Democracy Lab

Ceasefire Capitalism

Why Burma's rebels have every reason to be suspicious of government emissaries talking peace.

In early November, negotiators from the Burmese government traveled to the northern town of Myitkyina to confer with representatives from a conglomeration of ethnic rebel groups. It was the first time in decades of warfare that government officials sat down with the combined leadership of Burma's rebel movements, inspiring praise from the United Nations.

But the optimistic news coverage neglected to question the presence of another interest group at the meeting: the Chinese. With billions of dollars invested in energy, mining, and logging projects in Kachin state, China has a lot at stake in the outcome of this conflict, which has threatened its access to the area's abundant resources. Its involvement served as a palpable reminder (as if anyone needed it) that peace talks between the government and ethnic rebels aren't just about political differences. They're also very much about business.

That's a hard truth that's all too often neglected in coverage of the continuing efforts to find a practical agenda for peace. China is but one of many players in the scramble to capitalize on the fantastically abundant natural resources in Burma's border regions, which run the gamut from teak to minerals to hydropower, not to mention Kachin state's $8 billion jade industry. The Burmese government used past ceasefires as an opportunity to plunder areas inhabited by local ethnic groups, prompting additional armed conflict while complicating efforts to resolve it. Indeed, the government's recent reform push may be attempting to do the same thing. All signs suggest that the government is hoping to exploit the bounty of Burma's periphery as it opens to foreign investment.

This issue is one of the primary irritants underlying the government's fight with the rebels in Kachin state. Among Burma's many ethnic groups, the Kachin have particular experience with the Burmese government's malformed "peace." In 1994, the government managed to broker a peace agreement that ended decades of civil war. But the ceasefire did not mean that the regime began to take the Kachin's interests into consideration. During the 17-year ceasefire period, the Kachin watched as their state was carved up and sold to regime-aligned corporations -- usually with little benefit to the people who lived there.

Following the 1994 deal, Burmese and Chinese firms moved in to control the local economy, whittling small businesses down to nothing, and bringing in thousands of migrant workers who forced the Kachin out of jobs. The influx of migrant workers and rising poverty rates had a corrosive effect on Kachin society. At the same time, the Kachin's land was cordoned off for corporate exploitation. Nearly 20 percent of the state's land was allocated for mining, while nearly 200,000 acres of land in the Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve were set aside for biofuel crops. Shortly after the 1994 agreement, the government rolled out plans to build seven dams along the N'Mai and Mali Rivers to be financed by China. When they are completed, most of the output will go to China, ignoring local energy needs. This will only ramp up anti-business feelings among the Kachin.

And in 1994, the exploitation of the ceasefire didn't stop at business. The Burmese army used the ceasefire period to bolster its presence in Kachin state. This meant that when the Burmese troops launched an assault on Kachin rebels in June 2011 -- intentionally rekindling the war -- they had a strategic advantage. Battalions were already stationed en masse across the state, ready to widen the conflict. Moreover, because the ceasefire had blurred territorial boundaries, government troops were able to block fleeing civilians reentering rebel-controlled areas. In the face of violent conflict, these civilians could not get home. This nightmare scenario continues today, as evidenced by the thousands of civilians who fled after fresh clashes broke out less than a fortnight ago. Conversely then, the ceasefire period allowed greater militarization of the region, and eroded the security of its people.

It's no coincidence then that the Kachin faction is reluctant to sign a deal before knowing what the Burmese government plans for the state's resources. Doing so may presage a repeat of the destructive business practices that have steadily eaten away at the state. The Kachin have noted the eerie parallels between this round of talks and those in 1994. The presence of Chinese observers at this week's ceasefire talks suggests that Beijing's interests in the outcome of the conflict are as pressing as they were 20 years ago. Despite various rounds of talks this year where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) pressed the government to come clean on its plans for the state after the proposed ceasefire, the two sides have continually failed to cement a political deal that would demarcate territory and delegate rights to resources.

For an ethnic group that has long called for autonomy, the prospect of another ceasefire without a political resolution to these chronic problems is unthinkable. In that respect, foreign governments who used the Myanmar Peace Center -- widely considered a mascot for the government's reformist agenda -- to hurry ethnic armies into laying down their arms either do not understand the source of the Kachin's reluctance, or are practicing willful, perhaps even strategic, denial. Burma's border regions have a reputation as a final untapped energy market, and that is a tough incentive to ignore.

