Can ethnic armed organisations turn guns into ploughshares?
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.