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.


The EAO’s now insist on being termed ethnic nationalities in order to claim right to self-rule within a federation. They insist on a federated army in which their forces are under their own (ethnic) command. However, they have dropped the demand for right to secession.

At the Panglong 21st century meeting, the army had excluded three EAO’s who are at war with the army: The Kokang (ethnic Chinese); the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (ethnic Palaung) and the Arakan National Army (ethnic Rakhine trained by the Kachin Independent Army). The army demanded they cease fighting and lay down weapons.

In 2014, a Nationwide Ceasefire was signed by eight EAO’s among these the KNU and DKBA.2 The major EAOs, Kachin, Mon, Shan and the big United Wa State Army did not sign. However, as soon as delegates arrived, tension rose. Nametags for EAO’s delegates did not have EAO military rank. The Wa delegation came late, were erroneously downgraded to observers and walked out.3

Myanmar does not want international facilitators. However, Ban Ki Moon opened the meeting and China sent an envoy from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China has supplied the Wa, the Kokang and probably other EAO’s with weapons on the border. China is constructing several huge dams in Burma and has substantial economic interests along the border in order to get electricity, while only 1/3 of the Myanmar population has electricity. China is a crucial player in the peace process.

Panglong however, has huge symbolic meaning to all people in Myanmar. While the agreement of 1947 was vague, the spirit of Panglong, i.e. the democratic and peaceful dialogue is celebrated as Aung San Suu Kyi did in her opening speech 31 August: “The Panglong spirit that enabled us to implement, through unity and cooperation, the hopes of all our peoples for freedom, is equally essential now in the 21st century”. She agrees with EAOs on a federal constitution. However, the parties may have difficulties when it comes to the details. Aung San Suu Kyi and EAO’s also agree to maintain the present 14 states and regions, but when it comes to special areas, already carved out for three smaller ethnic groups, it may create new conflicts because the ethnic groups live intermingled. The Karen for example, live in the Irrawaddy Delta, in Yangon and in the Karen, Mon, Shan, and Kayah states. An ethnic territorial demarcation is likely to generate new conflicts. Some EAOs already have conflicts over constituencies and areas.4

Local EAO elites and their armed followers often have their own agenda and interests in business (plantations), natural resources (mines, gemstone, timber), “taxation” and recruits. Thus, a future peace agreement will have to deal with these interests which are tied to the possession of arms. This combination also makes it more difficult to enter a process of disarming. There is an obvious risk that some of these armed persons may turn into criminal gangs if they are not integrated in a federal army, police force, or provided other opportunities. Drug trade is an increasing problem along the western borders.5

Civil society organisations (CSO) concerned with religion, human rights, women/gender refugee, culture and other subjects are also important actors in the peace process. They represent the civil populations concerns and grievances. Together with ethnic political parties they form important fulcrum for a successful peace process.

The Panglong conference may have problems in accommodating all these voices and their complex interests. Nevertheless they are crucial voices.

Civil society organisations (CSO) concerned with religion, human rights, women/gender refugee, culture and other subjects are also important actors in the peace process.

The main obstacle, however, to a federation is the army who wants to maintain the present constitution. The army emphasises demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR). The ethnic armed forces could be integrated in the army as the present Border Guard Forces among the Karen. However, this is fiercely opposed by the EAOs, who want to keep their arms and control their forces. Interestingly, their civil society organisations such as women’s organisations agree that weapons are necessary at least ten years after a genuine peace.6


Changing the Constitution and Mistrust

The army has 25% of the seat in the two chambers of parliament and a paragraph demands more than 75% of all representatives to change the constitution. The army fears that a federation may endanger what they perceive national unity among the “135 indigenous ethnic groups” and fragment the Union of Myanmar. Thus the “spirit from Panglong” needs to overcome a climate of mutual distrust and fear, which is still so prevalent in the time of transition from military rule. During interviews over the years, this author has registered a deep and widespread fear and mistrust. For example, Karen informants would say they never trust Burmans – “they have a crooked hart” – “they always cheat us” – “we cannot live together”. This deep skepticism also includes NLD although many Karen actually cooperate with Burmans in daily life.7

How do we understand this mistrust? The long civil war has not only accumulated experiences of violence and victimhood amongst all parties over several generations; it has also deepened the perceived feelings of ethnic incompatibilities and distrust. This historic schism is not overcome by a Panglong conference, as Daw Suu Kyi also admitted. Thus, a federal constitution may not be a wise construction before peace has ruled for a generation. Increased and genuine political autonomy in the ethnic states and their parliaments seems a much more realistic option – while avoiding augmented ethnic boundaries.