If the Kachin had any doubts that the government is prioritizing business, last year's talks in Karen state would dispel them. In early 2012, the government was able to hammer out a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union (KNU) following decades of conflict -- but only by encouraging pro-business Karen officials to deviate from the more hard-line faction. These pro-business officials agreed to open a liaison office in exchange for development assistance that would open the door to large-scale investment in the region, which is rich in gold, hydropower, and possibly even shale gas.

This same pro-business group participated in ceasefire talks with the government in 2011 that included delegates from Dawei Princess, a local partner in a massive deep-sea port project under construction close to the Karen's territory. The delegates were invited despite resistance from the KNU. The make-up of these early meetings offered an early indication of the business dimension to the ceasefire talks.

Opening the doors for foreign development has had serious consequences for the people of Karen state. A 2012 report by Physicians for Human Rights spotlighted the link between extractive projects and rights abuses in the region. It warned that people who lived near a dam, pipeline, or mine were "almost eight times more likely to have been forced to work for the army and over six times more likely to have been uprooted or had restrictions placed on their travel." (A useful National Geographic map offers visual evidence for this.) The half a million people displaced by war in eastern Burma hope to return to their land soon, but as the Kachin who returned after the 1994 ceasefire found, this land may now belong to someone else.

Rather than working to compromise with the KNU, the government decided to open a fissure in the one entity that commands respect across Karen society. The Burmese government may have won a flimsy ceasefire, but the prospects for lasting peace in a region familiar with the duplicity and abusive tactics of the Burmese army are slim.

On top of all this, the parliament passed a new foreign investment law earlier this year that offers attractive incentives for business in Burma. It also conveniently places the regulation of harmful practices in the hands of the Burmese government, which has historically shown no inclination toward responsible investment. It is likely that companies will be free to operate in the same way they have for years, and with the same consequences.

Everyone from corporate clients, to foreign governments, to the Burmese military seems to be entering the fray to advocate for what Kevin Woods calls "ceasefire capitalism" -- that familiar shadowy nexus of military, political, and business elites that has dominated Burma's economy for 50 years, exploiting periods of calm to assert control over land. Everyone, that is, except for the ethnic groups at the center of these talks. It certainly seems that Burma is in danger of repeating history by tainting its peace negotiations with the interests of those who do not prioritize peace. Away from the optimistic talk greeting the ceasefire negotiations lies the ugly side of the reform process. All told, civilians face many of the same dangers they did during wartime.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Checked Out

Why Hamid Karzai's fickle recklessness imperils the future of Afghanistan.

"Are you a son of Dost Mohammed or Shah Shuja?" asks a common Taliban recruiting slogan. It implies that President Hamid Karzai is today's Shah Shuja, the puppet leader installed by the British from 1839-1842, and the Taliban's Mullah Omar is today's Dost Mohammed, the great 19th-century ruler of Afghanistan whose reign Shah Shuja interrupted during the First Afghan War.

Thus unpacked, the message is clear: that Mullah Omar ruled before and will again, just like Dost Mohammed. Indeed, it was Mullah Omar who put on the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed in Kandahar in 1996 to profess himself the himself leader of all Muslims, the Amir-al-Mu'minin, no doubt aware that the last person to have done so was Dost Mohammed in 1834, who used it as a rallying call for war against the Sikhs.

Perhaps then it should be no surprise that President Karzai has consistently displayed an anxiety to show himself as an independent ruler, typically expressed in a melodramatic idiom that stresses Afghan sovereignty while expressly blaming foreign forces, and implicitly Pakistan, for Afghanistan's woes.

Does this explain Karzai's rejection last week of the loya jirga's recommendation to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States?

That would be consistent with the tone of this rhetorical flourish, for which Karzai got rousing cheers at the 2011 loya jirga, the grand assembly of Afghan tribal leaders:

"We want our national sovereignty recognized by all means and from today! I repeat, we want our national sovereignty recognized by all means and from today.... Well, the United States is richer, more powerful, more populated than we are, it is larger than our country, but we are lions!... They bring us money, train our soldiers and police, and provide security for the home of the lion. The lion does not have leisure time to do all these things. They should protect his surroundings but should not touch the lion's home. They should protect the four boundaries of the jungle."

The irony is that this kind of complacent delusion has been tolerated by international community precisely because of its recognition of Afghanistan as a sovereign state.

Karzai seems to want to have his cake and eat it this time round as well. While stating unenthusiastically, and in the same patronising tone, that "we support this agreement, but Americans should respect Afghan lives, Afghan houses. They should be truthful and give huge amounts of money", he appeared to want to delay signing the BSA until after the April 2014 presidential elections.

