Joint Peace Fund interim director says year 2018 ‘very important for the peace process’

Mr Nigel Roberts, Interim Director of the Technical Secretariat of the Joint Peace Fund. Photo: Thet Ko for Mizzima

Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint sat down with Mr Nigel Roberts, Interim Director of the Technical Secretariat of the Joint Peace Fund this week to talk about his mission and the progress being made to bring peace to Myanmar.

As a prelude to the interview, Mr Roberts said he has been filling in between one director and another with the Joint Peace Fund, so he said he did not consider himself an expert on the Myanmar peace process. However, he did stress that he has a lot of experience in other countries, so he could refer to that and some of the lessons and comparisons there.

What do you think the main challenges for the Myanmar peace process in 2018 are?

Well first of all, at the end of this month you have the next UPC (Union Peace Conference). This I think is very important because there have been many questions asked about the speed and the effectiveness of the peace process, and in many quarters there has been a loss in confidence. So this offers an opportunity to reestablish and reinvigorate the process, particularly if there is an in-depth and progressive discussion of this issue of federalism and the articulation of some principles that provide the basis for real work next year. So hopefully that will be an outcome of the UPC and that that will help provide the momentum to take us through this year.

In addition, of course, that you have on the one hand the peace process but you also have different kinds of conflicts that fall outside the peace process in other parts of the country. So, up in the northeast you have a considerable amount of conflict at levels that are higher than in recent years and clearly not something that the peace process per se is managing to address at the moment. So that is a great concern.

The other concern, of course, is your northwestern border and the Rakhine crisis. Again, that falls outside the peace process that we are working on, but inevitably it affects the overall internal environment and of course the external perceptions of this country and of its peace process.

With your vast experience in crisis areas in other parts of the world, how do you see Myanmar could handle this crisis?

The experience I have had is quite varied and peace processes are immensely different from one part of the world to the other. I am quite often asked what lessons of best practice I can suggest from other countries. My impression, the older I get and the experience I have is that there are no best practices at all, though it is always important to try and see what other people did in other places, and particularly to talk to people who have been through the process of peace making.

What most of them will tell you, I am talking here about practitioners, people who have been negotiators, people who have been rebels, people who have been on the other side of the table, people who have come into positions of power after a peace agreement has been made. Most of what they can tell you I that, it is valuable, is about the mistakes they made, the things they wish they had not done, and most of those relate to fundamental human factors.

I have seen peace processes as successful as the one in East Timor and as unsuccessful as the one between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In both cases and in the cases of others I have seen also, many factors form the basis of the struggle and the process of resolution. There are always profound historical factors. There are usually cultural and ethnic issues. There are always economic interests. These things are in different ways fundamentally present in all of these processes. The factor, however, that makes the difference is whether powerful individuals, those leaders who hold real power, actually wish to end the conflict or not.

That may sound very simplistic, perhaps it is, but that is certainly the common factor between peace processes that ultimately deliver and those that fail. Those leaders who have power – there may be several, there may be one significant and outstanding leader, there may be a number of each side, there may be many sides, but those who have power and have powerful followings have to really want to make peace and to resolve their differences. Normally what that means is the most powerful among them have to give up stuff they don’t want to give up and they therefore have to persuade those who rely on them that the price is worth paying.

With the Myanmar peace process there are two questions, one is the timeframe, the Myanmar peace process could drag on for many more years, so what is a kind of timeframe the process will take? Second, is the progress. We had the previous government and now we have a government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy which has been more than two years in power, there is a question of how much progress has been made. So with these two questions, what do you think? Is Myanmar moving forward enough to see peace sooner or later?

Well, these questions of timeframes are always difficult. One thing I have learned from my experience elsewhere is that when it appears that there is a real possibility of a peace process you will find a wave of enthusiasm – both domestic and international – and extremely high expectations around the timetable.

