Guest Column

Regime’s Offer of Peace Talks is a Ruse to buy Time for Myanmar Military

By Banyar Aung 10 May 2022

Myanmar’s long history of civil war can be categorized as periods of alternating clashes and peace talks.

It is often said that politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed. Often, the warring sides will call for honesty for the sake of peace, before they question each other’s honesty.

In Myanmar, peace talks are a tricky business. Though both sides will struggle for a result that is favorable to them, normally the results are determined by the more powerful side.

Peace talks with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) were previously held under the civilian Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government and the military-led Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) government. Those talks achieved nothing because self-determination and self-rule for ethnic people was always rejected and the existence of EAOs was never recognized, even as both the AFPFL and BSPP governments wanted EAOs to disarm and surrender. So the peace talks held between 1948 and 1988 were not successful.

In the post-1988 period, peace talks became even trickier because of drastic changes in the political landscape of the country. Myanmar was going through a political crisis following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and its economy was also plagued by mismanagement under the BSPP rule.

At the same time, the Communist Party of Burma, the major player in Myanmar’s civil war, split into several armed groups. They had financial constraints and lacked ammunition. And both the troops and local people were exhausted after many years of war.

Seeing those factors, the then military regime changed its policy toward EAOs. The regime, which had always called for disarmament, made peace with EAOs by recognizing ethnic parties and armed organizations and designating their controlled areas as special regions. The process started in 1989 and by 1995 all the EAOs, except the Karen National Union (KNU) and Mong Tai Army (MTA), had agreed ceasefires with the Myanmar military.

United Wa State Army troops. / The Irrawaddy

For 20 years from 1989 to 2009, the military constantly engaged in measures designed to weaken the EAOs. They included offering business concessions to the EAOs and instigating religious disputes.

The then junta was able to do this because there were no fighting outside the borderlands, as the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – favored peaceful struggle over armed struggle.

However, the military continued to attack the KNU and the MTA with superior numbers. Finally, the MTA was forced to surrender and the KNU, once the most powerful group among the EAOs, had become weaker. This is what the military did over the two decades of ceasefire and peace.

In 2009, the regime went a step further and forced the EAOs that had signed ceasefires to transform themselves into Border Guard Forces (BGF) or people’s militias and brought them under the army’s control. Apparently, the regime thought that it could now easily control the EAOs.

But the regime broke its promise to settle ethnic issues through political dialogue. In 2005, it forced the Palaung State Liberation Organization and Shanni Nationalities Army to disarm.

EAOs that were either weakened or had attached greater importance to business interests over armed struggle were swayed by the military regime.

The New Democratic Army – Kachin led by Zahkung Ting Ying in Kachin State, a Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) splinter group led by Bai Suocheng, the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front led by Tun Kyaw, and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and some splinter groups from the KNU all became BGFs.

Other armed organizations, such as the Kachin Defence Army, brigades 3 and 7 of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the Pa-O National Organization (PNO), the Kayan New Land Party and some Karenni National Progressive Party and KNU splinter groups, became people’s militias.

Both BGFs and people’s militias were under the command of the Myanmar military. Of them, only the Kokang splinter group led by Bai Suocheng and the PNO led by Aung Kham Hti were granted self-rule in their territories under the army-drafted 2008 Constitution. The Shan State Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization ceased to exist. This is the advantage the military was able to achieve in 20 years of peace.

In those years, the military became aware that EAOs only care about their regions and territories in the borderlands, and do not bother to challenge the central government. The regime was well aware that it could focus its energy on addressing the threat of the NLD by appeasing the EAOs.

A resistance fighter from Loikaw PDF. / Loikaw PDF

While some EAOs collapsed or were weakened during the years of ceasefire, others grasped the opportunity to strengthen themselves. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were able to expand both their treasuries and arsenals of weapons during those years.

Later, the KNU was able to re-unify its Karen forces. The SSPP, the MNDAA and the Restoration Council of Shan State were also able to restore their strength.

