In this episode of Himal interviews, we speak to David Brenner, a Himal contributor, the author of Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands, and a lecturer at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Brenner talks to us about how the military coup will impact the country’s unresolved ethnic conflicts, how international aid has sometimes empowered the military establishment, and why there’s a need to support a diverse, multi-ethnic coalition of opposition groups in Myanmar.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Shubhanga Pandey: Hello and welcome to Himal Interviews. I’m Shubhanga Pandey, Chief Editor of Himal Southasian. In this episode of Himal Interviews, I’ll be speaking to an expert on Myanmar’s ethnic conflict and its borderlands, on how the military coup of February 1 will impact the country’s unresolved ethnic conflicts, and the ongoing negotiations between the state and the various rebel groups. Along with that we will also look at the record of the international community’s engagement with Myanmar since the resumption of democracy in 2012 and see what it might look like in the days ahead.
David Brenner is a Himal contributor and the author of Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands. David is also a lecturer at the School of Global Studies in the University of Sussex.
Hello David, and welcome to Himal Podcasts.
David Brenner: Hi Shubhanga, thanks for having me. Great to be here.
SP: So I wanted to begin by asking how Myanmar’s various ethnic rebel groups have reacted to the military takeover in the country and what happens to the ongoing negotiations now that the civilian government is no longer in power. Despite all the writing and analysis on the issue, there seems to be a lot of focus on what one might call civil-military relations, but the ethnic conflict aspect of it seems to be left out. Could you describe that for us?
DB: Thanks Shubhanga, that’s a really important question. And you’re absolutely right, we hear a lot about civil-military relations, Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, etc – National League for Democracy in Myanmar. But it’s really important to not forget that we’re talking about a country that has just seen genocide on one of it’s ethnic minority communities – the Rohingya people. And it’s also a country that has seen the longest ongoing civil war in the world. It’s been ongoing for about 75 years, since the country’s independence. We’re speaking about a multitude of different ethnic armed organisations in the border areas of the country. And you’re absolutely right that this will have strong ramifications for them and for the peace process.
At the moment, I think there’s a few things that we should point out briefly. The first thing is that some movements have already made statements that they’re disconcerted, obviously, about what is happening. So for instance the RCSS or the Shan movement or the KNU – the oldest rebel movement in the country, the Karen movement on the Thai border, they’ve released statements fearing military offensives to come. At the same time, we should not forget that those movements were also quite fragmented and they have military leaders, some of them at least, that have been dealing with the military – the Burmese state military for a while. And there is some reshuffling and reorganisation going on.
Just very briefly, one story that I think is telling about this is that one of the previous leaders from the KNU – from the Karen rebellion, has actually now switched sides and has gone to work for the military junta. And he’s always been one of the leaders that has actually, also during the time before Aung San Suu Kyi, the time of Thein Sein – who held the semi-military government’s position of the President between 2011 and 2015, they’ve been dealing quite closely with each other. So what I’m saying here is that we have to watch these fragmentations going on in these different sides. What that might mean for ongoing negotiations is of course a very important question.
What we’ve seen since 2011 is that first the Thein Sein, previous to Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, has reached out to a variety of these ethnic armed organisations in the country and has tried to build something that they termed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, which was never nationwide, you know, it excluded quite a lot of organisations. And indeed, during the time the civil war in places like the North of the country escalated to unseen degrees. And under Aung San Suu Kyi we’ve seen a much larger project – the so called Panglong Peace Agreement project. That refers back to the Panglong Agreement that Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San signed with ethnic minority leaders after the independence of the country. Basically the important here is to negotiate federalism and power-sharing between the Bamar ethnic majority and ethnic minorities in the country. So, that peace process has been more inclusive maybe and indeed it’s seen something like 1,800 delegates coming together in Nyapidaw on occasions and so on. Also it hasn’t really led anywhere. In fact it’s been stalling for a long time and there’s a variety of reasons for that.
One thing that might contribute some kind of renewal of negotiations is that ethnic armed organisation leaders can now directly negotiate with the military again. During the time of Aung San Suu Kyi they had to double negotiate with the government and the military. The government could not control the military in many ways and still there needed to be this double negotiation going on etc. When you actually look at some of those dynamics at the actual negotiations between ethnic armed groups and the military. There’s also another thing that we need to keep in mind, as many resentments on both sides – many of the actual leaders of these ethnic armed organisations and the military respect each other in some ways. There in some ways more respect between civilian politicians and ethnic armed group leaders. And that does not necessarily need to entail negotiation outcomes that are good for local communities to be held in mind, but it makes negotiations somewhat effective. Now of course one needs to see how to bring in critical voices from civil society and local communities in what otherwise can become rather exclusive negotiations that privilege investment over rights of people, for instance.
