Myanmar Can’t Transform While at War With Itself

Is Myanmar’s reformist government backsliding on promises to find a peaceful resolution to six decades of conflict with the country’s alienated minorities? Recently, the military took the unusual step of deploying fighter jets and helicopter gunships to battle the Kachin Independence Organization in the north.

In truth, both the KIO and central authorities share responsibility for the violence. Each will have to take steps toward the other to put Myanmar on a path to national unity and spur its so-far impressive transformation.

The government, once one of the world’s most repressive, has released political prisoners, legalized trade unions, abolished censorship and recognized the opposition’s victory in parliamentary by-elections. President Thein Sein has negotiated cease-fires with every ethnic group except the KIO. With minorities constituting a third of Myanmar’s population and occupying half the land, he has named national unity his first priority.

Last week, the government announced an end to offensive actions in the area of the latest escalation. Yet the fighting hasn’t stopped. The same thing happened after a similar government order Dec. 10. Both cases raise questions about Thein Sein’s control over the military. Still, it hasn’t helped that the KIO has declined to reciprocate these measure, lending credibility to the military’s claim of self-defense.

The KIO has passed up other opportunities to test Thein Sein’s peace commitment. The government persuaded senior military commanders to participate in October’s peace talks in China, but the KIO sent such low-level delegates, separation of forces negotiations were impossible. The group has failed to respond to government offers of dialogue on Kachin political demands.

The KIO is understandably wary, given its disappointing previous engagements with central governments. This administration, however, has proved fundamentally different. Given what Thein Sein has achieved on other fronts, he deserves a chance on this one. Too much is at stake — a real chance of ending civil wars that have claimed as many as half a million lives and contributed to Myanmar’s impoverishment — for the Kachin not to invest in the peace process.

The central authorities will have to do their part. Beyond ceasing hostilities, the government needs to convince the Kachin that it will address their political needs.

Agreeing on a means to allocate the country’s considerable resource wealth will be one of the tough challenges of a national conference Thein Sein proposes to settle political disputes with Myanmar’s minorities. Much of the country’s hydroelectric power, gemstones, gold, teak and jade is situated in their homelands.

The president has said the current constitution, under which all revenue from natural resources goes to the central government, can be changed. He could win greater confidence by stating upfront that, in managing its extractive industries, Myanmar will follow international best practices. Those include the principle that because the social, economic and environmental costs of extraction fall on local populations, they have a right to be consulted about projects in advance, and to compensation.

It would also be helpful for the government to say publicly what officials privately acknowledge — that they are prepared to discuss a federal system, with some powers devolved to the states. Myanmar’s minorities agreed to the country’s formation in 1947 in exchange for such a setup, but the promise was never kept. In the interim, federalism became a taboo among central authorities, seen as a step toward secession by the ethnic states.

In fact, none of the minorities aspire to secede. The government and military know that. They would lose nothing by telling the states that a federal system is on the table. And they might gain the cooperation of the Kachin, the last group fighting.