Where Next in Latest Ceasefire Deadlock?

By Nyein Nyein 24 June 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Cynicism, suspicion and deadlock have occasionally boiled over in the course of Burma’s arduous ceasefire talks, and so they have once again.

The 18-month-long talks between government and ethnic peace negotiators culminated in a provisional agreement on the draft text for a nationwide ceasefire agreement at the end of March, the first step towards political dialogue and the emergence of a genuine federal system of governance.

Things seemed to be proceeding smoothly and the mood in government circles was optimistic until the conclusion of an ethnic armed group conference, in the Karen National Union-controlled Law Khee Lar region, on June 8. There, ethnic leaders established a new negotiating bloc to replace the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) in order to press their demands for 15 amendments to the draft text.

On Monday, the government’s Union Peacemaking Working Committee (UPWC) made clear its reluctance to accept the amendment proposals and accept the new negotiating bloc, which it regards as comprised of “hardliners”, during an informal meeting with a delegation led by NCCT chair Nai Hong Sar. Meanwhile, government and ethnic negotiators plan to hold yet another meeting with an unknown agenda next month in the Thai city of Chiang Mai.

The lack of trust in the government side is reflected in the stated desire of ethnic leaders at Law Khee Lar summit to postpone the nationwide ceasefire accord until after this year’s general election. Underpinning that lack of trust is a wariness of the old divide-and-rule tactics employed against ethnic insurgents during the junta era, which also explains why the summit resolved to withhold an agreement until armed groups currently battling the government are allowed to participate as signatories.

As a result of the summit, ceasefire negotiations could stretch years into the future. After placing such a premium on reaching an accord before the 2015 elections, the government is now uneasy and embarrassed after having touted the success of the draft text agreement in March.

Rangoon-based political analyst Yan Myo Thein told The Irrawaddy that the government should accept the new negotiating bloc in the hopes of expediting a ceasefire agreement.

“The longer time the government takes to accept them, the longer the delay in finalizing the nationwide ceasefire agreement text, and the longer the delay in signing it,” he said.

But government negotiators, who said after the draft text agreement they were ready to sign and waited more than two months before they were ultimately rebuffed, do not want a repeat of the experience.

According to sources close to the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), President’s Office minister and MPC chief Aung Min, as well as the military, are upset that they have been blindsided by the new bloc. The government would prefer the bloc included the heads of the various ethnic armed groups it represents, rather than those who were not in a position to make binding promises.

On the other side, ethnic leaders have remained steadfast in their commitment to a ceasefire agreement and subsequent peace talks that guarantee autonomy and a federal union. The prevailing sentiment at the Law Khee Lar summit was that the NCCT had bent too far to the government’s will, and a new team was needed to enshrine ethnic demands that would have otherwise been deferred until after the agreement was signed.

How negotiators will overcome the present deadlock is yet to be seen, but there is a growing sense of inevitability that the next steps in the ceasefire negotiations will be the responsibility of the next government.

In the words of Dr Emma Leslie, the executive director of Cambodia-based Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and a close observer of ceasefire talks in Chiang Mai, “This peace process will continue into next administration and will have to be robust enough to face many more changes and many more setbacks.”

The last 18 months have shown that both sides are willing to set aside lingering mistrust and negotiate their way out of periodic stalemates. At the same time, past experience suggests this latest deadlock won’t be the last.