Thein Sein’s potentially important and lasting legacy

Published on February 27, 2016

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Bangkok Post – February 27, 2016

The Myanmar army’s imminent plan to launch military offensives against a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) threatens to derail Myanmar’s peace process promoted by Myanmar President Thein Sein.

Fears of the offensive against the UNFC member, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), prompted the alliance to call an urgent meeting in Chiang Mai from Feb 18-21. The federal council comprises nine ethnic groups that did not sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Thein Sein government in October last year.

At the end of the four-day meeting, the federal council accused the Thein Sein-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government of using the ceasefire agreement as a military and political weapon against the group by creating racial hatred and a divide and rule policy. It also accused the government of creating clashes between the Restoration Council of the Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the Palaung State Liberation Front/T’ang National Liberation Army (PSLF/TNLA). Armed clashes also erupted between the Myanmar army and the RCSS/SSA-S.

As his USDP government ends its term next month, the president made it known that he wanted to leave a successful legacy by ending the decades-old armed conflicts in the country. But the planned offensive may mean that will not happen.

The recent armed clashes have resulted in casualties and the internal displacement of several thousand civilians. The international community, including the US government and the European Union, has expressed concerns that escalation of tensions could jeopardise the democratisation process. If the Myanmar military launches offensive attacks against the MNDAA, there is a possibility that the other members of UNFC, particularly the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), would come to the aide of the MNDAA, which was previously hinted at by the KIA leadership.

If the prevailing tension does not subside, the weak communication link between the government’s peace negotiating team and the ethnic armed groups could further deteriorate. It could also reduce the likelihood of UNFC members joining the peace process.

Since the RCSS/SSA-S is a signatory to the NCA and the TNLA is a non-signatory, the escalation of tensions between the two armed groups could also create a trust deficit among ethnic minorities, which could in turn have ramifications on the ongoing peace talks.

Amid the tensions, the government chief negotiator, Aung Min, who met the UNFC leaders in Chiang Mai said, “We have not closed the door to non-signatories. We are still trying.” The government’s unsuccessful strategy has been to sign ceasefire agreements with the ethnic armed groups individually, whereas the UNFC has reiterated it will maintain its “all-inclusive” policy. The biggest apprehension of the UNFC leadership is that the Myanmar government would use the NCA as a pretext to launch military attacks against the groups the government is unwilling to sign a ceasefire with, which includes the MNDAA and the TNLA.

If the Myanmar army launches attacks on the MNDAA, for which there are imminent signs, the accusation by the UNFC leadership would have been justified, and more importantly, it could destabilise the entire peace process. As a researcher and a keen observer on Myanmar’s political developments, especially on issues pertaining to the country’s ethnic minorities, I believe that signing the NCA with the UNFC, as a collective bloc, would be a positive direction for the country.

It would have been a totally different scenario if members of the UNFC were rejecting the peace process. In fact, groups such as the MNDAA and TNLA, which the Thein Sein government is reluctant to include in the NCA, have expressed their desire to sign the ceasefire agreement and be part of the peace process.

It is very likely that the National League for Democracy, which will officially assume power from April, will review the peace process to ensure that all armed groups participate. The party has announced that the peace process will be one of its priorities.

As President Thein Sein continues to endeavour to bring an end to the decades-old armed conflicts before leaving office, it could be one of his most successful legacies to accept the inclusive policy of the UNFC.

Accepting an all-inclusive policy should not be taken as weakness on the part of the government, but rather a step forward to bringing peace and stability to the country. The international community must do its part to ensure that the peace process is successful.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, and director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming ‘Myanmar: A Political History’ available from Oxford University Press.

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