President Thein Sein’s recent claim that the country could reach a nationwide ceasefire “over the coming weeks” is being met with skepticism by observers and peace process participants who say the optimistic assertion is the latest example of a government better at making promises than fulfilling them.
Despite nearly every major ethnic group having signed ceasefire agreements with the government over the last two years, ethnic leaders today are taking a more cautious approach to their engagement with Naypyidaw, given realities on the ground that they say belie the rosy view expressed by the president last week in London.
Nai Hong Sa, the general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups, said he had doubts about Thein Sein’s claim, adding that any signing of a “nationwide ceasefire” would be less about substance and more about public relations.
Nai Hong Sa said the government had accelerated its push for a nationwide ceasefire to serve its own ends—namely, to bolster its credentials as a reformist administration in the eyes of the international community. Establishing a durable peace in ethnic regions and solving the many and varied problems between the Union government and Burma’s ethnic rebels remained a secondary concern, he claimed.
On Sunday, opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi lent the weight of her international reputation to the credibility of the peace process, participating for the first time in a meeting of the Union Peacemaking Working Committee meeting.
Nai Hong Sa said the government’s technical team told UNFC representatives during their meeting last week in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, that the government was seeking to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement before moving on to establishing a political dialogue. That approach is at odds with what UNFC representatives want, with the ethnic alliance preferring a time-bound political plan implemented alongside a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Mahn Mahn, head of the UNFC’s technical team, said it was important to have a concrete political plan implemented within a given timeframe. That would make the peace process move forward smoothly, he added.
Thein Sein’s government and its political allies are reportedly feeling the heat from some in the international community who are pushing the president to move more quickly in enacting some of the unrealized reforms that the administration has promised.
One informed source told The Irrawaddy that the government’s key peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min, and the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a government-affiliated organization, are facing pressure by some international donors for failing to implement some of its approved projects, including a land mine removal program. Significant foreign funding for Burma’s peace process is channeled through the MPC.
Aung Min has said the military is conducting some de-mining operations with the help of nongovernmental organizations. He highlighted a de-mining effort in Papun District, one of Burma’s most mine-populated areas, in northern Karen State.
However, information disclosed to The Irrawaddy raised questions over the extent of the government’s de-mining program. Small-scale land mine removal conducted by local units of the Burmese military was underway, but was motivated by the units’ own respective interests, one source claimed. Meanwhile, some land mine-related activities and trainings, such as mine risk education, were being provided by Scandinavian NGOs.
One NGO, the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), signed an agreement on May 31 with the European Commission, donating 3.5 million euros (US$4.6 million) to support the establishment and initial operations of the Myanmar Mine Action Center over the next 18 months.
The MPC has also received some funding budgeted for de-mining efforts, according to one source, but has not implemented any projects on the ground due to opposition from both the government army and the Karen National Union (KNU), an armed ethnic rebel group.
“They [Aung Min and the MPC] make promises very easily to donors to do this and that, but they can’t implement the projects they promise and the budget is in their hands. So, they are being pressured by donors because they don’t have activities on the ground,” said the well-informed source.
“There are many international players including NGOs who want to get involved in fixing Burma’s problems. They want to test the waters, but now they realize that it is not as easy as they had thought,” the source added.
He said many NGOs that had opened offices in Burma were not operating with an official license and instead were conducting their activities with an “understanding” or informal “permission” from the government, awaiting the issuance of more formal Memoranda of Understanding.
A Conference Unrealized
Last month, the Burmese government promised an EU delegation in Naypyidaw that the government would hold a major peace conference with ethnic armed groups in July. The government planned to invite leaders from every major ethnic armed group to come to Naypyidaw, where it was hoped that the parties would sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement. That plan now looks unlikely, at least for this month, with just one week left in July and a ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) still unrealized.
While the motivations for the government’s peace push remain up for debate, observers agree on the importance of achieving a nationwide ceasefire if the national reconciliation process is to move forward. In the meantime, some worry that ceasefires and other agreements reached between the government and respective non-state armed groups will only prove satisfactory in the short term, with key rebel demands, especially concerning military matters, still unaddressed by the government.
Calls by non-state armed groups for the government to withdraw its troops from ethnic territories have been ignored.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has produced several books on Burma, said barring fundamental constitutional reform, Naypyidaw’s peacemaking efforts would be of little substance.
