Myanmar’s democratic advance and the peace process


HBS India has been moving forward with the idea of expanding dialogue between India and Myanmar since three-four years. The dialogues have been primarily focusing on India’s Northeast states which are considered as peripheral region. Additionally, four Northeastern states viz. Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh share a joint border of 1,643 kilometer with Myanmar. Both countries also share a heritage of religious, cultural and ethno-linguistic ties. Against this backdrop, hbs India and Myanmar in collaboration with Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), Burma Centre Delhi (BCD) and Human Resource Development Centre of Mizoram University organised a two-day international conference on “Federalism, Ethno-Linguistic Identities and Minority Rights: Perspectives from India and Myanmar” in Mizoram University, Aizawl from 27th-28th April 2017. Former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhya gave a keynote address during the conference focusing on three main themes i.e.

  • Democratic Advancement in Myanmar
  • Ethnic Insurgencies and the Peace Process and
  • Role of India

Following is his keynote address at the conference

I would like to thank the Institute of Social Sciences, the Burma Centre Delhi, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and the Mizoram University, especially Pu Prof. Lianzela, Ash Narain Roy, Alana Golmei and Chok Tsering for the privilege of being able to speak at this Conference in the North East rather than at a metropolis, and that too before informed and lively minds in a University. I very much look forward to the discussions led by distinguished speakers from India, Myanmar and Nepal around the highly topical subjects covered by the Conference. Let me also wish a very warm personal welcome to my Myanmar friends here with gratitude for the three wonderful years that I spent there.

Initially I thought of devoting my talk to what I thought would be an area of greatest interest to a general Indian public, Myanmar’s democratic advance and the peace process one year after the historic November 2015 elections that brought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. But seeing the presence of so many Myanmar experts who can talk about these issues first hand, and the interest the organisers expressed last night to focus on federalism, ethnic rights and how the experience of the North East could be relevant to Myanmar, I have revised my talk today a bit hastily to include some information on the Northeast Indian experience of Centre-State relations for participants from Myanmar and on some of the initiatives of the Government of India to promote cross-border relations that may not be so well known here. If in the process, I sound a bit disjointed, I apologise beforehand.

I. Democratic Advancement

On the democratic transition, it is tempting to begin with the fascinating question of the roots, trajectory, and possible future of democracy in India and Myanmar, but in the interest of time I will skip that, and make 4 points.

First, by any political yardstick, the NLD’s resounding victory in the November 2015 elections and the incident free March 2016 swearing in that followed, will stand as momentous years in Myanmar’s recent history. They were the first openly contested, multi-party elections since 1960 (if we exclude the annulled 1990 elections that were also won by the NLD), and resulted in a civilian government in Myanmar after over 50 years of military dictatorship and military backed rule. They were a strong vindication of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s immense popularity and leadership, and the electorates desire for change after decades of harsh military rule. There was a widespread feeling that with a democratic government and the ‘Lady’ or ‘Mother’ (“Amay”) at the helm, the political and economic aspirations of the people would be met, and Myanmar would regain its place as a more ‘normal’ country in the international community.

There is some disillusionment with ‘The Lady’ now especially in the international media (some of it perhaps valid), about her performance as Myanmar’s leader to date, but there is little doubt that the transition was one of the most impressive and affirmative political stories of the year for which both protagonists deserve credit. Myanmar’s transition to democracy stands in sharp contrast to what many perceive to be setbacks to democracy in the hands of right wing populists in many other parts of the democratic world where what was seen as one of the most progressive, inherently liberal, and inclusive political forms of government until now, appears to have turned inward looking, majoritarian and exclusive.

Second, though the elections were a resounding victory for the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, it was not a complete victory for democracy. The 2008 military-drafted Constitution under which the elections were held were designed to maintain the Tatmadaw’s (the Myanmar Armed Forces) hold on power (at least until they felt ready to transfer power to a democratic civilian government) through provisions by which the Tatmadaw nominated 25% of all seats in the bicameral Myanmar parliament and had a virtual ‘veto’ over any amendment to the Constitution by a requirement that any amendment had to be passed by 75% of the parliament and a national referendum. It could also ensure that at least one of the two posts of Vice Presidents of the country was its nominee.

The Tatmadaw also hold exclusive jurisdiction over internal and external security reinforced by its control over three key Ministries in the Government, Defence, Home (under which not only the police, but also the general administration operates) and Border Areas that report directly to the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services. It also has far-reaching emergency powers that it can exercise through the powerful National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) where it holds a 6:5 majority despite President U Htin Kyaw as its head and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as Foreign Minister as a member.  

