Despite Norway’s Best Efforts, Peace Remains Elusive

Mu The village is in a tight spot. Not only is it in Karen National Union-held territory abutting Burmese government-controlled territory, but it is geographically remote as well. Virtually no outside aid made
its way in during the long-running civil war that has only compounded the village’s isolation.

This situation changed abruptly in August 2012, when a single truck laden with medical supplies, rice, and clothing braved trying conditions to deliver aid to Mu The village. Workers patched by hand stretches of road damaged by unprecedented floods just weeks prior, and area authorities had to steer the group clear of an aged landmine lurking just below ground, according to a Karen Human Rights Group report. At the end of the arduous journey, the villagers welcomed the bounty of goods the aid truck delivered.

“We can say that the implementation of the project was successful,” said Saw Steve, chairperson of the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People, which assisted with the project. “We have to give credit to those who were involved, and tried hard to make the project possible, including our workers, other organizations that had coordination with us and the people in the community themselves. Many people would expect that the project would fail.”

The aid truck was part of a greater project bringing aid coordinated by the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative to remote villages east of Kyauk Kyi. News that the MPSI, launched in March 2012 to foster peace in Burma, will likely end this year has left community leaders reflecting over what they call a mixed legacy, and equipped them with new ideas moving forward.

The Norway-led MPSI’s entrance into the peace process in March 2012 was dogged by allegations of moving too quickly, especially from observers among the several Thai-Burma border groups.

“It was rushed, as they wanted to test the sincerity of both the government and KNU in delivering humanitarian assistance to the conflict-affected areas,” Saw Steve said. “They wanted to grab that opportunity as quickly as they could in order to test the situation. The process was weak at the beginning, and there were things that went wrong, but I think the mistakes were also minimized as the process continued, and it does get better at the end.”

Burma Partnership coordinator Khin Ohmar echoed Saw Steve’s beliefs, and said the MPSI failed to sufficiently engage community groups most directly affected by the country’s complex ethnic conflict.

“Although the MPSI was a well-intentioned project, it did not garner widespread support from the domestic parties of those concerned, especially conflict-affected communities, elements in the non-state armed groups, and civil society actors,” she said. “The legacy will be that while well-intentioned, entry into such a fragile process for an extremely complex situation is extremely difficult, and in retrospect, should have taken greater care to mitigate inherent risks that third-party intervention will create.”

Burma Partnership was one of five border-area organizations that, along with the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, refused to meet with MPSI in late 2012 on allegations that MPSI’s approach was “flawed” and “un-transparent.”

The MPSI, although not a development or aid agency itself, facilitated a series of pilot projects for aid delivery in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, with the Mu The village project being just one element of its aid to the Kyauk Kyi district. Other pilot projects in Karen areas include those undertaken in Dawei and Palaw in late 2012, costing several hundred thousand dollars.

The June 2012 Kyauk Kyi pilot project, financed by AusAid through the Norwegian People’s Aid, was important, MPSI senior consultant Alan Smith said, as a litmus test to see whether the Burma government would accept aid delivery from the CIDKP acting as a relief arm of the Karen National Union. Related pilot projects in Mon and Karenni states were likewise successful, he added.

“I am rather confident that the Kyaukyi project has been good for CIDKP in terms of training and experience, but also confidence in its own potential,” Mr Smith said. “Other projects with NMSP [New Mon State Party] and KNPP, [Karenni National Progressive Party] i.e. the armed groups themselves, have been focused for example on community consultations about the peace process, and again I am confident that the projects have helped those organizations to test whether the ceasefire actually afforded them the opportunity to freely meet widely with the community and it has been a way for them to practice going out and exchanging ideas with the community.”

CIDKP and the Karen Office for Relief and Development workers provided aid to more than 1,500 villagers living east of Kyauk Kyi proper, and the project was undertaken only after an agreement was struck between the Burma government and the KNU.

A web of connections

The MPSI is but one of several projects coming from either the Norwegian government’s peace-building portfolio or from Norwegian civil society. Others include those by the trade union-backed Norwegian People’s Aid, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Peace Donor Support Group, that are involved in a host of activities, ranging from assisting the displaced to mine risk education. Mr Smith said the need to consider local viewpoints is the “biggest issue” facing the region’s aid industry, especially with so many groups marketing their programs in southeast Burma.

“Aid and development is a kind of business. It can be very competitive, too, and many seem to only want to plant their flag and carve out sales territory. There is a danger that they will in that way be sucked into activities that are actually quite invasive and not yet appropriate because the peace process is at still an early stage,” Mr Smith said. “In some cases the services they sell are also not appropriate for empowering local people and communities. I think MPSI has hammered that message very hard – communities are concerned first about security, and when it comes to getting their livelihood back together, they are resilient people who in the new situation may benefit from assistance, but often prefer overall to do things in their own ways for themselves.”

Too much haste in the peace-building process, argues a December 2013 policy paper published by the Swiss Peace Foundation, can expose projects to risks of instability and leave those seeking to help with an insufficient understanding of local contexts. The paper says that Burma is experiencing a “gold rush” in NGO and development interests.