I remember my experience of this is the West Bank and Gaza in 1993 when the meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat took place at the White House with President Clinton. Those of us involved, and that includes my Israeli colleagues who were deeply involved in the negotiations, felt that within a year we would be a decisive way towards peace. Now of course that process is still far from being concluded. It was an example, though of how the desire of those involved in a peace process outruns their judgment about how realistic it is to get things done quickly. Some people say there is some sort of mathematical relationship between the length of the conflict and the length of the peace process. I am not sure I buy that but if you look at the Myanmar situation, this is a very long running and therefore very complex series of conflicts. It is complex because there are so many actors, there have been so many stages, and the origins of what I would call the “modern peace process” in Myanmar go way back to just after the Second World War.

I was here two years ago, at the times when the JPF (Joint Peace Fund) was set up. I paid a brief visit here. And I remember the enthusiasm, and the excitement, and the expectations about how quickly it might be possible to move towards a full settlement of these conflicts. It is easy now to look back and say, well we were all far too optimistic, that’s true, but at the same time it’s also easy to take the opposite position, in other words, having felt such high expectations, to actually feel extremely depressed and despairing about the process.

A few years ago, in my last job in the World Bank, I was the director of one of so-called world development reports, and this one was on conflicts, security and development, and we looked at global conflict and global conflict trends. One of the major conclusions of the work was that psychological factors among leaders and followers are the real determinants of peace processes, not least because of what we call the “cycle of expectations”. As I said earlier, it is very common to have high expectations and the beginning of a promising process but to lose those expectations to an excessive extent when things go wrong. And things always go wrong. Every peace process is marked by relapses, backsliding, mistakes, bad calculations, unexpected events. It is very difficult to actually tell, first of all, how long the process should take, second, the difference between one’s own impression and failure of the process itself.

So in this case I think we are in a cycle of depression, at the moment, but it would be premature to say the peace process had failed. I think that would be a misjudgment  and far too early a judgment.

Now having said that, there are many transitions occurring in Myanmar. First is a war-to-peace transition – this is one we work on in the JPF. Second is an economic transformation> The country is emerging from isolation and moving towards the kind of economic potential that this country has and deserves and should have achieved many years ago. Third, though, you have a democratic transition, where you have a civilian government in this uneasy balance between a military establishment and the emergence of democracy. That is leading towards an election in 2020. That election puts pressure on this peace process. It means that there is a danger that the peace process can become instrumentalized in a conflict between the democratic process and the vestiges of the past. Therefore, there is a need to progress quickly with the peace process so that it doesn’t get in some sense submerged or left behind in preparations to the 2020 election. For that reason, 2018 is very important for the peace process itself.

So you are talking about 2018 and 2019 in which progress should be quickly made?

Correct, and particularly this year because when you come to 2019, you are already moving into the election cycle.

In this context, what are the main areas that the Joint Peace Plan operates in?

So I will say a few words about who we are and what we do. For me what is most fascinating and worthwhile about this peace process is the way in which it is a domestic peace process. So I have worked in 15 to 20 other peace processes in the Middle East, in Africa, in South Asia and in the Far East this is by far the most prominently self-owned peace process of all the ones I have worked in. That is what gives hope to this peace process because it is domestically generated and managed. That means that we as a Joint Peace Fund are here as a servant of Myanmar’s own peace process. We do not have our own agenda in that sense; we are here to support the national agenda.

We do that in different ways. Essentially in three ways. The first is to support the key elements of what I would call the formal peace process. That is the negotiations and the national dialogues, the ceasefire monitoring mechanisms – in other words, the two pillars of the NCA – as well as peace-making at a societal level. So we have a number of programmes that encourage CSO’s and regional based groups to peace issues, to understand the Myanmar peace process and to know how they themselves can become involved in it.

