A Receding Wave of Optimism in Myanmar

Credits: Soe Zeya Tun/REUTERS

Credits: Soe Zeya Tun/REUTERS

A wave of optimism flowed over Myanmar in 2010 when the ruling military general, Than Shwe, implemented the first steps in the nation’s roadmap to democracy by implementing both economic and democratic reforms. At the same time, the government began new efforts to establish peace with more than a dozen armed ethnic minority groups, one of the world’s longest civil wars. This was followed by historic general elections in 2015 and a new government. International leaders lifted sanctions on the country and competed with each other to meet the de facto leader and face of the democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi. 

It’s now 2019. Peace negotiations have stalled, new concerns that the economy may not live up to its full potential and reports of genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya have gone unanswered. Suu Kyi has dramatically fallen from grace. What are the major obstacles for the peace negotiations? What’s the latest situation with the Rohingya crisis? What might the upcoming election results in 2020 look like? I discuss these issues and much more with the former Myanmar deputy minister of information (2012-2014), minister of information (2016) and presidential spokesperson (2013-2016), Colonel (ret.) U Ye Htut. Here are the main takeaways from the interview:

  • Myanmar has gone through many difficult transitions since gaining independence in 1948. With numerous military dictatorships, the economy in shambles, a long list of human rights violations and a decades-long conflict between the military and more than a dozen armed ethnic minority groups across the country, junta leader Than Shwe began a slow transition to a democracy and began opening up the economy in 2010.

  • Although there are many problems in Myanmar that need to be addressed, establishing peace with the ethnic minority groups that are fighting for greater autonomy in resource rich areas for the past 70 years is a crucial step if Myanmar hopes to become a true nation.

  • There are 135 recognized ethnic minority groups in Myanmar but the Bamar ethnic people, which makes up around two-thirds of the population, controls the military and the government.

  • There have been numerous efforts to negotiate peace over the years but progress has been painfully slow. Under the Thein Sein administration (2011 to 2016), the government made some progress establishing ceasefire agreements as part of the National Ceasefire Agreement or NCA, but real peace agreements have been difficult to achieve. Participants in these negotiations say that progress is now frozen.

  • Our guest, retired Myanmar Army Colonel Ye Htut, was involved at the highest levels of government with the transition between the outgoing Thein Sein administration and the incoming government led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Colonel Htut served as deputy minister of Information from 2014 to 2016 and later also served as spokesperson for President Thein Sein around that period.

Ethnic Groups & Failing Peace Negotiations

  • Ye Htut believes that Suu Kyi is viewed as not having strong relationships with the ethnic minority groups as a result of failing to build trust once she became an MP and later as State Counsellor. As a result, she has yet to receive strong support from these groups during the peace negotiations.

  • He criticised Suu Kyi’s move when she encouraged minority groups not to sign the NCA with the Thein Sein administration out of fear that his quasi-civilian government would have credibility before the 2015 election. She also gave them the impression that, if NLD won the election, she would give them a better deal. Yet, she is now pushing them to sign the same agreement,” Htut said.

  • He emphasized the fact that the NLD government has not involved the ethnic members in the new government after their landslide win in 2015, which has led to ethnic leaders losing trust in Suu Kyi’s leadership.

  • Ye Htut stated that both the military and the ethnic armed groups have lost hope in the NCA as they have lost trust in Suu Kyi’s leadership to bring peace but refrain from stating this in public.

Uncertainty & Drug Trade 

  • The stalled peace negotiations and the loss of hope in the peace process itself creates only more uncertainty and potentially a more troublesome situation. For the armed rebels, this can mean an increase in the production and sales of illegal narcotics. The production of illegal drugs in Myanmar is worth billions and rivals Afghanistan when it comes to being a main source of opium and heroin in the world. Revenue from this illicit trade has played an important role in supporting some of the armed groups’ activities.

  • Ye Htut said that with the stalled NCA, groups are maneuvering to control strategic areas and at the same time, some ethnic armed groups increased their reliance on the production of methamphetamine to fund their operations.

