In this webinar, four experts offered their thoughts on the challenges of Myanmar’s multidimensional crisis, and prevailing sentiments towards those challenges. One of the four experts, serving as discussant, also contributed her assessment of the rapidly changing political landscape within Myanmar, access to humanitarian aid and responses from the regional partners to the Myanmar crisis.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
5 December 2022, Monday – The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a webinar under Chatham House Rule inviting Mr Nyantha Maw Lin, Executive Director of the Anagat Foundation, Mr Amara Thiha, a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Mr Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, an independent journalist from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and Ms Debbie Stothard, the founder of Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTASEAN-BURMA) to give their assessment of Myanmar twenty-two months after the February 2021 coup. Ms Moe Thuzar, acting coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme moderated the webinar.
The webinar attracted the interest of 161 attendees. Panellists reviewed the state of the political economy, including the impact of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) returning Myanmar to its blacklist, the State Administration Council (SAC) unilateral peace talks with various ethnic armed organisations, and the implications of the recent ceasefire agreement with the Arakan Army, and also shared their views on the SAC’s projected election plans in 2023.
Overview of Myanmar’s political economy, the impacts and implications of the international measures (including the FATF) on micro and macro levels
- Myanmar’s GDP growth in 2022 was very modest and unable to recover from the almost 18-20 percent contraction in 2021. That severe contraction, as a result of Covid-19 and the 2021 coup, left overall economic outputs low, and caused higher levels of unemployment.
- Any talk of economic recovery in 2023 would therefore be misguided, and more likely to be an attempt to deflect attention from what constituted a severe economic decline. Of particular concern, the rural economy was becoming increasingly disconnected from developments in Yangon and Naypyidaw. Beyond the loss of lives and livelihoods, the wholesale destruction of villages and communities in central Myanmar would have severe impact on the country’s future economic performance. Additionally, the FATF’s relisting of Myanmar on its blacklist in October 2022 had created concerns in the business community about Myanmar’s ability to maintain and attract foreign investment.
- The FATF blacklisting requires international banks to impose enhanced diligence standards on their dealings with Myanmar. This increased due diligence measures negatively affected the ability of Myanmar citizens to open, hold or maintain bank accounts, or to conduct banking transactions.
- FATF restrictions would also have (unintended) implications for the resistance in Myanmar. Myanmar diaspora networks had provided financial and humanitarian support to the many civil servants who had joined the civil disobedience movement, and the various communities in Myanmar displaced by conflict.
- While international economic sanctions and the recent FATF regulations may have some share in causing the economic hardships in Myanmar, the root cause of Myanmar’s economic downturn primarily lies with the SAC’s disastrous mismanagement of the economy. The SAC did not seem to have any long-term strategy to contain the deteriorating economic situation.
- Instead, the SAC has been using destruction as a strategy to contain the resistance against military rule. This destruction strategy also seemed equally short-sighted; there are long-term consequences of the destruction in different parts of the country. Conflicts in Myanmar’s central dry zone areas (especially Sagaing region) have affected key border-trade routes in the Kayin and the Northern Shan states. The SAC’s destruction strategy was primarily aimed at cutting off the rural economic base of the decentralized resistance groups. The SAC’s motivation showed that despite its mention of business recovery the rural economy did not seem to be considered in the same breath. For example, the United League of Arakan (ULA) had specifically mentioned the impact of ongoing conflicts in Rakhine state on food supplies and the ability of the farmers to harvest. The situation in Rakhine could thus be considered a snapshot of the situation in the whole country.
- Another developing concern was the growing illicit economy. Even before the 2021 coup, Myanmar had been a point of concern regarding the narcotics trade and production. Though countries in the Southeast Asia region may consider the Myanmar crisis as more of an internal challenge, the growing illicit economy, especially after the 2021 coup, is threatening regional stability in a different way.
- The scale of outbound immigration since 2021 was another major point of concern for the region. The outflow of human resources and skills is a result not only of the suppression and persecutions following the coup, but also of the dire economic situation experienced by different communities across Myanmar.
The SAC interactions with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs)
- SAC’s peace talks were not new developments; they were the continuation of the nationwide ceasefire process that had started in 2012. The main difference with the past peace dialogues, however, lay in the expanded number of dialogue partners. Under the Union Peace and Solidarity Party (UDSP) government, new ethnic armed groups formed after a specific cutoff date (announced by the USDP government) were not considered eligible to join the peace talks. Now, the military (i.e. the SAC) had extended invitations to armed groups which the previous USDP government had considered non-dialogue partners until 2021.
- The SAC’s peace dialogue objectives were to: a) keep the status quo; b) invite EAOs to discuss the ceasefire; c) consider possible constitution amendments as discussed by some signatories to the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
- The SAC’s peace plan timeline had three layers: a) official peace talks with NCA signatories before the 2023 election (including, for example, the Restoration Council of Shan State or RCSS); b) unofficial engagement – through mediators – with NCA signatories who were leaning towards or supportive of the parallel National Unity Government or NUG (especially the Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Organisation) through mediators; and c) informal discussions with members of the Northern Alliance, which had not joined/ were not part of the NCA process previously (including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army or TNLA, the Arakan Army or AA, the and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army or MNDAA).
- Currently, SAC maintained formal and/or informal communications with all the EAOs. The SAC was also careful to contain the conflict in certain areas, i.e. not to expand too much into the EAO-controlled areas. Using its informal communication mechanisms, the SAC had not targeted the headquarters of the EAOs even though aware of the exact coordinates. This move by the Myanmar military was made with a view to facilitate higher degrees of EAO concessions or commitments via peace talks.
