TAKING STOCK: The peace process after five years

  • Written by Sai Wansai/ S.H.A.N
  • Published in Op-ed

As the Thein Sein regime initiated peace process, which started out on 17 August 2011, entered into the fifth year and the partially signed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) a little more than one year old – its first anniversary just celebrated on 15 October 2016 -, many started to wonder, where it is heading and if this noble initiative is really making sense from the point of national reconciliation and state-building, especially in the wake of recent furious armed clashes that has happened along the Burma-China border, around Muse Township, in northern Shan State.

Let us look at the whole peace process of this some five years, four under the Thein Sein government and some nine months now under the NLD regime, headed by its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, that has inherited it from its predecessor.

In order to do this, let us dwell on the premises of NCA, as both the Thein Sein and Suu Kyi governments have made it a cornerstone and guiding principles to achieve the desired result that would usher the country its people to a new harmonious political system that all could live with, fulfilling national reconciliation and most importantly, a durable political settlement along ethnic lines and diverse political aspirations of the major stakeholders.

Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) text, agreed on 6 August and signed on 31 October 2015, has a preamble and seven chapters, with 33 clauses and 86 sub-clauses containing 104 specific provisions and running to twelve pages in the English version. Key provisions are: Preamble, Basic principle, Aims and Objectives, Ceasefire Related Matters, Maintaining and Strengthening Ceasefire, Guarantees for Political Dialogue and Future Tasks, and Miscellaneous.

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) report of 16 September 2015, just prior to the signing of NCA, correctly spelled out the challenges which the negotiators would face ahead, which are still valid today after one year of inking the agreement. It said:  “Finalization of a draft NCA text was a significant step but meant as only the first in the process, with long, difficult political dialogue needed before a comprehensive peace agreement – the “Union Accord” – could be reached. Many of the most challenging issues, including what form of federalism might be envisaged, how revenue sharing would be done and the future status of the armed groups and their possible integration into the military were deferred to the political dialogue. So too were some technical military issues on ceasefire monitoring and code of conduct”

The report further pin-pointed the agreement’s weakness and difficulties in implementing it on the ground, concluding with perhaps a possible ray of false hope that it might as well succeed. The report stated: “Thus the text is neither a classic ceasefire agreement – many of the military issues such as force separation, demarcation and verification are vague, or not included, or would require further agreement to come into force – nor is it a political agreement, as it references many political issues but defers detailed discussion. This hybrid status reflects the genesis of the document and the diverse set of actors and priorities around the peace table, as well as political constraints. As a ceasefire document, this means it is very weak, but as experts have pointed out, this does not mean the peace process cannot succeed, as there are many examples of comprehensive peace accords being negotiated while fighting continued.”

In sum, it could be said that the NCA is not only concerned with ceasefire alone but also issues relating to the formation of future political system formation, although nothing is quite clear on how to go about with it, at the moment, given the convoluted nature of the contemporary political landscape.

How NCA is managed

Looking at the chart flow on NCA management, one would see Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM) is the highest organ that delegates the Joint Monitoring Committee – Union-level (JMC-U) regarding ceasefire implementation and Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) responsible for political dialogue and directing the whole peace process undertaking.

JICM is made up of two groups with 8 members each. One is the government, parliament and military combined and the other the signatory EAOs.

The JMC-U is made up of three groups. The two groups with 10 members each are the government, parliament and military combined and the other, the signatory EAOs. In addition, 3 civilian representatives each chosen by the military and the signatory EAOs, making 6 altogether also are included.

The UPDJC is made up of three groups, each with 16 members. The three groups are the government, parliament and military combined, the signatory EAOs, and political parties. It is the highest organ in directing the country’s political dialogue, including the convening of Union Peace Conference (UPC) or 21st Century Panglong.

 The actual signing of NCA

On 15 October 8 EAOs signed the NCA in Naypyitaw, while the rest that made up 13 others refused to sign. The official count of the EAOs is 21, while the government only recognized 15 altogether.

