By Phuong Nguyen
President Thein Sein urgently wants to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement before Myanmar’s November elections. Yet nearly five months after his government reached a tentative draft nationwide cease-fire agreement with representatives of the Nationwide Cease-fire Coordinating Team (NCCT), an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups, major sticking points between the two sides remain unresolved.
Following a high-profile ethnic summit in Karen State in early June, senior ethnic leaders decided to return to the negotiating table in hopes of extracting more concessions from a government they know is racing against time to conclude a deal. Unless the two sides can finalize an agreement by September—after which point Myanmar will be in full election mode—the peace process that was started under Thein Sein will face a much more uncertain future.
The biggest disagreement relates to which armed groups will be signatories to the nationwide peace agreement. A delegation of senior “hardline” ethnic leaders—appointed during the June summit to lead peace talks with the government—has pressed the government to include three NCCT members that it so far has refused to recognize in a final deal. They are the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (also known as the Kokang), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army, all three of which have been battling government troops in the Kokang region in northern Shan State as well as southern Kachin State.
A positive turnabout took place when the Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest and one of the largest ethnic armed groups, announced its readiness on August 17 to sign the cease-fire without the excluded groups. This is significant given that a faction within the KNU has for the past several months sought to drag out the cease-fire process over the issue of the agreement’s “inclusiveness.” Whether other groups will follow in the KNU’s footsteps will become clearer as the president reconvenes with senior ethnic leaders in Naypyidaw toward the end of August.
Government negotiators suggested that Naypyidaw would be open to including the largest armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), in a final agreement, although it is not a NCCT member and has not been invested in the peace process. The UWSA has made clear that it will settle for nothing less than autonomy and its own state in northern Shan State.
The government has also suggested it is open to including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is a NCCT member but with whom government troops have continued to clash. Achieving peace with the KIA, at least on paper, would be a big prize for government negotiators. Sporadic clashes have taken place in Kachin State between the KIA and the military, mainly over the control of timber and other natural resources, irrespective of any attempts at high-level engagement between senior government and KIA leaders or developments at the negotiating table. More fundamentally, the KIA worries that agreeing to a cease-fire means giving up its leverage with Naypyidaw on issues of power sharing and profit sharing.
Ethnic armed groups and the government also disagreed about which international actors should witness the signing ceremony of a nationwide cease-fire agreement. Both sides agreed that the United Nations, China, and ASEAN should be present. The United Nations has sent representatives to observe talks between the government and the NCCT, while China has been an active player in Myanmar’s peace process and carries significant influence with ethnic armed groups on the China-Myanmar border. The government also conceded to ethnic demands to add Thailand and India as witnesses to the ceremony.
But disagreement emerged over whether representatives from the European Union, Japan, Norway, and the United States should be invited to witness the ceremony, as the ethnic side has insisted.
Both the Norwegian and Japanese governments have supported the peace process in cease-fire or rebel-controlled areas through humanitarian and development assistance. Ethnic representatives also believe that the presence of the U.S. and other Western governments will give more credibility to the agreement and, more importantly, compel Naypyidaw to abide by the terms of the cease-fire.
For its part, the government is concerned that inviting these parties, and the United States in particular, may upset China, which prefers that security issues along its border with Myanmar not be “internationalized.” The U.S. embassy in Yangon has actively engaged with different stakeholders in the cease-fire negotiations, and there are talks of stepping up U.S. support for the next stage of Myanmar’s peace process should the signing of a nationwide cease-fire materialize.
Other longstanding contentious areas include the monitoring mechanisms and implementation of the cease-fire and the status of ethnic rebel armies in the aftermath of a nationwide cease-fire. The two sides reportedly reached agreement on the issue of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ethnic troops during the latest round of talks in Yangon that ended on August 7, but no details about the terms of the agreement were made available.
This is an issue in which military consent and cooperation are critical, and it remains to be seen whether any understanding reached recently will move forward. Commander-in-chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has often disagreed with President Thein Sein over the government’s handling of the peace process, and in the past has not hesitated to disrupt the progress when he believed the president had given too much ground to ethnic armed groups.
Despite the current impasse, many NCCT leaders are aware that their best chance to resolve protracted conflicts in their states is through forging a deal with the current government. Thein Sein and his team have worked hard to build trust – where none existed before – with leaders of ethnic armed groups. These dynamics cannot easily be replicated under the next government, which will come into office in March 2016. That said, some among the ethnic groups wonder whether they would be better off negotiating with a future government that may seem softer than the current one.
For Thein Sein, reaching a nationwide peace deal will not only help cement his legacy, but also pave the way for elections to take place in ethnic areas later this year. Excluding large swaths of ethnic voters, who make up as much as 40 percent of the population, will severely damage the credibility of the elections. Yet unless Naypyidaw can be assured that ethnic troops will be disarmed ahead of the polls, it might not be confident enough to let voting go ahead in many ethnic areas, as happened with the 2010 elections. On the other hand, some rebel groups feel somewhat ambivalent about the elections, for fear that opening up areas they control for electoral contest might result in their loss of influence.
Already there are reports that, due to security reasons, voting will not be held in areas of Shan State that are controlled by the UWSA, the Kokang, and the Mongla. Although Naypyidaw has signed bilateral cease-fires with a dozen ethnic armed groups in Shan, Karen, and Karenni states, cease-fire violations continue in several areas. Without more explicit mutual assurances, it is unclear how government forces and ethnic troops will behave in the lead-up to and during the elections. Any nationwide peace deal will not be binding, but it will greatly boost confidence among all stakeholders.
As Thein Sein works to appease ethnic leaders in the coming weeks, he will also need to convince the military and conservative elements within Myanmar’s traditional elite that his government has not been too accommodating of ethnic interests. Failing to do so will make it more difficult for him to secure the military leadership’s support for a final cease-fire deal.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.