Ethnic Minorities Unhappy with Peace Plan

Ethnic minority groups and their political leaders have begun to criticise the Norwegian-led peace plan for its lack of openness and transparency. The seriousness of the allegations against the plan was highlighted in a Democratic Voice of Burma article on Thursday, October 11. It led to the direct intervention of the Norwegian ambassador and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Naturally, the Norwegian ambassador who is leading the process has disagreed with this stance and has stated categorically that peace is the lasting objective of the plan.

When contacted by the Irrawaddy, Kjetil Elsebutangen stated that no one involved in the fund, either on the international front, from the national government or the ethnic minorities involved had asked for the fund to be suspended. He did, however, note that the Karen National Union or KNU were voicing concerns. He also noted the KNU will  be given time to have internal discussions before new developments and activities were initiated.

Founding of the Peace Plan

The aid plan known as the “peace fund” was launched in early 2012 by a group of nations and institutions including Norway, Australia, the United Nations, Great Britain, the European Union and the World Bank. It is known officially as the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative or MPSI. The Norwegian embassy has outlined the objectives as building confidence through ceasefire agreements, increase aid activities in affected areas, positive interactions between different groups and increase capacity building in terms of civil societies, communities and local government. The theatre for the majority of the organization’s work will be on the Thai-Burmese border where the majority of ethnic groups are clustered.

Cease Fires Announced

This news comes on the back of six-point peace plan announced last month. In September 100 ethnic minority leaders met in the Thai city of Chiang Mai to discuss with the government and other parties how to implement peace and enshrine the rights of ethnic minorities. A statement read out at the meeting said that those attending “do not believe that the peace plans from the government can implement peace in the country. Therefore, we formulated our own proposal which can build real peace.”

Development of the six point plan may have helped to bring up dissatisfaction with the MPSI project. The six points were to 1) host a meeting including all civil groups and ethnic armed groups, 2) an international community monitored meeting between government and ethnic armed groups, 3) referenda in each of the ethnic minority states to ratify any agreements made in dialogues, 4) a peace meeting for all ethnic groups, 5) tripartite discussions between the government, ethnic groups and democracy activists and 6) implementation of any ratified agreements made.

Peace and Openness Before Development

The evident worry for ethnic minority political leaders is that the group of western countries involved in the plan and the national government are using the peace plan as a means to develop the areas of land controlled or lived in by the ethnic minorities. This is to say that the peace is less important than the monetary benefits of development and business protection. For these people, this is an intolerable situation and one that actually jeopardises the long term peace that they are striving for.

It does raise the question, once again, of whether lasting peace and security for all Burmese, regardless of their ethnicity is being put forward as the top objective. From the beginning of the MPSI project, the Karen and Shan communities have been worried that the opinions, feelings and needs of all the displaced ethnic minority groups within Burma and those who have spilled over the borders will not be taken into account by the initiative.

Naturally, the mission is developing on the ground and events unfold. At the beginning of October, Arne Jan Flolo stated that documents would begin to be translated into all languages. While this is a good start, it is only a start. Key dialogue needs to occur that brings all the groups together, puts them on a common ground with the government and allows for some kind of intellectual and spiritual agreement on human rights, democracy, self-representation and peace before development begins. It is almost a case of making carts before you have horses or indeed, cars without petrol.

Ethical Investment is the Key to Long Term Success

Many people believe in the philosophy that money makes the world go round, and whilst this is certainly true to some extent, we all need to be very conscious about the impact that investing money into a country can have. Many large companies and investors look at countries such as Burma and they see development opportunity, untapped resources, cheap labor costs and low overheads. Whilst this may seem like a great set of credentials from a business perspective, the impact that large development projects can have on communities and ecosystems can be absolutely devastating.

International Investment Issues

There has been lots of debate within Burma in recent months about how best to move forward with the president’s office pushing for a new bill to encourage foreign investment into the economy. Whilst there are many obvious positive effects of international investment into one of the regions poorest economies, what needs to be included in these plans is a real and enforceable protection for local businesses, communities, and habitats. Historically, one of the major issues with international investment projects is that they are purely profit driven, and this can be extremely dangerous for the long term sustainability of a country.

