Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the Tatmadaw’s four-month-long ceasefire. I’m The Irrawaddy’s chief reporter Kyaw Kha, and I’m joined by Thayninga Institute executive director Dr. Naing Swe Oo and ethnic affairs and political analyst U Maung Maung Soe.
On Dec. 21, the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] announced it would impose a ceasefire for four months in five military regions in order to hold political talks. Dr. Naing Swe Oo, what is your assessment of this?
Naing Swe Oo: Our country has experienced conflict and instability for 70 years. There have been decades of clashes between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations [EAOs]. The [new] government has focused on peace since it took office. The previous government was able to initiate the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] process. At the event to mark the third anniversary of the signing of the NCA, the commander-in-chief of Defense Services [Senior General Min Aung Hlaing] said he wanted to complete the peace process by 2020 and deliver peace to the people. So, in order to achieve that goal, the Tatmadaw has ceased its military activities in five military regions.
KK: Both signatories and non-signatories to the NCA released statements welcoming the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire declaration. The FPNCC [Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee] ethnic bloc and the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] released statements. And 10 signatories also released statements. But it is notable that some EAOs in their statements implied that the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire should be welcomed with caution because the ceasefire is not effective across the whole country. Why did they say this, U Maung Maung Soe?
Maung Maung Soe: Firstly, as they have fought for 70 years, it is normal that they still have doubts. It is impossible to build trust overnight. Secondly, the EAOs, whether they are participating in political dialogue or not, will have reservations regarding issues related to the [establishment of a] single army and non-secession. Thirdly, the ceasefire is restricted to five military regions, and is not effective in the military region [overseen by] the Western Command, where the Tatmadaw is clashing with the AA [Arakan Army], and the refugee crisis is taking place. Another area is that controlled by the KNU [Karen National Union], which has signed the NCA but suspended participation in all NCA-related talks. That’s the military region of the Tatmadaw’s Southeast Command. These two areas are not covered by the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire. Because of this, the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire is being treated with caution. Of course, the ceasefire is good. We have always called for a ceasefire. In 1963, the Tatmadaw declared a nationwide unilateral ceasefire and called for peace talks. Now, the KNU and KIA [Kachin Independence Army] have urged the Tatmadaw to declare a nationwide ceasefire. The KNU might have concerns that the Tatmadaw will attack it, as it has suspended [its participation in the] peace talks. And the AA might have concerns that the Tatmadaw plans to launch large-scale attacks on it, as it has halted military operations in five other military regions. Despite all these concerns, what is necessary is dialogue. The Tatmadaw said a delegation led by Lieutenant General Yar Pyae will hold talks with seven groups based in northern Myanmar, as well as 10 NCA signatories. If it holds talks as soon as possible, it will help dispel the suspicions.
KK: The Tatmadaw has established six conditions [for the EAOs to join the peace process], but in its ceasefire declaration, it removed two—to abide by the 2008 Constitution and to embrace the Three Main National Causes. In its statement, it said [EAOs] must not put a burden on local ethnic people and must not oppress them [during the four-month ceasefire]. It said it would take action if the EAOs violate those points. What does it mean by “taking action”?
NSO: The Commander-in-Chief’s Office has adopted six principles, and in its statement, the Tatmadaw asked [EAOs] to follow four of them including avoiding putting a burden on local people. There are clashes between the EAOs themselves in some conflict areas in Shan State. Under such circumstances, the Tatmadaw might need to intervene to prevent clashes. The Tatmadaw will halt its military operations but will carry out its duties if it is necessary for the security of local ethnic people. So, it will take the necessary action for the sake of local people.
KK: Does it mean the Tatmadaw will launch attacks if [the EAOs] do not follow those principles?
NSO: No, it doesn’t. The Tatmadaw has formed a team led by Lt-Gen. Yar Pyae. My understanding is that it will mediate as necessary.
KK: Do you think this is so, U Maung Maung Soe?
MMS: I think the Tatmadaw will try mainly to resolve the problem through negotiation if the EAOs fail to follow [its lead] for the four months. But, if negotiations fail, there may be clashes before the four-month ceasefire ends. But if negotiations make progress, it may reduce [the risk of clashes]. It is important that informal talks are held as soon as possible to build [trust]. My understanding of the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire is that it has halted major military operations. So, Tatmadaw troops may conduct regular activities around their outposts. So will the EAOs. And there may be skirmishes. But I don’t think they will impact upon the peace process. This problem will remain until bilateral ceasefire agreements are signed and [the EAOs] join the path of political dialogue. The most important thing is that the body that is responsible for handling that problem responds promptly. The JMC [Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee] handles that problem, but experience shows that it is not good at responding in real time.
