Originally, the government may have envisioned the process narrowly as a quick win: provide economic incentives in exchange for laying down arms, gain support for the government’s democratisation plan, and win international kudos. But the ethnic armed groups saw an opportunity to push for what they really wanted – a political dialogue on the future of the country. There had been no opening in the last 50 years and they were determined to make it work in their favour.
The government could not depend on its own support base, which was not open to such rapid changes. Instead, a small circle of reformers began to see that winning over the ethnic armed groups would help build the momentum they needed to press ahead with the reform agenda. The armed groups also saw that if the reformers gained momentum, they could actually get the government to commit to a political dialogue. So what began as a one-sided push became a common process. The government and the armed groups began parallel informal campaigns to win over doubters within the parliament, military, political parties, civil society and the ethnic population.
This effort received an unexpected boost when the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, in alliance with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, started to publicly attack Minister Aung Min and the MPC for not being inclusive enough and for being too tentative. This fitted the ethnic armed groups’ agenda exactly: in defending itself the MPC fully endorsed the framework.
The armed groups were then encouraged to brief Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander-in-chief and the Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC) chaired by Vice-President Dr Sai Mawk Hkam, an ethnic Shan. This was a key move since the working committee includes key actors within the executive, the military and the parliament. The proposal was well received and UPWC agreed to report to the UPC and meet again on a regular basis with the ethnic armed groups, thereby elevating the negotiations to a higher level.
At the time of writing, it seems as if a National Dialogue might begin early in 2014. Major threats to the process include the commitment of the Tatmadaw, which will be determined by whether the commander-in-chief is prepared to sign the agreement and arrange intra-military talks to separate troops in the conflict zones, and the inclusion of the Kachin Independence Organisation and the United Wa State Army, the two largest armed groups.
The situation remains uncertain and much could go wrong, but the opportunity is there for Burma to resolve its outstanding problem of the last 60 years. A lot of preparatory work has already begun on fundamental issues such as power- and revenue-sharing; reform of the security sector, the judiciary and land; and community, ethnic and minority rights.
How can international peacebuilders best support this domestic process? The conflicts are too diverse, multi-layered, deep-rooted and complex for a single mediator. The National Dialogue will require technical support from domestic and international experts. International peacebuilders might best use their experience and knowledge to help build the capacity of multiple local stakeholders (and help facilitate dialogue within each stakeholder group), rather than try to impose an overall solution. And because the dialogue is a domestic process, it struggles to attract financial support. Both financial and technical support will be needed if the process is to be sustained.