Two more ethnic groups recently agreed to sign the Myanmar government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA). The ceasefire accord signed by the New Mon State Party and Lahu Democratic Union already has eight ethnic armed groups as signatories. The two new additions would probably participate in the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. The third meeting of the conference will likely be convened in February for a discussion of fundamental principles on federalism in Myanmar.
This development represents a step forward under the Myanmar Peace Process. Upon coming to power in March 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi had said that her government would see making peace with the different ethnic armed groups as a top priority. The 21st Century Panglong Conference began on August 31, 2016. But, two meetings later, it is difficult to see how the range of demands made by the ethnic armed groups could be reconciled with the interests of the Myanmar armed forces (also known as Tatmadaw).
Notwithstanding any progress made in the peace process, there are reasons to believe that if change does not come within the Tatmadaw and there is no consensus with all the ethnic armed groups, the potential for conflict settlement in Myanmar is slim.
First, the issue of a federal army has been in constant debate since the peace process was instituted. The Tatmadaw continues to insist that there should be a single army under the new federal arrangement. The ethnic armed groups, however, prefer having a federal army, which could allow them to keep their respective armed forces.
Essentially, the Tatmadaw deems that the ethnic armed groups will be a threat to territorial integrity if they are to retain their weapons and personnel. It is also concerned that the union government would have little authority or control over the regional governments if there is a federal army.
On the other hand, the ethnic armed groups argue that their forces have to be retained to serve either as a deterring factor or as a counter in the event of unexpected or unprovoked attacks from the Tatmadaw. Any conflict settlement arising from the process will not be sustainable if there is an element of mistrust between the negotiating parties.
Trust cannot be built if attacks by the Tatmadaw continue alongside the civilian government’s efforts to conduct the peace process. Early this year, the Tatmadaw launched attacks on the Kachin and northern Shan States, triggering renewed clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The Tatmadaw’s actions also strengthen the case for retaining the ethnic armed forces.
Second, there is also the issue of “secession,” which has been highly contentious in Myanmar since its independence in 1947. Under the NCA, all signatories must agree to nondisintegration of the union. This means that the ethnic armed groups cannot demand independence nor can they support any movement toward breaking up the union.
The ethnic armed groups are willing to agree to the nondisintegration principle but prefer not to have the term “nonsecession” included. Some groups wanted the term to be conditional on the provision of basic rights. Under the 1947 constitution, ethnic minorities were granted the right to self-determination as well as the right to secede but only ten years after the constitution took effect. These ethnic armed groups, therefore, argue that the insistence on “nonsecession” runs contrary to the 1947 constitution, which reflected the spirit of the 1947 Panglong Agreement that established a formula for federalism agreed by Aung San and other ethnic leaders.
However, preservation of the union has been a longstanding belief of the Tatmadaw. It was also a justification for military coups and intervention in Myanmar. For example, General Ne Win conducted a coup against the U Nu government in 1962 on the justification of preserving the union and preventing it from breaking up. As such, it is hard to see how the Tatmadaw would compromise on this belief.
The Tatmadaw’s uncompromising stance could trigger the ethnic armed groups to maintain arms and continue the fight. On the other hand, continued violence could provide further justification for maintaining military operations against these armed groups. In a sense, it is possible that this cycle of violence will continue unless a political consensus can be reached between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups.
In Myanmar, there is no dispute among observers that the Tatmadaw remains the main political actor. Any significant political change would have to start from within the Tatmadaw. Myanmar’s first civilian government since 1962 operates under continued military control over key areas such as defense and border affairs. This stems from the Tatmadaw’s ideology, which provides for military dominance over political affairs.
The National League for Democracy (NLD)’s rule is shaky and the government will definitely not risk offending the Tatmadaw in order to prevent a coup. Given the fear of a coup, there is no reason to believe that the NLD government would create a political distance from the Tatmadaw. Any political concession such as “self-determination” and “secession” would be seen as “treasonous.” As such, the NLD government would not offer any political concessions on the peace process that could put its rule at jeopardy.
Immense challenges lie ahead for the peace process in Myanmar. However, if the peace process is to have any chance of succeeding, one should look at building trust between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups as the starting point. Conflicts that are political in nature require political consensus. Perhaps the best solution is for the two sides to listen to each other’s concerns and be ready to compromise in the larger interest of the country.
Eugene Mark is a Senior Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He has a deep interest in broader political and security affairs in the Asia Pacific, with a focus on Thailand and Myanmar.