Disagreements Signal Long Road Ahead for Nationwide Peace

By Lawi Weng 1 April 2015

RANGOON — The tentative optimism arising from an agreement on a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement  that was presented earlier this week was tempered by signs of the magnitude of the remaining political differences between the government and ethnic armies that emerged during a press conference on Tuesday evening.

At a brief, 30-minute event, two generals from the Burma Army sat alongside government chief peace negotiator Minister Aung Min and two ethnic leaders to discuss the final day of negotiations between the government’s Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UWPC) and the ethnics’ Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which succeeded in negotiating an in-principle agreement of the ceasefire accord text.

Following the potential signing of a nationwide ceasefire accord in the coming weeks, a number of key political differences would have to be bridged in the extended political dialogue that is supposed to start after the accord.

Contentious political issues, such as the disarmament of ethnic armies, have been left out of the draft ceasefire agreement, and will instead be negotiated in the political dialogue, a process that could take years to complete.

An indication of the differences yet to be resolved between the government and ethnic armies came when Lt-Gen Myint Soe and NCCT leader Nai Hong Sar offered their opinions on the army’s six-point statement, which was devised by Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing last year.

Government negotiators had been pushing to include the statement in the ceasefire text, but recently agreed to include it in the political dialogue phase instead.

One of the points, which calls for the “march towards a democratic country in accord with the 2008 Constitution,” could be interpreted as requiring the disarmament of ethnic armies.  The ethnic groups object to this step unless a comprehensive political settlement is reached that addresses their longstanding demands, such as greater political autonomy for their regions. .

“We will not abandon our six-point road map,” said Myint Soe. “We will keep our six points. If our six points are accepted, there will be permanent peace in the country.”

Nai Hong Sar offered an immediate rebuttal. “The six points have not been included in our draft nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he responded. “But our ethnic armies will not accept any order to disarm.”

Aung Min told the press pack that Tuesday’s agreement would be remembered as a historical day for the country and a milestone in the government of President Thein Sein.

At the same time, he reiterated the government’s refusal to negotiate with ethnic armies outside of the NCCT members it has granted official recognition.

“There were 16 members of the NCCT when we began our peace talks with them. We only accept these 16 groups for participation in political dialogue,” he said. “Firstly, we will talk with these 16 groups. It will take a long time for us to accept new members. Our government does not have time for this.”

Five ethnic armies have joined the NCCT since negotiations began, including the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an ethnic Kokang force which has been engaged in pitched battles with government troops around Laukkai, northern Shan State, since the middle of February.

On Tuesday, Aung Naing Oo, a government advisor at the Myanmar Peace Center, told the Los Angeles Times that the Kokang conflict had no bearing on the signing of a “nationwide” ceasefire agreement.

“It’s possible to have a nationwide ceasefire and still be fighting the Kokang—they are considered a renegade group,” he said.

At the press conference, Nai Hong Sar said the government should seek to accommodate all ethnic armed groups in order to produce a genuine national ceasefire deal, and asked the Burma Army to cease fighting in northern Shan State.

“We have finished drafting the nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he said. “This is just a draft. There are many things we have to work before in order to receive a signed agreement. The government should have genuine political talks in order to have peace.”

When a reporter asked Myint Soe about how the Burma Army will end fighting in the Kokang region, the general said that the onus also rested on ethnic groups to bring an end to the conflict.

“If we blamed each other for fighting or disputes, we would not have been able to finish our discussions here,” he said. “I can only say we will work together to reduce conflict.”

Elsewhere, presidential spokesman Ye Htut was upbeat about the negotiations, saying that President Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing had ensured their legacy in the country’s history books for their efforts to achieve peace.

“Our President Thein Sein and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing today can implement peace, which is a rare feat. They have become historical leaders,” he said on Facebook.

Nai Siri Mon Chan, a former colonel from Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), said that ethnic groups had a lingering lack of trust as to whether their push for a federal system of governance would be adequately addressed by the government after the ceasefire is signed.