For Mr Smith, such concerns are deeply held. Mr Smith said stakeholders must understand the delicate nature of aid and peace projects, and must be prepared to let the ceasefire process mature organically, rather than going forward in a “one-sided” manner.

“People, very fearful at first, have begun to talk of the best time for them in 25 years. Against that, their next lesson for us is the strength of their continuing fear, the fear that the ceasefire will not last, will not become peace. On the ground, however much people want and welcome peace, there is not yet confidence that it can be sustained,” he said.

With so much happening so quickly in the political process, the MPSI and Norwegian efforts in general have been linked with the mostly European Union and Japanese-funded Myanmar Peace Centre in the eyes of some observers. The fact that some funding and advising for the MPSI comes from the Norwegian government-created Peace Donor Support Group – which also channels aid monies through the MPC – gives pause to leaders who see the MPC as an insincere player.

“The MPC doesn’t represent the ethnic groups. It’s the government’s agency. You talk to people in the ethnic groups, and they don’t have faith in them,” Mr Sein Twa said. “We don’t think the MPC has the capability to coordinate [aid and development programs in ethnic areas]. Just look at the political process, and you can see what kind of outcome they’ve produced so far.”

One of the greater questions for independent analysts like Kim Jolliffe, who has spent considerable time visiting conflict-afflicted communities, is how the development that often accompanies aid will be handled in the future.

“Such development is being used – or at the very least is perceived to be being used – to encroach on territories that the government has failed to take through military force but is seeking to capitalize on during this time of peace,” Mr Jolliffe said. “The fact of the matter is that some of these areas are contested spaces politically, and while no external actor can claim who has ‘rightful’ authority over those spaces, they should approach them with caution if they want to respect the welfare of conflict-affected communities, and to protect their investments.”

Room to grow

The announcement of the MPSI’s likely conclusion follows a candid appraisal of the program’s work, as well as future prospects for developing peace, published in January in the Myanmar Times by MPSI senior adviser Ashley South. Mr South noted that donors must be receptive to ethnic concerns and willing to support aid approaches outside the government’s purview.

Paul Sein Twa, executive director of KESAN, said greater openness is needed going forward in such a sensitive environment, and that means more cooperation earlier in the process with ethnic organizations, donors, and peace brokers – a process he feels didn’t happen with the MPSI.

“So far, in terms of consultations, I haven’t seen a robust consultation conducted by anyone in the international community – INGOs, donor countries, IFIs, UN agencies, etc. – taking the process and principles seriously, or conducted in a clear, efficient, timely, and transparent way that really gets the voices of the civil society groups,” Mr Sein Twa said.

He added that one of the most crucial problems has been the failure of outside groups to generate open communication between the wide range of players, spanning from the Thai-Burma border to inside Karen State.

“We still don’t know what other groups are saying to them, or how deeply those groups understand the whole politics of aid, the politics of aid, development, and peace-building,” he said. “There are different levels of understanding among groups on the border.”

A door-to-door survey conducted last year by the Norwegian Refugee Council at the unofficial Koung Jor refugee camp in northern Thailand conducted stoked fears of forced repatriation, and in light of such political fragility, Mr Sein Twa said, it is imperative to engage local communities with nuance and understanding.

One consideration for outside donors in the future, Mr Jolliffe said, is that reliance on government-dominated channels for aid or assistance, such as the MPC, could prove problematic.

“International actors prefer to play it safe by ensuring the government is the primary local actor, and in line with the principles outline in the ‘Busan Partnership’ and other international standards are inclined to allow the incumbent administration to take a leading role,” Mr Jolliffe said, referring to a global framework outlining best aid practices. “However, in the context of Myanmar, where that government has never in history governed some parts of the country, this can become deeply problematic, meaning the peace-building concept of ‘local ownership’ needs to be expanded beyond the ownership of Naypyidaw.”

One solution, Mr Sein Twa said, lies in part with where and how consultations are performed, underscoring how border-based groups have been underrepresented.

“I propose that we organize a meeting at a place where most civil society organizations feel safe to participate and can come well prepared and informed. The design of the meeting and agenda should be interactive and participant-centered, and the written outcomes of each consultation must be shared back with all the participant,” he said.

One of the biggest hopes, Mr Smith said, is that at the end of the day the peace process can win the hearts and minds of local people – leaving them secure and self-assured.

“People displaced want to have the courage to return to their land, their orchards. They are struggling to find the confidence to do so,” he said. “For this to happen, they are looking for more solid evidence that the conflict has ended, and in many cases that means seeing fewer Tatmadaw troops in their areas, especially not in their villages, and not conducting patrols.”

Yet such an outcome so far remains elusive, as rights group like the KHRG and Karen military leaders continue to receive reports of Burmese troops using the ceasefire to strengthen their military positions and perpetrate human rights abuses – an uneasy reminder that nothing comes easily in war-torn Karen State.

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