There is a real possibility that Myanmar’s 60-year history of ethno-national insurgencies might be coming to an end. After decades of stagnation and intermittent fighting, both the “ethnic armed organizations” (EAOs) and the government in Naypyidaw agreed in 2013 to begin negotiating a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
Most EAOs have already signed bilateral ceasefires with government forces, which have allowed them the breathing room to focus on the NCA and begin coordinating a detailed political agenda. Three recognized armed groups, however, have still not signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement: Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Kachin Independence Army. This piece looks at the Kachin case to argue that while smaller EAOs benefit from bilateral ceasefires, the Kachin group’s interests are better served by waiting until the NCA is completed.
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Just as Naypyidaw was preparing to sign ceasefires with other armed groups throughout the country in 2011, fresh fighting erupted between government forces and the KIA. The group’s control of important jade mines and other natural resources when the country was increasingly engaging with international industry may be partially to blame for renewed aggression in a state where an oral ceasefire had more or less held since 1994.
Following attacks on the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and its political wing the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in late November 2014, many EAOs condemned the military’s actions, resulting in yet another delay in the next NCA drafting negotiations.
The KIO is the second largest EAO in Myanmar today. Moreover, it is the largest and leading member of the main ethnic political alliance the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC). In total, it has four to five times more troops at its disposal than the second-largest EAO in the organization. Indeed, on September 1, 2014, the Karen National Union (KNU) suspended its membership in the UNFC, following complaints that the KIO was exercising too much control over the organization.
With the KIO having such influence in Myanmar’s peace process and in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) negotiations, specifically, it is worth asking why hasn’t this EAO in particular signed a bilateral ceasefire?
It is not for lack of effort. Rather, it may be for lack of will. At recent talks between the KIO and government forces, the KIO declined any ceasefire agreement that did not recognize their political rights. Such recognition is outside the scope of existing ceasefire agreements with other EAOs, and is a major sticking point in the NCA process. Meanwhile, the organization refused to meet with military leaders in Myanmar, demanding that arrangements be made for negotiations in a third party country-presumably Thailand. This December, the KIA cancelled its monthly meetings with the Burmese army, further distancing itself from the possibility of a negotiated settlement. While all of this is certainly understandable considering government actions against the KIO and is not meant to paint the organization in an unfair way, it does shed light on the strategic calculations of insurgency groups.
Large EAOs like the KIO will behave in markedly different ways than smaller ones. Less influential EAOs will choose to cooperate in political alliances to give themselves more leverage to achieve shared interests; they expect to make certain compromises as the weaker party. Larger forces, like the KIO/KIA, however, will seek to create an alliance of smaller EAOs that will give it access to just enough political capital to guarantee its interests in a way it could not hope to do if it were operating alone. While the KIO will have to ensure that it does not step on the crucial interests of its smaller allies, it need not expect to have to water-down its own demands.
Despite delays, the next round of NCA negotiations is expected to take place before the end of the year. While no one can say for sure, it seems likely that the NCA will be signed before or shortly after the 2015 elections in Myanmar. At this critical juncture, it is imperative to understand the motivations of the different EAOs as they cooperate not only on the ceasefire agreement, but also in the proceeding political negotiations, which will be essential if Myanmar is ever to become a post-conflict state. As I have alluded here, this cooperation is far more complicated than a simple dichotomy of government versus (minority) ethnic armed groups.