Development practitioners in Myanmar should view the phenomenon of “peacebuilding” as two separate, but intersecting projects—one driven by Myanmar nationals, and the other driven by international actors. The “peace process” is a closed system invested in the balance of power between ethnic communities and the Myanmar government, while another project—what I call the “peacebuilding project” represents, among other things, an international contest for geopolitical control in Mainland Southeast Asia. In this piece, I will discuss the nuances of these two different, but intersecting projects, the limitations of development practice within them, and the implications of all of this for women on the ground.
Since Myanmar opened its doors to the world in 2012 after decades of isolation, many international organizations and the governments supporting them have turned their efforts to repairing a nation perpetually reliant on armed conflict to solve disputes over ethnic autonomy and resource control.The UK, The US, Norway, the European Union and others have bolstered funding for peace-related programming and inter-communal violence reduction, resulting in a flourish of new initiatives by civil society, local and international organizations. This investment has occurred alongside thelifting of economic sanctions—a policy shift that Western governments believe is key to helping the country transition to democracy.
Despite the international community’s desire to be involved, Myanmar’s peace process is highly internal—what I would, in fact, call a “closed system.” The country’s Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, comprised of sixteen Ethnic Armed Organizations and the Union Peace-making Work Committee, the peace-making arm of the government (now termed the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee) have been in dialogue since 2013, all the while resisting international involvement. One notable exception was the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, which international and local actors were invited to observe.
Myanmar’s peace process differs from that of other countries in recent history. The 2004 peace agreement in Aceh, Indonesia, for example, was brokered by the government of Finland, with the goal of allowing the international community to provide humanitarian aid to a country reeling from both conflict and natural disaster. Similarly, the Bantay Ceasefire agreement of Mindanao, in The Philippines, incorporated an international ceasefire monitoring team. Unlike these countries, which championed international involvement in ending civil conflict, Myanmar’s peace actors seem committed to keeping the international community at bay.
But the international community is not just sitting idly by. Parallel to Myanmar’s peace process, another project is underway, which operates independently of ethnic armed actors and the Myanmar government. This project, led by international actors, is also invested in helping Myanmar achieve peace—only for different reasons. I call it Myanmar’s “peacebuilding project”—a movement led from the outside by international governments who, in addition to advancing humanitarian aims, are also working to further their own geopolitical interests in Mainland Southeast Asia.
These objectives, while shared by a number of Western governments, are heavily US-dominated. With tens of millions of dollars in aid invested in Myanmar’s development in 2015 alone, the US has taken the lead among Western governments in engaging the former pariah state—now making sweeping economic, political and social reforms. Doing so is part of the US’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region—a process of re-orienting foreign policy toward an area of the world that the US sees as central to the political and economic gains of the 21st century. As part of this re-balancing act, the US’s engagement with Myanmar has already been hailed as a success.
Within this context, the US is playing out a number of agendas in the form of its “peacebuiliding project.” The primary goal involves balancing against China’s rise in the region. Seen as a heavy-handed northern neighbor intent on plundering Myanmar of natural resources in the form of its hydroelectric dam, oil and gas pipeline, copper mining and logging projects, China’s reputation in Myanmar has recently diminished. Myanmar’s government has accused China of stalling the peace process by supporting ethnic autonomous organizations such as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in the north—groups who refuse to sign the NCA due to grievances over the its non-inclusivity. Capitalizing on this unpopular sentiment, the US seems intent to drive home the point that by contrast, its own peace agenda is benign in nature.
The second goal of the US’s peacebuilding project is to divert international attention away from the US’s disastrous involvement in the Middle East. Helping Myanmar achieve peace represents a step in the right direction for the US as it struggles to uphold its brand of promoting democratization and human rights around the world. Ever concerned with the potential decline of its image, the US is relying on the success of Myanmar’s democratic elections coupled with advances in the peace process as a marker of its own foreign policy gains. The hard part, of course, comes with the slow progress being made toward actual peace.
Finally, in addition to these political motivations, I suggest that there is a genuine ethical incentive on the part of the US government to advance a peacebuilding agenda in Myanmar. While a decisive end to armed conflict has yet to be seen, US agencies are investing in programs being implemented by international, local and civil society groups that work to empower people on the ground in conflict areas. Examples include a US Embassy small grants program that supports local civil society organizations conducting human rights, environmental awareness and civic engagement training; USAID funding for humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations in conflict-affected areas; and peace education and social integration programs that have successfully impacted ethnic communities. While geopolitical concerns do steer the peacebuilding project, I suggest that this project should not simply be seen as a form of Western dominance. Rather, like all complicated processes, it should be understood according to its nuances, and not painted over with too broad a brush.
The problem, however, is that many actors working in the peacebuilding arena—as well as those critiquing it from the outside—do just that. Because the West’s “peacebuilding project”—a project that means many things to many people—is so complex, national actors in Myanmar often conflate the “good” development work being done around peace with the West’s less altruistic geopolitical aims. This, in turn, has created a culture of mistrust in Myanmar’s development space—an ongoing assumption that international actors are trying to “meddle” in a process that should remain internal. Some national actors have suggested that international organizations are moving too quickly to implement humanitarian and economic strategies in a country still fragile and rife with conflict. Others have gone so far as to suggest that the international community “take its money elsewhere,” expressing disdain for what they see as being a disingenuous agenda.
