Ethnic Issues

Burma’s Peace Process: Matching Words with Deeds

By Sai Oo 13 July 2015

Negotiations on a nationwide ceasefire agreement between the government and ethnic armed groups that had appeared to be progressing well, recently hit a stumbling block.

On March 30, 2015, the government’s Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) and the ethnics’ negotiating bloc, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), announced the completion of a draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) following more than 17 months of deliberations.

Whether or not key decision makers on both sides will sign it into a “national treaty” remains an open question.

On June 2-9, leaders of 17 Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) gathered at Law Khee Lar, home to the headquarters of one of the most powerful ethnic armed groups the Karen National Union, for a summit attended by more than 190 leaders, representatives, special guests and observers.

The international guest list included the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Burma Vijay Nambiar, China’s Asian Affairs Envoy Sun Guoxiang and Yuji Muri of the Nippon Foundation.

At the summit, EAO leaders pored over the NCA draft word by word. They discussed, debated and finally reached a consensus affirming their collective commitment to a peace deal that all could abide by.

Pragmatism and idealism were two guiding principles not easy to reconcile, but ethnic leaders managed to find a path forward and settle their differences.

Political principles, ceasefire codes of conduct and military integration were extensively discussed during the dialogue which was extended from the originally proposed five days to eight.

Some 14 amendments to the NCA were proposed and ethnic representatives also formed a new and higher level delegation to negotiate with the government on the proposed amendments.

However, the government’s immediate reaction to the new negotiating bloc was lukewarm and they indicated their opposition to any amendments to the draft.

Deal or No Deal?

The signing of the NCA is now up in the air, with the impasse sending mixed messages to peace supporters around the country. Many have begun to assume that the deal has reached a dead end.

A closer look at the negotiation process reveals issues in the approaches and practices on both sides.

From the beginning, both the government and ethnic armed groups have evinced uneasiness over making certain compromises. Some EAOs have faced ideological rifts not only between groups but within their own organizations.

There are groups among EAOs that see the peace process as an opportunity to address their political grievances through political dialogue. This view is generally supported by EAOs, but some appear to disagree on timing and strategy.

The more idealistic groups demand some form of assurance from the government before committing themselves to a ceasefire deal. Despite differences, there is a prevailing notion that a national-level political dialogue, which is embedded in the NCA, would be the only way to address the root causes of ethnic issues.

On the government’s part, it has failed to seize the opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of EAOs. The government has not made clear whether laws that could be used to arrest and punish people associated with non-state armed groups, such as the Unlawful Association Act, will be scrapped after a peace deal.

In paying lip service to nationwide peace and national dialogue, the government has failed to match words with actions. Ongoing armed conflicts in some ethnic minority areas and the displacement of civilians has simply fomented skepticism among EAOs about the government’s true intentions.

Ethnic leaders also view the military-drafted 2008 Constitution as depriving ethnic minorities of their rights and see little gain in a peace deal unless the charter is amended.

EAOs are wary of any deal that resembles pacts of the past, when the military government was only interested in disarming ethnic armed groups and transforming them into pliable entities such as Border Guard Forces under army control—not in addressing underlying political problems.

During the negotiations, Burma Army officials maintained that military integration meant disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), while EAOs saw the process of integration as security sector reform (SSR) which has wider implications than DDR and includes a whole range of reforms including of the judiciary and the police.

Nai Hong Sar, chief negotiator with the NCCT, said the proposed amendments to the NCA primarily concerned wording in the document that was unclear or controversial. However, as outlined above, there are factors other than language that could derail the NCA.

Pursuing Political Dialogue

Key stakeholders, including political parties and civil society organizations that have been working on a framework for National Dialogue, have questioned the continuous deferral of the NCA. A number of political parties have been impatient for a ceasefire deal which, if not concluded, raises uncertainty as to the emergence of a National Dialogue.

In 2014, the two main political party alliances, the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation and the Federal Democratic Alliance, alongside other parties, formed a 10 member committee called the Peace and Political Dialogue Initiative Committee. The committee produced a draft framework for political dialogue.

Burma’s leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy, also drafted a framework in 2014. The United Nationalities Alliance, which is made up of mainly ethnic political parties and won seats in the 1990 election, released its own framework for political dialogue in March 2015.

The Myanmar Peace Centre published a booklet describing the basic principles, aims and working procedures of a proposed political dialogue and cited examples of the frameworks drawn up by the above political groups.

Most of the frameworks share very similar objectives, including instituting a federal union and addressing root causes of political grievances.

Many of the political groups argue that political dialogue should not be held back until after the NCA is signed. In other words, the NCA should not necessarily be the mechanism for ushering in political dialogue.

Many stakeholders are keen to see the emergence of a common framework for political dialogue before the election season sweeps in—and the clock is ticking.

Recent efforts to amend the Constitution in Parliament have proven fruitless. The military continues to hold onto, and wield, its veto power, making it almost impossible to advance a more democratic charter and nation. Several political leaders and MPs have expressed their disappointment over the military’s ongoing legislative power.

The peace process, on the other hand, is a different beast to the parliamentary push for constitutional amendments. Both the government and the military have committed themselves to the peace process.

On Burma’s Union Day in February this year, the government led by President Thein Sein, Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Man and the ministers of ethnic affairs, together with leaders of four EAOs, recommitted to the peace process by signing a non-binding agreement pledging to build a union based on “democratic and federal principles.”

At present, the peace process is at a crossroads. It presents the opportunity, for the first time, for all ethnic and non-state armed groups, the government, the military and other stakeholders to work together and peacefully resolve the country’s long lasting civil conflict.

We hope that our leaders are wise enough to embrace the quickest, surest way to end the suffering of 51 million people.

Dr Sai Oo works with the Pyidaungsu Institute and attended the recent EAO Summit in Law Khee Lar. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the Institute.