We also do a lot of research and the dissemination of that research on the Myanmar peace process also bringing in interesting examples from other countries’ experiences but focusing on the peace process. Because in our view not enough information about what is going on is made available to the public in a form that is digestible. So those are the three main things that we focus on, and of those, up to this point, the maximum emphasis has gone into supporting the formal process. So we provide support to the government, to the NRPC, the signatories, to ENAC, in preparation for joining the peace process. We are available to anybody interested in peace-making who wishes to have our support, and our support can consist of logistical support, technical assistance and advice. We have quite a large staff here who are experienced both within Myanmar and outside in peace process work and therefore available to interact with all of the players on demand, if you like, in so far as those services are requested.

Why is development so important when it comes the peace process in Myanmar?

In many countries that I have worked in, the notion of confidence-building is essential to the peace process. And I’ll come to what you are asking in a second if you will bear with me. What happens when there is war, and particularly prolonged war is there is a fundamental breakdown of trust. Authorities either government or non- government authorities have as one of their main priorities to re-establish citizen trust and that citizen trust is trust in institutions, in one another, and trust in governing authorities.

One of the best ways to establishing trust is to provide some kind of tangible benefit, now that benefit can be many things depending on what people need most. Often it is security; sometimes it is justice, but often also it is economic development, it is not always economic development I think trust has to be established in relation to the issue that causes mistrust in the first place or where injustice is most deeply felt. But in cases where that has an economic component – let’s say you have a generation of unemployed young men and women with nothing much to do nursing grievances against whatever system put them in that place then there is a very powerful role for economic development and job creation. Either direct job creation through government activity or indirect through private investment so that part of the peace-making process can be extremely important. I think it would be a mistake to think that it would be the golden key to peace-making, it is not, the golden key is usually to do with justice and very often also with feeling safe.

But when I go back to the work we did with global conflict we did say in our conclusion as a sort of formula jobs, justice and security. So in the Myanmar case, I do think the space for economic development as an aspect of the peace process is extremely important. It is not something the Joint Peace Fund does, the reason for that is this is an expensive business, and there are many conventional donors and government departments who are very experienced in providing health services, infrastructure, job creation and so forth. It would not make sense for us to try and duplicate what they are doing – but we certainly support it.

What do you think of the desire and political commitment of the main stakeholders in  Myanmar peace process?

I think in any peace process people have different interests the longer a conflict continues in some cases, the more varied, and in some cases perverse, those incentives can become. In a conflict of this kind, unfortunately, there are many leaders whose interests remain with continued conflict or continued stalemate there are of course many other leaders in all faction who want something different who understand that peace not only benefits their people but benefits them as powerholders and leaders. What you would hope is eventually those people will outnumber and overwhelm people for whom there is too much interest in continuing things as they are.

The peace process in Myanmar is very much a political issue linked to the right of self-determination of many nationalities. Many are saying this cannot be solved without amending the 2008 Constitution will such changes be critical in deciding future progress, what do you think?

I think the theme of the next UPC is about changing the constitution when we are talking about a federalist system that will help bring about an end to the war we are clearly talking about something different from what you have today. What that looks like I could not say, and it is not my place to say either. But I think there is clarity in the minds of many of those going into these discussions that a viable form of federalism, something in which the country will retain its union but in which ethnic or otherwise differentiated groups will have their full rights is something that will have to come out of that process.

What is the role of the media in the Myanmar peace process, how can we actively help?

I think the role of the media is extremely important. How citizens form their views is largely dependent on media. There are of course many forms of media today including of course social media. Social media often reinforces one’s pre-existing judgments and positions and therefore sometimes does not play such a healthy role as mainstream media can. But if we are taking particularly about mainstream media it seems to me essential that you have a media in Myanmar, and this is a national media, that disseminates facts and information so that people, ordinary citizens, are given the power to make up their mind about what is true and what is false and what they should support and what they should reject.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Only that it has been an immense privilege to be able to work in this country for the last six months and to have the opportunity to act as a witness and hopefully as a supporter of a peace process that has great potential as long as the leaders maintain the moral courage necessary to see it through to its conclusion.

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