These actors represent a diverse array of civil society human rights activists and organizations, many of whom worked in exile prior to Myanmar’s “opening” in early 2012. Indeed, the history of Myanmar’s civil society activist culture is characterized by an “inside-outside” dichotomy, in which numerous groups were forced to conduct their efforts across the border in Thailand for fear of being discovered by a repressive and hostile government. Many suffered the consequences of their bravery in protesting, demonstrating, and taking up arms. Now, the country has officially “opened” to these groups and their constituents, in a radical reversal accompanied by an influx of donor support.
An example of this reversal can be seen in the case of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, or KWAT, a civil society organization with whom I worked between 2011 and 2014. Prior to 2012, KWAT was wary of being coded as a “rebel” organization by the US government, who, the organization members suspected, viewed them suspiciously because of their involvement with the Kachin Independence Organization. Now, KWAT receives support from that very same government in the form of a grant to research the trafficking of women in Kachin State. Given the quick and quite radical shift in support for civil society actors like KWAT, it is understandable why critics would be skeptical of international involvement.
I suggest, however, that this “broad brush” suspicion of international involvement in peacebuilding can be dangerous for those who live under the conditions of armed conflict. As other scholars have noted, peace processes in which international communities play an ambiguous role can end up entrenching existing conflict dynamics, even after peace agreements are signed. This can happen when ethnic armed groups are authorized to make vague deals that circumvent the rule of law—deals legitimized by an international community whose involvement is too weak to put pressure on national actors to adhere to human rights standards.
This occurred in Bosnia, where, as Mary Kaldor (2016) has explained, following the Dayton Agreement that officially brought an end to war, police and judicial reform processes were implemented at the behest of international community. These reforms, however, were obstructed by corrupt political leadership. While the peace agreement held, the power dynamics of the conflict actors became entrenched. Kaldor notes that this often occurs in post conflict situations, where remnants of the conflict and the return to war loom as constant possibilities. Police rarely attend to human rights violations, and a historic culture of impunity leaves people in fear.
These dangers are ever-present in the Myanmar context, where armed conflict still rages, and gains of the ceasefire agreements in place are fragile, at best. Thus, a strong international presence that holds conflict actors accountable is not only desirable, it is essential. For this reason, Myanmar nationals who genuinely want to empower their communities should resist the temptation to see all international actors as nefarious.
Implications for women
All of this has implications for women living under the conditions of conflict. By viewing international involvement in the peace process with suspicion, national actors reinforce an agenda of keeping that process “closed.” In doing so, however, women who are affected by the outcomes of this process could end up at a stark disadvantage. This could happen in a number of ways.
First, keeping the peace process internal leaves open the potential for social norms that do a disservice to women to go unchanged. Cultural practices like customary laws that discriminate against women, for example, often hold strong under the guise of ethnic nationalism. By resisting—or flat out rejecting—international involvement, national actors risk creating barriers for women who need these structures to change. As I will discuss in my next article, international efforts around gender advocacy could make important strides in resisting these norms.
Moreover, keeping the process internal risks cementing women’s inequality in peace agreements themselves. In the Myanmar context, the continuous breaches of bilateral ceasefire agreements, the escalation of conflict in various parts of the country during the signing of the NCA, and the NCA’s vague stance on gender inclusivity reveal the weak nature of the agreements in place. Until these agreements are strengthened and taken seriously, women’s needs will go unaddressed. While there is a call on the national level to strengthen gender equity within the NCA, this call risks being overridden by the need to achieve consensus around its signing. In the rush to bring all parties to the table, neither the gender inclusion component of this agreement, nor the rule of law that would enforce it are being adequately addressed. International actors could put pressure on the parties involved to make gender equality an imperative in the NCA, and in rule of law capacity building more broadly.
Finally, if the international community doesn’t take a hard look at its own contradictory agendas, it risks mis-stepping in ways that could have detrimental consequences. Clarifying the agendas of the “peacebuilding project” will require international actors to make some difficult decisions about which investments best serve the needs of communities in Myanmar.
For example, relief programs for internally displaced persons that fail to comprehensively assess the conditions of conflict areas can create more harm than good. Weak accountability mechanisms of international financial institutions investing in development projects pose threats to women in rural environments where those projects are operationalized. Additionally, power relations between ethnic armed organizations and women who live in the territories they control should be taken into consideration in programming that engages these actors. As development practitioners, we must constantly interrogate our own interventions to ensure they are not doing a disservice to the very people we are trying to help.
The politics of peace are not without consequence for women. The closed system of the peace process poses specific risks—as does the international peacebuilding project, if its complexities and contradictions are not fully understood. One resists outside involvement, while the other balances multiple, sometimes competing aims. Understanding the nuances of these projects will not only advance development practice around peacebuilding, it will also illuminate the pitfalls and possibilities for ethnic women in Myanmar, who stand to lose the most from the continuation of armed conflict.
This article is the second of a three part series on development, peace, and gender in Myanmar. The first article in the series is linked here.