“I think it’s a propaganda stunt to please international donors,” he told The Irrawaddy. “There will be no peace in the country until and unless it has a new Constitution, and that goes not only for the relationship between the non-Bama [Burman] peoples and the center but also for the way the country as a whole is being governed.”
Critics of the peace process also say the liaison offices opened after the signing of ceasefire agreements have done little to strengthen the ceasefire agreements in place. Instead, some allege that officers at liaison offices are busy receiving guests from business circles, some of whom seek to curry favor via envelopes filled with cash or ethically dubious invitations to be wined and dined.
Some also claim that significant budget allocations on travel, accommodation and dining for peace negotiators are being spent—including on private planes often hired for peace teams to attend meetings abroad—with little substantive peace process progress to show for it. Ethnic leaders lament what they say is a lack of authority vested in MPC representatives, nearly all of whom belong to the country’s ethnic Burman majority.
Having dealt with the government’s peace negotiators for more than two years, Nai Hong Sa said he could list very few encouraging developments in the course of his engagement with Naypyidaw. While government peace negotiators have agreed “in principle” on many matters, the government army continues to send more troops, weapons and rations to ethnic regions and in some cases has rebuilt its military bases in ethnic territories instead of withdrawing troops.
Last week, a clash between government troops and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) killed two ethnic Mon soldiers. The fighting broke out despite the existence of an 18-year-old ceasefire agreement. As in the latest incident in Mon State, fighting in Kachin and Shan states is on and off, in violation of ceasefire deals and other agreements signed to ease tensions.
“It has taken more than two years already, but there is no significant improvement on the ground. About 100 clashes have also been reported in Shan State even though there is a ceasefire agreement. It shows there is no trust,” Nai Hong Sa said.
Skeptics of the government’s stated intentions say Naypyidaw wants peace and a nationwide ceasefire agreement only on its own terms, agreeing to concessions on military matters only “in principle.” Concrete steps from the government are lacking, they say, with pledges like troop withdrawals from ethnic territories unlikely to be fulfilled by officials who maintain a policy of one state, one army.
In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy in Rangoon, long-time Burma watcher Ashley South said two theories predominated when it came to the military’s relationship to the nominally civilian government of Thein Sein.
“I think there are many different scenarios, but I guess the two main things that people talk about are: Either the government has its reform and peace agendas, and the Myanmar Army has its own responsibilities for security and national defense, and the Myanmar Army might not always have the same priorities or agenda—or interests—as the government,” said South, who is also a consultant with the Norwegian-led Myanmar Peace Support Initiative.
“Or there is a conspiracy theory that, actually, behind closed doors the government and the Army have quite well-worked-out ‘good cop, bad cop’ roles: While the government is engaging in reforms and the peace process, the Myanmar Army is at the same time still pursuing a policy of military expansion to defeat the armed groups, one by one,” he continued, declining to reveal the theory to which he subscribed.
Nai Hong Sa said economic development projects were being prioritized over progress on military matters.
“Some international players don’t know the real situation,” he said. “They think that if there is economic development, ethnic armed struggles will be quieted and peaceful. Because they are fed this line by the government, they focus on aid and development projects. And if there is stability, some of them want to make investments and do business. They don’t prioritize the root of armed conflict.”
Several ethnic observers said aid and development projects were short-term fixes that would not be able to replace an inclusive political dialogue as a means of ending ethnic armed struggle in Burma.
Echoing that sentiment, Nai Hong Sa pointed to the fragility of economic progress in conflict-prone regions, as in Kachin State, where a 17-year-old ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down two years ago. The retreating Kachin rebels destroyed many of the businesses and infrastructure that had been built up in the state since the signing of the ceasefire in 1994.
“That means if there is no political stability, there is no guarantee for economic and other developments. They [the government and international players] should realize it. If they don’t realize it, they will face another big challenge,” Nai Hong Sa said.
Observers also say the ceasefire agreements remain little more than pieces of paper, with ample examples of accords breaking down over the years.
“I used to tell U Aung Min that if we don’t put a political solution in place first, but prioritize business, it is pushing in the wrong direction,” Nai Hong Sa said. “We engage in armed struggle not because we are starving.”
Emphasizing the need for a more meaningful peace-building effort, he warned that development alone is a two-sided coin.
“Even if we do succeed in business, we can then buy more weapons and recruit more troops. And the civil wars will spread even wider and longer. This is also something to keep in mind.”