  • “As both sides continue to talk about the peace process, meanwhile they are also preparing for the worse,” he said. Some examples he gave were the two Shan armed groups who are once again fighting each other over strategic areas along the Myanmar-China gas pipeline and the future Myanmar-China economic corridor. The military has also made pre-emptive moves in anticipation of some groups attempting to control other strategic areas.

Solution to Peace Before the End of Suu Kyi Government in 2020?

  • There seems to be some low-level discussions regarding the need to make progress with the peace process before the end of the government’s term which is set to expire in 2020. Ye Htut believes that the general election in late 2020 would not serve as a catalyst in bringing parties to the negotiating table in the peace process.

  • He also said that ethnic parties will prefer to “wait and see” what the election results are like as these parties will play a crucial role and could be a “kingmaker”, more so than in the 2015 election.

  • As for the military, they will prefer to “wait and see” as well when it comes to pushing for peace before the end of the NLD government’s term as “they still remember Suu Kyi’s words encouraging the ethnic groups not to sign the NCA before the 2015 election as it might have given credibility to Thein Sein’s government.”

Why Did Myanmar Open Up in 2010?

  • Myanmar’s ruling military junta opened up to the international community in 2010. Western countries soon removed economic sanctions and there seemed to be a push for engagement with the international business community. Many Western scholars believe that the move to open up the country was to reduce its dependence on China, however Ye Htut disagrees and said, “It wasn’t about reducing our dependence on China. The decision was part of our efforts to implement economic reform. We had to reconnect with the international community. That’s why we opened up to the Western countries. We wanted to normalize relations with them as part of our reform process.”

  • Thein Sein’s decision to postpone construction of the massive and controversial Myitsone hydro dam project that was financed and led by a state-owned Chinese company, did sour relations to some extent and raised concerns within the Chinese leadership at that time.

  • According to Htut, we need to compare Myanmar’s relations with China on three angles. These are: the military government under General Than Shwe, the Thein Sein administration and under the NLD government under Suu Kyi.

  1. Under Than Shwe - Myanmar was dependent on China for two things: 1. For the economy due to international sanctions 2. For diplomatic cover/assistance in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

  2. Under Thein Sein - the government didn’t require economic support from China since the economic reforms were being implemented.The government didn’t have to rely on China for support in the UNSC but did require China’s support in the peace negotiations with the ethnic groups along the border with China.

  3. Under Suu Kyi administration - because of the crisis with the Rohingya in Rakhine State, she has had to rely on China in the UNSC. China’s economic role may increase with the threat of international sanctions being reapplied. With the new fighting between the military and minority groups occurring on the Myanmar-China border, Beijing’s role in the peace negotiations has become even more important, according to Htut. China’s overall role has increased under the NLD government, he said. Ye Htut believes that Myanmar has become more dependent on China.

The Rohingya Crisis

  • The conflict in Rakhine State between Buddhists and the Muslim minority has flared up since the late 1970s but reached new levels when acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were reported in 2017. Over 700,000 ethnic minority Muslims fled to neighbouring Bangladesh and are now living in squalor in refugee camps. The United Nations called for Myanmar military leaders to be prosecuted for genocide.

  • Htut said that he fears that the current crisis in Rakhine and in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh will create a long-term crisis and a potential breeding ground for radicalization of the victims; something that has not been widespread in the past. This would become a security threat to South Asia and Southeast Asia, he explained.

  • He criticised Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, particularly with the government’s position that economic development and jobs are key to allowing the refugees to return to Rakhine. He instead said that the core issues are security and the right of citizenship. If these issues aren’t resolved in a transparent and credible manner, then the crisis will continue. “This is not a development issue, this is a security and citizenship issue,” Htut said.

The Word “Rohingya”

  • The term Rohingya itself is a very controversial word in Myanmar. The government recognizes 135 ethnic groups but Rohingya are not given the same status. As a result, they are not considered as citizens of Myanmar or allowed to receive basic rights, such as the freedom to travel or receive education. The government and military use the term, “Bengali”, for these people and see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “The presence of Rohingyas in Rakhine date back to the British Indian Empire in the 1800s when Myanmar was under the control of the British. There was no immigration control around the border. They came as seasonal farmers and some stayed.” He went on to say that he now agrees with the use of the word “Rohingya,” that it should be used instead of “Bengali” when addressing this community and that the government needs to do the same. “I wrote in an article in October 2017, that the solution is that Myanmar has to accept the name, Rohingya as the name of their community. Because we have the settlers like the Chinese, and most of them come from the British occupation like Nepalese or Indian.”

