Can eth­nic armed or­gan­i­sa­tions turn guns into ploughshar­es?

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Mark Inkey

If peace is to hap­pen suc­cess­fully in Myan­mar, the so­lu­tion is very likely to in­volve some sort of fed­er­al­ism. If it does, eth­nic armed forces are likely to be some­how in­cor­po­rated into the Myan­mar Army, but how will their po­lit­i­cal wings, the Eth­nic Armed Or­gan­i­sa­tions (EAOs) re­tain their rel­e­vance?

For them to keep the level of sup­port they ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing times of con­flict, when the per­cep­tion was that ev­ery­one is fight­ing a com­mon en­emy, they will have to find a way to cap­ture peo­ple’s hearts and minds in the ab­sence of such an en­emy.

As the po­lit­i­cal wings of armed groups that were, un­til re­cently, banned these eth­nic po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions have been un­able to com­pete in the last two elec­tions held in Myan­mar. This means that many eth­nic peo­ple have al­ready al­lied them­selves with other eth­nic po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the Na­tional League for

Democ­racy (NLD) or the Union Sol­i­dar­ity and De­vel­op­ment Party (USDP).

In eth­nic ar­eas, the eth­nic par­ties did not do as well as many had ex­pected in the 2015 elec­tions and in eth­nic ar­eas Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept to a ma­jor­ity. But, if the NLD con­tin­ues to gov­ern as they have they are likely to lose many of the eth­nic votes they won in 2015. The NLD’s loss could be the EAOs gains if they are al­lowed to con­test the next elec­tions. Dis­il­lu­sioned NLD vot­ers will not have a pre­vi­ous at­tach­ment, or those who have voted for other eth­nic par­ties may be more in­clined to vote for the EAO po­lit­i­cal wings.

But, to en­sure peo­ple will vote for them the EAOs will have to con­vince peo­ple that they can gov­ern com­pe­tently and can of­fer them more than other eth­nic par­ties.

One of the ways they could demon­strate this is to de­velop ar­eas that are presently un­der their con­trol and no­tice­ably im­prove the qual­ity of life of the peo­ple liv­ing there. The the­ory is that de­vel­op­ment brings in in­vest­ment that leads to more, bet­ter paid reg­u­lar work for peo­ple in the area and thus raises their stan­dard of liv­ing.

This is why the Karen Na­tional Union (KNU) owned Noble Prince Com­pany signed a Me­moran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing (MoU) with Power China In­ter­na­tional Group in De­cem­ber 2016 to build the Mae Khamee Thee Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zone (SEZ) in Htee Kee Town­ship, near to the Myan­mar-Thai­land border in Taninthary­i Re­gion. On 24 Jan­uary this year, the re­gional gov­ern­ment formed a com­mis­sion to as­sess the project.

SEZs are ar­eas within na­tional ter­ri­to­ries where there are spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive rules, such as lower or no tax­a­tion, to en­cour­age man­u­fac­tur­ers to set up in the zone and pro­vide em­ploy­ment for lo­cals. Though the value of SEZs as tools of de­vel­op­ment is de­bate­able, the KNU clearly feels that an SEZ could im­prove the op­por­tu­ni­ties and liveli­hoods of Karen peo­ple in the area.

But, the KNU is not the only EAO to have set up com­pa­nies to pro­vide in­come and maybe im­prove the liveli­hoods of eth­nic peo­ple by help­ing to de­velop eth­nic ar­eas.

Nearly all the EAO po­lit­i­cal wings have set up sim­i­lar com­pa­nies to ex­ploit busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in their own eth­nic ar­eas.

Pre­vi­ously, par­tic­u­larly in times of con­flict, the main source of prof­its in eth­nic ar­eas has been the ex­trac­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources. Re­ly­ing on nat­u­ral re­sources can be prob­lem­atic, due to what is known as the ‘re­source curse’ where the easy avail­abil­ity of valu­able nat­u­ral re­sources means that money and en­ergy are de­voted to their ex­trac­tion rather than to­wards more sus­tain­able long-term de­vel­op­ment that will ben­e­fit lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. There is also a ten­dency for con­flict to con­tinue longer than nec­es­sary in ar­eas rich in nat­u­ral re­sources as it is eas­ier in times of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity for armed ac­tors to ei­ther hi­jack the nat­u­ral re­sources or syphon off some of the prof­its made from such re­sources. These fac­tors also mean that of­ten there is un­der de­vel­op­ment in ar­eas rich in nat­u­ral re­sources.

Most eth­nic ar­eas of Myan­mar have abun­dant nat­u­ral re­sources, and ru­ral eth­nic ar­eas are far more un­der­de­vel­oped and lack­ing in­fra­struc­ture when com­pared to ur­ban ar­eas in cen­tral Myan­mar.

Pre­vi­ously the busi­ness wings of EAOs have been mainly lim­ited to mak­ing money from re­source ex­trac­tion. Dur­ing cease­fires, in what was known as cease­fire cap­i­tal­ism, the Myan­mar Army al­lowed EAOs and the com­pa­nies they owned to carry out some lim­ited busi­ness in their ar­eas. Un­for­tu­nately, nor­mal peo­ple did not of­ten ben­e­fit from the re­wards of cease­fire cap­i­tal­ism, which were of­ten fun­nelled to eth­nic elites, high rank­ing EAO of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the Tat­madaw.

Hav­ing said that there have been some mod­er­ate suc­cesses, one of which is the Buga Com­pany set up by the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Or­gan­i­sa­tion (KIO).

Prior to the break­down of the cease­fire be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army (KIA) and KIO in 2011, the Buga Com­pany had var­i­ous busi­ness in­ter­ests in­clud­ing a cig­a­rette fac­tory and the Namti sugar fac­tory, al­legedly bought from the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment for an es­ti­mated 200 mil­lion ky­ats. Prob­a­bly the com­pany’s most suc­cess­ful de­vel­op­men­tal ven­ture was the set­ting up of a small hy­dro-elec­tric dam which brought elec­tric­ity to My­itky­ina, the Kachin State cap­i­tal, for the first time.

Most of the Buga Com­pany’s ven­tures failed, ei­ther be­cause they were badly man­aged or be­cause the KIO had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence run­ning busi­nesses and were hav­ing to learn on the job, or they were pre­vented from op­er­at­ing by the mil­i­tary, who seemed not to mind the KIO be­ing in­volved in re­source ex­trac­tion but ap­peared not to want them to run busi­nesses. But, the elec­tric­ity gen­er­at­ing busi­ness re­mains and it is the Buga Com­pany that still prof­its from sup­ply­ing all My­itky­ina’s elec­tric­ity. A good ex­am­ple of how de­vel­op­ment by EAOs can ben­e­fit the peo­ple while pro­duc­ing a profit for the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

If the po­lit­i­cal wings of EAOs are to re­main rel­e­vant to the eth­nic pop­u­la­tions that they claim to rep­re­sent they will have to im­prove their liveli­hoods, which is why they are look­ing to get in­volved in de­vel­op­men­tal projects that they hope will im­prove the lives of their peo­ple.

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