CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Throughout the year, at least a dozen informal discussions between the Myanmar government’s Peace Commission and the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), both signatories and non-signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), were held. Every time, both sides talked about the positive results of the meetings, saying they helped to build trust and understanding.
So why does a meeting to resume the formal peace process continue to be delayed?
Military tensions continue on the ground, with EAOs and Myanmar’s military clashing in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states throughout the year and more recently in Mon State. At least 200,000 people in those states remain displaced due to fighting since 2011.
A standoff continues between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) at Papun in Karen State over road reconstruction. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Tatmadaw occasionally fight in Shan State. The year 2019 was marked by the prolonged absence of formal peace negotiations; the peace talks that were held this year, in the words of many negotiators, were conducted just to keep the process alive.
“The formal talks were temporarily stopped this year, but not completely halted,” said Khun Myint Tun of the Pa-O National Organization, adding that Myanmar’s current deadlocked peace process is similar to those in some other countries.
Colonel Sai Ngern of the RCSS, who currently leads the NCA signatories’ Peace Process Steering Team (PPST) for the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM), said: “This year formal talks were suspended, but the informal meetings are helping to bring back serious negotiations. Also, understandings have been reached and it benefits the entire peace process.” He added that the groups also made efforts to include the views of the NCA non-signatories in their negotiations.
In January, the government and NCA signatories pledged to work toward holding more formal peace talks, which have been stalled since late October 2018. And there were hopes that the process would get back on track sooner. The government’s Peace Commission has held separate meetings with the KNU and RCSS in Chiang Mai, and government negotiators also met the PPST as a whole and sought ways to move the peace process forward.
In November, after the government’s last meeting with the NCA signatories in Chiang Mai, the authorities expressed hope that the formal peace process could restart this month. But formal talks are now expected in the second week of January, according to both sides.
The JICM, attended by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and EAO leaders, is viewed as the gateway to holding another 21st-Century Panglong Peace Conference. Since the KNU’s refusal to take part in formal talks in October 2018 and the RCSS’s withdrawal from the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) the following month, the discussions have been interrupted. Negotiations between the government and the Northern Alliance, comprising the Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, are nowhere near being resumed; the two sides last held talks in September in Kengtung, eastern Shan State.
On Wednesday, the 10 ceasefire signatories’ Peace Process Steering Team concluded three days of talks in Chiang Mai and RCSS chairman General Yawd Serk, the interim head of the PPST, hailed “a turning point for the peace process”. In his closing remarks, the general said they “managed to achieve good results that are fair and acceptable to all of us because we have attached great importance to our interests.”
He added, “At this meeting, we managed to adopt terms of reference [TORs] related to the formation and organization of NCA-S EAO members; submit a counterproposal to the government for setting the date for a JICM meeting; strengthen and expand the negotiation team; analyze objectively the present political, peace and military affairs; and other affairs; as well as lay down appropriate future action plans.”
Gen. Yawd Serk’s remarks imply the 10 signatories are working to present a united front to deal with the government. They have established three teams to deal with the government. There are teams to negotiate for the JICM and the political negotiations, both led by Col.Sai Ngern, and the military affairs led by the KNU’s central committee leader, Padoh Saw Hse Gay.
The PPST meetings were held four times this year and an EAOs summit convened in May. The leadership was destabilized in March when both the KNU and RCSS chairmen stepped down from the PPST leadership and the KNU attempted to leave the PPST in May. However, in August the PPST continued under the leadership of the RCSS chairman and the groups vowed to push the stalled peace process forward.
Talks on JICM… but more delays
Both sides have repeatedly said the government and EAOs have agreed to hold the JICM and are aware of its significance to the peace process. Nai Ong MaNge from the New Mon State Party said the groups wanted to hold a JICM, but there was difficulty agreeing on a suitable date in December. According to Col. Sai Ngern of the RCSS, a pre-JICM meeting is being planned before Christmas. The preparatory meeting would allow discussion on ways to break the deadlock, said U Than Khe, the chairman of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.
In late October, KNU chairman Padoh Saw Mutu Sae Poe met the State Counselor and the army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, separately in Naypyitaw to reportedly discuss plans for lasting peace and national reconciliation. Despite the talks, fighting continues and smooth implementation of the NCA continues to prove elusive.
One recent example of tension was the travel restrictions imposed on Gen. Yawd Serk of the RCSS in late October, when his motorcade was not allowed to pass the Shan State border from Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province to join the fourth anniversary of the NCA signing. A planned October JICM meeting was also postponed. The tension was eased after Peace Commission chairman Dr. Tin Myo Win joined the Tatmadaw’s Lieutenant General Yar Pyae and Lieutenant General Min Naung at a meeting with the RCSS in an attempt to rebuild trust in late November.
At this week’s meeting of the PPST, it announced: “The PPST protests against the limitations and restrictions of freedom of speech and travel of the [ceasefire signatories] as they are against the provisions of the NCA and could affect trust-building.” The restrictions on the movement of ceasefire signatories have repeatedly weakened the peace process, according to observers.
With the peace talks stalled and Myanmar facing more international pressure over allegations of genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, the EAOs have expressed different views over Myanmar’s role when the country’s legal defense team appears at the International Court of Justice next week. Some back the government and other groups support The Gambia’s international action to prosecute the country.
The position of the EAOs will affect the peace negotiations, especially with the military playing a key role in deciding whether fighting on the ground should end.
U Than Khe of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front said: “We acknowledged the government’s efforts because it is about [seeking] truth, justice, and [showing] accountability and the responsibility of the government.”
The PPST said the government would boost the country’s image, thanks to its decision to contest the ICJ, and if it proves to uphold international treaties and conventions. Likewise, putting effort into achieving success in the peace process and national reconciliation will also help boost the country’s image, it said.
RCSS chairman Gen. Yawd Serk said on Dec. 2 that cooperation between the Tatmadaw and the government in The Hague showed that the authorities were taking responsibility. He said that the prolonged suffering of ethnic minorities due to armed conflicts could only be healed when a federal union was established enabling a peaceful and prosperous nation to develop.
Before the end of the year, the KNU plans to meet the military on Dec. 10 in Naypyitaw and the National Reconciliation and Peace Center on Dec. 11. The meeting is being seen as a key to whether the JICM can be held in January, followed by a peace conference in the first quarter.
Col. Sai Ngern of the RCSS forecast that a union-level peace conference would occur at some point next year, preferably before the Thingyan holidays in early April. “We need to discuss federal policies thoroughly and how to move forward with the peace process beyond 2020,” he added. “Only when the talks are smooth, can [the process] move ahead at the government’s expected date.”