With the National League for Democracy (NLD) cementing its place as the incoming government by achieving a supermajority in Parliament, the ongoing armed conflict in northern Burma, especially in Shan State, only highlights the pressing need for the new government to facilitate a genuine and inclusive peace process that works towards national reconciliation.
An offensive by the Burma Army that began on 6 October 2015, which is aimed at taking the headquarters of the Shan State Army - North, has resulted in the displacement of at least 7,000 people so far. As people across Burma enjoyed an optimistic and positive voting day, along with the resulting NLD victory, bombs were being dropped from airplanes, heavy artillery was being used, and inevitably, civilians were caught in the firing line. For example, on Election Day itself two civilians, including a 15-year-old-boy, were seriously injured when Burma Army troops shot at a group of farmers in Mong Nawng, Shan State. The airstrikes are continuing.
This only highlights the importance of a genuine and inclusive peace process and how this process must not be marginalized in the context of the 2015 elections. As the report by Burma Partnership, Elections for Ethnic Equality? A Snapshot of Ethnic Perspectives on the 2015 Elections, emphasizes, the 2015 elections are not sufficient to realize the aspirations of many ethnic communities; ethnic equality, self-determination, and a federal system of governance. The 2015 elections, and the democratization process as a whole, must go hand-in-hand with the peace process.
The importance of finding a political solution to the decades-long civil war was apparent at a meeting that President Thein Sein had with over 80 political parties on 15 November 2015. At the meeting, each political party had four minutes to make a statement or ask questions, of which over one third of the questions were related to the peace process, highlighting its importance for the future government.
Yet the incoming NLD Government faces a challenging task. While it may have the political will to engage genuinely and substantively with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), it is still constrained by the institutional framework of the 2008 Constitution – the very document that centralizes government control and entrenches power in the hands of the Burma Army. The Burma Army has long remained intransigent in regards to its relationship with ethnic groups. As Zoya Phan, of Burma Campaign UK pointed out this week when talking about the relevance of the 2015 elections, “The international community may call this a significant step in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, but the key issue responsible for dictatorship in the first place, the refusal of the military to accept the rights and aspirations of ethnic people, is no closer to being resolved.”
The NLD must find a balance between dealing with the still-powerful Burma Army while addressing the deep-held concerns and problems that the Burma Army itself has created over the years in ethnic areas. The NLD would do well to cooperate with not just EAOs, but also ethnic political parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). While many ethnic political parties did not fare as well as expected in these elections, they are still a key stakeholder in arguably the most important and most complex issue that the NLD will face in government.
The overwhelming victory that the NLD achieved in the 2015 elections is a victory for the democratic will of the people of Burma. Yet this also places great responsibility on the NLD as a government to address the marginalization and bondage of ethnic people of Burma in order to secure a just and lasting peace in the country for the first time since independence. This necessitates a delicate, skilful, yet principled approach to changing the 2008 Constitution, and placing the Burma Army under civilian control. Until this happens, the Burma Army will continue to launch military offensives, displace thousands of ethnic people and communities from their homeland, and commit human rights violations against civilians with zero accountability in ethnic areas, thus perpetuating civil war and blocking any further progress towards sustainable peace and democracy.
The NLD coming into power as a truly elected government provides the international community with an unprecedented opportunity to work hand-in-hand with a Burma Government that has more legitimacy than any other ruling administration in over 50 years. The international community must take this opportunity and help Burma realize the long-held aspirations of ethnic people to achieve equality, self-determination, and thus a genuine democratic federal union.