Thein Sein have come to the fore and are prioritising the reparation of relations with the international community in order to diversify their trade partners and political connections.

Concomitantly, the allure of the region’s burgeoning markets has gained the focus not just of multinational corporations, but of governments from across the globe, facilitating a new epoch of Western-Myanmar relations.

Free trade agreements in the region have formed an integrated economy more populous than NAFTA and the EU combined. 2015 will see the formation of the ASEAN economic community, allowing free-flow of goods, capital, services and labour across all ASEAN member states. Integral to these plans is Myanmar, as the region’s only link to the Bay of Bengal – key for seaborne trade with Africa, the Middle East and Europe – and across land to India and beyond. This geostrategic reality has not only made engagement with Myanmar crucial to Western states and their allies, it has also provided incentive for Myanmar’s military elite to come out of isolation and enlist the support of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank.

Shaping Reforms

So where does this leave the people of Myanmar, a devastatingly oppressed and poverty-stricken population, most of which have no regular access to electricity or clean running water and have experienced decades of persistent human rights abuse and conflict?

In many ways, Myanmar’s citizenry is already benefiting significantly from the transition underway, and that looks likely to continue. While for the most part, the country’s awakening has been orchestrated to suit the needs of the former junta and associated elites, it has been influenced unprecedentedly by a somewhat embryonic civil society movement, that has been on the rise since 2008. A vast array of actors, some well-connected with the existing political and military frameworks, others more in touch with the country’s poorest communities, have been instrumental in shaping reforms. While the priorities of government and business elites often differ to those held by civil society organisations, many unexpected dialogues are taking place on issues ranging from land management to freedom of the media.

In urban areas particularly, development of infrastructure is underway and many in the educated classes are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Western companies in the services, manufacturing and tourism sectors. Compared with most of those from Asia, Western companies offer better pay, labour standards and opportunities for career development. New products too are already available, and after years of dumping from neighbouring states, economists in the country have long-argued this is a crucial step. Perhaps most significantly, citizens now have unrestricted access to the Internet, while newspapers and journals no longer have to go through the censorship board. Though further steps still need to be taken, this has given people an unprecedented level of access to information on the politics and socioeconomics of their country. This is crucial if the government is to live up to claims that 2015 general elections will be free and fair.

Building Tensions

In rural areas, however, the socioeconomic trajectory appears less clear, particularly in the country’s peripheral States, which are home to the majority of the non-Burman population and a lion’s share of the country’s natural resources. Aside from coastal areas in the west, these areas are characterised by densely forested mountain ranges and remain home to a myriad of armed actors of diverse ethnic groups. The largest have been active in some form or other since the country’s independence, retaining arms in order to secure greater autonomy from the government. While some are driven by a political reform agenda, ultimately seeking the formation of a federal union, others are primarily concerned with holding territory in order to profit from local resources and govern people of their ethnic group without interference. To complicate the landscape further are an unknown quantity of small militia, some aligned with state, others remaining hostile, which typically man checkpoints or provide security for bribes from traders and construction companies. As the West ramps up support for the government, and substantive military cooperation becomes a realistic possibility, its overall impact on such an environment must be carefully managed.

Mapping out the actual political dynamics of many of these regions is an impossible task, not just for foreign developmental partners, but even for the government itself. Worryingly, supremacist ideologies that defined the doctrines of former regimes’ form a basis for much of the new constitution, which provides next to no local autonomy to administrative states and regions, particularly on matters pertaining to development and security. Nevertheless, concerted efforts are being made by the President to reach out to the most established groups and a noted change in tone when compared with former regimes has been rewarded with a series of unprecedented ceasefires.

On the ground though, these agreements remain fragile, with opposition groups and the government seemingly at odds with where to go next in order to reach a lasting settlement. The government’s strategy is reminiscent of those it used in the 1990s to buy groups out by allowing economic concessions and developing business partnerships. In theory, such an approach to counter-insurgency doesn’t only appease armed actors themselves – or at least large portions of them, encouraging divides to form – it also opens space for business to grow, benefiting local livelihoods and curbing their enthusiasm for supporting insurgents.  However, following decades of the Myanmar state forces targeting entire populations with brutal violence and devastation of livelihoods to achieve such ends, opposition groups’ political aims have gained widespread popular support and mistrust of the government is rife.

The majority of armed groups themselves have persistently called for comprehensive political dialogue to precede any major development programmes. This demand has been accepted in principle at the negotiation table by government delegates, but has not been referred to officially. Sources close to the delegation have confirmed that its primary aim is to get signatures on paper, with the hope that rebel groups will dissipate over time as the socioeconomic environment improves. Such an approach has left relations on a knife-edge, provoking diverse responses from different groups.

Most opposed to Government peace plans is Myanmar’s second largest non-state armed group, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which had held a ceasefire based on similar principles between 1994 and 2011. Along with a myriad of ethnic armed forces in the late 80s and early 90s, the KIO signed an agreement which gave them patches of territory in areas populated mostly by Kachin ethnics, and began cooperating on development programmes with the promise that political dialogue would follow. In reality, dialogue never materialised, and tensions came to a head in June 2011 when government forces infiltrated KIO territory to secure a dam construction site they felt was under threat. Ensuing events set in motion conflict that continues to this day, having displaced around 75,000 civilians and set the stage for horrific abuses to be committed by the state on locals, including an alarming number of women and children.

The government has extended an olive branch to the KIO numerous times, most recently in October 2012, when the delegation promised the group political dialogue and agreed to hold negotiations for the first time with a mil-pol alliance spearheaded by the group including all of the country’s pro-federal ethnic armed groups. However, while brutal attacks on rebel fighters and civilians alike continue in KIO territory and that of their allies that have signed ceasefires, confidence appears very low among KIO leaders. This was clearly indicated recently when low-ranking officials were sent by the group to negotiations.

International Intervention

With Western sanctions lifted, the floodgates are open for developmental assistance to the Myanmar government and the arrival of multi-national corporations. As a result, the country looks set to experience rapid economic growth, with the centralised quasi-civilian administration and its corporate associates at the helm. With military cooperation on the horizon too, international actors will need to be careful not to exacerbate fragilities further. As learned in Afghanistan, propping up a centralised regime is rarely conducive to lasting stability and can damage the reputation of Western powers among locals significantly.  A security framework capable of managing Myanmar’s complex geopolitical structure, and its abundance of point-source resources, must incorporate ethnic armed actors that are trusted and supported by the people, or it is doomed to perpetuate further conflict and instability.


Photo Credit: Worldwide Impact Now (used with permission)

2 thoughts on “Threats To Stability As Myanmar Awakens”

  1. I liked how this article talks positively about Myanmar’s encouraging achievements, yet remains realistic about the challenges the nation still faces. Myanmar’s economic growth is pretty much assured, but it remains to be seen how capable the government turns out to be. I’m especially interested to see Aung San Suu Kyi becoming more influential in major decisions, and showing just how effective a politician she really is.

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