By The Economist
October 15, 2015
ON FEBRUARY 12th 1947 General Aung San, the father of independent Burma, signed the Panglong agreement with representatives of the Shan, Chin and Kachin people—three of the largest of the many non-Burman ethnic groups that today make up about two-fifths of Myanmar’s population. The agreement said that an independent Kachin state was “desirable”, and promised “full autonomy in internal administration” to “Frontier Areas”, as today’s ethnic states were then known. Aung San was assassinated just over five months later. Under the 60 years of mostly military rule that followed, the spirit of the Panglong agreement has never been honoured.
With all the optimism of the flourishing commercial capital of Yangon, where chic bars and restaurants are popping up, it is easy to forget that Myanmar remains embroiled in several of the world's longest-running civil wars. Over the years scores of ethnic militias have taken up arms against the central government. For six decades the Burmese army justified its repressive rule by saying it was essential to hold the country together. The government has signed ceasefires with many of the ethnic armies, but some have broken down. More than 20 years ago a ceasefire was agreed with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the Kokang region of Shan state, yet ongoing fighting with that group has cost over 100 lives and displaced thousands of civilians, many of whom have fled across the border to China. The latest, signed to great fanfare on October 15th by President Thein Sein, a former general, included just eight of the 15 armed rebel groups. Among those that did not sign are the United Wa State Army, which operates on the border with China, and the Kachin Independence Army, the largest ethnic militia. Meanwhile, mob violence against Muslim Rohingyas that began in 2012 in the western state of Rakhine points to further conflict. Thousands have since fled by sea and overland, often aided (or kidnapped) by human traffickers.
In recent years the government has pursued reform more than repression. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San's daughter, was freed from years of house arrest. America lifted crippling sanctions against the country, and Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar. Two years later, Miss Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party contested 44 of the 46 open seats. It won 43 of them; Miss Suu Kyi now sits in parliament in Naypyidaw. The NLD is favoured to do well in Myanmar's general election on November 8th, and many Burmese would like to see her assume the presidency. But she remains ineligible due to a constitutional provision barring those with foreign children from the top job (Miss Suu Kyi’s children are British—many believe the provision was written to keep her out of office).
Many complain that the pace of political reform that began in 2010 has slowed or even stalled. But that has not stopped foreign investment from flowing in: between 2010 and 2013 Myanmar’s foreign investment nearly tripled—a rate exceeding that of any other ASEAN country except the Philippines (though admittedly from a tiny base). It is not hard to see why. Myanmar sits between the markets of the two most populous countries in the world, China and India. Meanwhile, the workforce in neighbouring Thailand, a manufacturing powerhouse, is ageing and growing more expensive. Myanmar’s population of 51m is both young and cheap. The country abounds in natural resources, including gold, jade, timber, rubies, oil and natural gas. Yet many of those resources lie in territory controlled by ethnic armies. One more reason why many Burmese want peace.