Ethnic Conflict and Social Services in Myanmar’s Contested Regions


Executive Summary

With aid commitments on the rise, Myanmar has the potential to greatly strengthen the delivery of health, education, and other social services. However, while it is established practice for aid agencies to back state-led development strategies, this presents complications in some of Myanmar’s conflictaffected areas where ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and associated networks have been the primary social service providers for decades.

At the same time, aid interventions in social sectors have significant potential to contribute to peacebuilding. In particular, coordination and collaboration efforts between state and EAO-linked service providers could improve the quality of service provision, while also supporting the war-topeace transition. These ‘convergence’ efforts demonstrate a key contribution to the peace process that could be enhanced by international aid actors through both peacebuilding and mainstream development funds.

Since the country’s foundation, Myanmar’s mostly non-Burman-populated border regions have been heavily contested, with the Burman-led state facing an extreme deficit in legitimacy. Ethnic conflicts have been fought primarily over claims to establish patron-client relations with non-Burman populations—meaning that the core drivers of conflict are related to armed actors’ roles in governance. As a result, the provision of social services in these areas is fraught with political complications, and attached closely to the competing nation-building agendas that shape subnational armed conflicts.

A fragile peace process is currently underway (mid-2014) that has shown limited but noteworthy potential to achieve a political settlement. Meanwhile, the country’s aid environment is being dramatically transformed as relations between donor countries and the Myanmar government are normalised.

In some conflict-affected areas, confidence in the peace process is being actively undermined by the conflict-insensitive expansion of government service delivery, as well as internationally implemented projects. At the same time, EAO-linked services face severe funding cuts as donor priorities shift.

Encouragingly though, ‘convergence’ efforts have led to collaboration towards a wide range of mutually-beneficial goals between state and EAO-linked service providers, demonstrating significant potential for peacebuilding. Tangible improvements in access to services that enhance relations between conflicting parties can build confidence in the peace process and address grievances among conflict-affected populations and EAOs. Improved relations can also contribute to the establishment of social sector institutions conducive to peace in the long-term.

This study explores the significance of collaboration between the state and EAOs to peacebuilding and provides broad guidance on how international aid agencies can direct social service spending to support peace in this way, and avoid further exacerbating conflicts.