Myanmar’s Peace Process has been regrettably stunted by what looks to be the longest deadlock since its official launching in August 2011, by then-president U Thein Sein.
The deadlock began when the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a seven member Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) alliance that did not sign the 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), proposed an eight-point (later nine-point) list of demands addressing the NCA to Naypyidaw in July 2016, ahead of the 21st Century Panglong Conference.
Unfortunately, nearly seven months have passed without an agreement of substance being reached. Worse, the situation in the north has deteriorated so much that on Nov. 20, 2016, the Northern Alliance-Burma (NAB), comprised of four EAOs residing along the Sino-Myanmar border, waged unprecedented, cooperative attacks on Tatmadaw (Burma Army) strongholds.
This was a retaliatory response to the latest Tatmadaw offensives, starting from August 2016, against non-signatory EAOs, mainly the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is also leading the UNFC.
Skilled Negotiators Needed
Ironically, the recent deadlock has been overseen by the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) administration which made the Peace Process its top priority.
However, things haven’t turn out the way we thought they would. The relationship between the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has been strained as well as collusive. Informal talks between the non-signatory EAOs and the government have been both few and ineffective, and the lack of skilled negotiators means that peace remains frustratingly elusive at present.
The power of informal negotiations has been stressed repeatedly in a newly published insider’s account authored by Aung Naing Oo, a Peace Process facilitator under the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government.
“We could even find the way out of deadlock while smoking cigarettes or sharing a drink.” writes Aung Naing Oo. “In practice, informal talk can be a powerful weapon in a peace negotiator’s armory. They are useful where the parties have not met before, or have barriers to negotiating directly.”
The pity is that for the time being, some EAOs have to rely on Chinese convoys to send messages to the government. By comparison, under the USDP administration the informal negotiations never stopped, even during the seven-month deadlock that started in August 2014.
The challenge is not just to strategically steer the whole process with policies of both strength and flexibility, but also to find and train qualified negotiators. High tension was once reported when one government negotiator allegedly pointed a finger at the leaders of EAOs, uttering, “you guys have to disarm.”
Obviously deep-rooted distrust has led to the current deadlock. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s national and international stature is, to some extent, no longer an asset in moving Myanmar’s Peace Process forward. And the growing pessimism is dragging down the unstable mood of stakeholders who have invested large amounts of political capital in the peace talks. Therefore, skilled negotiators with trust-building abilities are urgently needed.
NCA Securing Full Backing of China
Despite being the elephant in the room, China has suffered as a result of Myanmar’s armed conflicts, now mainly confined to the Sino-Myanmar border. Recently, Chinese Ambassador to Burma Hong Liang—one of the most straightforward Chinese diplomats—strongly urged, probably for the first time, all the EAOs to sign the NCA at the earliest stage to avoid battles and guarantee peace and stability along the border with China. He ascribed the EAOs’ refusal to sign the NCA to the misunderstandings among EAOs, the Myanmar government, and the Tatmadaw.
According to Hong Liang, Beijing has called on its central ministry officials, special envoys, and embassy staff in Myanmar to hold rare joint meetings for Myanmar affairs. What’s more, they are “encouraging everyone concerned to take part in dialogues in every corner.” Thus it is safe to say that the NCA has secured the full backing of Beijing through a mechanism for policy formulation.
“The most important thing for the Peace Process is for all national ethnic armed groups to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement,” said Hong Liang. This message is unprecedentedly clear to those non-signatories, particularly the United Wa State Army (UWSA) which has exercised self-proclaimed autonomy for nearly three decades and entirely refused to sign the NCA.
Despite the tremendous hurdle ahead, it is still fair to say that Myanmar is closer to genuine peace than at any time since independence in 1948. Myanmar’s peace process is nothing short of cetana (goodwill). But the missing part of the equation is versatile diplomacy on the government’s part which, if achieved, will break the lack-of-trust deadlock.
Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He writes on Myanmar regularly. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published on the website of Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.