LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Christopher Finnigan

January 18th, 2019

Long Read: The politics of legitimacy in the Myanmar Peace Process

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Christopher Finnigan

January 18th, 2019

Long Read: The politics of legitimacy in the Myanmar Peace Process

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The Myanmar government, international donors and aid agencies need to move beyond standard peace-building and development packages based on strengthening the state, if they want to see Myanmar’s Peace Process succeed, argues Ashley South (Chiang Mai University).  It’s time for a more conflict-sensitive approach, including principled engagement with Ethnic Armed Organisations and other non-state actors.

Photo: UN and Myanmar flags flying side by side outside the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Building | Credit: United Nations, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Much has changed in Myanmar since the previous, military-backed government came to power in April 2011. The country has experienced an unprecedented period of transition, which appeared set to accelerate following the 2015 elections and formation of a government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

An ongoing challenge is the peace process with some dozen Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), initiated by the previous government. Unfortunately, under the NLD the peace process has foundered. Negotiations to reach a political settlement to decades of armed conflict have been largely unsuccessful; while ceasefires negotiated in 2011-12 have held across much of southeast Myanmar, large-scale fighting continues to drive humanitarian crises in northern Shan and Kachin States, and more recently in Rakhine State to the west.[1]

The Myanmar government and Army (which is operationally independent) are parties to these conflicts. Therefore, strengthening the state – the default setting of international peace building operations – is not a viable or just option, in a context where many conflict-affected communities regard the government, and particularly its armed forces as politically illegitimate, violent and predatory.

The politics of legitimacy

Several of Myanmar’s longer-established EAOs enjoy significant political legitimacy, as perceived by the ethnic communities they seek to represent, on the basis of their long struggles for self-determination. Several larger EAOs also deliver services to conflict-affected communities, despite a chronic lack of human and financial resources. Armed groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU, whose insurgency commenced in 1949) have developed extensive administrative systems, including departments of education, health, agriculture, and justice, and related service delivery systems. For many citizens in conflict-affected areas, these para-state regimes are the only available regulatory authorities and source of assistance.

In October 1015, eight EAOs – including the KNU, following a bilateral ceasefire in 2012 – signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which triggered the normalisation of signatory groups’ legal status (two more EAOs signed the NCA in 2018). Article 25 of the NCA recognises the roles of signature EAOs in the fields of health, education, natural resource management and security. However, there is no mechanism for handling the relationship between EAO and government service delivery and governance systems.

Since the bilateral ceasefires of 2011-12, and particularly after the NCA, “Interim Arrangements” has become a key aspect of the peace process. This is a contested concept, meaning different things to different actors. The “interim period” is generally understood to be that between signing of bilateral ceasefires and the NCA, and the finalisation of a comprehensive political settlement; the “arrangements” referred to are EAOs’ service delivery and governance functions.

The legitimacy of conflict-affected community’s grievances

There is a distinction between relatively small and mostly quite remote areas controlled exclusively by EAOs, and more extensive areas of “mixed administration,” where authority is exercised variously by one or more EAOs and the government, and/or various Myanmar Army–backed militias (often experienced by civilian communities in the form of multiple taxation). Myanmar’s EAOs face significant challenges in building governance capacity and credibility, in practical terms and in a political-legal sense vis-à-vis the (“sovereign”) government. Like recognised state administrations, EAOs are characterised by a mixture of private economic incentives (“greed factors”) and social, economic, and political grievances deepened by decades of armed conflict. However, the government and its international partners have generally failed to recognize of the legitimacy of conflict-affected community’s grievances, or EAOs’ credibility as political actors. This risks failing to address the inherently political drivers of conflict in Myanmar.

James Ferguson argues that development aid can de-politicise contentious issues, by framing these as amenable to technical solutions implemented by government in partnership with aid professionals, rather than sites of political struggle. This liberal peace-building approach is apparent in Myanmar, where donors are keen to strengthen a state lacking capacity and reach, rolling out market-friendly “good governance” policies and in effect delivering the “anti-politics machine”. Only by trying to understand and engage with local realities and actors can peace-builders hope to support a just and sustainable peace process.