They are Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Chin National Front (CNF),  Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen Peace Council (KPC), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), and Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), which are Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) members that have signed bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government and invited to sign the NCA.

The only NCCT member that has no ceasefire agreement with the government, but invited to sign the NCA is the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

The non-NCCT members that have bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government and invited to sign the NCA are All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and United Wa State Army (UWSA).

EAOs that have no bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government and not invited to sign the NCA are Arakan Army (AA), Arakan National Council (ANC), Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Wa National Organization (WNO).

These 6 excluded EAOs are members of the UNFC, a 12 ethnic armies alliance, which since the signing of NCA some of its original members like the KNU has opted to suspend – not resign – its membership, while the CNF and PNLO were expelled. In addition, the MNDAA and TNLA have asked for resignation but the UNFC has not taken decision on the issue up to this days.  Thus, the actual membership count of the UNFC is not clear, although to date many referred to it as a 7 member ethnic army alliance.

The NCA signatories are ABSDF, ALP, CNF, DKBA, KNLA-PC, KNU, PNLO and RCSS

The NCCT was a negotiation body of the EAOs, prior to the NCA signing, which had 16 EAOs as members.

Reasons for not signing the NCA

The reasons for the UNFC not signing the NCA has been the government rejection to accept 6 of its members, while other non-signatories that are not UNFC members like UWSA, NDAA and NSCN-K have their own doubtfulness and reasons, one way or the other.

The UWSA aspires to achieve the status of a statehood within the union and is not yet satisfied with the recent status of Self-Administrative Division. The NDAA or Mong La, on the other hand, dreams of achieving an Akha Self-Administrative Zone.

The Wa, who already has the highest degree of self-administration in practical sense, where even the government’s troops cannot even enter without permission, simply doesn’t see more profit to be gained from signing the NCA. Mong La being the UWSA ally, also sees the situation more or less the same.

As for the NSCN-K, its goal is to carve out a political entity from Burma and India and doesn’t see any meaningful approach through signing the NCA.

As for the UNFC not going along with the inking of the agreement hinged on the exclusion of its members and explained by the KNU Vice-President Naw Zipporah Sein – oddly enough, whose organization is a leading proponent that signed the NCA – in a written text titled “A brief NCA history, the NCA’s flaws and failings”, dated 14 January 2016, as: “The government refused to allow three of the 16 EAOs, represented by the NCCT and the Senior Delegation (SD), to sign the NCA. These three are the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) – also known as TNLA, the Arakan Army (AA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). There was also a second group of three organizations that the government also refused to allow on grounds that they did not have a significant number of troops. They are the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU), the Wa National Organization (WNO) and the Arakan National Congress (ANC). At the time, the three EAOs in the first group were facing government’s massive military offensives.”

She further wrote: “It is clearly stated in the last chapter of NCA that the NCA shall be signed by representatives from the government and representatives from the EAOs, as well as the international representatives and domestic personages, as witnesses. Nonetheless, the government continued to refuse the signing of the NCA by the 6 groups mentioned above. Out of the 7 countries proposed, the government also refused three international would-be witnesses, representing the US, UK and Norway to sign the NCA.”

As a result, on the 15th of October 2015, 8 EAOs repudiated the EAOs Summit Meeting decisions and agreed to sign the NCA with the government. The other 7 EAOs refused to sign, and a total of 6 were not allowed to sign.

The majority of the EAOs were irked and felt betrayed by the 8 signatories of the NCA, as the Laiza and Law Khee Lar conferences of the EAOs were to undertake the signing of agreement together.

The following statement from a paragraph of the “Conference of Ethnic Armed Resistance Organizations Law Khee Lar, Kawthoolei “ from January 20 – 25, 2014 stated:

This Law Khee Lar Conference, held under the aegis of KNU as the host, in addition to consolidating unity of all the ethnic nationalities, serves as an arena for preparing them, for different stages of political dialogues and negotiations that will come after achievement of nationwide ceasefire. The ethnic armed resistance organizations are to participate in the political dialogues and negotiations, with unity and coordination, and they will have to struggle on until their political goal of establishment of a Genuine Federal Union is achieved.

