Guest Column

EAOs Should Separate Their Strategies on Ceasefires and Political Dialogue

By Aung Naing Oo 4 June 2019

Given the nature of the current deadlock in the peace process in Myanmar and its high probability to continue for the foreseeable future, I want to see a separation of ceasefire issues from political negotiations.

Some may argue that the two issues are indivisible, but I want to point out that this inseparability has had a negative impact on the peace process—more so on ceasefire issues than political negotiations.

In other words, it would be better for the peace process in Myanmar if all signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) were to resume ceasefire activities at the earliest possible time, while taking time to return to the political negotiating table.

This is because the blanket suspension of cooperation with, or withdrawal from, the peace process without any clear indication as to when the official peace process can resume has hurt the whole process. It has and will have consequences in the ceasefire arena in the long run, exacerbated by the protracted impasse in political dialogue.

This is the critical aspect that all stakeholders should pay attention to.

Let us examine the reasons why.

Peacemaking mechanisms in order to end armed conflicts differ from one place to another. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Responses to end the conflicts are also different. In some cases, proponents stop the fighting so that they can negotiate peacefully, while others fight and talk all at the same time.

The situation in Myanmar falls into the former category. We have signed two types of ceasefire—bilateral and NCA—so that we can negotiate politically without having to worry about the adverse impacts of the fighting on the battlefield during political negotiations.

Thus, we implemented the dual track in this way. In other words, we have tried to work on ceasefires and political dialogue at the same time.

All of these worked to a large extent, until the two biggest ethnic armed organizations (EAOs)—the KNU (Karen National Union) and RCSS (Restoration Council of Shan State)—withdrew their cooperation in October 2018.

Undoubtedly, they have good reasons and intentions for their actions; they want to make the peace process better. They thought the only way to make things better was to demonstrate their displeasure in regard to the implementation of the NCA through withdrawal of cooperation.

It is said that the EAOs, in particular the KNU, are preparing their arguments to improve the peace process. One thing is for sure, however; until they return, no one will know if their protest has produced the desired result.

It has been eight months since their noncooperation began. During this time, except for a few informal meetings, no official meeting, either in the political dialogue or the ceasefire arena, has taken place. More importantly, the rest of the NCA signatories cannot participate in the official meetings with the government collectively due to the objections from the KNU and RCSS, perhaps for fear of disunity among the EAOs.

Furthermore, the result of the NCA EAOs meeting in Chiang Mai in May indicated that there will be a delay in the return of all 10 NCA signatories to the negotiating table as a group.

Simply put, if political dialogue does not move forward, the ceasefire issue will remain stuck. This has had wide-ranging impacts on the peace process, perhaps more so than they might have imagined in the first place.

Trust has largely dissipated and the peace process with the NCA signatories is stumbling in the dark. The lack of negotiations with the government also took away the momentum among the NCA EAOs. In turn, it has created divisions among them. This does not augur well for the negotiations where the EAOs have to negotiate with the government from a united standpoint.

Communication has in many ways broken down, creating wider gaps and greater misunderstanding between the government and the EAOs. This will further delay the return of the EAOs to the table.

More importantly, ceasefire-related problems have flared up on the ground. It is only a matter of time before they turn into open and more violent clashes. The only consolation is the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire in most parts of the country, which has contributed to a temporary halt in the conflict.

As stated earlier, the main reason for the overall deadlock is that noncooperation covers both political and ceasefire aspects. If it were the case that the noncooperation applied only to the political negotiations, and not the ceasefire-monitoring mechanism, at least there would be the consolation that problems on the ground can be sorted out through existing or improved mechanisms.

Thinking further ahead, this will pose problems for the entire peace process. For instance, once more groups are added to the NCA signatory list, and if someone with the muscle suspends cooperation, and if the same principle is applied, everything in the peace process is likely to get stuck.

Therefore, it is time to rethink the way blanket noncooperation has been employed.

In this case, it is important to take inspiration from the Philippine peace process. It instituted an effective ceasefire between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, even to the point of having no clashes on the ground for years. It helped all protagonists in the Philippine peace process take time to negotiate.

We need to recall that the reason we decided to stop fighting in the first place was so that we could negotiate peacefully. Now this part of the agreement has been called into question.

More importantly, ceasefire issues are tackled bilaterally rather than multilaterally. In the same way, the NCA is both multilateral and bilateral all at the same time. For this reason, it is critical to pay attention to ceasefire issues on a bilateral basis, while it is wise to negotiate collectively with the government on political matters.

Perhaps then it may be wise to disentangle the ceasefire issue from the political negotiations. In other words, the EAOs should resume ceasefire activities soon while they take time to ponder political issues. In this way, effective communication can be restored and trust can be rebuilt. More critically, an important message needs to be sent to civilians in conflict areas that all sides are committed to maintaining ceasefires in order to restore confidence on the ground.

Otherwise, there will be too many unknowns going forward, and they do not bode well for the peace process in Myanmar.

Aung Naing Oo is executive director of the Technical Secretariat Center of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC). The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the JMC.

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