Government and ethnic delegates confirm the nationwide ceasefire draft on March 30, 2015 (Myanmar Peace Centre/Facebook)
A pending nationwide ceasefire deal may be Myanmar’s best shot at lasting peace in decades. But can it deliver?
Civil war has been a fact of life for Myanmar’s entire independent existence. For more than six decades, a staggering array of armed actors has battled the central government and each other, engendering complex and intractable patterns of violence across the country.
Since the start of top-down political reforms in 2011, Naypyidaw has made securing peace a priority, although its rhetoric has rarely lived up to its actions.
Nevertheless, last Tuesday, a negotiation team representing a coalition of 16 ethnic armed groups and their government counterparts announced that both sides had approved a draft nationwide ceasefire accord, the contents of which have not been publicly released.
Despite cautious optimism, this is unlikely to prove to be a watershed moment, particularly given that the announcement occurred during a period of ongoing, intense fighting in the Kokang region along the Chinese border.
As the peace process has a backdrop of intense fighting, the draft ceasefire is not necessarily a “ceasefire” in a military sense. Rather, it is best seen as a step towards normalising the status of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups in national political life, depending on how convincing the government is that its intentions can be trusted.
“Things are going well. You can say that we have overcome the first part with flying colours. [But] it’s the beginning of the process,” said Aung Naing Oo, a technical advisor at the government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre.
A number of key armed groups – including the well-armed United Wa State Army – are not represented by the ethnic negotiators, known as the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT). If confidences improve, he feels the national ceasefire framework can incorporate holdout groups further down the line. “You can build on the [initial] success, and try to get more on board,” he said.
Stakeholders on both sides of the divide will have to agree among themselves on what they want to bring to the table before the final ceasefire is signed. The NCCT is currently planning a conclave of ethnic leaders, probably in early May, to present a unified front at the next round of talks.
If a true ceasefire is signed, both sides will have 30 days to establish a code of conduct, and a framework for launching a political dialogue must be agreed within 60 days. After 90 days, that dialogue must commence. According to presidential spokesman Zaw Htay, “it will be an all-inclusive discussion on the future of our country… and a way forward” that includes thorny issues such as federalism, demobilisation and disarmament.
Although Myanmar’s military is not subject to civilian oversight, it is keenly aware of its serious image problem. As an institution, it increasingly has to take into account the country’s shifting political landscape, which now has institutions – such as parliament and the executive branch – outside of its direct command structure.
“The real question is not how [the military] can be held constitutionally accountable. It’s how they can be persuaded that it’s in their interests to support peace,” says one Western specialist familiar with the intricacies of the peace process. “I think there’s a sense around the country that … the ethnic minorities are legitimate stakeholders and need to be included more.”
Paradoxically, the military appears to have chosen to escalate hostilities in Kokang because its actions there are perceived as legitimate by a large proportion of Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority, particularly because the enemy is ethnic Chinese and heavily involved in the drug trade.
Peng Jiasheng, Kokang’s erstwhile leader, was forced out of power in a government offensive in 2009, but made a surprise reappearance with his Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in February, prompting a ferocious response from the military.
The government unrepentantly asserts that Peng is getting his just deserts. “If he wants to [pursue] national reconciliation honestly, he can do so not in a fighting way,” Zaw Htay said. “But he chooses to fight the regional government, and he is fighting our sovereignty.”
Elsewhere, the military is feeling pressure to de-escalate its engagements to bolster its legitimacy with the public and cement the legacies of both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Brig.-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing before nationwide polls scheduled for November. The latter is known to have political aspirations of his own, which may culminate in a run for the presidency in 2020.
The military’s ongoing operations have left many doubting its sincerity. “Even though we’ve agreed to the ceasefire agreement draft, the Burma Army has not withdrawn [its forces] from our land,” said Maing Paing La, spokesman for the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which is currently fighting alongside the MNDAA in Kokang.
“It may be very difficult to maintain the national ceasefire agreement,” he said.