SP: That brings me to my next question and which is really about – over the past decade we’ve seen the process of democratisation and there’s been a lot of activity on that front and international interest. But how have the ethnic minority groups themselves seen this process of political reform, let’s say, since 2011-12?
DB: That is a very good question. Again, we’re speaking about roughly a decade now of a transition – 2011 to now. So in the first part of the decade there was this kind of semi-civilian, semi-military administration, and then in 2015 we saw Aung San Suu Kyi coming to power in a landslide victory, actually taking part in 2016. For the ethnic minority communities, this process of political reforms has, in some places brought a lot of positive changes. Across the country we have seen very tangible benefits to people’s livelihoods, healthcare, education opportunities etc. The public sphere has opened up to an unseen degree, or a degree that hasn’t been seen for a long time. So there have been many civil society organisations, outspoken and so on, to really remarkable degrees across the country. And at the same time, we need to be remembering that many of the ethnic minority communities have experienced an escalation of conflict and violence in this same period. And here again we need to differentiate a little bit, between ethnic minority communities living say in urban spaces that are for instance, controlled by the government and still received more oppression than non-ethnic communities in urban spaces controlled by the government. But at the same time, we also need to be very wary about – many of the communities were living in spaces that are in mixed-control areas that are in the actual conflict zones. So for instance we have seen 120-140,000 internally displaced people in the North of the country, in the Kachin and Shan states during the time. During the escalation of war there, many have been cut off from humanitarian access there because they are in places that are not controlled by the government and therefore the government has been restricting access of international agencies to deliver humanitarian aid. There’s been an escalation of conflict between the military and ethnic armed organisations, but also a deepening of ethnic conflict on a communal level, most pronouncedly in Rakhine state but also elsewhere in the country. But this is also something that especially the Muslim communities felt the brunt of everywhere in the country, beyond the Rohingya community.
And then I think it’s important to note what happened when Aung San Suu Kyi came into power in 2015. Because many ethnic minorities placed a lot of hope in her ability to unite the country. Indeed, her landslide victory in 2015 was not least secured by the support of ethnic minority voters. Since she has taken power, the armed conflict has continued unabated, even intensified, certainly in the rest of the country. And many supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi from the ethnic minority communities have felt let down, rightfully so of course. They were aware that she could not necessarily control the military’s activities, but then they hoped for more, for instance in terms of humanitarian access. Since she came to power, humanitarian access closed completely to some places. But also they were taken aback most by her silence on atrocities of the military and by often condoning the military’s deeds. Most prominently when she travelled of course to the Hague to defend the military in front of the International Court of Justice, but also on a domestic level, when she was for instance praising the ‘valiant efforts of the Tatmadaw security forces’ in their combat against ethnic armed organisations in the North, when she was endorsing the military in so many ways.
SP: You’ve also recently written about what you called the misconstrued international strategy towards Myanmar, their general shift in priority away from supporting grassroots movements, and towards state bureaucracies. Could you unpack what you mean by that and how ethnic groups in the country see this change?
DB: First of all, I was privileged when I came to Myanmar for my research in the first place, which was around the time of transition in 2011-2012. I was privileged because I came to Myanmar through the border areas. Through the places and activists groups, resistance movements of ethnic minority groups in the border areas, who were always very cautious about the transition. They were always saying two things: one is, we’re not sure if we’re seeing democratisation or more generally a reorganisation of power. The other thing is also that democratisation is not necessarily the first thing that needs to occur in a place where that might simply just mean more oppression by a majoritarian system. But minority rights, power-sharing, resource sharing, all of those things need to be addressed. Anyway, the thing here is that large parts of the Western donor community that came to Myanmar at the same time, saw what is happening in Myanmar primarily through that lens of democratisation. And I’m saying that this was not only analytically wrong, in terms of what’s been happening, it also has been politically problematic. Because by operating on that assumption, there was a large scale shift – what happened in terms of what Western donors did in supporting different kinds of organisations.
There used to be a rather vibrant scene on the border of Thailand and Burma during very dark days of military rule in Myanmar, where basically you had Western donors and so on supporting much more activists, grassroots networks that were linked to very diverse kind of things, from energy to 1988s student generation, to ethnic resistance movements, activists etc. So, there was actually a cosmopolitan place there – inter-ethnic alliances and so on. And it had its own problems, I’m not going to do away with that, but for the sake of brevity, of course, point that out, and a lot of money has wholesale shifted inside Myanmar – in this idea that Myanmar is not in conflict.