While the conflicting parties meet and talk, the army moves its troops into EAO territory, open schools and offices. The EAO’s consider this as a conquest. The army also takes over EAO check points where the ethnic organisations collect “road taxes”. The EAOs continue to tax their constituencies and recruit young men – sometimes by force. Those who suffer are civilians, fed up with the unending war, who sometimes have to pay two or three different armies.

The main problem is the ingrained identity politics focusing on ethnic differences. The problem can be illustrated by a recent pre-Panglong meeting of ethnic youth from all groups. As soon as delegates arrived they started a discussion about Muslims in the Burman delegation. Some delegates argued they were not indigenous people (taing yin tha) according to the law from 1982 on citizenship which lists “135 Myanmar indigenous ethnic groups”. Most Muslims are not recognised as indigenous, that is with ancestors living in Burma before British conquest began in 1824. They are thus not full citizens and should not participate in the meeting. “People of mixed blood” were also not accepted by some delegates. The Muslims left the event in fear of a becoming involved in a conflict. All identity cards contain data on religious belonging and ethnicity – including a mixed origin. This categorisation is clearly a colonial heritage from the days of administration by ethnic lines and customary laws.


Anti-Muslim Monks

The problems of ethnic categorisation came to a fore in 2012 when anti-Muslim Buddhist monks reacted after a case of rape and communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. Nationalist monks formed an association for the protection of Buddhism and race known by its acronyms Ma Ba Tha.8 The rhetoric became virulent and more riots occurred. Ostensible, these riots and the dissemination of propaganda videos, stickers and other material was organised. There has been suspicion that military officers supported the movement. In 2015, Ma Ba Tha managed to get 4 laws “protecting race and religion” enacted by the parliament under the military government and supported by the former President U Thein Sein. The laws demand that people who convert or marry persons from other denominations get permission from the authorities. One law prescribes three year between births – all laws are directed against Muslims who were seen as a danger to Buddhism, race, the economy and as enemies of the nation.9   The Muslim “Rohingya” in the Rakhine State are now excluded from citizenship. They are termed “Bengalis” and illegal immigrants although many may have lived in Burma for generations. The term Rohingya cannot be used anymore and provoke fierce reactions. A government formed a committee headed by Kofi Anan, former UN general secretary, in order to solve the crisis. However, he was met with strong opposition from local nationalist Buddhists. Although Ma Ba Tha campaigned against Aung San Suu Kyi and supported the military party (USDP) before elections this did not impact the result. The government is now promulgating a law against hate speech and Ma Ba Tha seems to loose support.

As of November 2016, the army is conducting a major operation near the border to Bangladesh against “Muslim Rohingya militants” after 9 police officers were killed in an ambush. The area is sealed off by the army but many are believed killed, displaced and arrested.


Development and International Investments

The civil war and military rule have contributed to the economic decline and make foreign investments difficult. However, Myanmar badly needs sustainable and responsible investments besides development aid. It takes time to improve infrastructure, to reform the justice system, and to enhance educational capacity. However, Myanmar has a substantial residue of human resources and competent, hard-working people, which can compensate somehow for other inadequacies. Nevertheless, laws from colonial time are still used and corruption is prevalent. Forced labour and trafficking are other serious problems, which the government now addresses.

A new land law means that land held without legal papers is classified as vacant. Such land has often been claimed by officers or people with army relations. Sometimes foreign interests are involved. This widespread land grabbing has caused anger and is perceived as a sign of the general lack of justice. Being involved in a trial or a lawsuit often involves substantial bribes to officials. Thousands of cases involving claims to land are being scrutinised by the new government.

During Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the USA in September, President Obama announced that Myanmar will enter USA’s preferential trade scheme. Sanctions against export of arms are still in place. The Minster for Finance and Planning has announced an update of company and investment laws assisted by the Asian Development Bank. He invites investment in labour intensive manufacture.

Obviously, there are many difficulties for foreign investments and trade. However, close cooperation with locals, meticulous research and respect for religions, cultures and environment provide a basis for future success. International involvement can help Myanmar solve the problems. However, remember that people in Burma are wary of anything smelling of “neo-colonial” attitudes and lack of respect for culture. Ethnic groups often consider development projects and foreign investments as a Burman Trojan horse, which will exploit their resources. In Myanmar, history is not just the past – but deeply influences the perceptions of the present.


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.