Over the past year, the Peace Donor Support Group - which includes aid agencies from Norway, the European Union, the UK, Australia and the UN, as well as the Norwegian-has pledged nearly US$30 million to support peace-building in conflict-affected communities. The group will be funding humanitarian relief, demining, job training and helping schools teach in ethnic minority languages, through government channels.

But these actions largely ignore “the elephant in the room” - the military - and its role in the ongoing conflict, said the Burma Partnership, which is calling for a negotiated political settlement, or a binding peace accord, between the government and all the armed groups.

Although the government has signed preliminary ceasefires, fighting continues in Myanmar’s northern Kachin and Shan states, where a $2.5 billion oil and gas pipeline (the Shwe pipeline leading to China) is set to be completed by 2013. A Ta’ang youth group has linked the pipeline to land confiscations, forced labour and an increased military presence along the pipeline.

The government’s position is the pipeline is needed to supply energy and cash - to a country where some 25 % of the population is connected to the power grid. But such reforms have yet to trickle down to still-isolated communities, say activists. “Even though the international community believes that the government has implemented political reforms, it doesn’t mean those reforms have reached ethnic areas, especially not where there is increased militarization along the Shwe pipeline, increased fighting between the Burmese Army and ethnic armed groups and negative consequences for the people living in these areas,” said a member of the Ta’ang youth group. More than 75,000 people are displaced in Myanmar's northern Kachin State.

Peace or development first ?

Pitted against each other are two visions of peace-building. Some ethnic leaders want to bring peace first followed by development, while others are pushing for development first and peace later. This “serious tension” is playing out even within the ethnic groups, said MPSI head Charles Petrie, the former UN resident and humanitarian coordinator. “The Karen people have gone through 63 years of war and they have seen past ceasefires that have failed. You have within the KNU different views on how to move forward.” The KNU and other ethnic groups have repeatedly asked for political dialogue as a first step to reaching peace. Petrie admitted there is an urgent need for trust-building in conflict zones. “The real concern of activists and civil society groups is the fact that the political process hasn't started or has not been developed sufficiently far enough… On the part of government officials, there does seem to be a commitment to dialogue, but I think that some of the groups want a clearer idea of how that is going to proceed,” Petrie told IRIN.

According to Petrie, MPSI’s aim is to provide immediate support for the tentative ceasefires through humanitarian relief as well as building trust between the government and ethnic minority communities through development projects. MPSI is funding projects in Rakhine, Chin, Shan and Mon states.

2012.11 IN-IRIN