The Elephants, the Peace Process, and the Blindmen in a Myanmar Hotel Ballroom

 The Joint Peace Fund, the group sponsoring the 2015 Ceasefire in Myanmar, sponsored a reception on International Peace Day at the Chatrium Hotel in September 2019.  I was there because like much of Yangon’s NGO world, I know that the Joint Peace Fund administers a huge pot of foreign aid that funds the “peace process”. The keynote speaker at the International Peace Day reception was European Union’s Ambassador to Myanmar and Chair of the Joint Peace Commission, Ambassador Kristian Schmidt.  He gave us a pep talk citing the Indian story of the four blind men who were asked to describe the elephant, where each grasped the trunk, tusk, body, and tail.

But the Ambassador’s point of course was not about blind men, but his belief that there is a peace process, i.e. the elephant, to be figured out.  He explained the people of Myanmar are the blind men and the peace process is the technical problem which will be figured out using the workshops, resources, and the legal formula the technocrats at the JPF identified.  In JPF’s world this means gender inclusivity, federalism, and the formulas of the NCA.

It was at this point that Schmidt’s talk became strange, as he repeatedly emphasized that Joint Peace Fund itself had “no agenda,” and that donors only want to assist Myanmar in the peace process.  But it was also emphasized that JPF funding requires “indicators” that according to its website “fall in line with [Joint Peace Fund’s] strategic priorities and meet its funding criteria.” In plain English “strategic priorities” are really a “political agenda,” not a technical formula. In other words, JPF indicators have identified the political agenda already. This is because the JPF is in fact what is called in development studies an “Anti-politics Machine.”  Donors bearing financial gifts arrive with pre-packaged programs that meet the goals they will fund, focused on “technical solutions” to problems of war and peace.   For the JPF, this includes goals for gender inclusivity, federalism, democratisation, the National Ceasefire, and so forth.

Schmidt dramatically concluded his speech by emphasising that the NCA was the “last chance” to end 70 years of civil war, preserve the sovereignty of Myanmar, and avoid another 70 years of conflict.

What about the other Elephant: the one in the room that no one speaks of?Ambassador Schmidt forgot another relevant elephant metaphor when describing the peace process and the Joint Peace Fund. He forgot the metaphor about the elephant in the room that all see, but all ignore.  There was another elephant in the ballroom of the Chatrium that all could see, but not discuss.

The elephant is the power of the donors to co-opt the political agenda via “strategic priorities.” The Joint Peace Fund funds projects that address the agenda of Ambassador Schmidt and his administrators.

For anyone who has applied for funding from the JPF will be asked a series of questions: “How are the results measurable relative to the JPF’s strategic priorities for the peace process?” “How are they oriented toward JPF funding priorities?”  And again, “How are they measurable?” The JPF grants administrator will wonder how the strengths and limits of Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace philosophy might be relevant – how could you find a measurable result in the same way that a workshop on “Promoting Youth Engagement of Peace and Federalism in the Central Area of Myanmar” would?

In the website of the Joint Peace Fund, it was notable for example in ignoring Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace philosophy, the effects of Ne Win’s Burmanisation policies on the peace process, the nature of Karen nationalism, or the relationship between the contents of academic curricula, nationalism and peace.

And thus the elephant in the room took shape.  The elephant is not the “peace process” as Schmidt asserted, but the “Anti-politics Machine” that is the Joint Peace Fund’s strategic agenda where the JPF’s values frame the peace process in a fundamentally different fashion.

The Power of the Purse

Foreign aid always implies a political agenda—after all donors do not indiscriminately dump cash from airplanes. Funding also always implies an unequal relationship between donors and recipients, which is why recipients are always second-guessing as to why they should receive the money. But, importantly, the donors are not second-guessing us!  This indeed was what the NGO people milling about the Chatrium Hotel, eating JPF’s cheese and olives, were doing. They were blindly feeling the elephant represented by bureaucrats from the Joint Peace Fund.  They want to make sure that their NGO is funded for the next budget cycle, whether or not their own Myanmar-related political goals are met or not.  This event was like many others conducted by the international Anti-politics Machine.

What else was missing in this guessing game, besides the views of the blind men? Most importantly perhaps the recipients could not point to yet a second elephant in the Chatrium ballroom—i.e. that the ceasefire process is largely regarded as stalled in many corners of Myanmar because military action continues unabated.  And most importantly the ceasefire agreement does not even extend to Rakhine State which was never part of the peace process in the first place and is a major source of political instability today.

The JPF as an Anti-Politics Machine

The good news is that wars do end. Myanmar’s civil wars have already gone on much longer than others in the modern world and are unlikely to set the record established by the premodern Hundred Years War fought between France and England (which really lasted 116 years), nowhere near the 140 years feared by Ambassador Schmidt. Countries do come together, separate, and create peace.  Ceasefires, peace agreements, and workshop attendance may be “measurable” milestones on the road to that elusive peace, but they are not peace in and of itself.  Positive peace comes from a legitimated consensus among peoples who peacefully work out compromises, i.e. they practice politics.

In Peace Studies we talk a lot about a positive peace that hopefully emerges from consensus and democratic institutions, as opposed to the oppressive negative peace found during the dictatorship in Myanmar after 1962.  Certainly, the countable workshops, projects, and programs funded by the Joint Peace Fund may be the tools of positive peace.  But workshop attendance is not peace itself, which is always rooted in the unmeasurable hearts, minds, and culture of the body politic.

The bigger problem is that the JPF programs are tools of an Anti-politics Machine, which assumes that only the JPF’s agenda is above politics, and that a Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) society will result when these tools are used.  Unfortunately, this makes taboo the unmeasurable political, philosophical, and cultural differences. This is because the JPF, by reducing peace to a technical problem, excludes the people of Myanmar from the negotiation and priority setting normal to politics. The result is an over-emphasis on the measurable process of program implementation and accountability, rather than actual democratic consensus building.  The people of Myanmar with their interest in understanding leadership decisions of people like Aung San Suu Kyi, Ne Win, and the forces of the ethnic nationalist movements assume differently. They believe that politics matters for the development of positive peace.

So ultimately the “Peace Process” is not Schmidt’s elephant in the ballroom of the Chatrium Hotel. Rather the elephant is the unequal relationship between donor and recipient.  This is the true elephant in the room, whether there are four blindmen attempting to describe it (like Ambassador Schmidt suggested), six blindmen as there are the Burmese version of the tale, or a roomful of donors ignoring issues potential recipients do not raise because the Anti-politics Machine’s purse blinds not just the supplicants, but the donors as well.