Guest Column

A Missing Middleman in the Peace Process

By Aung Naing Oo 26 June 2019

The deadlock in Myanmar’s peace process has been blamed on many things. Chief among them are the issues of secession under federalism and a single national army that would unite all armed institutions in Myanmar or at least draw on their collective strength. Of course, the failed leadership summit in October 2018, which had the objective of bringing the stalled peace process back on track, was added to the list of problems contributing to what is now an eight-month-old dead-end.

In the eyes of many stakeholders, these are, no doubt, the main reasons which stand out in the peace process. However, I see things differently.

I acknowledge that the problems we have at hand are huge and seemingly intractable, such as the ones mentioned above—but they are not unsolvable.

In my mind, these issues are not the problem; the problem is that we are missing an intermediary—or middleman—in Myanmar’s peace process.

Officially, our peace process never has a middleman or an institution dedicated full time to helping all sides find possible zones of commonalities which may open doors to making agreements. Likewise, there are no official mediators. We have done everything all by ourselves.

This doesn’t mean there are no institutions or individuals—at home or otherwise—who have been helping all sides to close the gaps and come to a mutual understanding. However, they are not recognized as official mediators; at best they are the facilitators of some kind. More critically, they are not employed full time and often don’t work on the ground.

A total of 14 bilateral ceasefires as well as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) were negotiated under the leadership of former president U Thein Sein. Now, following three sessions of the Union Peace Conference (also called the 21st Century Panglong) under the NLD government, a total of 51 points of agreement have been secured as part of the National Accord.

Naturally, we are proud of the fact that the peace deals have been negotiated by ourselves with minimal help from outside. For this reason, we refer to our peace process as “home-grown.”

This is mainly because Myanmar does not accept official international involvement in the peace process as mediators. The closest thing to official involvement from outside happened during the tenure of U Thein Sein when the UN and Chinese special envoys were recognized as official observers in ceasefire negotiations. Of course, the Chinese continue to facilitate meetings with the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in the north of Myanmar today, but they are not the middlemen.

One can never predict what path politics or peace will follow, but considering how things have transpired in our peace process thus far, it is unlikely we will allow the UN, foreign institutions or countries to act as mediators. At best, we will employ them occasionally as facilitators or conduit through which we deliver messages to EAOs.

So, then, what is left to help us to end the deadlock and get the process back on track?

Under these circumstances and in my experience, having worked on the peace process since 2011, with all the policy limitations which govern it, we have no one to rely on but ourselves. This means that instead there needs to be a “home-grown institution” that can help all sides.

The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), established by U Thein Sein to help spearhead the peace process, is one example of a home-grown answer to the need for a middleman.

There was no doubt in the minds of the EAOs that the MPC worked for the government. But with a combination of technical expertise, political acumen, proactivity, right policy direction from the government, communication, flexibility, delegation of authority, trust and effective leadership of prime movers in the peace process such as former ministers U Aung Min and U Soe Thane, the MPC—though not a mediator—was able to act as the middleman to a large extent.

The MPC traveled to meet EAOs frequently, delivered crucial messages, filled the information gap and attempted to prevent military clashes before they happened.

It built a rapport with EAOs and Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) representatives, created an amicable negotiating environment, instituted numerous confidence-building measures and broke deadlocks.

In dialogue with the EAOs, it focused not only on the peace process but other issues that were intrinsically linked to the peace process, such as political, economic and democratic reforms that the country had initiated. All the while, the MPC was also often critical of the EAOs’ actions.

In the end, the MPC helped all sides build crucial relationships and enough trust to convince some EAOs to sign the NCA. In short, it helped both the government and the EAOs to make “informed decisions.”

For this reason, and because we are wary of foreign involvement in the peace process, we do not need to look further than within our own country—or more critically within our government peacemaking institutions.

One such institution I see is the government’s Peace Commission.

I may be wrong in my assessment, but my understanding is that the Peace Commission is supposed to play the roles of the MPC and the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) which were abolished by the NLD government when it came to power. However, the commission lacks all the amenities the MPC or the UPWC were afforded.

For this reason, I strongly believe that by simply reforming the Peace Commission and providing it with necessary powers and resources, technical staff, delegation, flexibility and a clear chain of command, it would be able to play the role of middleman which we need in our peace process.

By implementing essential legwork on the ground, effective communication and strategic utilization of informal talks, it is highly likely that a new-look Peace Commission would break the current deadlock and keep the peace process on track. Over time, it would help the government overcome major hurdles as mentioned above, thus confronting the peace process in Myanmar.

Aung Naing Oo is the author of “Lessons learned from Myanmar’s Peace Process” and 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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