Guest Column

Why the Military Has Declared a Unilateral Ceasefire

By Joe Kumbun 25 December 2018

In a surprise move on Friday, the Myanmar military declared a unilateral four-month ceasefire, its first ever. This after it failed to heed an order from then-President Thein Sein to stop its offensive against the Kachin Independence Army in December 2011.

Materializing as it has in the midst of a stalemate in the peace process, the ceasefire has come about for a number of reasons.

First, the military, or Tatmadaw, wants to rebuild the diminishing trust of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), in particular those that have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), namely the Kayin National Union (KNU) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). The KNU decided to temporarily withdraw from the peace process in October. The following month, the RCSS said recent high-level meetings with the government and military had failed to achieve a breakthrough on key obstacles to a peace process.

The Karenni National Progressive Party, meanwhile, is in a “sit and wait” posture on the NCA, which it has not signed, while the Tatmadaw has shown a willingness to negotiate with it.

So the Tatmadaw wants to rebuild trust with NCA signatories and non-signatories alike in hopes of reviving the peace process.

Second, the Tatmadaw wants to forge good relations with the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which comprises the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Shan State Army (SSA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA).

The AA, MNDAA and TNLA recently expressed interest in joining the peace process. The Tatmadaw wants to grab the opportunity to build a rapport with the FPNCC — non of whom have signed the NCA — via these three groups. The two largest and strongest FPNCC members, the UWSA and KIO, issued statements welcoming the Tatmadaw’s announcement.

Third, the unilateral ceasefire may be a tactic of the Tatmadaw to convince EAOs outside of the NCA to sign on. Non-signatories regularly clash with the Tatmadaw, and those in Shan State urged the Tatmadaw to declare a unilateral ceasefire after the armed groups met in early December.

The Tatmadaw wants non-signatories to sign the NCA by the end of April. The tactic is similar to the government’s handling of the Land Law enacted on Sept. 11. The law requires everyone occupying land classified as vacant, fallow or virgin to apply for a land-use permit within six months of its enactment and reiterates the penalties for trespassing.

Similarly, the Tatmadaw is pushing non-signatories to join the NCA within four months. After that, the Tatmadaw can criticize any group that hasn’t.

Last but not least, the Tatmadaw wants to repair its damaged image both at home and abroad.

At home, the Tatmadaw’s image appears to have been eroded by its land confiscations, lawsuits and arrests of political activists and other human rights abuses. Abroad, it faces pressure over its treatment of the country’s Rohingya minority. Achieving peace is the only way for the Tatmadaw to end the pressure and restore its image.

Coincidentally, the Tatmadaw will soon transfer the military-controlled General Administration Department to the Ministry of the Office of the Union Government, which is under the control of the civilian government, though the minister is a retired colonel.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the new ceasefire explicitly excludes Rakhine State, where the Tatmadaw and AA have been fighting since October, though the Tatmadaw claims it is because of an ongoing threat in the area from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

In a nutshell, the Tatmadaw’s ceasefire was welcomed by EAOs and is a positive step toward stability. In the best-case scenario, 2019 will be a year of peace, something not seen in the past two years despite promises from the government that a year of peace was coming in 2017. In the worst-case scenario, those living in areas not under government control can celebrate Christmas Day without the sound of bullets and bombs.

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