There have been many previous examples across the world, where multinationals have agreed contracts to conduct mining, drilling, quarrying, logging, and chemical manufacturing (among other things), and have paid what seemed like very handsome amounts of money to do this. The problem is the social, economic, and environmental impact of these activities in the specific locations where these projects commence.

Putting the People First

One thing which is seems very low down on the agenda when governments make deals with huge foreign corporations is the negative long term impact that could be caused. For starters, the distribution of money and resources is often completely awry; small indigenous communities are often worst affected by activities, and are the least likely to receive adequate compensation for their loss of land, natural resources and disruption to their lives. In effect deals are made between the state and companies and the financial rewards seldom reach those most affected by the activities. This is not true in all cases, but is something that needs to be protected against in the future.

Evaluating the Cost of Development on the Environment

One thing which is absolutely vital for the long term prosperity of Burma and its people is that checks are put in place right now to balance the positive effects of inward investment with the negative effects of environmental and social devastation. Whilst international investors may be appearing to offer a good price for operating in the country, the long term effects should always be considered over up-front monetary rewards. Burma is extremely resource rich, and there are lots of opportunities for extraction of materials in order to raise funds for the economy, however if this is not managed correctly, the vast untouched natural regions could be destroyed with large amounts of the profits leaving the country without improving living conditions, health care or employment levels. Future Burmese generations should not have to inherit a land which has been ravaged by foreign investors.

Hope on the Horizon

With all that said, there are lots of positive initiatives occurring in Burma, where many businesses are going green and opting to invest in schemes which are both environmentally sustainable and are valuable for the local communities which are affected. Green initiatives and fair trade schemes are on the increase, and this is great news for all involved. It seems as if the Burmese president is looking at these issues with a fresh sense of perspective and is planning to lay out a framework for development which seeks to place economic prosperity and environmental conservation on a level par. Burma has a huge expanse of natural forestry regions, and if this is looked after in the right manner could become one of the most important natural areas in Asia. Destroying it for immediate financial gains would be a true disaster for the environment and for future generations. We can only hope that future development and investment in Burma is managed correctly and is conducted by those with a real interest in creating a positive future for the country and its people.


The Burmese Odd Couple

For decades, Burma existed in a stagnant state of a dictatorship and conflict.  Changes over the last 2 years have left many stupefied:  Aung San Suu Kyi released; elections held and a nascent ceasefire emerging.  Are the reforms real?  Or, are the reforms window dressing to dupe Western governments?

Bill Keller of the New York Times offers some penetrating insights in the wake of the recent visit to the U.S. of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s President U Thein Sein.  It’s worth a few minutes of your day to read. (The Burmese Odd Couple:

While Keller captures the upbeat and promise of what the reforms offer, he, more importantly, provides unique insights into why Sein is pursing them and what’s the source of his power or authority to do so.  At the same time, he images Aung San Suu Kyi in the balanced view of both moral heroine for her steadfast commitment and phenomenal sacrifice for democratic principles that resulted in years of house arrest plus her emerging role as stateswoman and political leader in Burma.

Keller also offers insights into the role of sanctions – as rally points for both advocates for a free Burma and the dictators of Burma.  (It gives me pause to wonder:  did my moral commitment to support sanctions give leverage to the brutal regime I loathed?)

As you get drawn into Keller’s analysis, there are certain singular comments that deserve a more detailed discourse.   One, for instance, is how he apparently endorses Aung San Suu Kyi’s view of the “need to make the military feel secure against retribution” which means “no war crimes tribunals.”

On one hand, this may be a prescription for moving forward.  It embraces forgiveness.  At the same time, can one pause to wonder if it is Aung San Suu Kyi who is in a position to offer such forgiveness on the part of those who suffered far more than she did?

I realize it may strike some as heresy to suggest others may have suffered more than the Nobel Laurent.  Over the past 50 years, the Burma army raped thousands of women and young girls while executing and murdering countless others.  Such numbing events are followed by a cascading list of other atrocities that are incomprehensible in our communities:  villages burnt, food confiscated, people forced to labor for the army and then walk through minefields to clear a path.

Organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group, at great personal risk, documented many of the horrific events in a manner to support to legal investigations of genocide and war crimes.  They captured the villages where the events occurred, who suffered and the Burma army company or battalion commander’s name in charge.

It is not for me or Keller to endorse Aung San Suu Kyi’s offer of no tribunals – but for those who suffered and survived to validate or refuse such a position.

Keller also makes light of Congress’ passing of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act this past August while the State Department was busy drawing up how to dismantle sanctions on Burma’s Regime.  He downplays the importance of the Act by stating it was done only to appease advocates who are focused on the ‘narrow grievances like the plight of ethnic minorities’ or the risk of ‘exploitation of Burma’s oil and gas’ resources.

I would suggest that realities reflect that the plight of the ethnic minorities is not a ‘narrow grievance.’  The minorities comprise 45% of Burma’s population.  (To ignore them has a certain Romney-esq tone.)  And, it’s hardly a narrow issue as the regime holds ‘free elections’ in November of 2010 and launches military offensives against at least two of the larger minority groups the same day.  In June of last year, the Regime singlehandedly broke a 17 year cease fire in Kachin State and weekly inflicts violence against these people as it seeks to gain control of land (and oil and gas therein) for development by international corporations.  The 70,000 children, women and men forced to seek sanctuary in the jungles or China do not seem to be a narrow issue to me.  Finally, the Regime’s actions in Arakan State against the Rohingya demonstrated a repeated pattern of abuse.

Keller is right to highlight the promise of hope that casts rays of light across the landscape of Burma.  But we should not be blinded to the pre-meditated cruelty and horrific human toll the courageous peoples of Burma have endured — and still endure.  Nor should we let our fatigue of Burma and our eagerness for a democratic Burma translate to us pre-empting those who have lived and suffered to identify their path to peace and reconciliation.

I suspect Burma’s path forward – if it comes from the people – will be something inspired, unique and gives us pause to admire.  The peoples of Burma I have met have never offered anything less than that.


Aung San Suu Kyi and Mehmet

I arrived late night into San Francisco, the day before I was to see Aung San Suu Kyi in person at USF.  The recently freed Nobel Peace Prize laurate was to meet with the local Burmese community, addressing the large crowd and answering questions from the audience. And I was there to see her, my hero, and witness what I had never thought I would…DASSK, free and vibrant and beautiful! For 13 years I have been involved in the movement for self determination in Burma. She and other dissident leaders in Burma have been pivotal in my development as an activist and human being, and now I felt rewarded…

She spoke mostly in Burmese and held me in a trance, as I waited for my dream to end…awaken to a reality where she was back in house arrest. I didn’t awaken. There was no dream and she remained before me speaking of how humility is the first key and, with grace, can lead the people and ourselves to victory. She spoke about how hope with action is better than hope alone and how one must understand the laws in order to determine if they are appropriate…or not! Yes!!

I was in utter bliss with the emotion that comes from victory. Understand that I am well able to hold it together in a crisis or emergency or even sadness, but in victory, I am a complete puddle. So I controlled my breathing and followed her every word and gesture.

“Think first what is lacking in ourselves and also examine what we have done to promote peace,” she declared. I think she meant that while I should be my own best critic, I should also celebrate the events and moments when I succeed for peace and justice.

“Not only should the fires (of now) be demolished”, she said, “but also the fuel to future fires must be demolished.”. I see this first hand as a social and environmental justice activist how we in the movement  often are so consumed by fighting out one hundred and one crisis that we run out of time, resources and energy to look ahead and see what the next move power holders will make…what next menace the R&D department of ExxonMobil is preparing to launch or what plans conservative think tanks are creating and placing on the shelf, ready to hand off to the desperate at the next disaster.  She was saying to ready ourselves for oppression prevention rather than oppression fighting. (Not to worry, however, I intend to keep a climbing harness and a banner handy in the meantime.)

Ming La Ba,  Mehmet


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