Questions of EAO governance as explored here can usefully be examined with reference to Mampilly’s concept of “rebel rulership”. Mampilly argues that ignoring the reality of insurgent governance is to deny the facts on the ground and foreclose engagement with such authorities, who may provide as good or better care for civilians under their control than those of the de jure government. Insurgents’ control of sometimes extensive territories and populations necessitates their international recognition. This recognition should be extended particularly in cases where insurgent organisations, which Mampilly refers to as “counter-state sovereigns,” meet certain minimum standards of governance efficiency and civilian welfare.

Risse provides a useful framework for furthering the analysis in post-conflict contexts such as Myanmar, through the concept of “limited statehood”, defined as “those parts of the country in which central authorities lack the ability to implement and enforce rules and decisions or in which the legitimate monopoly over the means of violence is lacking.” (p.4) Like Duffield, Risse rejects the assumptions of modernisation theory, proposing that “limited statehood” does not mean the absence of governance, but rather can be a site of novel and intersecting forms of political authority, including “various combinations of state and nonstate actors … including … violent actors” (Risse p.11). He observes that “state building” is most successful when local, non-state governance actors share sovereignty and political legitimacy with the central state.

In the context of Myanmar’s peace process, EAOs are increasingly challenged to demonstrate legitimacy. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership seem to regard political legitimacy as resulting from participation in parliamentary politics. In the longer term therefore, it seems unlikely that EAOs will continue to enjoy the privileged position as principal representatives of minority communities that they were granted under the previous, military-backed government. Thus the importance of the larger EAOs’ status as de facto “rebel rulers” in remote and conflict-affected areas, and the strategic significance Interim Arrangements. Rather than reinventing the wheel, by extending international or state-led services into conflict-affected areas, international aid donors should engage with and support existing local structures.

Speaker of the Lower House walking into Parliament | Credit: NZ National Party, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The International Dimension

The Myanmar peace process is notable for the limited role of outside actors. Negotiations have been undertaken with almost no international mediation, although since 2018, China has played an increasingly prominent role in negotiations (often from behind the scenes). Major donors such as the USA, the EU, and Japan have been keen to expand their assistance, believing that supporting the peace process can help to consolidate the wider government-led reform process. Other donors see their support for the peace process and broader political transition as a way of leveraging access for private-sector investments in the country.

Many ethnic communities are concerned that the government has an “economic development first” agenda and uses aid as a distraction from political dialogue. Parks, Colletta and Oppenheim challenge the assumption that economic growth and improved levels of development and service delivery can reduce violent conflict in the absence of political and institutional transformation. They caution that Myanmar’s post-conflict aid projects generally “focus on development outcomes such as improving livelihoods, health, and education, and on local economic growth” (p.55). However, there is scant evidence that such development-oriented approaches impact on conflict dynamics other than in inadvertently negative ways – for example, by strengthening problematic and still contested state structures. Peace-building cannot be achieved solely y technical fixes and the delivery of aid and economic development.

The effectiveness of international aid in conflict-affected areas has been further limited due to many providing the bulk of support only through government-approved structures. This situation is not unique to Myanmar. Donors tend to frame the concerns of vulnerable communities as technical problems to be fixed by professional aid regimes, rather than sites of contestation requiring political solutions, reflecting Ferguson’s “anti-politics machine.” (Exceptions exist in contexts where a state’s legitimacy is clearly and persistently challenged, as in Myanmar before 2011, or where the geo-political interests of regional or global powers are directly involved.)

Re-imagining and re-negotiating, not re-enforcing

When peace-support initiatives fail to address the issues affecting communities and other stakeholders (such as EAOs), they tend to fall in with government-led development and rehabilitation projects – often implemented by technically competent but politically ill-informed international organisations. However, the problem in Myanmar is not primarily one of a failing or weak state that needs to be strengthened, but rather a need to re-imagine and re-negotiate state-society relations, including relationships between the Burman majority and ethnic nationality communities.

The obstacles to EAO’s transformations are political, in relation to post-conflict EAO legitimacy, and practical, regarding limited capacities to govern effectively and deliver services. The country’s main EAOs need to re-invent themselves as post-insurgent organisations, if they are to retain credible authority in areas of “limited statehood.” One of the key challenges for EAOs is to negotiate the relationship (and possible “hybridisation”) between their governance authority and service delivery systems and those of the state. Thus far, “convergence” is arguably most well-developed between the KNU and associated community-based organisations’ health delivery services, and those of the Kayin (Karen) State government.

