The Role of CSOs in the Myanmar Peace Process

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Executive Summary

This report is the culmination of a year-long research project into the activities of civil society in and around the ongoing Myanmar peace process. This includes the negotiations taking place in the Union Peace Conference (UPC, also known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference (UPC/21st CPC) the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), and the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM). It also includes civil society peacebuilding outside of the peace negotiations and parallel structures. The research project aimed to identify:

• the drivers of conflict in Myanmar,

• the civil society actors involved in peacebuilding in Myanmar,

• the types of peacebuilding activities performed by these CSOs, and to classify these activities into types,

• the contributions of these activities to official and unofficial peacebuilding,

• as well as any factors enabling and constraining civil society peacebuilding.

The research was funded by the Joint Peace Fund Myanmar, and was conducted in partnership between the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF) and the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative (IPTI). The research team conducted interviews with 160 individuals from 123 organizations, including from civil society (including CSO networks and local and international CSOs), donors, members of parliament, as well as representatives of EAOs, members of the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), members of political parties, and government representatives. The CSO sample was built by asking CSOs to nominate other CSOs working on peacebuilding, hence the sample is shaped by these individuals’ understanding of peacebuilding in Myanmar. The research was guided by the Civil Society and Peacebuilding (CS&PB) framework, developed by Paffenholz and colleagues. In the context of Myanmar, the term peace process is generally used to refer to a sequence of high-level peace negotiations and associated consultations and other supporting institutions. This process began in 2011, under the government of U Thein Sein, and led to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015. The structure and sequence of the current negotiations were set out in the NCA and the Framework for Political Dialogue (also negotiated and signed in 2015). These negotiations are projected to lead to a permanent ceasefire, disarmament and demobilization of non-state armed groups, government and constitutional reforms. Since 2015, the main forum for these negotiations has been the UPC (21st CPC). The UPDJC acts as the secretariat for the UPC and has responsibility for important aspects of the process such as pre-negotiations and consensus building on issues to be brought before the UPC. This means that many issues are essentially decided by the UPDJC, with the UPC frequently acting to confirm decisions taken in the UPDJC (although this is not the sum total of its role).. The Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM), is the “consensus committee” for the UPDJC. It takes responsibility for issues that cannot be resolved in the UPDJC. Together,these three institutions make up track 1: the official or mainstream peace process. While this research framework places the mainstream peace process as the“center” of peacebuilding activity,this is more in the interest of conceptual clarity. Peacebuilding away from the negotiation table can be equally important.

The role of civil society organizations in the negotiated peace process has so far been (officially) limited to:

• observing the proceedings of the UPC (21st CPC),

• sometimes participating as delegates/advisors to the Union Peace Conference under the umbrella of Ethnic Armed Organizations.

• and participating in several consultative forums convened by the UPDJC, known as National Dialogues. There are three types of National Dialogues: these are Regional Dialogues,

Ethnic-Based Dialogues, and Issue-Based Dialogues. Civil society can participate in all three, but the Issue-Based Dialogues are reserved for civil society and are also known as Civil Society Peace Forums. These forums make up track 2: the official institutions supporting the mainstream peace process.

The Issue-Based National Dialogues are projected to take place across Myanmar’s states and regions, as well as at the Union level, although implementation of these has been slow and subject to political interference. The Union level forum for the Issue-Based dialogue is known as the Union Level Committee of CSOs Peace Forum (UCCPF). The civil society peace forums have little power to influence the agenda of the mainstream peace negotiations, as they have been limited to contributing opinions on three subtopics: resettlement, rehabilitation and social development; the federal economy; and the natural environment and disaster prevention. Moreover, there is no obligation on the UPDJC/UPC (21CPC) to respond to or incorporate any proposals or advice given by civil society in these forums.

Despite the limited role of civil society in the official spaces of engagement with the mainstream peace process, CSOs have found alternative and informal approaches to engage with, and influence, the negotiations of the UPC. For example, CSOs have informally presented their policy recommendations to EAOs and political parties, and have acted as advisors to these parties in the UPC sessions. Additionally, the Civil Society Forum for Peace (CSFoP) ), a track 3 advocacy forum, has contributed policy options to the mainstream process, and has played a key role in creating space for CSO leaders to meet with the National Reconciliation and Peace Center officials. Civil society also supports what remains a somewhat narrow-based peace process by increasing popular understanding of and support for key issues such as federalism, by generating novel ideas and providing expertise on issues such as gender, civics, the law and human rights, Civil society workshops on issues related to the peace process have contributed to a greater understanding of federalism, security sector governance, and democracy among participants.

