The Hidden Costs of Building Peace in Myanmar


This article is a summary of the paper presented by Ph.D. candidate Michal Kouřil of the Institute of International Relations Prague and the Metropolitan University Prague at the 13th International Burma Studies Conference in Bangkok, Thailand under the auspices of the Center for Burma Studies (Northern Illinois University, US). Predominantly optimistic reports by various media agencies around the world emerged almost immediately after the closely watched general elections that took place in Myanmar in 2015. Articles such as: “The longest civil war has ended, refugees have not yet returned” that appeared in Czech media the day after the election results were published overwhelmed the Internet. Despite the fact, that the National League for Democracy won the election in 2015 and that the previous government signed a numerous ceasefire agreement like never before in the whole conflict history, we still cannot say that the conflict was solved. However, this information was probably enough for the mass media and the wider public to evaluate the situation as the end of the civil war. This finding implies how little awareness there is about the complex conflict situation in Myanmar or about peace building in general and how easily this process can be underestimated.

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Ceasefire is a term related to the Peace and Conflict studies and within this field we can look at it in two different perspectives. The first one is the Conflict Management perspective, which only attempts to end the violence, and in this case a negative peace is acceptable and is considered a success. A more complex perspective is the Conflict resolution that attempts to both end the violence and solve the incompatibilities. In this case establishing a positive peace is necessary. Generally speaking, ceasefire is usually applied when the conflict cycle has reached its peak and has escalated into a war. Therefore, after signing a ceasefire agreement, the conflict intensity will still be somewhere between unstable peace and crisis, which can still very easy escalate into war again. And as David Keen noted: “Part of the function of war may be that it offers a more promising environment for the pursuit of aims that are also prominent in peacetime.” Which means that for particular groups, sustaining war or establishing a negative peace may be an effective way to strive towards their their economic goals.

Lessons from the past

A similar situation can be also observed in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Since the 1950s, various Burmese Governments have created militias that were then called People Militia Forces (PMF) to fight against ethnic armed groups, though we now know that this was not the best approach. They PMF where known for taxing the local population, illegal gambling, drug trafficking and a variety of human rights abuse. A ceasefire or a transformation of militias into PMF also allowed the rise of the most notorious warlords/drug lords in Burma. Why? Because it gave them autonomy and free operational space to continue in their own economic interests. The most notorious were Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han, but there are several more examples of how the Burmese Government used ceasefire agreements for their own profit without any interest in peace building.

The first example is the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) which fought against the Burmese government along the borders with China, but the government was more worried about the ethnic insurgents and democratic opposition than about the communists on the Chinese frontiers. So in the early 1980s the Burmese government eventually concluded a ceasefire agreement with the CPB, which ensured peace on the eastern front and the opportunity to concentrate on fighting the democratic opposition inside the country. The problem is that since the mid 70s the CPB already controlled the area that was responsible for around 80% of all Burmese opium production. However, the core members of the Communist party particularly those Maoist Red Guards from China, didn’t agree to any kind of drug business. Finally, the opinion split about financing the Party’s assets through opium abuse led to a collapse of the CPB. But suddenly new groups such as the MNDAA, UWSA or the NDAA emerged from the ashes of the previous Communist party and all of these post-Maoist groups signed a ceasefire with the government again to continue to benefit from the economic autonomy in their regions. The lesson from this example is that economic motivations such as greed can destabilize even large and strong groups. The economic motivation in this case was simply to agree to the government ceasefire plan and benefit from the ceasefire autonomy to continue in illegal activities.

Another more recent and more complex example of ceasefire externalities can be demonstrated by the transformation of armed groups into the Tatmadaw structures. In 2009 under the new constitution from 2008 the government announced a plan for the transformation of armed groups into so-called Border Guard Forces (BGF). The constitution provides that "All armed groups in the union must be under the command of the Ministry of Defence". The transformation plan therefore required that individual groups have to give up their self-governance without any guarantee of future political participation. This demand was largely unaccepted and ultimately rejected by major groups such as UWSA, KIO and NMSP. However, in the case of the DKBA and the MNDAA the opinion split to some brigades, which then accepted the offer of the previous government and proceeded to its transformation plan. Although the government has withdrawn from the transformation plan and introduced a new three-phase peace process, the fact remains that the BGF has not been dissolved and still remains active. Moreover the BGF are accused of being involved in drug trafficking within the areas under their control by several agencies such as: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Office of the Narcotics Board Control (ONCB) and ethnic anti narcotic units such as the RCSS Anti Narcotic Committee.

Comparison with data

Instead of pointing fingers let’s compare some data published by the UNODC and Myanmar Peace Monitor to demonstrate the narcotics increase after the establishment of the BGF. The first chart shows the increase of opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar and as we can see the cultivation was at its minimum in 2006 and it was quite stable until 2009. That was the year when the BGF was established, and since 2009 there has been a significant increase in production. This is very similar to the example of the CPB and the opinion split about opiate-related financial issues, which led to the collapse of the party and the creation of the new ethnic armed groups. The second chart represents the quantity of seized narcotics, such as Amphetamine Type Stimulants and opioids in Southeast Asia. It is not a big surprise that most narcotics were seized in neighbouring China and Thailand, and again that there is an increase in seizures since 2009. The third chart combined with a map created by the Myanmar Peace Monitor shows the quantities and locations of seized narcotics in 2018. If we now compare the presented two maps that show the territory under the control of individual groups (map 1) and opium poppy cultivation areas (map 2) we can see that the opium production area overlaps in several cases with the areas under control of PMF and partly with BGF controlled areas, namely in Kachin State. In case of cross-border drug trafficking we can compare the chart 3 with the map 1 and see that the most exposed places are again under the BGF and PMF control.

In conclusion

To start with a positive impact of ceasefire agreements we can say that in some cases these ceasefires have proven their abilities to decrease the conflict intensity without any military intervention of third parties. However, these agreements can’t be considered as a formal peace treaty in terms of positive peace. Individual parties are not disarmed, demobilized nor reintegrated. The thread of re-escalating violence is still possible and occasional clashes occur even among the signatories of these ceasefire agreements.

So did those ceasefire agreements lead to a peace? At best, we can talk about a so-called "Negative Peace", which is sporadically interrupted by various forms of violence and violations of human rights. The only winner in this process is the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). The establishment of BGF and PMF de-structuralized the ethnic region and allowed the Burmese army to move into these “liberalized” areas, which caused another wave of militarization. It is a perfect example of the so-called “divide and rule” approach, which again caused only the suffering of the local population.

About the author:

Michal Kouřil is a PhD candidate at the Institute of International Relations Prague. Currently visiting fellow researcher at the Southeast Asian Studies Program at the Thammasat University in Bangkok. He holds a master degree in Asian Studies and International Relations from the Metropolitan University Prague. His areas of interest include armed conflict in Myanmar, Thai history, societies and culture and drug geopolitics across the mainland Southeast Asia.

Further reading on the topic in our library:

Change in Myanmar -

MAASS, Matthias - Foreign policies and diplomacies in Asia -



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