Myanmar made history a few weeks ago.
Negotiators representing the government of President U Thein Sein and the ethnic armed groups overcame the unthinkable: They concluded a protracted negotiation over a nationwide ceasefire on March 31.
It stunned everyone, even some deep within the peace process. A few months ago, there were comments calling the process “as good as dead.” But it is now likely that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) will be signed in May. Therefore, for the first time the real possibility of ending Myanmar’s 67-year history of armed conflict has emerged.
This is an incredible feat for a government whose legitimacy has constantly been called into question by opponents for its association with the previous military regime. Yet the president has resolutely stuck by the call he made for peace with ethnic armed groups a few months after assuming power in 2011. More importantly, he has acted decisively to reach this point.
Undoubtedly, there was much skepticism and that was absolutely warranted.
Overall, the NCA process took 17 months. It required both sides to meet 22 times informally and seven times formally. The meetings took place in Myanmar as well as abroad. Beyond these meetings the technical teams representing both sides met over 200 times in preparation for formal negotiations.
Throughout the talks, fighting flared up too many times and in its worst moments threatened to derail the whole process. Political conditions outside the negotiation table also often overshadowed the dynamics of the talks.
Negotiations took place against the backdrop of larger social, economic, administrative and political reforms that Myanmar has initiated. This was further compounded by the complex web of the conflict’s history; the multiplicity of groups involved; ethnic and other grievances; diverse interests and allegiances; and the negotiating cultures involved.
A seemingly endless series of hurdles meant that it even took seven months—from September 2014 to March 2015—to prepare for the final round of talks. It took six days straight to finish most of the remaining eight items and then the negotiators needed to take a break. They resumed the bargaining for two more days at the end of March when everything was eventually wrapped up.
Critically, the president made a last minute intervention to overcome the final hurdles in the talks. Government insiders said a cabinet meeting was interrupted as a request came from the negotiation team for his involvement in concluding the last few compromises.
On March 31, he himself showed up at the Myanmar Peace Center and congratulated the negotiators from both sides. In his short speech, he said, “I was so happy I could not even sleep last night after watching the heart-felt speeches by ethnic leaders.”
‘A Political Roadmap’
On the whole, the negotiations have been multiparty, although they are described as comprising only two sides. The government side has been made up of ministers, high-ranking army officers and parliamentary representatives. The ethnic participants—representing 16 armed groups—have negotiated as a team. In a country unfamiliar with compromise, it has been a constant struggle for both sides to bargain from a common position.
The agreement started out with 122 points and ended with 106 provisions under 33 headings in seven chapters. It has been billed as the world’s longest and wordiest ceasefire deal. Despite being called a nationwide ceasefire agreement, it more closely resembles a political roadmap for the future of Myanmar. It is therefore no wonder it took negotiators from both sides 17 months to “grind it out.”
However, over the course of those 17 months, a negotiation first characterized by distrust has evolved into one of trust. Thus it is no surprise that there are two recurring words that appear throughout the NCA—negotiation and cooperation. They are there to ensure that the agreement, once signed, will be abided by and carried out in the spirit of accommodation and compromise.
The NCA covers many critical issues such as the formation of the Joint-Monitoring Mechanisms to monitor ceasefire violations. They will be buttressed by the Codes of Conduct and a multitude of humanitarian provisions and civilian protections.
More importantly, the NCA contains several key promises from the government, the most important of which are the guarantee of political negotiations and the eventual establishment of a democratic federal state—the long-standing and most critical demand of the ethnic groups. As such, the agreement will open the door for inclusive political negotiations in order to end the armed conflict once and for all.
The Path Forward
In reality, the NCA is just the beginning of the peace process in Myanmar. It will have to be followed by the development of a framework for political dialogue on which political negotiations will be based. The agreement sets out deadlines for these steps to be implemented; notably political negotiations must begin within 90 days of the formal signing of the nationwide ceasefire.
From here onward, the process will become even more complicated.
To date, ceasefire talks have only included the government and the ethnic armed groups. Political parties, including opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other stakeholders, have not yet been included in the process. Their participation will commence in the next phase—the political framework negotiations.
The issues up for negotiation will move beyond ceasefires to wider, more complex topics such as power and wealth sharing and security reintegration.
The politics outside the peace negotiations—the upcoming election—will add more fluidity and uncertainty to the peace process. While the election is crucial for the further development of Myanmar’s young democratic processes, negotiators are deeply worried that it could have an adverse effect on the peace process.
Effectively there are only five months left to get the political negotiations underway before campaigning for the November elections begins. Having realized that there would be time constraints, the president signed a pledge in February to begin political negotiations before the election. The goal is to build a firm foundation for peace before his term is complete.
Credit must also go to the hard work and determination of all those involved in the process—particularly the government team led by Union Minister U Aung Min and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) representing the ethnic armed groups.
Myanmar is attempting an extremely difficult and ambitious undertaking. To say every step on the way to producing the final NCA draft has not been easy would be an understatement. Skepticism and destructive comments will remain. However, it appears that the negotiations to date and the resulting NCA have set the country on the right track to confront the challenges that lie ahead in the peace process.
Aung Naing Oo is the associate director of the Peace Dialogue Program, Myanmar Peace Center. Opinions expressed here are his own.
This story first appeared in the May 2015 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.