Third, the new NLD government faced heightened and perhaps unrealistic expectations but also a whole series of challenges on assuming power, some inherited and some of its own. I have already listed some of the political problems stemming from the 2008 Constitution such as the enshrined and entrenched role for the military, a constitutional amendment process locked in their favour, and the lack of locus standi and authority of the civilian government over the security sector. In addition, one article of the Constitution (59f) barred those with family members of foreign origin or passports from holding high political office effectively disqualifying Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (who was married to a British citizen and has children holding UK passports) from the post of the President. Efforts to amend the two provisions through a signature campaign before the elections, failed.

The highly centralized Constitution also does not meet the demands of ethnic minorities for equality, cultural rights, and greater sharing of power, resources and revenue between the Union government and the constituent Regions in a more ‘federal’ arrangement that are central to the peace process to deal with ethnic insurgencies that date back to Myanmar’s independence. The long festering Rohingya issue took a turn for the worse during the last government.

Finally, the new government also inherited a host of other issues relating to governance and administration. These included questions about the competence and general lack of experience in administration of the new government; the centralised nature of authority in the NLD overshadowed by the charisma of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; the lack of an anointed second line of leadership that the Party and administration can turn to; and, most of all, a structure of governance built for centralised rule dictated by the military. The General Administration Department and police, dominated by retired or uniformed military officers, owe their loyalty to the military and are answerable to the Home Ministry headed by a serving military officer appointed by and accountable to the CDS.

This was compounded by changes that the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government introduced in the higher levels of the bureaucracy in anticipation of the election and a possible change of guard, (appointing a newly created level of ‘Permanent Secretary’ that would continue after the departure of the USDP government) ostensibly to provide continuity, but also seemingly to retain influence after they left; and aggravated by substantive decisions and contracts approved by the outgoing USDP government in the nearly 5-month period between the elections and swearing in (including budgetary commitments that left the incoming government with an operating budget of less than 15% than before) that the incoming NLD were left to deal with. These included a contract for the Special Economic Zone in Kyaukphyu to a Chinese-led consortium with major international and bilateral policy implications.

But even where it could have exercised its discretion along more democratic and federal lines, such as Union-State relations, the NLD has preferred at least for the time being, to follow past centralized practices. It did not seize the opportunity presented by its near nation-wide electoral victory in to Regional and State parliaments to allow them to elect their own leaders (nominating Chief Ministers from the Centre instead) let alone states like Rakhine and Shan state where the NLD did not command majorities in the local legislature.

Nevertheless, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of these challenges have been by and large adroit and pragmatic. When she could not prevail over the system or persuade the military leadership to allow her to become President, she quickly appointed a close loyalist as President and herself as Foreign Minister and Minister in President’s Office. She then cleverly exploited a provision (Article 231) in the Constitution enabling the Parliament to create posts if required, to have herself appointed as ‘State Counsellor’ and de facto head of government without the military being able to do anything about it. The government has also managed the administrative challenges so far without provoking crises through its overwhelming public mandate, and given an opportunity for new Ministers, provincial Chief Ministers, Mayors and parliamentarians to produce a second rung of leadership that could mature over the next 5-10 years.

But in most other areas, she chose not to rock the boat. She has not challenged the military on its exclusive authority over security affairs, and has refrained from criticising them over offensive operations particularly in some Kachin and Shan areas that have invited negative reactions from the rebels, or the Rohingya issue where she has allowed the military a more or less free hand in the crackdown after the attack in October 2016 that killed 9 border guards amidst criticism and dismay in international circles (some of it unfair), over her detachment on the issue.

One of the outcomes however has been a lack of ability of the NLD government to act on all fronts, and a certain degree of disillusionment or disappointment with it mainly among the intelligentsia and international media.

II. Ethnic Insurgencies and the Peace Process

The peace process, the Rohingya issue, and rising Buddhist nationalist intolerance towards Muslim minorities led by sections of the Buddhist Sangha, and related violence, are some of the other key political issues inherited by the NLD government on which they have had mixed success. Of these, the NLD government has had some success in politically curbing Buddhist radicalism. But it is to the peace process that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has, right from the outset, attached the highest priority.

Once again, it is tempting to go into the history and differences between ethnic insurgencies in India and Myanmar, but I will resist the temptation to look back, and share a few observations on the current state of the insurgencies and peace process.

