Is ‘fragile and conflict-affected state’ a useful way to describe Myanmar?

September 16, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

After spending ten days there earlier this month, I barely even understand the question any more. Nothing like

That's Myanmar on the right

That’s Myanmar on the right

reality for messing up your nice neat typologies, or in this case, complicating my efforts to finalise a paper with the catchy title of ‘theories of change for promoting empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS)’.

That paper defines FCS as ‘incapable of assuring basic security, maintaining rule of law and justice, or providing basic services and economic opportunities for their citizens.’ So does Myanmar qualify?

At first sight, definitely. Myanmar is plagued by long-running civil wars along largely ethnic lines. We spent 3 days in the northern state of Kachin, home to an armed conflict that kicked off when the Beatles were still looking for their first recording contract (1961). The national government’s writ does not apply in large areas of the state, which are run by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the KIA.

Over the whole country there are dozens of long-running ethnically-based insurrections against the central government, although the election of a democratic government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has triggered hope in a peace process – talks were under way during my visit.

But even under ASSK, central government has maintained its traditional centralized, controlling tendency. The result is a brittle equilibrium between ethnic unrest and central control (both are mutually reinforcing), with neither the trust nor the institutions to allow for peaceful evolution; any misstep or misunderstanding could aggravate the conflict.

Kachin Independence Army

Kachin Independence Army

The conflicts are primarily ethnic (Myanmar has 135 different ethnic groups), sometimes buttressed by religion (Baptists, Catholics, Buddhists and the unhappy Muslim minority in Rakhine, which has prompted media coverage worldwide). Programmatic politics, based on more widely shared social identities, is nowhere to be seen, but politics based on ethnicity alone holds little promise of producing stability, because every ethnic minority includes even smaller minorities within its geographical boundaries. Autonomy for the Kachins just turns the spotlight on the rights of non-Kachin ethnic groups within the state.

Myanmar’s plentiful natural resources (jade, gold, timber, opium) layer the ‘curse of wealth’ over this panorama. Both the army and the Ethnic Armed Organizations have traditionally drawn money and power by controlling the production and/or transport of these, producing a difficult political economy where major interests are potentially threatened by the end of conflict.

But what struck me about Kachin was the level of stability of the conflict, or at least ‘organized chaos’ in the title of one report: this was not some shapeless, unpredictable mess like Somalia or Eastern DRC or South Sudan. We found a striking degree of cohabitation between ethnic armed groups and government: we visited the large KIO office in the (government-controlled) state capital Myitkyina and spoke to a KIO Central Committee member, who very kindly

Who you calling fragile?

Who you calling fragile?

photocopied the KIO departmental organigram  for us – what kind of civil war allows one side to openly hold court on the other side’s turf? The KIO-run hydro company supplies electricity to government-controlled areas (Myitkina has one of most reliable electric supplies in the country), and the government authorities duly pay their bills. Weird.

There are of course dangers in generalizing from Kachin – every conflict in Myanmar is different, some are much bloodier, others more chaotic, some are closer to peaceful resolution.

Overall conclusion? ‘Fragility’ means lots of different things in different parts of Myanmar. In the rapid process of political change that has led to the new NLD government and rekindled the peace process, we heard consistently that both local officials and elected representatives don’t really understand their roles – and that the relations between the different levels of government are shifting and evolving unpredictably as everyone tries to figure out what decentralisation actually involves. All this in the shadow of a still powerful military. Meanwhile, civil society organizations are trying to work out how to adapt to this fast-changing environment.

The conflict-affected parts exhibit different types of fragility, from the parallel administrations of Kachin to drug warlords to fragmented militias and armed groups.

Can you find Myanmar?

Can you find Myanmar?

So first, let’s talk about fragile contexts rather than fragile states. And second, let’s unpack the different kinds of fragility, perhaps building on last year’s OECD report that set out five clusters of fragility indicators; 1) violence; 2) access to justice for all; 3) effective, accountable and inclusive institutions; 4) economic inclusion and stability; and 5) capacities to prevent and adapt to social, economic and environmental shocks and disasters. Can you find Myanmar on their diagram?

And a final question to any regional gurus. It’s not just Myanmar – North-East India has a long running set of ethnic conflicts of its own. Taken together, this arc of conflict feels quite unique – any explanations? Is it some combination of mountain hideaways, ethnic fragmentation and incomplete state-building or is there some other explanation? Would love to hear some theories.

Big thanks to Tom Donnelly and Jo Rowlands on this post