Is ‘fragile and conflict-affected state’ a useful way to describe Myanmar?

After spending ten days there earlier this month, I barely even understand the question any more. Nothing like

That's Myanmar on the right
That’s Myanmar on the right

reality for messing up your nice neat typologies, or in this case, complicating my efforts to finalise a paper with the catchy title of ‘theories of change for promoting empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS)’.

That paper defines FCS as ‘incapable of assuring basic security, maintaining rule of law and justice, or providing basic services and economic opportunities for their citizens.’ So does Myanmar qualify?

At first sight, definitely. Myanmar is plagued by long-running civil wars along largely ethnic lines. We spent 3 days in the northern state of Kachin, home to an armed conflict that kicked off when the Beatles were still looking for their first recording contract (1961). The national government’s writ does not apply in large areas of the state, which are run by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the KIA.

Over the whole country there are dozens of long-running ethnically-based insurrections against the central government, although the election of a democratic government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has triggered hope in a peace process – talks were under way during my visit.

But even under ASSK, central government has maintained its traditional centralized, controlling tendency. The result is a brittle equilibrium between ethnic unrest and central control (both are mutually reinforcing), with neither the trust nor the institutions to allow for peaceful evolution; any misstep or misunderstanding could aggravate the conflict.

Kachin Independence Army
Kachin Independence Army

The conflicts are primarily ethnic (Myanmar has 135 different ethnic groups), sometimes buttressed by religion (Baptists, Catholics, Buddhists and the unhappy Muslim minority in Rakhine, which has prompted media coverage worldwide). Programmatic politics, based on more widely shared social identities, is nowhere to be seen, but politics based on ethnicity alone holds little promise of producing stability, because every ethnic minority includes even smaller minorities within its geographical boundaries. Autonomy for the Kachins just turns the spotlight on the rights of non-Kachin ethnic groups within the state.

Myanmar’s plentiful natural resources (jade, gold, timber, opium) layer the ‘curse of wealth’ over this panorama. Both the army and the Ethnic Armed Organizations have traditionally drawn money and power by controlling the production and/or transport of these, producing a difficult political economy where major interests are potentially threatened by the end of conflict.

But what struck me about Kachin was the level of stability of the conflict, or at least ‘organized chaos’ in the title of one report: this was not some shapeless, unpredictable mess like Somalia or Eastern DRC or South Sudan. We found a striking degree of cohabitation between ethnic armed groups and government: we visited the large KIO office in the (government-controlled) state capital Myitkyina and spoke to a KIO Central Committee member, who very kindly

Who you calling fragile?
Who you calling fragile?

photocopied the KIO departmental organigram  for us – what kind of civil war allows one side to openly hold court on the other side’s turf? The KIO-run hydro company supplies electricity to government-controlled areas (Myitkina has one of most reliable electric supplies in the country), and the government authorities duly pay their bills. Weird.

There are of course dangers in generalizing from Kachin – every conflict in Myanmar is different, some are much bloodier, others more chaotic, some are closer to peaceful resolution.

Overall conclusion? ‘Fragility’ means lots of different things in different parts of Myanmar. In the rapid process of political change that has led to the new NLD government and rekindled the peace process, we heard consistently that both local officials and elected representatives don’t really understand their roles – and that the relations between the different levels of government are shifting and evolving unpredictably as everyone tries to figure out what decentralisation actually involves. All this in the shadow of a still powerful military. Meanwhile, civil society organizations are trying to work out how to adapt to this fast-changing environment.

The conflict-affected parts exhibit different types of fragility, from the parallel administrations of Kachin to drug warlords to fragmented militias and armed groups.

Can you find Myanmar?
Can you find Myanmar?

So first, let’s talk about fragile contexts rather than fragile states. And second, let’s unpack the different kinds of fragility, perhaps building on last year’s OECD report that set out five clusters of fragility indicators; 1) violence; 2) access to justice for all; 3) effective, accountable and inclusive institutions; 4) economic inclusion and stability; and 5) capacities to prevent and adapt to social, economic and environmental shocks and disasters. Can you find Myanmar on their diagram?

