By Phuong Nguyen
President Thein Sein witnessed the signing of a draft ceasefire on March 31 between the Myanmar government and representatives of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups. Though the United Nations hailed the agreement as historic, it is just the first small step in Myanmar’s complex peacemaking process, where some of the world’s longest-running civil wars have been ongoing for six decades. The fragile stability that is expected to result from the signing of the draft agreement means neither the government nor ethnic armed groups can afford to make serious mistakes.
Q: Why is the agreement significant?
A: When President Thein Sein in 2011 offered to sit down for dialogue with ethnic armed groups, government negotiators and ethnic groups came to the negotiating table with their own sets of demands. Seven rounds of talks have been held to try to narrow these differences.
By agreeing on the draft text of the ceasefire document, ethnic armed groups have consented to respect the non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, set up political parties and enter elections, work with the government on economic and development priorities, eliminate narcotics trafficking in ethnic areas, and fully enter the legal fold in all areas. The Thein Sein administration’s most important concession has been to recognize ethnic armed groups’ demand for federalism. The two sides have agreed to build a union based on democracy and federal principles through a process of political dialogue.
Details of the draft agreement have not been made available, but must include mechanisms for jointly monitoring the ceasefire once it is signed, a code of conduct for the military and ethnic armed groups to live by, and arrangements on how the two sides can transition from wartime to peacetime. For example, the government has said it wants to make sure ethnic rebels stop recruiting and expanding their forces.
That the two sides got here at all is an achievement in itself. There is a deep mistrust between the government and ethnic rebels, as well as among the ethnic armed groups, following decades of conflict. The Thein Sein government initially hoped to finalize a nationwide ceasefire by the end of 2013, but has missed multiple deadlines due to disagreements over the ceasefire text and continued fighting in northern Myanmar.
Q: Which groups are included in the agreement?
A: There are 16 groups in the NCCT*, the largest of which include the Kachin Independence Organization (the political arm of the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA), the Karen National Union, the New Mon State Party, and the Chin National Front.
The presence of the KIA at the signing was significant, since fighting in Kachin State has been a major point of contention in reaching any sort of nationwide deal. A deadly military shelling of a Kachin training facility last November had frozen peace talks for the past six months.
But while Naypyidaw hopes to sign a ceasefire agreement with the NCCT, it still does not recognize three groups within the ethnic alliance: the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (known as the Kokang), and the Palaung State Liberation Front (also known as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army).
The Arakan Army, which is an ally of the KIA, has trained with and fought alongside the KIA in Kachin State. But some Arakan soldiers have reportedly returned to their native Rakhine State in western Myanmar in recent months and clashed with the military there in late March.
The Kokang are still battling government troops in northern Shan State and Naypyidaw, which calls the Kokang militia a renegade group, has indicated it is not interested in sitting down with them. Meanwhile, the NCCT said the government’s refusal to recognize some of its members could still be a sticking point in getting the draft agreement signed.
Q: What is the next step in Myanmar’s peace process? What are the remaining challenges?
A: NCCT representatives now need to get approval from the leaders of its member groups. If leaders of NCCT member groups can accept the draft ceasefire text, the government hopes to hold a signing ceremony in late April. But it remains to be seen whether NCCT leaders are willing to sign a pact that excludes some of their fellow members and while fighting still takes place in the Kokang region.
Another area to watch is whether government troops and the KIA can maintain the fragile status quo in Kachin State from this point on. The military launched attacks on the KIA as recently as late March over the group’s involvement in illegal logging, shortly after Kachin leaders came to Naypyidaw to meet the president and top military leaders. While the situation seems to have calmed for now, any renewed tension could still derail the ceasefire process.
More importantly, ethnic leaders present at the talks still refused to accept the current constitution, which was drafted in 2008 under the previous military regime, on grounds that it is not democratic. Ethnic armed groups also insisted on having a federal army as a way to reintegrate their troops, while Naypyidaw wants them to disarm and accept the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, as the only military force in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s generals are adamant that acceptance of the 2008 constitution and the existence of a single national military are preconditions for moving to the next phase of the peace process, which is political dialogue. Their position is that if a country practices federalism, its army is a federal army. The NCCT responded by calling the draft agreement “provisional.”
If the two sides can officially sign the ceasefire, they will move to the political dialogue phase, where issues of federalism and power-sharing, as well as plans for economic development in ethnic states, are expected to be on the agenda.
Q: How does this impact Myanmar’s reform process and upcoming elections?
A: President Thein Sein made the issue of national reconciliation a top priority upon taking office, recognizing that Myanmar’s longstanding ethnic divisions should be resolved through political rather than military means. While mutual, deep-seated mistrust remains, ethnic leaders’ willingness to reach a draft ceasefire can be seen as a sign of confidence in the current government. The majority of ethnic minority citizens in Myanmar have grown weary of armed conflict and are ready to move on. Many ethnic armed groups have also come to the realization that without peace and stability, their states cannot prosper economically. And neither will Myanmar.
If the draft ceasefire can be implemented, it will help pave the way for elections to be held in large parts of Kachin State and elsewhere where voting was previously blocked. Voting was canceled in the 2010 general elections in many townships in five ethnic states due to fighting as well as the government’s fear that ethnic armies could have been used to threaten voters. The government has since signed bilateral ceasefires with a dozen groups, including in Shan, Karen, and Karenni states, but unless Naypyidaw can be assured that ethnic troops will be disarmed ahead of the elections, it might not have enough confidence to let elections take place in some parts of ethnic states.
* NCCT member groups include: Arakan Liberation Party, Arakan National Council, Arakan Army, Chin National Front, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karenni National Progressive Party, Karen National Union (KNU), KNU-Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (a splinter group of the KNU), Lahu Democratic Union, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, New Mon State Party, Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization, Palaung State Liberation Front (also known as Ta’ang National Liberation Army), Shan State Progress Party, Wa National Organiztion, and Kachin Independence Organization.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.