What happened through that is two-fold. On the one hand, it was great for actually supporting a very vibrant civil society. So I’m not saying all of it was wrong – I think there’s been a lot of good things. On the other hand, the donors basically crash-landed at this time without much knowledge on the place. And trying to kind of use approaches that they’ve had in other places of the world – this is how development often works, isn’t it? To come in and do very similar things.
Here importantly, a lot of funds were channeled directly into these militarised state bureaucracies. Because we need to be clear, in the 2008 constitution it is very clear that we’re not seeing democratisation as such. That the military who produced that constitution is holding on to significant parts of power, including ministries and bureaucracies in the country. And here I want to point out that in particular, the Ministry of Border Affairs which is also known as Na Ta La in Burma, and which is basically a ministry that is tasked to develop the ‘ethnic minorities’ in the border areas, and to kind of bring some form of ‘civilisation’, and it’s always kind of been this sort of social approach to counter-insurgency in the country, as you can see. And the development has always been used as a counter-insurgency, for a long time and throughout the 1990s. And that was actually the first recipient of a 80 million dollar World Bank grant, which they said something about grassroots-led development and so on. That was flowing directly into the Ministry of Border Affairs, which is basically the military in civilian clothes.
Similarly, we’ve seen other such instances happen. We’ve basically seen how Western donors have not understood who they’re dealing with in the first place and have therefore then channeled money into places that have then been co-opted by the military, that remained very strong, of course, for the building of a more authoritarian and ethnocratic place and for counter-insurgency purposes.
SP: And how have the ethnic minority groups and their representatives reacted to this development?
DB: So just very briefly, another one of those really telling projects has been funded by the multi-donor, Myanmar Pro-Peace Support Initiative, which is the forerunner of what is now the Joint Peace Fund, and which basically was created to derive some quick peace dividend and buy into the peace process and so on, among the conflict-affected communities. And one of the many projects which was in Kayah or Karenni State in the East of the country was basically to resettle refugees in a place called Shadaw. Here in Shadaw township they were basically building villages to resettle these people, that were built of course by the Ministry of Border Affairs, and again, used for counter-insurgency purposes. Highly militarised and people were surveilled, the military grabbed land etc.
The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs which was funding projects, small, pilot projects, but nevertheless telling, was going to visit the place and was basically spelling out how everything was going etc. And there was an umbrella group of Karenni local ethnic minority, civil society organisation called the Karenni Civil Society Network. And they voiced very strong concern about the project in a report, where they were spelling out all the militarisation, land grabbing and so on that was going on there, where there was military intelligence in those villages and so on. At the time, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs actually then responded by saying – oh but we were there, the military didn’t have arms and they were really nice. Plus, they might be speaking about different villages all together, because they were using different names. Whereas it was clear that the Kayah civil society network was using the local names in the local Kayah language and they were referring to those villages in Burmese, from the kind of ministerial level. So you just see, obviously, not just differences in perception but also how those very important voices from the civil society side, from the local community-based side have been sidelined, have not been listened to, have been ignored. So, obviously they have been frustrated.
SP: Well, moving on to the kind of international dimension of the issue, there’s been a lot of interest among international relations pundits and foreign affairs analysts on what the geopolitical fallout of this will be. Does the analysis of the situation change when we take into account what’s been happening in the borderlands – all the economic and political changes that have happened over the last 10-15 years. Is the assessment different that way?
DB: Very briefly, yes, of course it does. We can’t understand the transition of Myanmar in the first place without understanding the kind of dynamics between the border areas and the centre. We can’t really understand ethnic conflict, we can’t understand regional politics around it at all without that. Maybe just to go back and briefly highlight one thing in terms of that – international relations thinks a lot about different states as if they were containers, isn’t it? Whereas actually those border areas – I would call them border worlds on the basis of what Mandy Sadan was writing about them, that they’ve been connected in so many ways. And not just now, but throughout history. For instance in the Northeast of India has always been very intimately connected to the politics of border areas, in terms of different projects or conflicts coming up there. So this is of course important and these things have an effect back to international politics.
And China understands this quite clearly. And I know that some of your audience might be interested in this idea of China and the US etc, but this is something you have to keep in mind. China has been, on the one hand of course having this kind of policy of non-intervention, non-interference and so on, and on the other other hand of course in it’s actual neighbourhood that has gone completely out the window. And it had a very long-standing, complex relationship with different armed groups in that area. Now, for instance, one thing is all the COVID-19 measures and control – some of the rebel groups on the Burmese side are cooperating quite closely with the China Centre for Disease Control on the Chinese side because of course that’s in China’s own interest. And at the same time you know China has been playing a stick and carrot game with the Myanmar military and government for a long time, in terms of sometimes supporting some of those Armies more and sometimes losing that support a little bit more, depending on how the Myanmar foreign policy has been arranged towards competing powers. And that is something that we will see going on.
