Is Myanmar’s Peace Process Dead?

By The Irrawaddy 26 October 2019

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss Myanmar’s peace process as this year marks the 4th anniversary of the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). I’m Irrawaddy chief reporter Kyaw Kha and I’m joined by Karen National Union (KNU) Central Standing Committee member Mahn Nyein Maung and ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe.

Uncle Mahn Nyein Maung, as everyone knows, the ongoing peace process is discouraging. The 4th anniversary of the signing of the NCA will be celebrated on Oct. 28. But people are dismayed at the state of the peace process. The KNU is the biggest group among NCA signatories and we heard that even the KNU is struggling. What difficulties is the KNU facing, as an example, around continuing to implement the NCA?

Mahn Nyein Maung: Our country has been locked in conflict for around 70 years. It has only been three or four years since we started meeting around the table. Our country has been confronted by civil war for decades. Trust has been lost and unity is shattering inside our country. We don’t trust one another and it is quite natural that we don’t trust one another. We can’t blame anyone for that. It is extremely difficult to build trust as we have just recently started meeting one another [for talks] as the conflict situation has improved.

If we are to move ahead in the peace process, there are three key stakeholders: government, Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] or ethnicities. There is a need to understand the lives and wishes of ethnic people. Similarly, ethnicities should understand the concerns of the government about the Union. Without mutual understanding, it is impossible to build trust, so we should be honest and open with one another out of consideration for the country and the people. If we can do this, then I think we will be able to proceed.

The main problem our country has faced along the course of history is that successive governments could not correctly approach and assess ethnic issues. As our country is a multi-ethnic country, ethnic issues are critically important. There is a need to understand ethnic issues: in other words, the lives and aspirations of ethnic groups.

KK: It has been four years since the NCA was signed. It is fair to say that [the NCA] is not successful. Peace conferences have not been held on schedule and were postponed. In speaking of peace, there is a need to address the issue of non-signatories. Given the current situation, it appears that it is difficult for them to meet around a table. What do you think are the causes of this failure?

U Maung Maung Soe: The peace process started in 2011 and the NCA took shape in 2015. [Former] President U Thein Sein met with leaders of five major parties on Sept. 9, 2015. There, they talked about inclusion and non-inclusion [in the NCA]. At the time, the government recognized all EAOs except for three members of the Northern Alliance: the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], AA [Arakan Army] and MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army], which are now clashing with the Myanmar military. These three groups were not allowed to sign the NCA. The KIA [Kachin Independence Army], which was leading the UNFC [United Nationalities Federal Council] said it would not sign the NCA unless it was all-inclusive. The KNU however, decided to sign first and later work on inclusion of all groups. All the groups have inclusion in mind but they’ve made different decisions. The KIA has continued to engage in armed conflict with the government since 2011.

The three Northern Alliance groups were not recognized in 2015. Then, in 2016, a meeting was held with the three groups in Mongla. No agreement was reached at the meeting due to a dispute over terminology around disarmament. The three attended the peace conference in 2017 following mediation efforts by China, but there was no discussion so they were not recognized. The three attended the peace conference in mid-2018. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the deputy military chief received the three groups and the process began to formally recognize them. The peace commission and the three groups issued statements near the end of 2018, committing to hold peace talks. They have so far held five rounds of talks this year.

A ceasefire still hasn’t been achieved because it took too long for these groups to get recognized. They agreed on seven points at the latest round of talks in Kengtung on Sept. 17 but unless there is successful negotiation with a Tatmadaw delegation around point number three, regarding troop deployments, a ceasefire is still unlikely. So far, 10 EAOs have signed the NCA and around eight or nine other groups have not yet signed it. Political dialogue will deliver results only when NCA non-signatories are involved in dialogue.

KK: When we talk about the setbacks in the peace process, most people blame the government and the Tatmadaw. But EAOs might also be responsible for some setbacks. What is your view on this?

