Tamas Wells argues that the lack of peace settlement in Myanmar is not a clarion call for more international involvement.
In an article in the Myanmar Times this week (see link below) William Deng Deng argued that it is time for Myanmar to bring in outside experts to help to solve the country’s peace negotiations.
Drawing on his own experience in peace processes in South Sudan, he suggests that there is some international peace ‘know how’ that can be usefully passed on to Myanmar.
“What worked in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan could also work in the mountain passes of Kachin or Shan state”, he says.
I don’t doubt William’s own experience, or that there might be a place for international advice in Myanmar’s peace processes, but his message strikes me as a little naïve at best, and deeply problematic at worst.
As international advisers - that murky group of which I am a part too – we need to reflect on what areas, and how, we might usefully contribute.
In my mind there is a scale of different sectors or issues, and how useful international advice can be.
At one end of the scale are issues where there are solutions that are naturally transferable. It doesn’t matter if you are in the forests of South Sudan, or hills of Shan state, there are treatments for certain medical issues that will be the same. For example, the international advice from Save the Children or WHO in the area of child immunization is almost certainly transferable to Myanmar.
Then we move to middle ground issues like agriculture. There are certain technological innovations that might be beneficial the world over. But at the same time agriculture is embedded in particular social and cultural ideas and practices that are unique to different places. You can’t import agricultural solutions in quite the same way as you can vaccines.
Then we start to move toward the other end of the scale and those issues that are deeply contextually embedded, and where international advice is less transferable. I would put areas like peace, justice and democracy in this category.
If there are ideas that can be transferred from around the world, then it will take an enormous amount of work and discussion to contextualize them.
And on the other hand, if international advisers try to offer solutions based on cheaply imported models, then it can be deeply damaging. De-contextualised international advice can even serve to delay the development of local solutions or pragmatic accommodations.
Ways forward for peace processes, the development of democracy, or progress for justice are always going to be circumstance-attached. They can’t be brought in but rather need to be grown afresh in every new setting.
There is of course a place for international advisors in Myanmar. But we need to think strategically about what we are trying to offer and the degree to which our own knowledge is transferable.
As much as I wish advisers like William Deng Deng could help move Myanmar’s peace negotiations forward, I have my doubts.
Unfortunately, while international aid agencies want to help bring an end to conflict in Myanmar, peace processes are one of those areas that international advisers and agencies are least able to help.
So, contrary to what William Deng Deng suggests, the lack of peace settlement in Myanmar is not a clarion call for more international advisers.
But rather it should be a call to rethink the things that international advisers can, and can't, offer.