And maybe just the very last bit on this, of course is that what is striking of course is that on the one hand China will continue being a supporter of Myanmar, including in the United Nations Security Council. And there’s no doubt that it already has strong interests, to come back to the borderland dynamics and so on, in terms of pipelines, in terms of the geoeconomics of the place, and the geopolitics of the place. But on the other hand, Beijing won’t be very happy or is not certainly very happy about the coup in Myanmar. They have just established a rather good working relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, that in many ways has seen a better working relationship than with the Generals before. Myanmar’s Generals have always been very wary about China, not least because they have to deal with China’s support to a variety of rebel movements – direct and indirect support. And also generally because they’re very wary of becoming too dependent on China for instance. There’s actually a little bit more of a rupture there at the moment.
SP: I think as we go ahead, we’re likely to hear a lot of debates on possible sanctions on the state, including economic sanctions. How do you think that would affect chances for democracy, but also how would it affect the peace process, given what we know about the history of sanctions and its impact on the state.
And I think just to add something to that, what can those outside Myanmar, and who are interested in democracy in Myanmar and progressive transformation of Myanmar – what can they do?
DB: Again, very good questions and I’ll only be able to scratch the surface, of course. But first of all, on the question of sanctions – I don’t believe sanctions have necessarily worked throughout the 1990s. I think Lee Jones has done quite some insightful research on that, so I’ll also refer you to Lee Jones at Queen Mary, University of London, on tracing very literally how they have not worked.
Just one thing maybe, to illustrate this: It’s not that they have not worked so much, but that they might have actually deepened some of the conflict and the military power in terms of their economic power as well. The political economy of Myanmar is a very particular one that is very deeply intertwined with the country’s conflict. And that is based on resource economies, it’s based on conflicts, it’s based on, now, large scale investments and so on. And one thing that we have seen throughout the sanctions period is that the Myanmar government has basically channeled money from these conflict economies, from these illegal, illicit, informal economies into the formal fold. And not only been able to finance itself but also finance infrastructure, construction, etc throughout that. And on top of that, of course, you have enough regional powers and neighbours that are not necessarily going along with those sanctions. What I’m saying is that not only blanket sanctions anyways won’t work, in terms of efficacy – they might even make some of those things worse in terms of strengthening some of the political-economy power-hold over the country. And there’s some really important, paradoxical effects that need to be watched there.
I think everyone who’s interested in supporting Myanmar etc – two things: for private people etc, one thing we could do is, especially if we’re interested in following the events there, is to support some of the very critical and important media outlets that we see in Myanmar. So Frontier Myanmar for instance, The Irrawaddy, Burma News International – they’ve been around for a while and they’ve all been instrumental in driving progressive change in Myanmar. And they’re all struggling at the moment of course – they’re struggling in terms of where to go, offices, people are being arrested, journalists are being arrested, activists are being arrested. It’s not just the NLD cadres and Aung San Suu Kyi that’s been arrested, but a lot of these people as well. There, in a very pragmatic and straightforward sense everyone can be named, those outlets for instance – Frontier Myanmar, The Irrawaddy, Burma News International.
The other thing is more general, international engagement with Myanmar. I want to come back to my earlier point about what happened with 2011 and the transition when all of a sudden a lot of longstanding activists and networks and so on have been left alone by the donors where a lot of money was shifting to other places, etc. I think we really have to see how we can not just re-engage with many of the critical voices that have been left alone, but also how we can bring about the fruitful and progressive convergence of different oppositions that are there in Myanmar. The opposition isn’t only Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. As a matter of fact, it’s not unsurprising maybe to hear that what’s happening in Rakhine and so on, that it’s not the most radical, progressive voice in the country at all. But the 88’ generation is still there, so many different civil society organisations, different community-based organisations. And I think what needs to happen there is a cosmopolitan, inter-ethnic alliance we used to see in the 1990s and how that can be supported. And that’s really from a more international engagement perspective – the really important thing. I very much believe that we have to listen to inconvenient truths, inconvenient truths first of all about how engagement we’re seeing from the West in particular, over the last ten years and what the pitfalls were and how we can do better and we can learn from that.
SP: Well, that brings us to the end of the episode and thank you, David, so much for joining us.
DB: Thanks also to you Shubhanga, always happy to contribute to Himal.
Articles from our special issue Myanmar: Troubled Transitions.