Guest Column

The Keys to Building Trust and Achieving Peace Are in the Myanmar Military’s Hands

By Joe Kumbun 6 November 2019

Myanmar’s peace process — first started by the former president U Thein Sein and then handed on to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — seems a forlorn hope.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), the culmination of several negotiations between the government, Myanmar’s army and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), appears to be at a dead end.

Ten EAOs — the Chin National Front, All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Liberation Party, Restoration Council of Shan State, Karen National Union, Karen National Liberation Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Pa-O National Liberation Organization, New Mon State Party and Lahu Democratic Union — have signed the NCA. However, the stronger EAOs in the Northern Alliance and Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee (FPNCC) have shunned it.

The Northern Alliance includes the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The FPNCC is made up of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP) and the members of the Northern Alliance.

In 2017, I wrote that the NCA would not bring any tangible results and was a false hope. The NCA has failed to bring peace and only looks to introduce ceasefires and mitigate conflicts.

But the country is at a critical moment, as attempts are being made to stop the intense fighting between the Tatmadaw (military) and three members of the Northern Alliance — the AA, MNDAA and TNLA — and seek a ceasefire agreement.

Meetings began early in the year between the Tatmadaw and Northern Alliance to reach a bilateral agreement. The most recent meeting in September agreed on seven points as a prelude to a bilateral agreement but challenges and uncertainty linger. The next meeting was scheduled for early October but it was canceled.


The major barrier to the peace process is the trust deficit between the Tatmadaw and EAOs. The difficulty in moving forward lies in contrasting preferences for sequencing, made even more contentious by the chronic trust deficit.

The distrust leads both sides to strengthen their military capabilities. The Tatmadaw and EAOs practice “self-help” to ensure their survival through power maximization. They must fend for themselves for their survival and merge into alliances with or against each other to address power imbalances. The Northern Alliance appeared from this concept of balancing power to ensure its four members’ survival.

The Tatmadaw, for instance, claims that if it steps back from politics, its role and power will diminish and its survival will be uncertain. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing — the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw — constantly defends the military’s role in politics.

Similarly, the EAOs say the Tatmadaw has consistently failed to fulfill the promises it made and does not guarantee security, since the military and NCA signatories constantly clash without reason. The EAOs thus form alliances or build their military capabilities to ensure their survival. Mistrust, unless addressed and ameliorated, will continue to prevent successful negotiations.

Three routes

There are three possible routes towards peace.

One option is DDR — disarmament, demobilization and reintegration — and to form a federal defense force. First, the Tatmadaw must step back from politics and give political guarantees for both ethnic armed groups and minorities who have survived for decades under an oppressive Myanmar military.

Myanmar can imitate Bosnia’s transformation. The Bosniak-Croat army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian-Serb army of Republika Srpska were unified into the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war-torn country eventually founded a ministry of defense and established laws to control its armed forces. Legislation addressed financing and the composition of the armed forces to build a politically neutral, ethnically mixed and professional army. The Tatmadaw and EAOs must officially unify and found a unified military.

The Security Sector Reform (SSR) process must be undertaken by all sides before DDR can begin.

The second scenario is either to draft a new constitution or amend the 2008 Constitution with federal principles. The new or amended constitution must stick to federal principles where political power must be given to the people and distributed among all states and regions.

The third scenario is to adopt a “one country, two systems” political model formulated by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping for the reunification of China and Hong Kong. The system is a possible solution to the perennial civil war in Myanmar.

Currently, the Wa enclave has de-facto independence from Myanmar, already exercising the one country, two systems model. The Chinese-backed UWSA uses a supposedly communist system. The same applies in the Mongla enclave where the NDAA operates outside Naypyitaw’s control.

One country, two systems offers the best approach to end political grievances of ethnic minorities and endless civil war.

Hopes for peace entirely depend on how the Tatmadaw reacts to the demands of ethnic minorities or addresses lingering problems. It is the major linchpin in building peace. Without an internal push towards peace from the Tatmadaw, our hopes for an end to civil war will be elusive.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.