The Struggle to Control the Peace Process

By Saw Yan Naing 19 September 2013

Soon after taking office in March 2011, President U TheinSein announced his intention to end Myanmar’s decades of conflict in border areas through a peace process that would persuade most of the country’s ethnic militias to lay down their arms. Since then, 13 ethnic armed groups have reached ceasefire agreements with the government. Despite this seeming success, however, the process has yet to achieve a lasting peace, and appears to be increasingly in danger of unraveling.

On the ethnic side of the negotia-tions, there are growing divisions over how to proceed with the talks with the government, resulting in a split into “hardline” and “pragmatic” factions. In late July, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic groups, held a major conference in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai that was also attended by non-member groups such as the Arakan League for Democracy and the Zomi Congress for Democracy, as well as opposition politicians and representatives of civil society organizations. Even the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group, and its much smaller allies, the Kokang and Mongla militias, officially took part for the first time.

But this show of solidarity belies the power struggle playing out in the background for control over the talks with the government. Shortly before the conference in Chiang Mai, the UNFC pulled out of the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC), a group  formed in June 2012 and funded by the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office (EBO), founded by Sao HarnYawnghwe.

Observers say that the WGEC, which still includes some UNFC members, such as the Chin National Front and a faction of the Karen National Union (KNU), favors a more “pragmatic” approach that includes direct cooperation with government-affiliated organizations, while the UNFC’s leaders prefer to remain independent and are wary of working with any group controlled by Naypyitaw.

According to sources, some in the UNFC came to believe that the WGEC had been formed primarily to counterbalance the “hardliners” in the UNFC, which received funding from the EBO until June. Some say that the UNFC withdrew from the WGEC over funding issues, while others note that the UNFC also receives support from the Japan-based Nippon Foundation and so could afford to go its own way.

The dispute has been especially damaging to the KNU, which continues to suffer deepening disunity within its ranks over the peace process, with some leaders, such as Chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe, siding with the WGEC’s approach, while others, including Vice Chairman NawZipporahSein, remain more skeptical of the government’s intentions.

Meanwhile, on the government side, there also signs of tension over who is in charge of the peace process. Diplomatic and NGO sources say that the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), a high-level government body that includes the president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has begun taking a more active role in the process, which until recently was almost entirely in the hands of a negotiating team led by President’s Office Minister U Aung Min and the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a government-affiliated group formed last year to facilitate ongoing talks. According to these sources, the MPC’s international funding is now channeled through the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. Ethnic sources say that U Aung Min has reportedly asked to resign from his role as chief negotiator, as he no longer feels he has a mandate to reach agreements with the ethnic armed groups.

There has also been a concerted push by Lower House Speaker U Shwe Mann to involve lawmakers in the peace process—something that some well-informed sources said amounts to an effort to further sideline U Aung Min and the MPC. In early July, U Shwe Mann suggested that the negotiations with the ethnic armed groups are too important to leave to presidential appointees.

“During the peace process negative consequences could arise if we try to achieve peace agreements that are not in accordance with the law. It could affect the safety of citizens and cause the government to fail in its protection of citizens,” he said in Parliament on July 2.

The more prominent role of the NDSC and Parliament in the peace process was evident in early August, when both sent representatives to attend peace talks with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front that led to a union-level ceasefire agreement.

But it isn’t just U Aung Min and the MPC that are being pushed aside. According to well-informed sources, President U TheinSein also appears to be steadily losing his grip over the peace process as he comes under increasing pressure to yield control. Despite this, however, the sources said the president seems intent on keeping the talks on track.

Less than two weeks after U Shwe Mann openly challenged U TheinSein’s authority over the peace process, the president was in London telling his hosts that Myanmar could achieve a nationwide ceasefire within a matter of weeks. However, ethnic observers say that goal is likely to remain elusive, as the government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) are no closer to a deal that will restore a ceasefire agreement that collapsed in June 2011.

Other, smaller groups are also reluctant to participate in the peace process, which many see as a government propaganda campaign aimed at the international community. In late July, for instance, the Taaung National Liberation Army, based in Shan State, met with members of the government peace negotiation team but rejected calls to sign a ceasefire agreement.

Indeed, many wonder how enduring the current ceasefires with other groups will prove to be. Bawmwang La Raw, a veteran Kachin politician who heads the UNFC’s foreign affairs department, said that U Aung Min often emphasized that the deals that have been reached to date were intended only to ease tensions, not resolve longstanding issues or achieve a permanent political settlement.

Despite ethnic leaders’ doubts about the prospects for a nationwide ceasefire, the MPC insists that the government is sincere about its efforts to achieve real peace. U AungNaingOo, a former exiled dissident who now works with the MPC, said that every reconciliation process must contend with distrust and disagreements, but that they can be overcome if all stakeholders negotiate to find a solution.

“I believe a nationwide ceasefire accord will strengthen the current ceasefires. It is something that we haven’t been able to achieve in over 60 years, so it’s very important for the country,” he said, adding that a framework for political dialogue would follow after the nationwide ceasefire accord is reached.

But some observers say that the government’s approach to stabilizing border areas is fundamentally flawed, as it relies heavily on promoting economic development through business deals and NGO pilot projects while failing to address core demands for greater ethnic autonomy. They also say that the Myanmar military’s firm position on maintaining the “one nation, one army” policy enshrined in the 2008 Constitution means that the government will be in no position to meet those demands.

Even international donors who have enthusiastically embraced the government’s change of tack since the transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011 are reportedly beginning to have misgivings about how the government is going about achieving peace in ethnic regions. Some projects run by the Norwegian government-funded Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, for instance, have been slow to get off the ground or have been halted because of a lack of local support.

“We don’t engage in armed struggle because we’re starving,” said Nai Hong Sa, the general secretary of the UNFC, criticizing the priorities of the government and donors. “I have told U Aung Min that if we don’t put a political solution in place first, but prioritize business, it is pushing in the wrong direction.”

He also hinted that increasing prosperity in ethnic regions could have the opposite of the desired effect, fueling conflict instead of easing it. “If we do succeed in business, we can then buy more weapons and recruit more troops. And the civil wars will spread even wider and longer. This is also something to keep in mind,” he said.

It’s already clear that whatever agreements they reach with the government, the ethnic militias are not about to abandon their arms anytime soon. They are too distrustful of Myanmar’s armed forces, and rather than letting down their guard, most have been actively strengthening their arsenals and their ties to each other.

This was most dramatically demonstrated by reports that the UWSA had procured helicopters amid growing tensions over the government’s refusal to accept its demand for an autonomous Wa state within Shan State. Although the UWSA and China, which supplied the helicopters, have denied that the transaction ever took place, an inside source confirmed that he saw two helicopters at a UWSA base during a recent visit. He added, however, that the helicopters would be used chiefly for transportation between the main Wa territory near the Chinese border and the group’s southern territory opposite Thailand, rather than for military purposes. The Wa are also believed to have a ground-to-air defense system.

Even more alarming for the Myanmar government, however, may be reports from ethnic Kayin sources that the UWSA recently gave the KNU 20 million Thai baht (US$640,000) for military and business purposes. This unprecedented move may signal the start of a new phase in relations between the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups—one in which the former can no longer be assumed to possess greater unity, and the latter can begin to negotiate from a position of relative strength.

This story first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.