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Foreign Peacemakers Are Back, But the Last Thing Myanmar Needs is More ‘White Messiahs’

The peace industrial complex is on a roll again. Finnish, Swiss, Norwegian and Australian organizations and an obscure outfit called the Joint Peace Fund are quietly sniffing around Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations, hoping to “engage” them and reactivate the idea of talks with the regime’s military. The foreign peacemakers, of course, would then act as brokers and go-betweens. The fact that this has been done before and failed does not seem to bother anyone. During the decade of relative openness, which lasted from General Thein Sein’s becoming president in 2011 to the 2021 coup, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on so-called peace-making, making it a lucrative industry for foreign “experts.” Many local people also got involved, but for them it was just a means of earning a living, and they were paid a pittance compared with the outlandishly high salaries of the foreigners.

A popular practice was to take representatives of the Myanmar military and the ethnic armed groups on study tours to other conflict areas across the world, including Northern Ireland, Colombia and South Africa, or to study federalism in Switzerland or Canada – and that without taking into consideration the complexities and uniqueness of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. For most of the participants from Myanmar, the most they got out of those trips was the opportunity to do some duty-free shopping at airports along the way.

The exact number of organizations composed of foreign peacemakers who flooded in as soon as Thein Sein mentioned the word “peace” in 2011 is not known. But it was in the dozens and, as one Myanmar scholar put it: “Myanmar was the only place where applicants needed no local language skills and did not have to have any local experience.” Putting it more bluntly, Western peace-making in Myanmar became a neocolonial undertaking carried out by people suffering from a White Messiah Complex: “We have to go and tell those funny little brown fellows how to run their country, and, because we are big and clever white guys, surely they have to listen to us.”

The absurdity of foreigners claiming they could help bring decades of civil wars in Myanmar to an end becomes obvious if one turns it around and puts it in a European context. How would the Spaniards react if Thai peacemakers came and said they were prepared to mediate in the dispute with Catalan separatists? Or would the British welcome a group of Malaysians who offered help with solving outstanding sovereignty issues in Northern Ireland? What would happen if a Philippine NGO showed up and claimed its self-proclaimed peace and reconciliation experts could assist in finding an answer to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict?

One of the most ill-thought-out initiatives was a group called “the Elders.” The idea came from Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter who became South Africa’s president, which gave it a degree of credibility. He reasoned that people in Africa respect and look up to elders in their respective communities, and assumed the same would apply to Myanmar. But while African youths may listen to their elders, why would Myanmar’s generals – or politicians and ethnic leaders – follow the advice of a former prime minister of Norway, a one-time president of Liberia, and a retired Pakistani lawyer?

During the days of the previous junta, which ruled the country before Thein Sein and then Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became heads of government, some Western diplomats and academics argued the best way forward would be to apply a carrot-and-a-stick policy. It would involve punishments such as sanctions when the military behaved badly, and rewards in the form of aid and investment if the generals took positive steps such as allowing more public participation in decision-making and demonstrating willingness to negotiate a peaceful solution to the country’s decades-long civil wars. That is an argument that can be heard even in today’s debate when another junta has seized power. But, as one analyst put it: “That works only if you are dealing with a donkey or a rabbit.” Josef Silverstein, a renowned Myanmar scholar who died at the age of 99 in 2021, once noted: “If you offer them [the generals] a carrot, they will just eat it and ask for another one.”

Another idea was, and apparently still is, to make Westerners with a military background part of the process. The argument is that the Myanmar military would be more willing to listen to counterparts from foreign countries than to civilians. But that has been tried before and it not only failed but also backfired on the countries which sent representatives to Myanmar. Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based outfit, employed a retired British-Irish army officer as a chief negotiator, and he reportedly said while discussing the 2015 so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement between the military and eight ethnic groups (it was later 10): “The train has left the station, and those who are not on it will be left behind.” In reality, however, only two of the signatories, the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State, had any actual armies at the time. The other groups were small and irrelevant, and, not surprisingly, the whole scheme soon fell apart. There was fierce fighting in Kachin State and parts of Shan State before the coup, and, since 2021, the civil wars have spread to almost every corner of the country.

When the European Union’s military chief of staff, Vice-Admiral Hervé Bléjean, on March 9, 2021 phoned Vice-Senior General Soe Win, number two in the new junta, and urged him to end violence and release the country’s democratically elected leaders, the official media reported that they had discussed the junta’s efforts to establish “community peace and the rule of law.”

In June of that year, Australia made the same mistake as the EU. Vice-Admiral David Johnston, vice chief of the Australian Defense Force, rang Soe Win to press for the release of Sean Turnell, an Australian academic and economic adviser to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted government who was detained after the coup. Johnston also said after the call that he had urged the the military not to use force against the protesters who were then filling the streets of Yangon and practically every city, town and major village in the country. But in Myanmar’s military-controlled media, the talk was described as a friendly discussion between two equals, thus appearing to be an endorsement of the coup.

Myanmar analyst Ye Myo Hein pointed out succinctly in The Irrawaddy on August 13, 2021: “Constructive engagement with the military by Western democracies did not transform the military into a professional organization, but instead and inadvertently emboldened and legitimized its leadership to do whatever they wished.” Proponents of engagement have always underestimated the manipulative skills of the Myanmar military, and never seem to learn from past mistakes.

But this is not to say that foreigners should not get involved and do nothing at all. It may be foolish to try to persuade the generals to be more humane and believe that foreigners can act as mediators in Myanmar’s civil wars. What Myanmar needs least of all is patronizing “experts” telling people in the country what to do and giving bad advice. On the other hand, Myanmar’s civil society organizations – women’s groups, human rights advocates, and documentation centers – as well as independent media in exile and inside the country, are struggling to survive and need support financially. Foreign human rights workers and journalists could also share their experiences with local actors, but those would have to be treated with the respect they deserve. Something meaningful could actually be achieved with only a fraction of the vast amounts of money that were wasted on “engagement” and “the peace process” – and which undoubtedly will be spent when the peacemakers once again swing into action.


The Irrawaddy, 2024



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