Since independence in 1948, Myanmar’s ethnic groups have been fighting for equality and self-determination through armed struggle. The result is that Myanmar is witnessing one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
The quasi-civilian government of ex-General U Thein Sein, who took office in 2010, adopted a different approach with a peace process and the concept of a federal union. He managed to convince eight of 21 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
Two more EAOs signed the agreement with the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government in February. But other groups have different views on the NCA and have opted not to sign.
This indicates a lack of unity among EAOs, which makes it difficult for them to gain bargaining power in political dialogue with the government, and more importantly with the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw.
EAOs can be broadly divided into two groups: NCA signatories and non-signatories. Of the non-signatories, seven groups based along the China-Myanmar border have formed the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) and demanded an alternative to the NCA.
Led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the FPNCC also includes the Arakan Army (AA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA).
The eight EAOs that signed the NCA with former President U Thein Sein’s government are the Karen National Union (KNU), the Chin National Front (CNF), the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC), the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO).
There are now only two of the 11-member United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) left — the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Arakan National Council (ANC)— after most of them dropped out to sign the NCA or join the FPNCC.
The New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) became the latest groups to leave the UNFC and sign the NCA in February.
“It is true that there is no unity among EAOs. The UNFC is split into two, the NCA signatory group and the non-signatory group. And another group is the FPNCC, led by the UWSA. This is the result of [the Tatmadaw’s] restrictions on signing the NCA,” said political analyst U Than Soe Naing.
This gives the government and Tatmadaw the upper hand in political dialogue with EAOs and weakens the EAOs’ demands for a federal union, self-determination and equal rights.
“EAOs have different interests based on their geographical positions. They have formed united fronts to resolve this again and again, and those united fronts collapsed every time. They didn’t work,” said U Aung Thu Nyein, director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy.
“This makes the government and Tatmadaw think of holding separate talks with them, even if they don’t intend to create divisions between them. Complete cohesion is impossible. But it would be best if they could find common ground to move forward,” he added.
Due to the lack of unity, EAOs fail to press for a single federal demand in negotiations with the government and Tatmadaw, he said.
Meanwhile, the 10 NCA signatories appear to be failing to consolidate their positions, said U Aung Thu Nyein. He pointed out that those with less political experience from smaller EAOs have replaced veteran leaders with strong political backgrounds in the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC).
The fact that those with less political experience have replaced PNLO leader Colonel Khun Okkar and KNU Vice Chairman Padoh Kwel Htoo Win of the UPDJC has made it difficult for EAOs to press their demands with the Tatmadaw and the government, he said.
“It started with the KNU. It is the result of a younger generation trying to build influence in the KNU and beyond,” said Col. Khun Okkar.
The colonel said he joined the UPDJC to advise Padoh Kwel Htoo Win and therefore resigned when he left the joint committee.
“Small players are playing prominent roles in the peace process. Only three to four of the NCA signatories are big groups and the rest are relatively small. But the leaders of the smaller signatories have taken senior positions [in the UPDJC],” said U Aung Thu Nyein.
“I’ve warned them. You want positions, but the other side doesn’t treat you as equals. At the previous JICM [Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting on the NCA], both [State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the deputy army chief expressed disappointment that those who should have attended the meeting were absent,” said Khun Okkar.
EAOs should avoid making negative statements and remarks, said Khun Okkar, because they can damage their relations with the government and the Tatmadaw and even halt the talks.
In January, the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) of the eight original NCA signatories held an emergency meeting and issued a statement with four agreements, including not to attend the next 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference until political dialogue procedures had been implemented.
“The statement was like a challenge and implied blame or coercion. So the government and the Tatmadaw were disappointed and didn’t hold talks for nearly three months. They should learn a lesson from this,” said Khun Okkar.
The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, held a meeting of its commanders in early January. They said they did not accept the Tatmadaw’s demands for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration and would not attend the third session of the 21st Century Panglong unless it was postponed.
Since then, the Tatmadaw and KNU have hardly met despite the fact that they had good relations during U Thein Sein’s government. Then fighting broke out in early March when the Tatmadaw moved into an area controlled by the KNU to rebuild an old road. Some 2,000 ethnic Karen have fled the fighting.
“Ethnic groups should be prudent in negotiations. They should be aware that there will not be good results if they focus only on their requirements and rights,” said U Hla Maung of the government’s Peace Commission.
Meanwhile, uncertainty remains about the future of the FPNCC. The seven-member alliance has said that it would talk with the government as a group, but the government has insisted that separate talks be held with each member.
“Therefore, unity is very important for the EAOs,” said Sai Ngin, third secretary of the RCSS.
The government said the second session of the 21st Century Panglong in May 2017 saw agreement on 37 points, though the RCSS said it did not agree with all of them.
While the third session of the Panglong is scheduled for early May, the RCSS and the NMSP are still unable to hold national-level political dialogues because the Tatmadaw is blocking public consultations in their areas.
“EAOs understand that we must be united. We don’t want to suffer from the consequences of disunity. We’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Sai Ngin said.
Unless and until there is unity among EAOs, self-determination and a federal union will remain a thousand-mile journey.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.