Insights and Analysis

Policy Dialogues for Peace in Myanmar

January 30, 2019

By Nicola Williams

When President Thein Sein assumed office in 2011, the international community rushed to assist Myanmar’s democratization and its efforts to resolve the many armed conflicts that have fractured the state for 70 years. Fast-forward to 2019, however, and the giddy excitement of successful elections and ambitious peace negotiations has faded. While millions of aid dollars have been spent on peacebuilding, we face a sobering reality. Conflict is currently increasing in Rakhine and Shan States. The formal peace process is on life support. Where do we go from here? How do we foster dialogue between Myanmar’s warring factions that will lead to a peaceful and functioning state for all?

Debating the structure of the state

There are many causes of conflict in Myanmar. The structure of the state, how power is centralized or shared, and the historical struggle of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) for a federal system of government that affords them political and cultural autonomy are foremost among them. When EAOs and political parties talk about the kind of state and government they want, the conversation revolves around power sharing. Yet it has struck me, over several years living in Myanmar, that many groups inside the country know more about governments in Europe or America than they do about the existing system in their own country.

Much of the technical training and assistance provided to Myanmar since 2011 by international experts has quite naturally focused on the experiences of other countries. At the same time, acquiring a detailed understanding of Myanmar’s system of governance and developing the technical skill to make effective policy or enact reforms were neglected. The military knows well the structure and operations of the state they created, but the absence of this knowledge among nonstate armed groups has limited their ability to negotiate for reforms as equals. Many groups talk about changing the constitution, for example, but which part, exactly, is often missing from the conversation.

A growing awareness of these gaps inspired The Asia Foundation to launch its Policy Dialogues for Peace, initiating a program of training, dialogue, and technical support to help EAOs, policy think tanks, MPs, and political parties understand the structures and operations of the existing government, so that conflict parties can negotiate from a position of equal knowledge, and EAOs can be prepared for new forms of regional self-government when they arrive.

Fiscal aspects of a democratic federal system

Policy Dialogues for Peace situates the reform debate within Myanmar’s existing political and legal context. It asks what can be changed even if the formal peace process is frozen. A major focus is fiscal federalism. The specially designed curriculum analyzes the core economic building blocks of fiscal federalism—revenue sharing, tax harmonization, transfers and grants, and equalization—and unpacks other central issues in Myanmar’s peace process as well, such as natural resource management.

Myanmar soldier with rifle. Photo/Warin Keawchooku/

Creating new governance systems is not just a political process of “power sharing;” it is a technical process of creating concrete administrative and fiscal arrangements to allow those powers to exist. With new powers come new roles and responsibilities for subnational government—the level at which nonstate armed groups hope someday to hold more power. How you pay for what you want to provide to local populations, and the fiscal relationship with the central government, will be important parts of that future federal system.

While conducting this course, we discovered that many people were seeing public financial data for the first time. The common assumption that the national government gave “no revenue” to the states came up against the reality of something that does just that—the General Grant. Some groups who championed state/region fiscal autonomy were surprised to learn that the central government is the source of over 90 percent of some state and region budgets.

During one policy dialogue, an EAO representative shouted at me for teaching the 2008 constitution, which established Myanmar’s current system of government and gave the military its privileged role in power and politics. I explained that reforming a constitution with which they disagreed would require reading it thoroughly to know exactly which parts had to be changed and how to negotiate for those changes. Later, this same group asked my colleagues and me to review a range of working documents in light of the 2008 constitution to prepare for a new round of peace negotiations.

What can be done immediately, and what requires a long view?

Tawa, Myanmar: A peasant walks along the primitive bamboo footbridge across the canal of Bago river. Photo/eFesenko /

Contested though it may be, there is room for incremental change and reform within the framework of the 2008 constitution. No constitutional provision, for example, prevents the central government from sharing more revenues from resource extraction with ethnic states. There are also numerous provisions, often overlooked, allowing states and regions to collect taxes themselves, a keystone of self-government at the subnational level. And the constitution makes no provision for elected government at the local level, a gaping omission that, if rectified in law and policy, could radically change the tenor of representative government in contested areas. Meanwhile, the Union government has launched a major administrative reform by transferring the military-run General Administration Department (GAD) to civilian control, effectively demilitarizing a ubiquitous bureaucracy that is present in more than 17,000 wards and village tracts nationwide.

These are policy reforms that directly address the structural causes of conflict in Myanmar. As the peace process falters, with key armed groups withdrawing from negotiations, incremental reforms can offer a way forward. Myanmar is currently decentralizing and demilitarizing, although it has a long way to go. Equipping EAOs to identify and pursue political changes is a vital step on the path to peace.

Supporting the peace process, and wider peace processes

The formal peace process will likely continue for many years, as have the conflicts it hopes to resolve. There is simply not enough political capital or trust in the process to expect a significant outcome by 2020, the government’s declared target. Reforms should aim to streamline the burdensome architecture of the peace process and focus on ways to develop and debate substantive content.

Our work addresses what can be done now to support the national peace, reconciliation, and state-building agenda and ensure that conflict parties can negotiate on an equal footing. This includes increasing the expertise of conflict parties in the technical aspects of federalism, decentralizing and demilitarizing local governance structures, ameliorating the underlying causes of conflict at the national level, and devolving fiscal and administrative powers to help pave the way for a future federal system.

Helping EAOs improve their current capacity to govern at the subnational level is also a priority. Over decades of armed conflict, ethnic community groups and EAOs have erected parallel systems of public administration in the areas they control. How these parallel institutions are to be integrated into a future political system will be part of federalism discussions for years to come, but they can also contribute to decentralization of the current system in conflict-affected areas.

Myanmar’s path to peace was never going to be a straight line. There is still much to do, both locally and nationally, through many different peace processes, in support of the overarching goal: to build a democratic federal structure viewed as legitimate by all of Myanmar’s diverse population.

Nicola Williams is a program manager for the Peace and Transitions Team at The Asia Foundation in Myanmar. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


Related locations: Myanmar

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for a great post Nicola – indeed the fiscal system is the often neglected backbone for a discussion of the aspirations of conflicting groups. It has the advantage of grounding political concerns in concrete policies. Of course, in a context like Myanmar’s the political dimension cannot fade away – often groups are as concerned with their ‘freedom from’ a central framework as their ‘freedom to’ do certain things within it. I felt during my time in country that this difference lay behind much of the use of the term federalism. Both aspects must be considered, but groups like TAF can certainly contribute in the latter even if less able to in the former. Keep up the good work!

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