Ethnic armed groups split over truce

Published on October 9, 2015

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Bangkok Post – October 9, 2015

How the nationwide ceasefire summit between the Myanmar government and the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) ended on Sept 29 will go down in the history of ethnic armed movement as a sad memory.

The organisation failed to convince the Myanmar government to sign a ceasefire agreement with all ethnic armed groups, not just a select few. The decision of some members to go along with the government’s stance showed that the group’s unity has been seriously shaken.

After the summit in Chiang Mai, Myanmar government representatives and leaders of the armed groups who are willing to sign the nationwide ceasefire later met in Yangon. The signing ceremony for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) has been set for next Thursday in Nay Pyi Taw.

How the ceasefire talks ended was not unexpected, however. The summit in Chiang Mai was a follow-up to the meeting held in Nay Pyi Taw on Sept 9 between President Thein Sein and representatives of the EAOs. The objective was to meet with both President Thein Sein and the military commander-in-chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing to reaffirm the EAOs’ readiness to sign the NCA if the government included all the armed groups.

The EAOs could not convince President Thein Sein to accept this all-inclusive approach. Besides, Gen Min Aung Hlaing did not even attend the meeting. The army chief was in Israel at the time.

While the negotiators were meeting in Nay Pyi Taw, armed clashes continued unabated in Shan and Kachin States involving the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Fighting also recurred in the Kokang Special Region involving the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

The Myanmar government has been persistent in its insistence that only groups it has already established a bilateral ceasefire with are eligible to join the nationwide agreement.

The government is unwilling to sign ceasefire agreement with six armed groups. Three of them are engaging in continued skirmishes with the Myanmar army, namely the TNLA, MNDAA and the Arakan Army (AA).

The other three groups have only insignificant armed wings, namely the Wa National Organisation (WNO), the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and the Arakan National Council (ANC). However, they have been invited to join the political dialogue without signing the NCA.

The Thein Sein government will sign the ceasefire agreement with only eight organisations – Karen National Union (KNU), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen Peace Council (KPC), Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), All-Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Chin National Front (CNF), and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), also known as the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).

The government is intent on signing the ceasefire agreement before the general election scheduled for Nov 8. By signing the NCA, President Thein Sein could show the Myanmar people and the international community his administration has succeeded in addressing the country’s decades-old political rifts.

It would help President Thein Sein if he decides to run again for the presidency. It could also help boost his international support.

The Thein Sein administration told ethnic armed groups if the ceasefire agreement is not signed before the election, there is no guarantee the next government will sign it, and there is a possibility the whole peace process will have to begin anew.

The question is how the signing of a ceasefire deal with just a few armed groups, out of more than 20, can really be called a nationwide ceasefire. A more important question is whether peace is possible when there are ongoing armed clashes in many parts of the country.

There are no guarantees that the government and the army will not launch offensives against groups that do not sign the agreement.

The participating armed groups are considered opportunists by some and pragmatists by others, a sign of internal division. It is unfortunate that the unity of ethnic armed groups, established and maintained since 2013 when the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team was formed, has now been jolted, if not shattered.

The ethnic armed groups refusing to sign the ceasefire agreement are quick to point out that they are willing and ready to sign the NCA if the government agrees to include all armed organisations; it is the only way a nationwide ceasefire can become a reality.

They also refuse to buy the government’s notion that the peace process will have to start all over again if the ceasefire is not signed before the election.

According to the draft agreement, the government and armed groups will begin political dialogue within 90 days after signing the ceasefire. Under this timeline, a peace dialogue would begin after the election anyway.

If the political dialogue goes ahead under the present circumstances, it is uncertain if the non-signatory groups will be willing to attend as observers. Even if they do, there will be distrust among ethnic armed organizations themselves as well as with the government by then.

In my view, ethnic armed organisations and ethnic-based political parties should strive for their long-standing collective political goal, which is greater autonomy under a federal system. They should not rush things with the Thein Sein government or crave short-term political gains in the upcoming election.

If there is indeed a genuine desire for peace and reconciliation, then the government should welcome the all-inclusive approach of the EAOs. All sides should cease armed confrontations.

Ethnic armed organisations should maintain unity and solidarity throughout the peace process. There has been a lingering deep distrust between the Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups. The international community should encourage cessation of armed conflicts across the country that would allow a free and fair election.

The international witnesses invited to the NCA signing – the UN, EU, Thailand, China, India, Japan and Norway – should take the necessary steps to pave the way for an inclusive ceasefire agreement, a successful political dialogue, and for peace and national reconciliation.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a political scientist based in the US. He is the author of three books on Myanmar. The article first appeared in the Bangkok Post newspaper.

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