That the next Afghan president should be the one to sign this agreement fits with the image Karzai presented this week of being somehow neutral in the conflict: "many people lost their lives, many because of Taliban attacks, many because of foreign attacks in the name of the fight against terrorism. Victims of both kinds of attacks are present here."

The problem Karzai had in re-deploying his sovereign anxiety through the usual idiom this week is that he did not get rousing cheers. On the contrary, the head of the loya jirga, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, following Karzai's speech on the podium, added more than a gloss by stating that if the BSA were not signed: "I will resign all my positions and seek refuge in another country."

That pithy, provocative, and most public of statements, appears decisively to undercut Karzai's Janus-like stance towards the international community, and particularly the United States, which sustains the Afghan state. In 2011, both the next presidential election and the end of the security transition to Afghan forces in December 2014 were a long way off; now they are around the corner.

Abdullah Abdullah, the man Karzai beat for the presidency in 2009, pointed out this week that Karzai had pushed too far, risking the possibility that the United States really could pull out completely after 2014 (the "zero-sum option"), implicitly recognising that Afghanistan is in truth no longer the strategic priority it once was for the United States.    

Karzai's sovereign anxiety pitch is no longer credible, particularly given the fact that he will be gone next year, perhaps abroad to the extensive properties his extended family own in Dubai. The conditions he wants in place before signing the BSA (no U.S. troops in Afghan homes, U.S. assurances of fair elections, and support for the peace process) seem distinctly hollow coming from him, not least because of the massive electoral fraud that accompanied his own 2009 election, and the vast corruption of the Afghan state under his presidency.  

In short, the difference between 2011 and today's loya jirga is that, in 2011, Karzai could still claim to be speaking on behalf of the state; today he privileges his own legacy over anything.

Karzai would be more credible if he were actually going to have to rule post-2014. In that respect there is a key contrast with President Mohammad Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed leader of Afghanistan. Najibullah too had a sovereign anxiety, based on the fact that his government could not survive without Soviet support. As Thomas Barfield has written, in 1986, Dr. Najib added the suffix "ullah" ("of God") to present himself in more Islamic tones, and adopted a general posture that privileged nationalism over communism, symbolised in the name change of his party from the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to the Hizb-i-Watan ("Homeland Party").

The striking aspect of this policy is that it only started to have real effect after the transition of the main Soviet forces in 1988-1989. As the statistics of this study show, the central revelation of Soviet transition was that many of the mujahedeen saw their role in the fight as being over once the Soviets faded as a visible target (though some Soviet forces did stay on as military advisers and to operate more complex weapons for the Afghans).

Now Islamisized, Najibullah was then able to present the Peshawar-based, Pakistani-backed, mujahedeen forces as the foreigners, while at the same time empowering many ethnic minority groups that depended on the Afghan state for security. The result was a huge expansion in militia groups, and a correlative reduction of Afghan regular forces, which effectively created a decentralisation of the Afghan state.

This process was catalysed when the mujahedeen showed themselves unable to fight a conventional battle, and were heavily defeated at the battle of Jalalabad in March 1989 by the Afghan army supported by Soviet-operated SCUD missiles.

While by no means stable, and still heavily dependent on Soviet aid to disburse as patronage, the Najibullah regime survived past the Soviet withdrawal, contrary to expectations, until of course the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and funding to the Najibullah regime ended in December 1991, precipitating the fall of the regime.

Given that most of the delegates at last week's loya jirga lived through the Najibullah period, the parallels with today are not distant shadows, but powerful analogies. The central importance of the BSA is that it is hard to see the insurgency presenting an existential threat to the Afghan state without the capacity to win conventional battles, which will be hard to envisage so long as the Afghan security forces can depend on the United States in extremis to back it up.

So the BSA matters -- especially at this moment, when its signing gives forward guidance to those on the fence. It underlines the fact that, while the insurgency may make inroads into the countryside, the Afghan government in the Pushtun areas of the south and east will likely hold at least the big cities and the roads.

If President Karzai was going to stay on duty post-transition like Najibullah, his comments about sovereignty might have been taken seriously at last week's loya jirga. As it was, however, he might as well have been speaking from a deckchair in Dubai. Only someone who has already mentally checked out of the conflict could be so reckless with his country's future, and so politically numb to the sacrifice that the Afghan state's international supporters have shed.

The people who cannot leave Afghanistan will ultimately be the arbiters of the sovereign concerns of the state, and last week, it seems they called time on the fantasy of President Karzai's rhetoric.