Ongoing wars on non-signatory EAOs and signatory EAOs

With the EAOs divided between the signatory and non-signatory groups, tension arose politically and militarily.

However, the hardened political stance dissipated as signatory and non-signatory EAOs began to cooperate to position or act as a bloc or group, after the Ethnic Armed Organizations’ (EAOs) Plenary Meeting in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) controlled town near Chinese border, took place from 26 to 30 July.

Militarily, shortly after the signing of NCA in October last year, the signatory RCSS reinforced its units in northern Shan State, leading to protracted armed confrontation between itself and the TNLA. The TNLA accused the RCSS of intruding into its territories and that it was in league with the Burma Army, but the latter denied that it was the case.

To complicate the matter, the Burma Army attacked the RCSS several times during the year in Kyaukme and Hsipaw Townships and the latest one being this year in October, in Mong Kung Township where the RCSS accused the Burma Army of breaching the NCA.

The on and off military engagements between the EAOs and the Burma Army occurred all through out the year, in Shan and Kachin States, from 2011 until today.

But serious bouts of conflict happened during 2015 and 2016. Outstanding among them were the well publicized conflict in Shan State between the MNDAA and government troops in Kokang area, in February 2015, which was particularly intense from February to June that year and again in October 2015; and the recent 20 November, Northern Alliance-Burma (NA-B) offensives along the Burma-China border against the government positions. By 5 December, the ethnic alliance was said to have withdrawn from its siege of Mong Ko, where the government troops had put up a stiff resistance, using air strikes and artillery bombardment hitting many civilian targets. But elsewhere the fighting goes on in northern Shan State, which might still go on for quite a while.

The NA-B, made up of KIA, MNDAA, TNLA and AA were said to have launched the offensives, to employ the strategy of “offensive is the best defensive”, as the Burma Army has been conducting heavy attacks on the the KIA and NA-B members in Kachin and Shan States, since three months ago. Other than that they also wanted to send the message that excluding them from the peace process won’t achieve the desired political outcome and that they are a force to be reckoned with.

There have also been clashes between government forces and the SSA-North, of particular intensity from October to November 2015 and in August 2016.

In Karen State, clashes in July 2015 and again from August to September 2016 between a renegade faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and government troops together with Border Guard Force soldiers were reported.

In summary, the Burma Army has been in an offensive mode and war-footing against all the non-signatory EAOs in  the Kachin and Shan States, but remarkably, also attacking the RCSS an NCA signatory and intruding into the KNU territories, while going after the DKBA splinter group. KNU is also an NCA signatory.

Analysis

Given such circumstances, the whole peace process spanning some five years should be viewed and assessed from the point of NCA implementation organs’ performance, players or stakeholders political outlook and initiatives, the actual challenges the country is facing and possible remedies to break the deadlock.

The performance of the NCA implementation organs, which are JMC-U and UPDJC could be said as unsatisfactory, even though some might argue otherwise.

The first ever investigation carried out by the JMC regarding the armed clashes between the RCSS and Burma Army, which occurred in Mong Kung Township, said that the troops from both sides have no in-depth understanding of NCA, no contact with each other and no clear understanding on each others operational area.

The JMC investigation team is said to be formed with two civilian, two Tatmadaw and two RCSS representatives. Reportedly, it has suggested that aside from generally promoting better understanding between the RCSS and the Tatmadaw, drugs related crimes should be tackled cooperatively in coordination and the need to draw up demarcation lines for both troops to observe.

Thus it could be said even though JMC State-level could be formed in Shan and Karen states, implementing and understanding NCA for the troops is still rudimentary and on top of that demarcation lines for troops movement and stationing have not even started yet, after one year of NCA signing.  In short the JMC still needs a long way to go to be really effective.