Will non-state governance authority and service delivery regimes continue in parallel with those of the state, be gradually displaced, or undertake a process of convergence with state structures and systems? Much will depend on whether the government and international actors, including diplomats and donors, are willing to recognise the legitimacy of EAOs, and their modes of governance and service delivery. Meanwhile, EAOs are challenged to reform their governance practices, and develop rights-based, transparent and participatory of administration.

Different actors involved in post-conflict governance express diverse perceptions of what constitutes peace, development and good governance. Ethnic communities – particularly political elites – demand structural changes to the state and real autonomy. The Myanmar Army has historically opposed such changes, viewing them as a threat to national unity. The government has generally avoided this thorny issue by focusing on the development needs of ethnic communities, although Aung San Suu Kyi has committed herself in principle to a federal political settlement to decades of armed conflict. Still unresolved however, are the roles of EAOs as sub-national governance authorities, and service providers. In principle, EAO and associated civil society groups’ governance and service delivery systems can be the building blocks of the future, federal union of Myanmar. This will require international donors going beyond the usual parameters of peace-building and development support.[2]

In 2011 donor governments, civil society and private sector actors finalised the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States” in Busan, South Korea. The Busan Principles include commitments to “ownership of development priorities by developing countries; focus on results; inclusive development partnerships; transparency and accountability” (OECD). Moves towards local ownership, and greater equality between donor organizations and recipient states, are a positive development, in a context where aid agendas have often been dominated by Western donor countries. However, there are risks in strengthening state capacity in areas where alternative, competing, governance authorities exist, and the state is a party to armed conflict, such as Myanmar.

Given the international system’s focus on state sovereignty, prioritising national governments is probably unavoidable. Nevertheless, if international support to peace processes – which almost by definition occur in so-called ‘fragile states’ – are to reflect genuinely local realities, they must engage not only with the identities and interest of the state, but deepen agency to include the perspectives of non-state actors. The notion of “country ownership” should be extended to include political actors such as EAOs, and at least some civil society groups.

Francis Fukuyama argues that well-developed states offer certain inherent benefits, including an inclusive political order, respect for the rule of law, and widespread participation in the political process (see also Fukuyama 2014). He argues for an effective (strong and capable) state, which is impartial in the rational-bureaucratic sense, and inclusive of and accessible to all citizens. However, in conflict-affected countries such as Myanmar this may not be enough. In such contexts, state capacity, accountability and rule of law should be combined with locally perceived legitimacy on the part of all governance authorities – including “rebel rulers”.

Beyond standard peace-building and development packages

The Myanmar government, and international donors and aid agencies aiming to think and work politically, should move beyond standard peace-building and development packages based on strengthening the state, and adopt more conflict-sensitive approaches, including principled engagement with EAOs and other non-state actors. The aim should be to foster “the emergence of new political and social orders in areas of limited statehood” (Risse, p.28), in ways that can best benefit long-marginalised, vulnerable, and conflict-affected communities.

In the meantime, Myanmar’s EAOs face a two-fold challenge: to govern (and manage economic activities) in a manner which protects the rights and interests of conflict-affected ethnic communities; and to win acceptance (from the Myanmar government and Army, and international diplomats and aid agencies) of their political legitimacy, and recognition of their governance and service delivery roles. This will not be easy.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

The post is adapted from an article published in Journal of Contemporary Asia, November 2017: ‘“Hybrid Governance” and the politics of legitimacy in the Myanmar Peace Process’.

Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, working mostly on Myanmar/Burma and Mindanao. He is also a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.


[1] In August 2018 the Myanmar Army unleashed a brutal and deadly campaign of suppression against the Rohingya population of Rakhine State, as a result of which some 700,000 civilians fled to Bangladesh.
[2] For an analysis of Interim Arrangements, and how government and donors can best support peace-building in Myanmar, see Myanmar Interim Arrangements Research Project (2018).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

Christopher Finnigan

Posted In: Featured | Politics

Jaipur Palace


South Asia @ LSE welcomes contributions from LSE faculty, fellows, students, alumni and visitors to the school. Please write to with ideas for posts on south Asia-related topics.

Bad Behavior has blocked 6456 access attempts in the last 7 days.