- Conversely, the SAC’s attitude towards People Defence Forces (PDF) is quite different. In the SAC’s view, the EAO efforts to expand their influence outside EAO-controlled zones were to leverage their discussions with SAC. Unlike the EAOs, however, the SAC viewed PDF moves as trying to take over control. The PDF efforts to establish their bases of operation in SAC-controlled areas showed their objective to create a power vacuum and establish controlled areas in the Myanmar heartlands.
- As such, the SAC seemed to be unsure of how to accommodate PDFs politically. The SAC’s current PDF strategy was to expand (or retake) SAC controlled areas state-by-state before convening the projected 2023 election.
- Though earlier pronouncements by both the NUG and SAC did not seem averse to some future dialogue, the present situation seemed almost impossible for both sides to enter actual negotiations. Neither side wishes to enter negotiation unless their respective preconditions are met, and neither side seemed willing to consider or accommodate (or negotiate) those preconditions. For example, the SAC held to retaining its political role, while the resistance had called for the release of key political prisoners before negotiations could be considered.
- However, Track II negotiations might be able to discuss international support for humanitarian assistance and de-escalation. Such negotiations would need to be facilitated via an international platform that could directly communicate and engage with SAC and the NUG simultaneously to coordinate cross-border humanitarian aid delivery and monitor conflict de-escalation.
- Some humanitarian corridors had been opening up in recent months, with varying degrees of success. For example, Japanese facilitation brought about a temporary ceasefire to provide humanitarian access in the Rakhine state. This development could be regarded as a “mini” version Track-II openings.
Rakhine state ceasefire and its implications
- The temporary ‘humanitarian’ ceasefire in late November 2022 ended almost four months of continuous fighting in the Rakhine state. Since July, the Myanmar military had blocked humanitarian aid from entering conflict areas, though not announced officially. The military had also blocked roads and highways in Rakhine state, especially in Northern Rakhine.
- When the conflict expanded in September, the military then officially blocked the roads and humanitarian aid to six townships in Northern Rakhine. The intense fighting resulted in isolating Rakhine state from the rest of the country. The internally displaced camps within Rakhine state also faced severe food and medical supply shortages.
- The Chairman of Nippon Foundation and Japan’s special peace envoy for Myanmar Mr Yohei Sasakawa had brokered the recent peace agreement between AA and the Myanmar military. This ceasefire agreement had two main objectives: the immediate cessation of fighting and delivering humanitarian aid. To fulfill the second objective, the implied aim was to lift all the roadblocks across the Rakhine state.
- However, even after the ceasefire, the Myanmar military refused to lift all blockades. Neither did access to humanitarian aid improve significantly. Though the Myanmar military lifted the previous roadblocks to the Northern Rakhine townships, it kept a certain degree of roadblocks in Southern Rakhine.
- Fundamentally, the underlying politics for the ULA and the Myanmar military had not changed course, and it seemed clear that the military had no intention of following the terms of the recent ceasefire agreement. The Myanmar military had taken advantage of its ceasefire in Rakhine to move its military assets and troops to other parts of the country to suppress the PDFs.
- Additionally, the current ceasefire in Rakhine was not a formal undertaking. There was no set timeframe negotiated for the ceasefire. As an informal agreement between the AA and the Myanmar military, the arrangement seemed to enable each side to reinforce and strengthen their respective positions before an inevitable resumption of conflict. Moreover, there was no built-in mechanism to monitor and guarantee access to humanitarian aid.
The SAC’s election plans
- There is deep mistrust and scepticism of the SAC’s election plans, as the 2021 coup is widely viewed as having violated and undermined the legitimate result of the 2020 previous election. With the Myanmar military’s past history in previous elections (e.g. 1990, 2010), many in and outside Myanmar are sceptical that the military would hold to their promise for free and fair polls. The projected elections would not change the stance of the resistance, as the resistance, at its core, stood against the military’s seizure of democratic principles by the coup. Also, internally within the military, there are doubts that the election could provide a solution to counter the current sustained resistance.
- The SAC’s projected elections had also caused some confusion and consternation within ASEAN. Though ASEAN is trying to address the Myanmar crisis via regional diplomacy, the economic dimension of ASEAN’s response should not be discounted. The key to Myanmar’s economy lay in the hands of Myanmar’s neighbouring countries and ASEAN members.
A Negotiated Exit?
- Chances for regional and international diplomacy also seemed somewhat remote at the current juncture. Moderates within the military were under some form of house arrest/restriction, with their family members also under surveillance. The SAC’s execution of political prisoners (including Ko Jimmy and Zeyar Thaw) in July 2022 was a clear signal that the current ruling military elite showed no willingness towards compromise or moderation.
- Close to two years after the coup, the military thus seemed to be gambling on the last-man-standing scenario at the expense of the country’s destruction. Moreover, the military seemed to continue believing in a dangerous approach of “walking with a few friends” and that the country could be rebuilt eventually with the help of China, Japan and other actors supportive of or sympathetic to the military regime.
- The 2022 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, however, seemed to realize the extent of the Myanmar military’s determination. The ASEAN Leaders’ statement in November regarding the leaders’ decision on the implementation of the ASEAN Five Point Consensus attributed the destructive moves by the Myanmar junta as the primary reason behind the escalation of conflict. ASEAN also called for that an immediate de-escalation of conflict. This seemed to indicate an awareness that the ceasefire approach taken for the last 15-20 years had not worked.
Questions for the panellists sought further insights into the hypothetical relationship between NUG and the new government should the 2023 polls proceed, the response of the ASEAN and neighbouring countries on those projected polls, countries providing tacit military and economic support for the military junta, informal dialogues that might change the junta’s course, the criminalization of the economy and how to prevent the further weakening of the formal economy, the impacts of reverse human trafficking, the approaches to bring out moderates from both sides of the conflict.