Rohingya & Census

  • The population of Rohingya is another sensitive issue in Myanmar and those who oppose the ethnic group are worried that their population is increasing. The word Rohingya became a major issue in the 2014 nationwide census when participants were barred from using the term. It was the first census in 30 years. Many Rohingya people boycotted the census as a result. “The Rohingya population refused to participate because they wanted to be called “Rohingya” [not Bengali]. The government wanted to use the name Bengali as they have used it in the previous census. However, 1.4 million refused to participate,” said Htut.

The People’s Party in 2020 Election

  • As Myanmar is scheduled to hold general elections in late 2020, some political maneuvering have already begun. Veteran activist, former political prisoner and NLD member, Ko Ko Gyi, captured local news headlines when he announced the establishment of the People’s Party. Some observers believe that this new party could split the vote among pro-democracy supporters and also divide seats in parliament, making it even more difficult to implement reforms in the next government. When asked how important this new party will be, Htut said that he doesn’t believe that the party will have strong support to have a big influence and said, “ I think they don’t have enough support from the people. You have to divide Myanmar [electorate] into two areas: Bamar majority area and that we call “Region” like Yangon or Mandalay and another is what we call “State” where most of the ethnic minorities are. In 2015, NLD was very strong in both Regions in the State because everyone thought that Suu Kyi would provide them with federalism. In 2020, the situation will change. The ethnic parties will be strong in ethnic minority areas. Ko Ko Gyi’s party does not have contacts in ethnic minority areas; their only contacts is in the (Bamar) Region. Even among the ‘88 generation, there are not a lot of leaders joining the People’s Party. Ko Ko Gyi’s party will have a lot of difficulty winning sizeable seats in the region. They have to work very hard.”

NLD Party in 2020

  • The NLD Party won a landslide victory in the 2015 general elections after nearly 50 years of military rule however, the 2020 election might be tougher for them. Ye Htut believes that NLD could have difficulties winning over many of the ethnic minority areas as a result of Suu Kyi’s lack of progress with the NCA and failing to make progress with the military when it comes to moving towards a federal system. He added, “NLD will be strong in the Region but they won’t have the same support that they enjoyed in 2015. They won’t have the same majority and I don’t think they will have another landslide [victory].”

  • According to the Constitution, there is an Upper and Lower House with a total of 664 seats. The president is elected through an electoral college. “The army has permanent seats and the remaining are coming from the elected members from the State and Region which is 498 seats. If you divide the seats between the State and Region, the Region has 291 seats and State has 207 seats. The army’s number of seats is a constant figure, you cannot change that. If the ethnic party wins the majority of the 207 seats, I think they will become the kingmaker in the election of the president. It is a very important fight. The People’s Party is not the decisive figure in 2020. The decisive figures in 2020 are the ethnic minority parties and the military, especially when it comes to the presidential election.”

Mr. Ye Htut Final Thoughts

  • Ye Htut added, “I feel very sorry about my country. If you look back in 2016, after achieving the peaceful transfer of power to the NLD, this is the first time in our country that we had a peaceful transition of power from one elected government to another. In the past, all the elected governments ended with a coup. So there are a lot of expectations from the Myanmar people and also from the international community. Everyone tried to help Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi had a lot of political power but she has failed to use that. Now after three years, Myanmar’s relationship with Western countries is moving back to square one. All the sectors, such as peace, reform, media reform are nearly stalled. We lost all the opportunity we got in 2016 and we also lost the goodwill from the international community that we enjoyed in 2016.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi failed to use all this effectively. The government has lost its initiative. This government is just being reactive to the latest developments with the economy and everything else. I feel very sorry for that.”

Shawn Corrigan