More Targeted Approach Needed to Resolve Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar

By Lynn Kuok


President Obama speaking with President Thein Sein in Myanmar during November 2012. Calibrating U.S. policy toward Myanmar requires addressing ethnic divisions within the reforming state. Source: U.S. Government Work.

President Barack Obama met with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein at the White House on May 20. It was the first visit to Washington by a Myanmar leader in nearly half a century. Thein Sein’s red carpet treatment was recognition of the laudable steps his country has taken toward political and economic reform since a civilian government took power in 2011.

The U.S. approach toward Myanmar over the years has evolved from sanctions and isolation to skeptical engagement to the present approach of almost warm encouragement. A recent Congressional Research Service report finds that “[w]hereas in the past senior U.S. officials spoke of the need for Burma [Myanmar] to demonstrate that conditions have improved enough to warrant the waving of sanctions, more recent statements from the Obama Administration have focused on creating an environment in Burma where more reforms can occur.”

Democratic reforms under President Thein Sein merit encouragement. However, these reforms, which include the release of political prisoners and the repeal or amendment of oppressive laws, may have little effect in the short- to medium-term on inter-ethnic conflict. Such conflict has in fact worsened in some areas of Myanmar since the democratic opening.

In June 2011, a 17-year ceasefire in the northern state of Kachin broke down and fierce fighting ensued. Since last year, violence has repeatedly erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, as well as in cities and towns around Yangon, with many groups accusing the armed forces of complicity.

Inter-ethnic conflict could unravel Myanmar’s democratic gains. “Non-disintegration of the Union” is enshrined as one of the basic principles of the country’s 2008 constitution, and the armed forces are given the main responsibility for safeguarding it. If conflict in areas like Kachin is considered a threat to the integrity of the state, the military could see a need to retake control.

The United States does not need to completely revert to its earlier, reactive action-for-action approach, and certainly not to isolation. Rather, it should adopt a more deliberate two-pronged approach involving fostering a more conducive environment for reforms in Myanmar without preconditions, but also maintaining enough leverage to make targeted demands for resolving conflicts: “If you do x, we will do y.”

What should x entail? Naypyidaw is asking for U.S. assistance in developing security and the rule of law. While important, security is merely a Band-Aid over a wound that could fester without further steps. Meanwhile, the rule of law is only as good as the laws being applied. For instance, Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law, which effectively denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnic group, must be amended to deal with legitimate citizenship claims from Rohingya Muslims. Furthermore, many groups in Myanmar regard the 2008 constitution as illegitimate.

A lasting solution to inter-ethnic violence must involve constitutional amendment to modify the electoral system and the distribution of power between federal and state authorities. The electoral system must move away from the current first-past-the post system to one that achieves greater, though not necessarily absolute, proportional representation. The country must also move toward a system of federalism in order to give minorities more autonomy over their own affairs and control over their resources.

Three quarters of parliament must vote to amend the constitution. The support of the military, for whom 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved, would therefore be critical. The United States could incentivize  this support through offers of increased engagement with the military.

Support would also be necessary from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD objects to proportional representation because it would have the most to lose under such a system, since it is likely to sweep most constituencies in a first-past-the-post vote. The NLD might, however, be persuaded to agree to a system that included proportional representation if the military in turn agreed to a smaller share of seats in parliament. Again, this is something the United States should seek to incentivize.

The United States should continue to foster conditions on the ground for more general political and economic reform without making this contingent on further changes in Myanmar. However, it should also use its ability to offer military engagement, development aid or other benefits to encourage progress toward an electoral and federal system that provides Myanmar with its only real chance of peace.

Dr. Lynn Kuok is a visiting fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @LynnKuok. Read more by this author here.


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