The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) have weakened a lot compared to 1995, when their ceasefires came into effect. But they still have a strong presence in Myanmar politics due to their long history. Meanwhile, powerful new EAOs like the Arakan Army (AA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) emerged because of their dissatisfaction with the regime’s handling of ethnic issues.

After 20 years of ceasefire, the EAOs became aware that they needed to rebuild strength, or otherwise risk collapse, and that the military was trying to break them up by any means. They realized that the military will compromise with EAOs when inland Myanmar is in crisis, but will always try to contain the EAOs otherwise.

In ten years of peace talks from 2011 to 2021, the EAOs saw that the Myanmar military has a greater say than elected governments. Moreover, the military restricted certain EAOs from participating in peace talks, and treated smaller EAOs with arrogance.

Myanmar’s military did not recognize ethnic people’s demand for self-determination and self-rule, but insisted that EAOs must join the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process under the 2008 Constitution and join the political dialogue under the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement process. The regime did not accept an all-inclusive peace process, saying instead that the peace process is “not a Taung Pyone Pwe [a popular spirit festival in Mandalay] in which everyone can participate freely.”

Last month, junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing offered face-to-face peace talks with leaders of EAOs. Since last year’s coup, the generals have repeatedly tried in vain to hold talks with EAOs. This has prompted Min Aung Hlaing to make the proposal himself.

Everyone can see that Min Aung Hlaing is trying to keep the EAOs out of the fighting as his army is facing a military crisis nationwide and is desperate to find a way out.

The regime is likely to allow EAOs to have greater territorial control and to lift its restrictions on their armaments at the planned meeting. It will be interesting to see to what extent Min Aun Hlaing will compromise.

In fact, EAOs like the UWSA and the NDAA already control their territories, and all they need is legitimacy. Moreover, EAOs like the KIA, the AA, the TNLA, the MNDAA, the SSPP, the KNPP, the KNU, the NMSP and the Chin National Front that have political ambitions to control their entire states might not accept a regime offer that will only allow them to continue to control their existing territory.

It is impossible to separate the EAOs from the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) – the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG) – now. In Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah states, PDFs are fighting alongside the EAOs. In Sagaing and Magwe regions, PDFs work closely with EAOs.

The most important point is that the EAOs have little trust in the junta chief’s offer of peace talks due to their previous experiences with the military. Again, the PDFs are a great boost for EAOs which have fought Myanmar’s military for many years. So the majority of EAOs will continue to support the PDFs.

Many groups have refused to attend the talks saying all stakeholders, such as the NUG and PDFs, should be allowed to join them. But some small EAOs without strong principles may accept the offer of peace for their own interests while the military is making compromises. However, strong and principled EAOs are likely to shun the peace talks.

The regime is now saying EAOs don’t commit terrorist acts like the PDFs do. But for many years, they described the EAOs as insurgents and terrorist groups. But despite labelling the AA as a terrorist group, the military held talks with the AA in 2020. It previously refused to hold talks with the TNLA and MNDAA, which are allied with the AA in the Northern Alliance, but is now prepared to include them in peace talks.

Throughout Myanmar’s history, we have witnessed the military’s negative attitude towards peace. If the regime is really serious about achieving peace in the country, it must first unconditionally release all those it has unfairly detained. To discuss a ceasefire and peace, the regime needs to talk with not only EAOs but also the PDFs and all the other resistance groups waging a defensive war, as well as the NUG and its legislative body.

Clashes with PDFs and other revolutionary groups engaged in Myanmar’s Spring Revolution account for 70 per cent of fighting so far in 2022, while clashes with EAOs account for 30 per cent. Without talking to the PDFs, it is impossible to achieve peace in Myanmar. No peace talks will succeed when key players are excluded.

The intention of the junta chief’s peace offer is to keep the EAOs at bay so that he has time and energy to crush the PDFs. It is just a political ploy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the international community have called for dialogue among all parties to solve the Myanmar crisis. But the junta is trying to deceive them by offering peace talks only to the EAOs.

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