Peace Commission’s Acceptance of Three EAOs Deserves Praise

By Lawi Weng 13 December 2018

Many observers of the peace process were pleased by the Myanmar Peace Commission’s announcement that an alliance of three ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) would join the process.

The peace deal between the Myanmar Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Arakan Army (AA) and the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) is the result of about two years of negotiations in China. The talks were stalled for a long time over the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw)’s insistence on using the word “disarm” in the final statement.

The three EAOs have a genuine desire to participate in the peace process—instead of using arms—to solve political conflicts, according to the commission’s statement, which was published after the three groups issued their own joint statement saying they welcomed the Union government’s positive steps toward peace and national reconciliation.

Their statement said the three groups wished to solve political conflict through dialogue. They said they would halt military operations, and hoped the Myanmar Army would do the same in order to work for peace.

Some peace observers are puzzled by the Myanmar Army’s decision to sign an agreement with these three groups. The Army has been bitterly opposed to them for a long time. Many government troops have died fighting them, especially in the Kokang region and in northern Shan State, in recent years. The Myanmar Army earlier called them terrorists.

The three EAOs were formed after Myanmar embarked on political reforms under the democratically elected government. The Myanmar Army refused to recognize the three armed groups, rejecting the idea that they needed to fight for ethnic rights under a democratic government.

There are several reasons for the Army’s reluctance over the years to recognize these groups. One is that it would not be simple for them to return to their ethnic regions if they were recognized by the Myanmar Army. For example, the AA might one day be able to return to the Arakan region, but they are currently based in Laiza, Kachin State.

Also, the three armed groups are militarily strong. For example, the TNLA has about 6,000 armed forces, while the AA has about 4,000.

And while they formed relatively recently, their ground fighting skills are good; the Myanmar Army suffers a lot of casualties whenever it fights against them. Bringing them back to the negotiating table is a positive development, but it remains to be seen whether the fighting can be brought to an end any time soon in northern Shan and Arakan State.

The peace process in Myanmar depends heavily on the approval of the Myanmar Army, despite the lead role played by the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government at peace talks. We all should welcome the Peace Commission’s move, however.

There are many things the Myanmar Army will need to change if it wants peace. But the peace process is almost at a standstill now that the Karen National Union has suspended its participation. Tensions mounted recently when the Myanmar Army told the ethnic armed groups they need to promise not to secede from the Union, and that there can be only one army in the country.

The KNU is unhappy with the Tatmadaw’s influence over peace negotiations. The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) has also announced that it will not attend Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee meetings, as it feels there is not a level playing field when it comes to negotiating peace.

Many ethnic armed groups have been asking the Myanmar Army for a long time to let the three armed groups participate in the peace process. The Peace Commission’s acceptance of the three could be good for the peace process as a whole, as it may encourage the KNU to return. However, there could be political issues behind the acceptance of the three groups.

Fighting has been frequent recently in northern Shan State between rival ethnic armed groups; the Tatmadaw has stayed away from this fighting. The RCSS has fought with an alliance of the TNLA and the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP). Fighting between rival EAOs boosts the Myanmar Army’s image, as in the past most clashes have involved the Tatmadaw fighting with one or more EAOs.

If the TNLA reaches a bilateral agreement and signs the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the Myanmar government, there will likely be even more fighting between the TNLA and the RCSS over territory. In this way, the Myanmar Army may not have to fight their enemies, but can simply allow rival ethnic armed groups to kill each other; but this looks bad for the country.

Another reason the Tatmadaw and government may be more keen to accept these three armed groups now is that they are members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), led by the United Wa State Army. The FPNCC has seven members including the Kachin Independence Army, the National Democratic Alliance Army and the SSPP. The Myanmar Army and the government may be hoping that if the AA, TNLA and MNDAA are allowed to participate in the peace process, the rest of the FPNCC members will be encouraged to follow them.