Comment & analysis

Security integration at the heart of Myanmar’s peace process

12 July 2017 Kim Jolliffe

Myanmar’s ongoing peace talks have brought to the fore a critical debate about the future of the security sector, including the potential for dozens of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) to integrate with the state. Kim Jolliffe considers the concerns and perspectives of the key actors and highlights some major lessons and challenges ahead.

While slowly emerging from decades of outright military rule, Myanmar has embarked on a long-awaited process of multilateral dialogue to end decades of civil war. These talks aim to establish a federal system of government, as long demanded by most of the country’s EAOs and the ruling party under Aung San Suu Kyi. The process has been far from smooth, and armed violence has increased overall in recent years. Nonetheless, talks have facilitated a gradual opening of space for meaningful dialogue and have achieved incremental compromises in areas previously undiscussed. 

Crucially, the dialogue framework includes negotiations on a dual process of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR), referred to in the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as ‘security re-integration’. Myanmar’s conflict-affected areas are home to a vast number of armed actors – including state armed forces, ceasefire and non-ceasefire EAOs, and state-backed paramilitary organisations – all with overlapping claims to territory and differing security roles. Agreements to demilitarise these areas and to normalise governance and security provision will be crucial for achieving lasting peace.

A new Saferworld report on security integration in Myanmar reviews and analyses the varied perspectives of the parties to the peace process, and highlights lessons that can be drawn from past experience. The aim of this research is to support an inclusive and evidence-based approach to SSR in Myanmar, and to inform all those involved in or supporting the peace process.

The parties to the negotiations

The Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) have overseen a transition to partial democracy in recent years and have been in a coalition government with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party since March 2016. The military retains near autonomous control over defence and security affairs, in addition to constitutionally mandated executive and legislative powers. It also controls the police force via the Ministry of Home Affairs, and largely retains responsibility for domestic security and justice, especially in rural areas. Furthermore, the Tatmadaw has extensive business interests and an influential role over economic governance. The armed forces are estimated to have more than 350,000 active troops (mostly infantry), and accounts for 13 per cent of government spending. The Tatmadaw is widely perceived to be dominated by the majority Bamar ethnic group, although its leaders deny this. Undoubtedly, its officer class is made up almost exclusively of Buddhist males.

EAOs have established parallel governance structures across vast rural areas, where they have full or partial control. Most EAOs have dedicated armed wings that operate alongside or under the authority of civilian structures, as well as basic justice systems. The more sophisticated of these include police forces, court systems and legal codes; although they generally allow minor crimes to be handled at the village level through customary practices. State-backed militia typically operate in a similar fashion but have invested less in their own governance capacity and collaborate with state institutions, including the police and courts.

Previous attempts at security integration

Myanmar has had a problematic history with post-conflict integration. Following the country’s first coup d’etat in 1962, the Tatmadaw began converting local armed actors into state-backed militias, providing them with economic concessions and access to roads to facilitate business interests, including narcotics trafficking. Under the second military government, which took power in 1988, ceasefires were then secured with the majority of remaining EAOs, some of which soon became de facto proxies of the Tatmadaw.

In 2009, following the confirmation of the new, partially democratic constitution that would come into force in 2011, the Tatmadaw ordered that all ceasefire EAOs transform into Border Guard Forces (BGFs) – new paramilitary units with Tatmadaw officers and support staff embedded into their ranks. A few of the Tatmadaw’s most loyal proxies accepted the deal, forming 23 BGFs and 15 less formally integrated units called “People’s Militia Forces”. Meanwhile, the majority of EAOs ultimately rejected it, sparking a wave of new conflicts in northern Myanmar, which escalated dramatically in 2016 and early 2017. This greatly undermined the confidence of EAOs in the prospects for a negotiated peace settlement, as it reflected the Tatmadaw’s ongoing refusal to address their political demands while insisting they simply subordinate to its command. 

The multilateral peace process that began in 2013 has made some significant political progress but has been far from smooth. It has been marred by ongoing violence, particularly as a result of Tatmadaw offensives against EAOs that have not signed a so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The NCA was negotiated with 17 EAOs, but only signed by eight due to disputes over which groups would qualify as well as a broad lack of trust. Nonetheless, the NCA is significant as it secured a written commitment from the Tatmadaw to the goal of federalism and has paved the way for dialogue on associated constitutional reforms. This raises important questions about what a transition to a federal security structure in Myanmar would look like, and how EAO security forces might be incorporated into it.

Reconciling divergent perspectives

At present, the perspectives and positions of key stakeholders regarding the future of Myanmar’s security sector are radically different. Reconciling these differences and achieving a settlement on DDR and SSR will be key to achieving lasting peace.

The Tatmadaw is a powerful and well-established institution, with multiple major international backers. Its vision for the future of the armed forces is focused on the modernisation of its capabilities rather than on root-and-branch reform, and it has generally envisioned EAOs simply disarming or coming under its control. Meanwhile, the NLD’s primary political agenda has long been for the Tatmadaw to relinquish its political role, come under civilian control, and to rebuild trust with the people. The most politically engaged EAOs have called repeatedly for a “Federal Union Armed Forces”, which is representative of all the country’s ethnic groups, and subject to power sharing arrangements between the states and regions.

This initial piece of research reveals the profound challenges associated with security sector integration in Myanmar, and the extreme political sensitivity of the topic. Further research and extensive consultation with a wide range of actors are required to determine where compromises can be made, and what workable solutions will look like. Nevertheless, the report concludes with a few broad lessons that may help to inform and guide negotiations about this critical issue. In summary these are:

The politics are paramount - Security integration is a political and not just a technical process, and will be inextricable from a political settlement. Consensus on a new political system should provide an overarching framework for all aspects of the settlement, with a reformed and integrated security sector representing a key component. Relatedly, deep considerations are needed for the economic implications of reforms, as business interests shape the priorities of many state and non-state security forces and the relations between them.

Accountability is key - All sides agree on the need for union-level armed forces to defend the country. However, EAOs demand that they be more representative of Myanmar’s diverse populations. Making security institutions accountable to representative political institutions would likely be the most effective way of ensuring this. Increased parliamentary oversight would be one way, while reforming the national defence and security council represents another option. Realistically, however, such concessions from the Tatmadaw are a far away prospect.

The role of state level forces - Given low levels of confidence that a union-level force would adequately defend their states, EAOs have argued for state-level forces. Most countries have local level police forces, and some federal ones have state-level defence units under the armed forces. However, the latter require strong governance and legal provisions to protect against renewed conflict. It is crucial that any new local units are given clearer roles and responsibilities than the BGFs and existing militia.

Integration into a new or existing structure? There are crucial questions about how EAOs could be integrated to become formal security providers. There is firstly a decision about whether they would be integrated into the existing security structure, or if the force would be holistically reformed. Secondly, would EAOs take on military, policing or some kind of paramilitary role? There is also the question of whether EAO combatants should be integrated alongside former adversaries at the unit level or separated into segregated units? There are significant political and practical implications to all these decisions, as well as great symbolic significance.

Listen to Saferworld’s Myanmar Country Manager, John Bainbridge, and lead author Kim Jolliffe discuss security integration in Myanmar.

Kim Jolliffe is lead author of the Saferworld report Security integration in Myanmar: past experiences and future visions and is an independent researcher, specialising in security, development and humanitarian affairs in Myanmar. He has worked as associate programme adviser and researcher for Saferworld in Myanmar since 2013.