A year after Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, took office, her country’s transition from military rule toward democracy and peace has made progress—but continued fighting underscores the need for faster progress, said diplomats, scholars and other analysts who convened at USIP on March 16. While Suu Kyi has been criticized for not acting more directly to protect Burma’s Rohingya minority from oppression, she faces complex political conflicts and cannot control the country’s military, the analysts noted. That means U.S. support for Burma’s stabilization must be consistent and long-term.

Rickshaws during monsoon rains at a camp for Rohingya in Sittwe. The government says it is determined to stop the migrants fleeing religious persecution, but it will not address the conditions driving the exodus. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Tomas Munita
Rickshaws during monsoon rains at a camp for Rohingya in Sittwe. The government says it is determined to stop the migrants fleeing religious persecution, but it will not address the conditions driving the exodus. Photo Courtesy New York Times/Tomas Munita

The top U.S. diplomat for Southeast Asia voiced “cautious optimism” for Burmese stability, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s government promised new steps to calm the past five years’ violence in the western state of Rakhine. Aung San Suu Kyi said hours earlier that her government would implement recommendations to end the displacement of more than 120,000 people in Rakhine, most from the Muslim Rohingya community.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy said the Burmese government is pursuing “a good process” on the Rohingya crisis. Burmese officials pledged to act on the recommendations of a commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The commission, appointed last summer by Suu Kyi’s government, urged steps to let displaced people return and rebuild their homes, ensure humanitarian aid and human rights, investigate abuses by security forces, and build reconciliation between Rakhine state’s Muslim and Buddhist communities.

At the USIP forum, Murphy said the government’s decision to appoint a credible commission, including Annan and two other foreign civil servants among its nine members, “was a bold move.” The government has used international attention and pressure to balance the military’s continued control of security affairs and its frequent use of violent tactics against minority groups.

U.S. Engages Burma’s Military

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won elections in 2015 after a half century of military rule, but civilians still must share power with the armed forces under a 2008 constitution prepared under the junta. The constitution preserves the armed forces’ power by guaranteeing them control over the defense and security ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament.

The Burmese government is pursuing “a good process” on the Rohingya crisis.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy

Burma’s armed forces have fought for decades with armed groups representing some of the country’s 100-plus ethnic groups. (A measure of the complexity of Burma’s ethnic map is that even the number of groups in the country is contested.) Most of these conflicts have been centered in the rugged, forested terrain of Burma’s eastern borders with China and Thailand.

The government has prioritized a peace process to end those conflicts, and has started a political dialogue to forge a federal system in which Burma’s minority ethnic groups share power and resources at the local level. Peace talks under the previous government achieved a cease-fire with eight ethnic armed groups in 2015. Warfare continues particularly in the northeastern states of Kachin and Shan.

At the civilian government’s request, the United States has begun “very low-level contacts” with Burma’s military, whose officers have worked in relative isolation for decades, Murphy said. The armed forces thus are “unfamiliar with international standards,” he said, and will need time to be reformed “into a professional institution subordinate to elected government and … respectful of human rights.”

Suu Kyi’s Role

USIP works with Burma’s government and civil society groups to support the peace process, training community leaders, Buddhist monks and others to strengthen dialogues among ethnic and religious groups. The institute has trained police in techniques for intervening peacefully in violent conflicts.

Following a visit to Burma, USIP President Nancy Lindborg wrote last week in The Hill that “a greater personal engagement by Aung San Suu Kyi appears vital to revive and expand” the country’s stalled peace process. “A powerful next step would be for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit areas suffering some of the greatest violence, notably in Kachin and Shan states,” Lindborg wrote. 

At USIP’s March 16 forum, the discussions included these points:

  • Violence in the northeast has worsened in spite of the peace process. “The scale of conflict in the northeast of Burma is the worst it’s been in several decades, despite negotiations and the National League for Democracy government prioritizing peace negotiations,” USIP’s country director for Burma, Vanessa Johanson, noted at the day’s end.
  • Marginalized groups must be given a greater role. Burma’s transition “is not simply a peace process.” It must include women, youth and other marginalized groups, said former U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell. “It has to be done with the entire society [from the] bottom-up, not just top-down. …It is absolutely essential that this be an inclusive process to be sustainable and to be credible.”
  • Hardliners and hate speech remain. “More public voices promoting diversity have to be out there, have to be public, and may have to be courageous” in the face of hardliners from many of Burma’s factions, said Mitchell, now a senior advisor at USIP.

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