Burma/Myanmar – Towards Peace? Elections, Civil War, and Inter-Faith Conflicts


By Mikael Gravers

In August 2015, the government of President U Thein Sein signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with 8 ethnic armed organisations. However, serious problems remain and continue to be obstacles for genuine peace and democracy as well as for alleviating poverty. The article outlines and analyses some of the main problems in the current transition.


After the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) victory at the 2015 elections, the first civilian government since 1962 has initiated a peace process in order to end 67 years of civil war, provided justice and improved the livelihood of Myanmar’s 52 million people. Even with a genuine ceasefire agreement, the country faces an uphill struggle to leave its status as a least developed country. Democracy, a transparent justice system and economic development rests on ending Myanmar’s many inter-ethnic and religious conflicts.

While the international media has focus on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her victory, the army has escalated its armed offensive in the Shan and Kachin States and resumed fighting a Karen splinter group of the Democratic Karen Benevolent/Buddhist Army) displacing thousands of civilians. This increased fighting took place while the NLD government convened the first session of its much-heralded 21st Century Panglong peace conference in the capital Naypyitaw. Aung San Suu Kyi, the army chief and 17 armed ethnic organisations (EAO) participated.

The failure of democracy was not only rooted in an internal power struggle amongst Burman politicians and the army, but also in the colonial rule’s use of identity politics –   a divide and rule with emphasis on ethnic differences.

The 21st century Panglong conference refers to a famous conference in 1947 in a small town in the Shan State between ethnic leaders and Burman politicians led by General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and Burma’s national hero. Since 1923, the British colonial rule had separated the ethnic hill areas in a Frontier Area Administration and limited Burman admission. Churchill’s cabinet had planned to maintain the frontier area as a dominion. Many of the non-Burman ethnic groups in Burma hoped for some kind of autonomy after having remained loyal to the Empire during the war. This was bitterly opposed by Aung San who in Panglong promised they could have “full autonomy in internal administration”, democratic rights, and economic assistance.1 There was also a discussion of a federal constitution and of future secession of ethnic states. However, the 1947 constitution never became genuine federal. Dissatisfied EAOs such as Karen National Union, began armed struggle for independence in 1949 amidst a Communist insurgency. Other groups took up arms. In 1961, the civil government made Buddhism the state religion to the consternation of Christians and Muslims. This law, ethnic insurgency and fear of secession were the main reasons for the military coup in 1962.

The failure of democracy was not only rooted in an internal power struggle amongst Burman politicians and the army, but also in the colonial rule’s use of identity politics – a divide and rule with emphasis on ethnic differences. Moreover, colonial rule applied customary laws to religious communities, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhists. Aung San Suu Kyi is facing this complex historical legacy. Since 1948, there has been at least 40 different EAOs including splinter groups. A rough estimate tells that EAOs can muster about 100,000 men, the army 400,000. Myanmar is a highly militarised country.

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About the Author

mg-fotoMikael Gravers is Associate Professor, Anthropology, Aarhus University, Denmark. He has conducted fieldwork in Thailand and Burma since 1970. He has worked amongst Buddhist and Christian Karen and in Buddhist monasteries. He is the author of Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma. London, Curzon, 1999 and edited Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, Copenhagen, NIAS Press 2007. In 2014, he co-edited Burma/Myanmar – Where Now? NIAS Press, Copenhagen, with Flemming Ytzen. He is currently a senior researcher in the Danish funded research project Everyday Justice and Security in the Myanmar Transition in collaboration with Danish Institute of International Studies (DIIS) and Anthropology, Yangon University.


• The country’s official name since 1948 in Myanmar derived from an old word, Mranma, which is the origin of the colloquial word Bamar or Burma in English. The military government changed the colloquial use to Myanmar in 1989 – an act aimed at erasing colonial heritage. The opposition continued to use Burma.

1. On the Panglong conference , see Matthew Walton 2008. “Ethnicity, Conflict, and History in Burma. The Myth of Panglong. Asian Survey, Vol. 48,6: 889-910.
2. On the nationwide ceasefire, see Centre for Development and Ethnic Studies 2016: The significance of NCA. www.cdses.org.mm, 26 September.
3. See Myanmar Times 1 August, 2016, Fiona Macgregor and Thu Thu Aung:” Conceptions of Ethnic, religious identity vex Panglong youth summit”. www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/21561-civil-society-readies-
4. See Myanmar Times 5 October. www.mmtimescom/index.php/national-news/22901-wa-and-mongla.The USWA has invaded the Mongla (Akha and Chinese) territory.
5. See Karen News September 28.www.karennews.org/2016/09/armed-conflict-promoting-drug-use-in-ethnic-areas.html/
6. On DDR, see Kyed, Helene M and M. Gravers 2015 “What are the future Options for Non-State Armed Groups in the Myanmar Peace Process?” Stability, Vol. 4, 1-20.
7. On nationalism and ethno-nationalism in Burma’s history, see M. Gravers 1999. Nationalism as Political Paranoia. London, Curzon/Routledge.
8. On the anti-Muslim monks, see The Review of Faith & International Relations Vol.13,4. Special issue on Myanmar. M. Gravers 2015. “Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka – Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Endangered Identities”.” Contemporary Buddhism Vol. 18, 1: pp.22; M. Gravers 2016. On Buddhist monks, Nationalism and Violence – Correspondence. Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 19, 2 (November 2016).
9. Muslims constitute 4,3 % of Myanmar’s 52 million. However, about one million Muslims in Rakhine were not counted during the 2014 census.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.