Why Peace Remains Evasive

By Lawi Weng 27 July 2019

General Gun Maw, vice chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), wrote on his Facebook page earlier this month, “Who am I?,” questioning the role of his armed group in the current peace process. He spoke poetically—but not directly.

Since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire agreement collapsed, the KIO has continued negotiating for peace with the Myanmar government, seeking a bilateral agreement, but conditions have not improved; in fact, they’ve gotten worse, with ongoing fighting.

The Myanmar government is trying to talk the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) into a marriage by signing the national ceasefire agreement (NCA), promising them a full, permanent peace once they have signed., Gen. Gun Maw said in his Facebook post.

The UWSA and the NDAA are ethnic armed organizations (EAO) based in Shan State near the Chinese border. Those two are mature armed groups that operate successful businesses, and they have had signed, bilateral ceasefire agreements with the central government for 30 years. They see no need to sign an NCA since they have endured no fighting in that time.

Four armed groups in Kachin State and northern Shan State are currently in peace negotiations with the Myanmar government, seeking to sign bilateral agreements as a first step toward signing the NCA. China has helped them negotiate with the Myanmar government. We have seen that process move forward, but we have sometimes seen it move backward.

Brigadier-General Tar Phone Kyaw of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) blamed the Myanmar military for taking too many different stands and making it impossible to build trust, according to a recent Facebook post of his.

He described the peace negotiations as stalling and even deteriorating under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy government. It must be determined why this is so, he said.

Earlier this year the Myanmar government—former generals mostly following orders that come from the military—allowed the Arakan Army, the TNLA and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) to participate in the peace process, signaling that they want the process to progress.

Even EAO leaders welcomed that signal—but they did not welcome the military’s demand that EAOs retreat to their original positions as a precondition for bilateral ceasefires. They did not accept these terms. Then, early this month, the military attacked both the TNLA (in Kutkai Township) and the MNDAA (west of the Salween River) in northern Shan State.

Ethnic women arrive at the Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyitaw in July 2018. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

It is time to find out whether the military, the NLD government or the ethnic armed groups are trying to block the peace process, Tar Phone Kyaw said.

If the military had not blocked these three armed groups from participating in the peace process during negotiations in 2015, all armed groups would have signed the NCA already. Fighting escalated in northern Shan State and Kachin State after these armed groups were excluded.

The state of the current peace process shows it is not working, but we must find out how to solve these armed conflicts, and we cannot ignore the people who suffer most from these civil wars.

Fighting near the Chinese border in Myanmar’s northeast has moved west, to Rakhine State. The military announced unilateral ceasefires in five regions, but not in there, where fighting is at its worst. The military’s actions have caused them to lose more trust in peace negotiations, said Tar Phone Kyaw.

“We have ongoing civil wars in the country as the culture of dialogue disappears,” he said.

Myanmar has undergone some political reforms, but the military continues to occupy a large role in the country’s political dialogues. Despite initially high expectations from EAO leaders over forging a peace with the NLD government, those leaders today find that the Tatmadaw is still a key player in peace negotiations; without their okay, the NLD cannot make political decisions. At times the NLD and the Tatmadaw act as a single force—over the fighting in Rakhine State, for example, where the NLD supports the military in its fight against the AA, after the AA attacked four police on January 4, Independence Day.

When EAO leaders look at the government’s actions, they feel the NLD and the Tatmadaw are one in the same. This creates fear and encourages them to strengthen their own armed forces. As it stands, they pursue two concurrent strategies: they work on the one hand with the government for peace while strengthening their armed forces and prepare to fight on the other, believing battle will be necessary in achieving their political goals.

Ethnic armed leaders even understand that the NLD will win again in the elections next year, and that peace negotiations will change very little. The military will continue to dictate government actions.

If one wonders why the peace process does not progress smoothly, the answer lies with the Tatmadaw.

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