Since coming to power in 2011, the Thein Sein administration has made Myanmar’s peace process and reconciliation with ethnic armed groups a top policy priority. As such, it has put tremendous effort into finalizing a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
The ideal NCA that the administration envisioned would have brought to a halt ongoing fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups, primarily those along the China and Thailand borders – a necessary precursor before establishing a federal state. With this agreement, it is not necessarily the intent of the administration to bring an end to 60 years of ethnic tensions overnight by delivering a comprehensive peace agreement. Instead, the aim is to put a stop to continuing warfare between the various factions and create a platform for further dialogue between key stakeholders that the next elected government can then build upon.
As a first step, 15 ethnic armed groups were identified to participate in negotiations led by representatives of the administration’s peacemaking team along with the Myanmar military and other individual armed ethnic factions. Talks began in August 2011. Many ethnic representatives stalled and demanded the inclusion of additional groups, citing previous agreements and expressing concern regarding the military’s constitutional role, among other issues.
Regardless, by the October 15, 2015 deadline to sign a final cease-fire agreement, eight of the 15 groups agreed to become signatories and formally conclude the deal, with the stipulation that the government leave the door open for political dialogue and inclusion of other ethnic groups at a later point in time. Local and international perceptions on the deal are split, with supporters calling it a “historic victory” for Myanmar’s peace process and critics calling it “an inconclusive deal” that was hastily reached to present an illusion of peace and progress. Before the deal can be assessed, we should look at the relevant facts and considerations regarding the NCA.
Firstly, it is important to note that while a ceasefire agreement between the government and eight major ethnic armed groups has been signed, this is one step in a long process to sort out an agreeable solution to protection issues, governance, and resource sharing. These groups, according to the agreement, are still allowed to retain their weapons. Moreover, the balance of power between the central government and ethnic regions has not yet been discussed; each state has a constitutionally-created parliamentary body that technically is imbued with the authority to govern the state.
On its face, one cannot dismiss the possibility of backtracking should those discussions not turn out as expected. However, for the time being, parts of Myanmar that once experienced constant conflict can enjoy some semblance of peace and hope for continued, productive talks between ethnic leaders and the government. To quote Ko Min Zin, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, “talking is definitely better than shooting.” The number of lives and property this civil war already has claimed is a testament to why some form of deal is better than no deal at all.
Secondly, critics raise concern over the Myanmar military’s ongoing skirmishes with armed groups from Kachin, Kokang, and the Palaung groups that did not sign the NCA. Two of Myanmar’s largest and best equipped armed groups, the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, did not sign.
However, if we look at groups that did sign on to the NCA, they include the Karen National Union (KNU) and the “Restoration Council of Shan State” faction of the Shan State Army, both major players in their particular regions that had been unable to reach any form of deal with the Myanmar government in over 60 years. Most notably, the KNU has been involved in one of the world’s longest running insurgencies, having taken up arms in 1949 to target the then-U Nu government. Having them at the table signals a sense of assurance to other ethnic groups that might still harbor deep skepticism toward Myanmar’s political institutions, which are still largely dominated in part by the military.
Additionally, there is room for optimism. Once a political dialogue begins within 90 days of the signing of the NCA, the signatories can play a crucial role in brokering a deal between the government and those that have not yet signed. In a recent interview, KNU Chairman Mu Tu Say Poe said: “Looking ahead, we who have signed the NCA, can play a role in facilitating a more effective dialogue and meaningful discourse between the government and the remaining ethnic armed groups.” In order to make that process more credible, he urged the government to rethink its offensive military strategy toward these groups as a gesture of good faith.
Thirdly, the ethnic groups’ deep seated mistrust toward the military prevents them from going all-in, so to speak, out of fear that their position to negotiate with the government in the future might be compromised. Critics highlight the Myanmar military’s declared “six-point principle” which stipulates that all ethnic armed groups signing the ceasefire agreement must adhere to the controversial 2008 constitution, a particular sticking point for most ethnic groups. The constitution institutionalizes the military in governance and awards the most powerful ministries to the military. According to the Transnational Institute’s Myanmar Policy Briefing, the sentiment among ethnic groups was that “acceptance of the present political system could mean envelopment in a constitutional straitjacket that will make meaningful dialogue impossible.”
At the heart of it all, it comes down to a matter of trust and with ethnic groups in Myanmar. It is not only about what a deal entails, but also about the credibility of the person(s) who brings said deal to the table. A good example of successfully tackling this scenario is the ceasefire agreement signed between the Myanmar government and the Shan, Wa, and Kokang groups back in the late 1980s. Unable to initially reach a deal, then-Prime Minister U Khin Nyunt utilized imprisoned drug lord and ethnic Kokang militia leader, Lo Hsing Han, as an intermediary to continue the negotiations in exchange for his amnesty. The strategy worked and a ceasefire was signed in a matter of months. Applying the same logic, the influence of ethnic groups who have signed the NCA in trying to bring the other unsigned groups to the discussion might very well turn out to be a success.
To conclude, it is safe to assume that Myanmar’s NCA is a step in the right direction, and that unlike prior deals during junta rule, this one entails more accountability and transparency and the involvement of several international organizations and watchers. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But then again, realistically speaking, what is the better alternative?
The issue with critics of Myanmar, and of this NCA in particular, is in part a mentality of expecting too much too soon. Like the overall democratic transition, the road to total peace in Myanmar is going to be long and precarious. Idealistic desires to have the perfect solution to an intractable problem cannot be allowed to prevent immediate progress. Sometimes, it is necessary to work with what’s been presented to you and to find short-term solutions while continuing to solve long-term problems.
Hla Hpone “Jack” Myint is a research assistant at Inle Advisory Group, a Washington, D.C.-based boutique advisory firm focused on investment opportunities in Myanmar. He is also a Prospect Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi Nobel Peace Prize Fund Scholar.