Govt, Army and Ethnic Groups Closing Differences, Forging New Approach

By Paul Vrieze 20 March 2014

RANGOON — Early last week, Burma’s government and ethnic armed groups agreed to try to jointly draft a single text for a nationwide ceasefire accord by drawing from the two ceasefire proposals brought forth by both sides.

According to Lian Hmong Sakhong, a Chin National Front representative who helped draft the ethnic groups’ proposal, this new approach to the ceasefire talks could lead to a long-awaited breakthrough, in particular because the military’s leadership has now become directly involved.

“Previously [during talks], each side just exchanged their proposals, but at the last meeting [on March 9-10], instead of continuing like this, we agreed to form a joint drafting committee. This committee will finalize a single text from our document and their document,” he said during a recent interview at The Irrawaddy office in Rangoon.

The new joint committee tasked with drafting a ceasefire text will comprise 18 members: three government officials, three military leaders, three lawmakers, and nine ethnic leaders.

Sakhong, who is a leading member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) which represents 16 rebel armed groups, said the military had followed the talks closely before, but direct discussions with the top commanders had not taken place until last week.

“At least five generals, a number of colonels and brigadier-generals were there, so that was very encouraging,” he said. “We were told that the Tatmadaw is totally committed to peace and want to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement as soon as possible, at the 1st of August at the latest.”

The new initiative comes after a planned nationwide ceasefire conference in the Karen State capital Hpa-an was repeatedly delayed. The two sides held the first such high-level negotiations in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in November. Those talks were deemed successful but failed to produce an agreement.

Fourteen out of the NCCT’s 16 armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefires with President Thein Sein’s reformist government since 2011. A nationwide ceasefire between the NCCT and Naypyidaw would consolidate the gains made in recent years and mark a major step toward a comprehensive solution for Burma’s decades-old ethnic conflict.

A nationwide ceasefire would be followed by a political dialogue to address the long-term political demands of the ethnic groups.

Sakhong believes that the new joint committee approach will make a significant difference as the government team and military commanders had shown an increasing willingness to study the NCCT’s ceasefire proposal. “This time, I sense that they are really committed to the nationwide ceasefire agreement and the political dialogue,” he said.

One of the key conditions set out in NCCT’s 30-page draft ceasefire is that a political dialogue will have to start within 90 days after the signing of a nationwide ceasefire.

It also insists on creating a code of conduct for the military and insurgents in the field in order to prevent renewed clashes during the political dialogue. “A code of conduct is very important; both sides should follow and observe that, so that we cannot blame the other side [if fighting erupts]. Now we don’t have such rules,” Sakhong said.

The political dialogue proposed by ethnic groups would have a broad focus and involve ethnic leaders, government officials, top political leaders, MPs and civil society groups. Discussions would center on the long-standing demands of the ethnic minorities for greater political autonomy within a federal union, cultural rights and control over the natural resources in their areas, but other key issues, such as the future of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, would also be included.

Another “very important” point in the ethnic groups’ ceasefire proposal, Sakhong added, is the inclusion of an interim arrangement that would allow the armed groups to manage their areas of control while a political dialogue takes place, a process that could take years to complete.

Sakhong said, “For example, the [Kachin Independence Organization] signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994, but they did not sign an interim arrangement and so they lost all their controlling power and during that [ceasefire] period of 17 years, the Kachin lost almost all their forests, their jade mines and so on. We don’t want to repeat that kind of mistake.”

The ceasefire proposal from the government side indicates that some important but sensitive issues will not be up for discussion during nationwide ceasefire talks, key among them the question of how to create a federal army that would include the ethnic armies—a topic that the NCCT raised during negotiations in November.

“The federal army issue will not be part of a nationwide ceasefire agreement, but will be part of the political dialogue,” said Sakhong. “Personally, I think that’s a good thing, because this issue is too big. … Even if the political dialogue takes one or two years, we won’t be able to solve the security forces reform issue. It will maybe take 10, 20 years, who knows.”

However, despite optimism about the ceasefire process among the NCCT, government officials and government advisors at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), fighting has flared up in recent months between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’aung National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North).

The KIA and TNLA have not signed a ceasefire with Naypyidaw, but both are members of the NCCT. The SSA-North is a NCCT member and one of the 14 armed groups that have a bilateral ceasefire with the government.

Sakhong said the recent clashes in northern Burma underline the need for a nationwide ceasefire with a clear code of conduct, so that lingering mistrust between the sides will not lead to new fighting.

So far, no precedent has been set for the implementation of a code of conduct in maintaining bilateral ceasefires. Early last year, several ceasefire groups, such as the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), agreed to establish a bilateral code of conduct and joint monitoring committee with the government, but little progress has been made since.

Sakhong conceded that fighting also continues because there are commanders who benefit from the status quo in the anarchic conflict areas, where militias and Burma Army units reportedly reap huge profits from taxing the illicit trade in drugs, timber and gems, in particular in Kachin and Shan states.

“Maybe there are leaders on both sides who are benefiting from the conflict, we don’t know. Those who benefit, they don’t want it to stop. So even if we create a nationwide ceasefire agreement, this problem is not going to stop, but we are going to try to reduce the fighting to zero on both sides,” he said. “[But] among the ethnic leaders they are not the majority and we’re hoping that among the government they are also not the majority.”

Divisions among the myriad ethnic armed groups in Burma’s rugged periphery are another challenge to achieving a nationwide ceasefire.

The Shan State Army-South is not a NCCT member but has joined nationwide ceasefire talks. The country’s most powerful armed insurgent group, the United Wa State Army, and its smaller neighbor the National Democratic Alliance Army in Mongla and three other small groups have not participated in the talks at all.

Sakhong said the 16 NCCT members were unified in their commitment to ceasefire talks, adding, “The others, like Mongla, the Wa and so on, we’ll try to bring them on. During the next [nationwide ceasefire] meeting they are invited. So I hope these five will come.”

Another recent development that Sakhong believes will aid the peace process is the establishment of the Pyidaungsu Institute in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a study center and secretariat that will support the various ethnic minority groups as they negotiate with the government. Norway and Sweden have promised to fund the new institute.

The government-affiliated MPC in Rangoon has played a key role in advising the government during the ceasefire talks and the center has received generous support from the European Union, which has granted US$28 million in funding for Burma’s peace process, more than $1 million of which was reserved for the MPC.

Sakhong, who is one of the directors of the new institute, said the Chiang Mai-based organization would play a similar key role on the side of the ethnics. “The government side has the MPC, so it will be like that center,” he said, adding that originally foreign donors had envisioned the MPC to be a meeting place for all parties involved in Burma’s conflict—an idea that Sakhong dismissed.

“The idea that the MPC would be a place where the ethnics and the government can work together is a totally wrong assumption, because officially we are still enemies,” he said.