However, just as the conflict in Myanmar is broader than the armed conflict between the Tatmadaw and EAOs, the concept of the peace process must be broadened to encompass peacebuilding that addresses the causes of inter-communal conflict, as well as the abuse of civilians by all armed actors. The ongoing peacebuilding work by civil society predates the mainstream peace process, and has made vital contributions to protecting civilians and reducing inter-communal hostility.

These activities were identified by asking CSOs to identify other CSOs working on peacebuilding in their state/region, and then asking the identified CSOs what their peacebuilding activities were.

Peacebuilding activities in track 3 include, early warning systems, monitoring of crimes and abuses, ceasefire monitoring, research-based advocacy, in-person meetings, workshops, exchange programs, pro-peace media and dialogue and problem-solving workshops. These activities were classified according to the functions identified in the CS&PB framework.

Civil society has also helped to protect civilians by advocating for their safety in moments of crisis, and mediating between civilians and armed actors. Civil society involvementin unofficial monitoring of bilateral ceasefire agreements, as well as the NCA has furthermore generated important information about, and accountability mechanisms for, ceasefire violations across all conflict parties. This supports the reduction of violence at the community-level, and has important implications for stabilizing the negotiated peace process.8 These activities are classified as track 3: (non-mainstream)peacebuilding.

Respondents interviewed as part of this research project were asked what they thought were the drivers of continued conflict in Myanmar. Their open-ended responses were coded into the following categories: disagreement over the political system; economic incentives to prolong conflict; ethnic and religious exclusion; legacies of the conflict; lack of freedom, accountability and the rule of law. (see Table 1) The research assessed some of the key contributions of civil society in addressing these conflict drivers, along with gaps and opportunities for engagement. In general, there was a close correspondence between the conflict drivers identified and the main focus of work by civil society.

In comparison to civil society activities identified in other applications of this framework, there were several activities not identified among CSOs in the regions of Myanmar studied. There were no demining programs, identified among the CSOs surveyed, very few projects jointly managing resources, and little retrospective work on truth and reconciliation. Not all non-mainstream peacebuilding activities were equally effective or influential. The project identified workshops as by far the most common subtype of peacebuilding activity, but found that these often reached relatively small numbers of people, and often those who were already converted to pro-peace views.

In explaining the different degrees of effectiveness of civil society activities, the research identified several critical factors that have enabled and constrained civil society’s ability to influence the peace process (both mainstream and non-mainstream). These factors were: the structure of the peace process; the political and legal environment in which civil society operates; the politicization of civil society’s role; perceptions of civil society’s capabilities; civil society cohesion and cooperation; the role of media; and the role of donors.

While this summary has focused mainly on the successes of civil society’s engagement in peacebuilding, civil society faces major obstacles. Civil society is on the margins of the negotiated peace process.
The UPDJC has attempted to further restrict the space available to civil society by imposing a highly restrictive TOR for the Civil Society Peace Forums, compounded by broader shrinking civil society space.10 Thus, the Civil Society Peace Forums can be considered a “window dressing” of inclusion, intended to mask the underlying exclusion of civil society. Civil society respondents recognized this and criticized their relegation to the margins.

Some CSOs suspected that civil society is being instrumentalized by the government. One of the leaders of the UCCPF compared the mandate of writing policy papers and attending meetings to “the way that parents buy children toys to keep them busy”. This was echoed by one of the working committee members of the UPDJC: “CSOs are not going parallel [to the peace process], they are just being trapped in the Issue-Based Dialogue”.

Civil society has nevertheless persisted in its attempts to engage with the mainstream peace process, and has resisted the restrictions imposed by the UPDJC by conducting forums that discuss all the negotiation issues and producing consolidated policy recommendations (going beyond their mandate of simply aggregating discussion notes). CSOs have also found informal spaces of influence.
Some respondents also reported pessimism about the prospects for the peace process overall.
This highlights the importance of non-mainstream peacebuilding activities, which are not dependent on progress in the UPC (21CPC).