KK: It appears the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire declaration followed its talks with the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], the Kokang group [the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] and the AA. But the ceasefire doesn’t cover Rakhine State, the military region of the Western Command. The Tatmadaw gave several reasons for that, including the threat posed by ARSA [the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army]. But the AA and some observers are concerned that the Tatmadaw is in fact targeting the AA by halting its operations elsewhere. What do you think, Dr. Naing Swe Oo?
NSO: The Tatmadaw has announced a ceasefire in areas according to the formation of military regions. Its ceasefire is mainly effective in the area of the Northeast Command in northeastern Shan State. Both ARSA and the AA are active in the area of the Western Command. There were attacks by ARSA in 2016 and 2017. In 2017, it launched coordinated attacks on 30 outposts and a military headquarters. It was an organized attack. Halting military operations in such a place would affect national security. ARSA has been inactive for some time. But I heard recently that it is training young Bengalis [Rohingya] in refugee camps like Kutupalong in Bangladesh. Whether those reports are true or not, we should be careful. They may cross the border and launch attacks again in Rakhine. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to halt military operations there. So, the military region of the Western Command was left out [of the ceasefire], as the border guard force and military have to ensure regional security.
KK: What is your view on this, U Maung Maung Soe?
MMS: ARSA was formed as a terrorist group, and is different from other ethnic armed groups. Other groups have their own forces, bases and territories. ARSA is different in that regard. I think it would be best to form anti-terrorism units to respond to ARSA. Military operations should only be a second priority. The ceasefire doesn’t cover Rakhine because the AA has infiltrated it since 2015. The AA previously operated in Chin State’s Paletwa on the Indian border. But over the past few months it has entered into the outskirts of Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw and Ponnagyun townships. There have been fierce clashes, and the number of displaced persons has risen to over 3,000. If the Tatmadaw were to announce a ceasefire without reaching an agreement in the ongoing talks, it would have to acknowledge the existence of AA troops in those places. While there is still no agreement, it would be difficult to acknowledge it. As the AA is one of the Northern Alliance members that are holding talks with the government, I hope those talks will find a way to stop the clashes.
KK: You mean in the next four months?
KK: How much do you think the four-month ceasefire will contribute to the peace process?
NSO: As I’ve mentioned, the commander-in-chief of Defense Services said that the peace process would be completed by 2020. The four-month ceasefire stems from that pledge. There is a need for the Tatmadaw, government and EAOs to hold productive talks for four months. The Tatmadaw said it would hold separate talks if necessary. I think the ceasefire will contribute a great deal to the peace process. I am optimistic that the EAOs will sign the NCA.
KK: What is your assessment, U Maung Maung Soe? Four months is in fact a very short time because we are not yet sure if talks with NCA non-signatories have really started. And with the NCA signatories, implementation of the NCA has stalled. So, do you think the four-month ceasefire will have an impact on the peace process?
MMS: What should be done is to sign bilateral ceasefire agreements over the next four months. For example, in northern areas, four groups—the KIA, TNLA, AA and Kokang—have not signed bilateral ceasefire agreements. If ceasefire agreements could be signed, it would not be difficult to move forward. So, there wouldn’t be clashes even after the four-month ceasefire ends. Similarly, the Tatmadaw has to negotiate with the RCSS [Restoration Council of Shan State] about the JMC. And it has to negotiate with the KNU. If those issues can be settled in four months, there are good prospects for peace. There is time, if signing the NCA is discussed only after signing bilateral ceasefire agreements. But based on our experience at previous peace talks, I would like to see more informal talks held regarding bilateral ceasefire agreements. I would like to see formal discussions held only after agreements are reached in informal talks. I have seen many formal talks in which the two sides could not reach any agreement due to [both sides’] insistence on their own principles. So I would like to see informal talks that are not aimed at achieving a [preconceived] decision held first, in order to arrive at an agreement. Another thing that should be done in those four months is the relocation of displaced persons. Villagers along the road from Bhamo to Myitkyina in Kachin State are living in camps. They dare not go back to their villages because they fear landmines. Villagers along the road from Bhao to Mansi are also in camps. There is a need to focus on relocating displaced persons in these four months. Only then will we be able to ease the troubles of hundreds of thousands of local people who are suffering.
KK: Thank you for your contributions!