The ongoing talks between the UNFC and the government’s Peace commission also includes the strengthening of the JMC, where international experts’ participation in ceasefire monitoring and also enforcement mechanism should be incorporated, which so far has been given a cold shoulder by the military on the proposal.

While JMC covers only the NCA signatory EAOs, the armed engagement with the non-signatories EAOs is solely the domain of Burma Army or defense ministry, which are exacerbating with its offensive wars in northern Shan and Kachin states.

As for the UPDJC performance being unable to conduct the peace process without having an all-inclusiveness is the biggest obstacle, as it would be only able to preside over limited state-level political dialogue, which is supposed to give crucial inputs to the union-level political dialogue or Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong, as it is now officially dubbed by the NLD regime.

As areas that have not been covered by the NCA won’t be able to conduct political dialogue, the inputs could not be all-encompassing, which in effect would mean the peace conference would only partially represent the population and that is not the intention of the Union Peace Conference.

Aung San Suu Kyi, as chairperson of the UPDJC and as well the National Reconciliation Peace Center (NRPC), is committed to a rigid time-frame and is determined to carry on the peace process with only the 8 EAOs, plus other stakeholders that are already part of the process. Her logic seems to be that in time the remaining EAOs would join in and eventually the idea of excluding the three EAOs would be accepted. But this has already been proven wrong, as could be seen by the recent NA-B offensives on the Burma Army positions.

As for the Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, the military posture of “a state within a state”, combined with upholding the military-drafted constitution would continue to be the norm and continued military supremacy in political arena would be maintained. People should not be confused with the military making use of Aung San Suu Kyi to gain international acceptance and legitimacy.

The NCA signatory EAOs are torn between having to go along with the powers that be, for whatever purpose the individual members might have in store, and moral conviction to be in solidarity with the non-signatories of the NCA.

The NCA non-signatory EAOs, especially the UNFC, continues to bargain with the government on its 8 point proposal, which centers around, bilateral nationwide ceasefire, tripartite dialogue composition and commitment to the building of the genuine federal union, including all-inclusiveness of all EAOs in the peace process, even though not explicitly mentioned in the proposal.

The recent NA-B offensives on Burma Army positions could now have a negative impact for the UNFC negotiation with the government, as KIA, which is also UNFC leading member, is part of the NA-B.

 The actual challenges facing the country are:

  • Firstly, the ongoing armed engagements and tensions between the EAOs and the Burma Army, including communal violence and the uprising of Rohingya, dubbed as Bengali by the government, in Arakan State;
  • Secondly, the government of NLD and the military power relation or problematic two-tier administrative structure;
  • Thirdly, the power and resources sharing within the ethnic states;
  • Fourthly, due to the ongoing wars and violence some 120,000 refugees fleeing across the borders and more than 662,400 inside the border as IDPs;
  • Fifthly, from 1962 to 2010, successive military governments confiscation of hundreds and thousands of acres of land from farmers all over the country; and
  • Finally, the superpower and regional power relationship, among others.

 In order to overcome and tackle all the said woes and problems, the best place to start is countering the prevailing “depleted trust” atmosphere by initiating a “trust-building” initiative. And to do this the following mindset alteration, specifically from the part of the government and military might be necessary.

  • The genuine wish and commitment to be equal with all negotiation partners and not a patron-client relationship;
  • Practicing and believing in a real joint-ownership of the peace process and not just lip-service;
  • Bridging the differing concept, by accepting a common denominator that the country is a newly formed political entity voluntarily formed between ethnic states as the “Union of Burma”, after the British left in 1948 and they gained a joint-independence; and
  • A real political will and belief in peaceful co-existence and durable political settlement.

If the above suggested measures could be accepted, we all will be in a position to stop the ongoing armed ethnic conflict, create a peaceful atmosphere conducive to the peace process and eventually overcome all the woes that the country is now facing. Otherwise, we will be stuck up in a make-believe illusion and false believe of doing a noble deed by holding another 21st Century Panglong Conference, which is neither all-encompassing nor all-inclusive.