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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Democracy Challenges in Myanmar

Aiko Doden

Jun. 25, 2015

Today’s Focus is on challenges in Myanmar. A general election is scheduled for November. Now, crucial negotiations which hold the keys to success for democratization are approaching the home strait. We’ll see what’s needed for Myanmar to end the armed conflicts between government forces and ethnic minorities.

51 million people live in Myanmar. In 2011, it went from military rule to a civilian government. Since then, natural resources and the labor force have attracted foreign investment. The economic growth rate is estimated at over 7 percent.

But there have been conflicts for more than half a century between government forces and ethnic armed groups wanting greater autonomy.

In March, Myanmar’s government and 16 ethnic groups signed a draft ceasefire accord. It calls for the introduction of a federal system to give the groups relative autonomy. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein said everyone who took part will go down in Myanmar’s history for helping bring peace to the country.

However, a nationwide ceasefire remains uncertain as the Kokang and some other ethnic minorities haven’t taken part in the peace process.

NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: How crucial is this moment for settling the ethnic minority issue?

Doden: Quite crucial, I would say. As many as 135 ethnic minority groups live in Myanmar. In fact, a series of talks between the government and the ethnic armed groups are taking place as we speak. The key negotiator for the talks was in Tokyo recently.

Hla Maung Shwe advises Myanmar’s minister in charge of the peace talks with the ethnic groups. He attended a conference held by the Japanese government on peace-building and democratization in Asia. Government officials and experts came from 12 nations in the region.

The audience paid close attention to Hla Maung Shwe’s comments in a panel discussion. He said the country knows it is a rare opportunity to make peace with itself once and for all, and that failure is not an option.

Aiko Doden asked Hla Maung Shwe about the government’s approach to the ethnic minority issue.

Hla Maung Shwe: The domestic issue we face has a more than 70 year history. This makes it difficult for people to build personal relationships. That’s the toughest part. The election must be held -- we need it for our country to change. It’s also important that the ceasefire accord be signed before the election. Because if we can build a foundation here and now, the next generation should be able to continue on with the peace process in Myanmar, no matter who heads the next administration.

Doden: In March, you reached the agreement with 16 ethnic minorities. Would that lead to signing of a full agreement, a nationwide cease fire agreement?

Hla Maung Shwe: Some minority leaders who were not present at the talks told us they want to have some of their demands included in the agreement. We’re still looking for a way to address the problem. I’m amazed that the government and the military are showing understanding of the minorities and making considerable compromises. The minorities had proposed a draft of the agreement we are about to sign. It’s not a proposal by the government or the military. The focus of the talks is to win the trust of the minorities.

Doden: Are there any specific dates or months that we should keep our eyes on with regards to the ethnic minority issue?

Hla Maung Shwe: I hope the chairman of the election administration commission will announce the date of the poll in the last week of July or the first week of August. So the best thing for us is to sign the agreement by that time. But as of now, I cannot say for sure if we can really do that.

Beppu: Ethnic conflicts have continued in Myanmar for quite a long time, but what prompted the parties to come to the negotiating table now?

Doden: I think the ethnic minorities decided to come to the negotiating table because of the general election which is scheduled for November this year.  The government wants a ceasefire before this election so badly as a major accomplishment in the progress towards democracy. Knowing how badly the government wants the ceasefire, the ethnic minority groups must have decided that the timing is now. It made sense for them to come to the negotiating table, so that they will be able to perhaps strike a better deal regarding demands like sticky issues such as greater autonomy.

Shibuya: Has there been any progress in the talks? Where are the negotiations headed?

Doden: Unfortunately there has been little progress. Informal talks between the government and the ethnic forces have been underway in Yangon and in Chiang Mai, Thailand, since Monday. U Hla Maung Shwe was also taking part in some of the meetings. But it seems unlikely that there will be a nationwide ceasefire agreement, because some ethnic groups are more adamant than others with their demands such as greater autonomy, while others think that they’ll be better off striking the deal when the government wants it the most. So this apparent division within the ethnic groups is making the prospect look bleaker. Next week, talks at the higher level are scheduled, but it’s quite uncertain whether they’ll be able to reach any agreement.

Beppu: If there are more than 130 parties, it’s normal that interests are different. But what about Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the largest opposition party? She’s well known as a vocal advocate for human rights and for the rights of the minorities. What is she saying about this issue?

Doden: Not much. She is being very careful with her comments, because being an ethnic Burmese herself, she can either antagonize ethnic minority groups, or could lose support from the ethnic Burmese who constitute the majority in Myanmar if she is seen to be supporting the ethnic minorities.

Shibuya: How could Myanmar’s peace-building talks influence the international community?

Doden: Peace in Myanmar is not just about Myanmar alone, but will be the key to ASEAN stability. ASEAN is about to establish an Economic Community by the end of 2015. Myanmar is located between China and India on the economic artery of South East Asia. Enhanced physical connectivity, whether it be railway or roads, is vital for the seamless movement of goods and services. But Myanmar constitutes a so-called missing link because of the delayed development due to on-going conflicts in the border area, and the connectivity is disrupted. So peace in Myanmar is a prerequisite for the completion of the link, and both Myanmar and ASEAN need the enhanced connectivity to promote growth.

Beppu: How can peace be achieved in the country?

Doden: Confidence-building is crucial, and the key. As U Hla Maung Shwe said, unfortunately, mistrust still runs very deep between the ethnic groups and the government. The key is to acknowledge any conciliatory gestures by rewarding them with something tangible. One effort is by Japan through its Special Envoy Yohei Sasakawa who has spent 30 years conducting humanitarian aid work in Myanmar. Since 2013, when he was appointed the Special Envoy for National Reconciliation, he’s been literally visiting the leaders of ethnic groups to persuade them to take part in the peace talks.

The Japanese Government has announced that it will provide a total of 10 billion yen over 5 years to facilitate reconciliation efforts by improving the lives of people in ethnic minority areas by empowering them by providing basic infrastructure, food and medicine. This is because peace will not be sustained unless people nationwide fully appreciate the dividend of change.