Will Myanmar’s Formal Peace Negotiations Get Back on Track?

By Nyein Nyein 20 August 2019

CHIANG MAI—The Myanmar government’s peace delegation clarified four proposals for overcoming stalled peace talks at a meeting with ten ethnic armed organization (EAO) signatories to a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in Chang Mai, Thailand on Monday.

The delegation had already made the proposals a month ago but wanted to make certain at the meeting that all sides understood clearly the details before EAO representatives report back to their Peace Process Steering Team on Wednesday.

The informal talks continued despite formal peace negotiations having stalled last November, after the Karen National Union (KNU) dropped out of formal negotiations. Then, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) left its position on the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC)—an NCA implementation body—though it later walked back that position, saying on July 23 it would hold discussions with the JMC at all levels to amend its terms of reference.

For the nine months that the KNU and RCSS decisions, Union-level political dialogue ceased, and the Union Peace Conference stopped convening. In that time, the military and several EAO signatories have engaged in armed conflicts—the RCSS in Shan State especially.

In Karen State, tensions between the KNU and the military have also persisted, particularly in areas under the control of the KNU’s Brigade No. 5 in Papun District.

Still, stakeholders say there needs to be stronger ceasefire enforcement in order to move forward with political negotiations. Further, EAOs, the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government and the military representatives involved in the talks do not share common understandings of the NCA’s terms or its implementation.

The government delegation is led by Peace Commission secretary U Khin Zaw Oo. On Tuesday, government negotiators separately met with representatives of the KNU and the RCSS, both of which are NCA signatories.

The KNU represented by its vice chairman Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win and the RCSS by its chairman General Yawd Serk.

The government delegation also met with the Karenni National Progressive Party, a non-signatory, on Monday, and discussed issues related to the group signing the NCA.

Still no non-signatories at the table

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, is currently engaged in active armed conflict with three EAOs in the northeast—the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), who have collectively gone by the moniker the Brotherhood Alliance. The three have not reached ceasefire agreements with the military, though the military has announced and extended a unilateral ceasefire in the region TNLA- and MNDAA-controlled areas that both groups say it has continually violated.

The government’s peace delegation, led by Peace Commission Secretary U Khin Zaw Oo, and the Karen National Union peace delegation, led by Vice Chairman Padoh Saw Kwe Htoo Win, hold an informal meeting aimed at moving the stalled peace process forward in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Aug. 20, 2019 / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Last week, the Brotherhood Alliance launched five coordinated attacks in and around Pyin Oo Lwin, in Mandalay Region, and Naung Cho Township, in Shan State, including the first on the military’s Defense Service Technological Academy in Pwin Oo Lwin in decades. Other attacks targeted police security outposts, toll gates and anti-narcotics checkpoints, including a bomb blast that destroyed the Goke Twin Bridge and disrupted travel and international trade routes. The attacks—which the alliance said were counteroffensives undertaken to relieve fighting in their own areas—killed 15, including civilians and police and military personnel.

The government condemned the attacks as “terrorist acts,” but a government spokesperson said last Friday it was still open to peace talks with the groups.

Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay said the government wants to hold talks with all groups, signatories and non-signatories alike.

“We are in constant communication and negotiation to reach a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the four groups,” U Zaw Htay said, referring to the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), the TNLA, the AA and the MNDAA, known collectively as the Northern Alliance (NA).

“Clashes occur when armed forces involved, but what’s important is to meet and negotiate, no matter what,” he said. “Thus, we try to meet with the signatories to resume the postponed peace talks while also trying to negotiate with non-signatories to reach bilateral ceasefires.”

The government and the NA members last met in June but have been unable to agree on a venue for a following meeting since.

Chinese Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang—who has been acting as a peace broker—held meetings with NA member groups in Kunming, China on Tuesday.

On Aug. 14, Guoxiang discussed developments in the peace process with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw—a day before the NA attacks in Mandalay Region and Shan State.

The government’s four proposals

In Chiang Mai, the government proposed continuing discussions on the implementation of the NCA principles; implementing previously agreed upon interim arrangement programs; holding another Union Peace Conference; and creating a road map for political negotiations before and beyond 2020.

These proposed approaches are not new. Implementation should have been done long ago, and disagreements over how to implement NCA principles have been one of the major hurdles causing the peace process and further political negotiations to stall in the first place. There is little implementation of the interim arrangement related to military affairs or plans for the healthcare and education of the residents, the repatriation of the displaced or regional development.

U Zaw Htay said the government has agreed to discuss implementing the NCA principles through the JMC, the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee, the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee and the Joint Peace Process Implementation Coordination Meeting.

After meeting with the ten EAO signatories on Monday, he said, “we will hold a discussion to reach a common understanding of the definitions and terms [of NCA implementation].”

The government’s proposals are “all simultaneous process rather than orderly, one after the other,” added Khun Myint Tun, vice chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization, the political wing of the armed Pa-O National Liberation Army, an EAO in Shan State.

The government also said it seeks to reach agreement on principles of federation with EAOs and political parties, in order to move forward the Union Peace Conference.

“The third government proposals is, in short, what to do before and beyond 2020. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing also said peace will be achieved by 2020 and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the basic principles of federation will be achieved before 2020,” Khun Mytin Htun said.

“But the EAO signatories are concerned about being forced and dragged into the process [without a thorough understanding [of the current constitutional and peace crisis]. The government has their own concerns—their term ends in 2020. In short, the government is urged to form a mechanism for political negotiations beyond 2020,” he said.

The fourth proposal is to implement development projects outlined under the bilateral and nationwide ceasefire agreements.

Whether the government and EAOs can achieve these aims within one year and four months time, we’ll have to wait and see, but they’ve already wasted the precious previous three years disagreeing over terms and definitions.