First, the peace process was an area where the previous government handed the NLD on the whole positive balance by negotiating a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with 15 insurgent groups that it had signed (or almost signed) bilateral ceasefires with, albeit one that was incomplete and fractured with only 8 of the 15 groups involved signing the Agreement in October 2015, weeks before the November 2015 elections. The 7 others refrained on grounds of non-inclusion of 3 other groups, the Palaung TNLA, the Kokaing MNDAA and the Arakan Army (AA) who had not signed previous bilateral ceasefires and were still fighting the Army and were to a greater or lesser degree allied to the Kachin KIA (and have recently formed a ‘Northern Alliance’).

Second, though The Lady has moved fast on the peace process, restructuring the USDP era mechanism for it, and convening the first ‘21st Century Panglong Conference’ (a reference to the 1947 Panglong Conference under Gen. Aung San that had agreed to a federal Union with the right to self-determination to its constituent units) with the participation of NCA non-signatories in end-August-early September 2016, the process has floundered on several counts.

  1. First, in line with the Army, the Government has insisted that the NCA non-signatories sign the NCA as a precondition for participation in the political dialogue, and that the non-signatories who are still fighting renounce the armed struggle or sequester their arms. These conditions have not been acceptable to either;
  2. Second, though negotiations through various official and unofficial fora are going on, both the Army and the ‘Northern Alliance’ have stepped up offensives and attacks for tactical or strategic advantages or in retaliation. Particularly severe have been recent attacks by the MNDAA in the Kokaing capital close to the Myanmar-China border, but serious clashes have also broken out in with armed groups in other areas close to the China border where most of the non-signatories and active fighting groups are located and find shelter, weapons and funds.
  3. Meanwhile, amidst indications that groups close to the Thai border may be willing to sign the NCA, the ethnic Chinese United Wa State Army, the largest ethnic armed organisation with their own autonomous zone near the China border that had been largely passive until now, has become active and convened a parallel meeting of non-signatories at its capital, Panghsan, issuing a joint statement, rejecting the NCA, and announcing their intention to lead a separate peace process and press their demand for a separate state. China too has stepped up its peace diplomacy by holding another meeting with groups under its influence in Kunming.
  4. Underlying these developments are a serious lack of trust among the non-signatories and active fighting groups about the commitment of the Tatmadaw (and even the government) to a federal structure enshrining equality of status and dignity to its ethnic units, substantive administrative and cultural autonomy, more equitable sharing of power, resources and revenues, and the status and role of ethnic armed cadres in the Armed Forces.

As a result of these developments, the 2nd 21st Century Panglong Conference originally scheduled at 6 month intervals in end February, has slipped to May 24. Its main agenda is to be the much awaited draft Federal Principles.

Finally, as a party affected by the conflict in the form of instability and spillovers across its borders, as well as a key player that wields strong influence over especially the ethnic Chinese groups (like the Wa, Mongla and Kokaing but also the KIA who are widely believed to get shelter and arms from the border regions of China), the role of China is critical to bringing peace to the border areas of Myanmar. China’s involvement in the process has however been opaque and complex. It has on the one hand, played a positive diplomatic role in pushing some the EAOs under its influence like the KIA back to ceasefire negotiations from time to time, but it has also at times been suspected of playing a negative role intervening in the process either by covert assistance to EAOs in the form of weapons, shelter, prompting a hardening of negotiating positions on the part of EAOs, or applying pressure through the government, Communist Party, PLA, or provincial interests in Yunnan. This has been particularly so when military operations by the Tatmadaw have got serious or it feels that its unstated political, economic or strategic interests in Myanmar (such as hydro-power or mining concessions, access to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar for oil and gas pipelines, road and rail connectivity and a Special Economic Zone in Kyaukphyu, or presence of Japan or the US near its borders) are being threatened.

III. Role of India

India’s role in the peace process has been nominal, but its contribution towards kindred ethnic groups across the border in terms of cross border trade and development work and cultural relations has been considerable. It has two major transport infrastructure projects, the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Transit Project linking the North East (through Mizoram and adjacent China and Rakhine areas) with the Bay of Bengal at Sittwe, and the Trilateral Highway (through Manipur and adjacent Chin areas, and Kayin state) to Thailand and the Greater Mekong Sub-region of the ASEAN with an investment of close to US$ 1 bn; and a 5-year, US$ 25 million fund for small Border Area Development projects in Naga and Chin areas of Myanmar that are mainly used to build schools, primary health centres and bridges. An Integrated Trade Centre is coming up in Moreh to promote MFN trade, and border haats are being set up in some 8 or 9 points along the border states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram to facilitate trade between ethnic groups on both sides.

