Fruit Vendor Myanmar

Development in Myanmar, Building Peace or Generating Conflict?

A vendor in Yangon, Myanmar selling various fruits. Issues related to conflict resolution could impede efforts to implement SDG goals. (Mona Christophersen)

News out of Myanmar in recent months has been dominated by the abuses being carried out against the country’s Rohingya minority population. These events often overshadow that Myanmar has also started on a democratic path towards peace and development after decades of military rule and armed ethnic conflicts. The country’s transformation both from war to peace and from military rule towards democracy could theoretically build a solid foundation for development and prosperity, particularly because government leaders have embraced the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDG). Yet, among the many challenges Myanmar faces, issues related to conflict resolution—not the least the Rohingya issue—could, if not handled properly, turn into serious stumbling blocks in their efforts to implement the SDGs.

Despite progress in ceasefire agreements, the government continues to be in conflict with many of the country’s armed ethnic groups. The result is a lack of national consensus over development and the future of Myanmar, which includes the country’s engagement with the SDGs. After a recent research trip, we can identify three main ideas, ambitions, or possible visions for the country’s development and future state formation, each linked to a particular experience of the conflicts and subsequent relationship with the central government.

The first is found among the majority Bamar population who live mostly in the central low-land areas. Here the central government has control over security and a shared vision for the future of the state with the majority of the population. This population views the government as their representatives and they have trust in their intentions and ambitions. The government can thus plan and implement development in a systematic manner, such as outlined in the SDGs.

The second is among ethnic minority groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the government. These groups live mainly in the hilly south and eastern parts of the country where implementation of the SDGs is to some extent possible. As a result of the ceasefire agreements, these communities have experienced improved security and stability, and community leaders welcome development initiatives after years of destructive wars. Yet, unresolved questions of autonomy and self-determination foster both suspicion and resistance towards many development initiatives coming from the central government. This lack of trust makes the SDGs challenging to implement.

The third is found among ethnic minority groups without ceasefire agreements. These groups are mainly found in the northern and western hills in the country and they are still engaged in violent conflicts with the government. These communities continue to fight for autonomy and self-determination, which may contradict the central government’s vision for a unified Myanmar. These areas also remain largely beyond the government’s control and implementation of the SDGs is nearly impossible due to a lack of security and access both for government representatives and other development actors.

An IPI and Fafo field-mission to Myanmar in 2017 included a visit to Hpa-an in Kayin state, mainly settled by Karen people, who have signed a ceasefire with the government. The state had seen some development after the ceasefire, yet local leaders claimed that uncertainties over the outcome of the peace process and lack of a final design for a future confederate state were diminishing their trust in the central government. Sometimes local leaders questioned the government’s motives behind certain development projects and could even see them as a threat to local interests. One local leader in Hpa-an gave an example from the government’s interest in building schools in the aftermath of the ceasefire:

“[If] it is a government school … there will be issues around language of instruction and whether it is the education these people want, given narratives of identity issues in the conflict. And the school is the first thing, then they will set up a police post … and they will build a road to the school. The next thing is military barracks and now we have lost our military autonomy in this territory.”[1]

In the context of fragile ceasefires and unsettled agreements for final state formation, local leaders interpret otherwise positive development initiatives coming from the government as a military strategy to increase influence in an area that has been beyond government control. For local leaders, it can be devastating to be seen as losing authority, or worse, as facilitating the government’s annexation of ethnic territory. Development initiatives thus have the potential to escalate conflict and violence instead of supporting peace.

Myanmar’s leaders on the other hand claim that “education plays a key role to reduce poverty, to build peace and sustainable development.”[2] Further, while leaders give the impression that they take the peace process and sustainable development seriously, the two issues are not combined in a significant way. The peace process is mainly implemented in peace dialogues between armed actors where civil society and others have been mostly excluded, despite the need to solve many social issues related to the conflicts. Likewise, development tends to be treated as a social issue that is kept outside political processes. This inability to handle peace and development holistically remains a challenge for Myanmar.

To create a process that moves both peace and development forward, building trust is essential. This trust has to be built incrementally by including all groups in every development and peace effort. Ethnic leaders then have the chance to represent their groups and serve their people’s interests. In the example of building schools—which is in itself important to promoting education and spurring development—conflict over motives and hidden agendas can be avoided.

Trust-building and inclusion are in line with the 2030 agenda’s holistic view on peace as a driver for achieving the SDGs. The resolution for sustaining peace defines it as a “goal and process to build a common vision of a society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are [included].” This relationship between peace and development is essential for Myanmar’s reform and development process and the implementation of the 2030 agenda. Today there is a division between the peace process and the development process, with different actors involved. These processes have to be brought together for both to succeed. This can be achieved by taking a more conflict-sensitive approach that assesses the impact of development on conflict drivers and strives to identify unifying factors.

While the government uses assessments for environmental and social impact in their development programs, there is an urgent need for conflict impact assessments. Myanmar has a complex conflict reality, which makes the need for detailed knowledge about conflict drivers important for every development initiative. Development plans have to assess how this development impacts factors that divide people, including the risk of violence as a result of development perceived as unfair or biased by some stakeholders. Further, these assessments have to analyze how development initiatives can bring people together and build bridges over existing divisions. Myanmar has recently experienced many positive development trends, yet, lack of inclusiveness can stunt further progress. Through inclusive and sensitive conflict impact assessments, development initiatives can be increasingly designed so that they are “doing no harm” and “leaving no one behind”.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at IPI.

[1] Interview with a local leader, Hpa-an, Myanmar, June 5, 2017.

[2] Interview conducted at the Ministry of Education, Naypyidaw, Myanmar, May 23, 2017.