MNM: I am not defending ethnic groups because I am an ethnic person myself, but it is the government that is primarily responsible. It depends on how much the government can rally us politically, how much it is willing to negotiate with us, and how much it understands the lives and feelings of ethnic people. If the government doesn’t understand at least, for example, Karen Martyrs’ Day in August [when the government banned its celebration], which concerned the life and history of ethnic [Karen] people; if the government doesn’t understand these at least, the peace process can’t proceed. Such things [like the ban on Karen Martyrs’ Day] fuel the suspicions of ethnic people and this will seriously affect the peace process.

From the very beginning, we ethnic people are subjected to unfairness. It is ethnic areas that are turned into battlefields. Though we can forgive and forget, the majority of ethnic people can’t do so. Their lives have been seriously impacted. As they are both physically and mentally damaged, it is very difficult to rebuild. The Tatmadaw and the government are mainly responsible for restoring the trust of ethnic people.

KK: So, U Maung Maung Soe, is it fair to say that hope for peace is fading?

MMS: Most people say the peace process has reached a deadlock. It is likely that a peace conference will be held in 2020 with NCA signatories. There is no problem with that, I think. However, ending clashes with the warring groups and pushing them onto the NCA path or onto the path of political dialogue: that sounds improbable. For that to happen, much greater efforts will be needed. For that to happen, discussions need to be held based on objective reality. If one side focuses only on what it wants to achieve through a ceasefire, clashes will not end. A ceasefire will be achieved only when both sides focus on the reality.

We should be aware that the main difference between the Tatmadaw, government and EAOs, both signatories and non-signatories to the NCA, lies in their ways of thinking. The grounds on which their ways of thinking are based are different. There is a need to change completely from these grounds. As long as there are differences between their ways of thinking, it will still be difficult to approach practical problems. When it comes to different views, there is a need to carefully analyze and negotiate. The two sides must reach a mutual understanding about why one side has this or that particular thought.

KK: While the peace process is ongoing, fierce clashes are still taking place in northern Myanmar and there were also clashes in the area controlled by KNU Brigade No. 5. Innocent civilians are bearing the brunt of those clashes. What is your view on this?

MNM: It seems to be both easy and difficult at the same time to address this. The fighting is mainly between the Tatmadaw and ethnic groups. I’ve always said the answer is at the table: I’ve called on them to sit face-to-face, to talk about their feelings and wishes and negotiate. It doesn’t matter if they can’t reach an agreement; they can meet and talk again. The point is that I want them to find the answer only by sitting down at the table.

I say this based on our experiences with the KNU. As an ethnic group and organization with over 60 years of experience, I’d say the answer is only to be found at the table and not on the battleground. As long as these problems are solved on the battleground, ethnic people in the concerned ethnic areas will suffer. It is the civilians that bear the brunt. So, I would like to call for a meeting around a table.

I will give you an example: renewed conflict broke out with the KIA in 2011 under U Thein Sein’s administration. Then, [the KIA] had an office in Myitkyina. When something happened, the two sides met there. It was at least able to limit the clashes even if it couldn’t totally stop them. I say this out of my life experiences: no problem can be solved with military means. There is no answer in that. The result will only be suffering for our own ethnic people. I would like to call for finding the solution at the table.

KK: What are your suggestions, U Maung Maung Soe?

MMS: To deescalate clashes, the role of the Tatmadaw is the most important. For example, take a look at Kachin State: fierce clashes broke out in 2011 and continued through the first half of 2018. It has now been nearly one year since the last clash took place. This is partly because the Tatmadaw has reduced its military operations [in the area]. Now KIA headquarters, brigades and outposts still exist—if the Tatmadaw wants to, it can go and attack them. But as it has reduced its military operations, military tensions have eased. Though ethnic armed groups in Myanmar are powerful to some extent, the biggest power is the Tatmadaw, so the most important thing is its magnanimity and will.

If all the stakeholders can be brought to the negotiating table at the same time, while reducing military operations, the problem can be solved, I think. Five rounds of talks have been held with three members of the Northern Alliance this year. It is better than not meeting at all. They will have a better understanding of one another from those meetings and if they will continue to meet more, there will be opportunities for peace. But the bigger side does have a responsibility to be more benevolent and forgiving.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!