At the cultural and people-to-people level, Chief Ministers of adjacent and Mandalay and Sagging Regions, and Kachin and Chin states have made official visits to the North East, and the Chief Ministers of Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram have visited Myanmar more informally. Cultural groups have performed and participated in each other’s festivals, like the Sangai and Hornbill festivals in Manipur and Nagaland. In one of those visits, the Myanmar side evened interest in the Indian institution of the Governor as office that could reconcile unitary and federal principles. This is worth exploring.

On the peace process, India was a signatory to the NCA as an international observer (together with the UN, China, Thailand and the European Union) at which political and media representatives of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram (Pu Zoramthanga) were represented though its contribution beyond that has been limited. But India can offer its experience in accommodating ethnic aspirations within a democratic framework and the political and administrative structures required for it to the peace process in Myanmar, including the ongoing debates on federalism and a unitary state, sharing of power, resources and revenues between the Union and constituent regions and states, absorption of ethnic forces into a national army, ethnic cultural and linguistic rights, and civil-military relations. This has not happened so far owing to a lack of initiative by both sides. I hope this Conference stimulates such an interest.

I would like to end with a quick bird’s eye view of how the Northeastern states of India have reconciled the thorny issue of self-determination within the Indian Union with particular reference to the themes of this Conference, ‘Federalism, Ethnolinguistic Rights and Minorities’. I hope some of the experts present here will be able to shed some light on relevant Constitutional provisions pertaining to the North East (NE). I will make 2 points. First, not many are aware that the role of language in the Indian Union goes back to Gandhiji’s use of vernacular languages as an instrument to mobilise the masses and create a truly pan-national independence movement. Later, this found expression in linguistic states. In the North East, the new states that emerged from Assam were constituted, with some variations, along ethno-linguistic or ethnic lines (Nagaland for Nagas, Mizoram for Mizos) as they have evolved over time. It has given the major ethnic groupings a sense of identity, though one could argue that as each state focuses strictly on itself, it has been at the expense of a North East vision.

The different states of the Northeast, have managed this balance differently or more or less successfully. The end of the major insurgencies in the North East rested on an implicit bargain: acceptance of the Indian Union and a common market on the one hand, and a large measure of administrative and cultural autonomy, food security, central funding for development, and job reservations in for the Scheduled Tribes that constitute a majority in the region, on the other. The results may be uneven and far from perfect, and all ethnic aspirations may not have been fulfilled, but they have brought peace, higher standards of living, and now the promise of take off in development in the NE.

Mizoram is, arguably, perhaps one of the best examples of the exercise of the federal principle in India though this has evolved rather than been spelt out in the Constitution. Today, you can walk around Aizawl, and hardly see any on the traditional images of India: women in saris, Hollywood, cricket, Hindu, Muslim or other non-Christian places of worship, or the Hindi language being spoken, though you do see all major Indian companies and brands. Ethnic cohesiveness is less clear in other states. In Nagaland, ethnic consolidation has led to the creation of a strong Naga identity despite lack of a common language, but it has spilled over onto frictions with other states where Nagas live, and the dream of further Naga consolidation within the Indian Union or beyond has not completely died out. Oddly, it has not led to similar demands in Mizoram though it shares much closer linguistic bonds with the Kuki and Chin in Manipur, Myanmar, Bangladesh and elsewhere (though there are some signs of it appearing).

Among the others, Meghalaya has been quite successful in carving an identity despite the presence of three major tribes. In ethnically diverse Arunachal, the solution has come about through greater cultural integration into the Indian mainstream. In Manipur, the disparate ethnic composition has led to inter-ethnic frictions that continue to impede peace and development. Sikkim and Tripura have very different ethnic balances, but have created a developmental identity for themselves around good use of central funds for development and governance. The demand for states and Autonomous District Councils based on ethnic identities is not over as the issue of the Bodos in Assam shows.

With these words, I hope I have been able to provide an overview of the democratic and peace processes in Myanmar for the Mizoram audience, and a brief sketch of the handling of ethno-linguistic rights within the Indian constitution for the Myanmar and Nepali representatives as their democratic transitions and peace process proceed. Given time constraints, I have painted with a broad brush. I trust that complexities will be brought out in the panel discussions that follow.