RANGOON — The Burmese government’s hopes of finalizing a nationwide ceasefire agreement before this year’s election appear to have shrunk considerably, after this month’s ethnic summit in Law Khee Lar voted to cede negotiating power to a new “hardline” committee.
From the perspective of government peace negotiators, two problems have arisen from the Law Khee Lar summit, which concluded at the beginning of last week. First, ethnic leaders have refused to endorse the draft ceasefire text, demanding fresh negotiations over 15 amendments. Second, the new negotiating committee, which will assume the responsibilities of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), is comprised of people likely to be much less receptive to government overtures.
“We prefer to deal with the NCCT instead of a new committee,” said Hla Maung Shwe, a director of the Myanmar Peace Center. “The NCCT members have become friendly with us already. But now they have formed a new committee and replaced the leaders. This could be a problem with our government as it will take time to build rapport, and the people leading the new committee are hardliners.”
The government has positioned the successful conclusion of a nationwide ceasefire agreement one of the most important ambitions of President Thein Sein’s tenure, but ethnic armed groups remain aloof, cautious of committing themselves to an accord that would impede their push for a federal reform of the Constitution.
“Of course, the president wants to pass his exam,” said NCCT chief Nai Hong Sar. “He would be credited for being able to bring a ceasefire agreement during his term. But for us, we are worried that we will be trapped by the government after the agreement is signed.”
The formation of a new negotiating coalition is indicative of majority opinion at the Law Khee Lar summit: ethnic leaders believe that the government has not made enough concessions to warrant signing the ceasefire accord as it stands. For that reason, the new committee will be headed by Naw Zipporah Sein, the vice-chair of the Karen National Union (KNU), with Dr. Laja of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) as her deputy. Both spent time on the central executive committee of the United Nationalities Federal Council ethnic coalition, and both are representatives of factions less amenable to compromises with the government within their respective organizations.
Ballots Before Pens, Rights Before Ballots
On the sidelines of the Law Khee Lar summit, ethnic leaders appeared to be rankled by what they saw as pressure from the international community to sign an accord sooner. KNU member Naw May Oo Mutraw reportedly lashed out at UN envoy Vijay Nambiar, claiming that the international community did not understand the reality of the situation faced by ethnic armed groups in Burma.
Sources close to the organizations said that both the KIO and KNU, the political wings of the two most powerful ethnic armed groups, had decided withhold any agreement to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement until the general election expected later this year is demonstrated to be free and fair, and would not yield to any international pressure to expedite the process.
At the same time, the international community may prove to be a sticking point in future negotiations for very different reasons. Ethnic leaders want international observers present to witness the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, while the government has rejected calls for their oversight, saying that a ceasefire accord is a purely domestic affair. The issue came up during previous negotiations between the government and the NCCT, before it was struck from the draft text of the ceasefire agreement unveiled on March 31.
Other exceptions to the draft text also emerged at the summit. Ethnic leaders resolved to have provisions relating to a federal army included in any ceasefire agreement. As with other issues, this was excluded from the draft text after negotiations in the expectation that a settlement would be reached after the accord was signed. Some leaders at Law Khee Lar criticized the draft text for lacking strong guarantees of political rights for ethnic groups, and said an agreement could not be signed without more explicit commitments on this front from the government’s Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC).
Khun Okkar, a member of the NCCT, said he was skeptical of the new committee’s ability to secure more concessions from the government, but said the previous negotiators would abide by the summit’s decision.
“Some leaders thought that they could push for more rights, and this is why they told us to step down and let others talk to the UPWC,” he said. “We worked the best we could and it took a year and a half. Let them try, they may understand afterwards that it is not easy to talk with the military.”
He noted, however, that some of the ethnic leaders at the summit wanted to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement as it stood, without waiting for three armed groups that had been excluded from negotiations by the government.
Hla Maung Shwe warned that the government might not be willing to accept either a new negotiating bloc or a new discussion on amending the ceasefire text, noting that a date and time for further negotiations had not yet been set.
“They should have proposed [the amendments] before, why are they just proposing them now?” he asked. “This could be a problem. I feel the government might not accept this.”
Though his own position will eventually become redundant if the new committee proceeds, Nai Hong Sar said that the decision was in the hands of ethnic leaders and not negotiators.
“[The NCCT] cannot do anything,” he said. “Even if the government cannot accept the new committee or sign our draft text, this was the majority decision made by ethnic leaders.”