A false new world of empty promises
Myanmar activists who worked on peace-building efforts supported by the international community are now at risk. We cannot abandon them.
The setting is a house on stilts located in a Myanmar military base in the middle of what until then had been known as the civil war's black area. The time was April 2012. The scene was Kyauk Kyi in Myanmar's Bago Region which is basically a free-fire zone for the Myanmar military.
Sitting on the floor, representatives of the displaced village communities, who had been hiding in the jungle for close to 30 years, never further than a day's march away from the villages from which they had had to flee.
They had been on constant move, every two to three years having to relocate in the jungle as the carrying capacity of the areas they cultivated was depleted, or to flee from military attacks.
The purpose of the encounter was to build confidence in the ceasefire which had been signed only some months before. This particular ceasefire had brought to a halt the longest going insurgency on the planet, more than 60 continuous years of fighting.
A villager asked the colonel sitting in front of him whether he could guarantee that, if they returned, he and his men would not once again burn their villages down. The displaced villagers had agreed to the encounter as they knew that the battalion currently in the area had only just been deployed and was not the one that had attacked them one year earlier.
The colonel answered that he could make that promise. And then, after a brief pause, said he knew they did not believe him.
This exchange occurred 10 years ago. The displaced villagers were being encouraged to come out of the jungle within the framework of a Norwegian-sponsored initiative called the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative.
They came out, received support from Norway (seeds, tools and food aid to tie them over until the harvests), and settled near their traditional farmlands to cultivate their fields. The initiative acted as a sort of catalyst and guarantor in building confidence in the ceasefires.
Today those same areas are again being bombed. The people from this area have again fled back into the jungle. And by now, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.
Myanmar was not a story of an impossible peace. A return to fighting was not inevitable. It is a story of a serious miscalculation. Peace is difficult to achieve. It is a path that can only be embarked upon by courageous and visionary individuals, who take the risk to reach out to the other in an effort to end the suffering of their people.
Frustrated with the results of the 2020 elections, Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup. It appears the commander-in-chief probably believed the military could follow the old play book of military domination that originated in the 1960s, had worked in the late 1980s, early 1990s and even against the uprising of monks in 2007.
But he hadn't counted on the fact that Myanmar as it was then had evolved into a fundamentally different society. The people of Myanmar, and especially the young, had tasted the relative freedoms that came with the opening up of the country in 2011, and they are demonstrating they are not prepared to give these freedoms back.
The young lead this revolt. And in so doing, they are following the examples of similar peaceful protest movements in Algeria, Belarus, Bolivia, Chili, Egypt, France, Georgia, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Thailand, Ukraine and even the US.
In all these places the peaceful protests are led by a generation, who by mastering social media have been able to mobilise as never before, giving voice to frustrations and articulating hopes.
The miscalculation by Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and the brutal crackdown he ordered on those protesting against it, was a clear overreach by the military. Eighteen months later, the country is destabilised as never before, with military conflict, once so common but only in ethnic minority areas, now engulfing heartland, ethnic Burmese, regions. The military by now has lost control of much of the country, despite its use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardment against its own people.
In the face of all this, Western donors are reneging on their individual responsibilities. There seems to be little institutional memory of the early international involvement in the peace process, and of the benefits that donors received from this involvement in the form of favourable investments and lucrative contracts.
Today, a number of the Myanmar nationals who were instrumental in the peace initiative, in Kyauk Kyi and elsewhere, are running for their lives. While many have sought shelter in ethnic areas, others facing immediate and particular risk are asking for asylum.
But the response they receive is that the Ukrainian crisis is taking up all the attention. Should one be surprised by such a response? After all, a similar level of disinterest led to the abandonment of Afghans who served the international effort.
Realpolitik, of course, is a fact of life. But we need to understand that unkept promises come not only with a cost to those we have abandoned, but also a price on the West's credibility and moral standing. We shouldn't be surprised when accused of being hypocrites, because ultimately we are. And that is not something to be proud of. We cannot and must not make a habit of abandoning our friends.
Charles Petrie is former coordinator of the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, former UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar (2003–2007).