And a final question to any regional gurus. It’s not just Myanmar – North-East India has a long running set of ethnic conflicts of its own. Taken together, this arc of conflict feels quite unique – any explanations? Is it some combination of mountain hideaways, ethnic fragmentation and incomplete state-building or is there some other explanation? Would love to hear some theories.

Big thanks to Tom Donnelly and Jo Rowlands on this post

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15 Responses to “Is ‘fragile and conflict-affected state’ a useful way to describe Myanmar?”
  1. Heather Marquette

    Colleagues of mine have written a lot about the politics of labelling countries as fragile (see or for example). ultimately, whatever the semantics, if 50% of the UK aid budget needs to be spent in fragile states, there’s a danger in narrowing the list down only to those most challenging environments in or at risk of widespread conflict where the capacity to absorb aid flows is probably the weakest.
    ps Myanmar is towards the bottom right, along with Bangladesh, Libya, Pakistan and Venezuela. Is there a prize…?

        • Jonathan Fisher

          Heather, reading your emails is always the highlight of my day.

          Great blog, Duncan, and I very much agree with you on needing to unpack fragility further – not least because even the same regions can be both fragile and non-fragile simultaneously depending on how people experience this.

          I don’t seem to be able to attach the article of mine that Heather kindly flagged but I’ll send you both a copy and am happy for you to share if you know how/think worthwhile.

  2. masood

    Like the ancient cities of Greece where the geography ( mountains and isolation) dictated the kind of institutions that emerged, the mountainous region spreading from Afghanistan to Burma is experiencing this choatic environment the moment the strong central authority that overrode the many identities disappeared and what underlay it reemerged. Take Afghanistan and the relative peace it enjoyed last century before the communist revolution of the late seventies threw up all the part of the iceberg that lay deep down in the sea. In all crises in this region the interesting aspect are the many identities that people take. A crisis could start as a communal or religious one but by the time it ends it could become an ethnic one. The people at the centre would go with the dominant identity at that particular time. All external agencies whether government, donor or projecr or politicians would be looked at as a resource while the agencies will talk in their own language the people will readily adopt their language to get the resource. Its not surpring to visit the same village on a different day with a politician talking of needs and problems and their solution and a project or ngo talking of level of empowerment. Communities would happily change their language as long as they can get their share of the resources. In the seventies some of the strong heriditary states on its borders had the capacity to tax chicken while the strong Pakistani state at times watches helplessly as hundreds of vehicles ply in the borderland as non custom paid vehicles. It would be i teresting to identify the many strong traditional instirutions that stabilise the choas

  3. Interesting post Duncan. The phenomenon of a strong centre and conflicted margins is perhaps more common than it might seem at first glance. Tom Parks and others conducted an excellent study a few years back for The Asia Foundation that explored these contested corners of Asia from Myanmar to the Philippines, Indonesia and Southern Thailand and Northeast India:

  4. Lisa Denney

    ODI and Saferworld have been doing some research in Myanmar over the last few months on access to justice. For me, one of the biggest problems with thinking of Myanmar in FCAS terms is that it tends to lead donors and NGOs to treat it as a statebuilding context, with an emphasis on strengthening primarily state institutions to improve delivery of services, etc. This to me would be a mistake if not done very carefully. Myanmar is not a statebuilding context, it’s a contested state context. Everything that external actors do has deeply political ramifications for the balance of power between the centre and the peripheries. For this reason alone, I’m not convinced the FCAS label is all that helpful here as it can push us in the wrong direction.

  5. Sharon Bell

    Indulge me a small moment as an academic fan-girl…I was going to comment that the work of Grimm, Lemay-Hébert & Nay has strongly informed how I’ve framed my description of Myanmar as a ‘fragile state’ (or not!) in my current PhD research…and here is Nicolas commenting! I will second what Lisa says regarding the focus of aid architecture being about peace & state-building. I’m researching the partnership between a small INGO and one of the many non-state armed groups in Myanmar to build an ethnic health system. A focus on state-building would consider this illegitimate. However, this ignores the emergent possibilities for transformation in conflict-affected rural communities (places I couldn’t obtain permission to visit). I’m really looking forward to your final paper. Can you make sure it’s ‘out there’ before I do my final edit on my literature review, please 😉 ?

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