Guest Column

UNFC: On the NCA Path

By Joe Kumbun 7 September 2017

On August 15, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) hosted Myanmar’s other major ethnic bloc, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), led by Nai Hong Sar, in Pangsang, headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

According to Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) sources, the blocs discussed potentially collaborating in order to expedite talks with the government and focused on a common vision for establishing a federal democratic Myanmar.

But FPNCC attempts at persuading UNFC to abandon the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA)—with an emphasis on the military’s rejection thus far of the UNFC’s entire nine-point proposal—ultimately failed, as, according to UNFC spokesperson Twan Zaw, the UNFC decided to stay on the NCA path.

The question of why the UNFC persists with the NCA path, despite all of the agreement’s perceived flaws, is best answered in the bloc’s background, current military situation, and internal politic dynamics. For the UNFC, the NCA is the preferable, but not necessarily plausible, option.

History of the UNFC

Expectations were high for the UNFC when it formed in November 2010. Comprised then of 12 ethnic armed organizations, many, particularly ethnic minorities, believed the bloc could strike a deal with the government and military in order to end Myanmar’s perennial civil wars.

In 2014, however, the Karen National Union (KNU) suddenly withdrew its membership. One year later, in October 2015, two other members—the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) and the Chin National Front (CNF)—were suspended from the council after signing the NCA, which other members had rejected because it was not all-inclusive of the country’s many armed groups.

The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) resigned from the bloc in 2016, followed by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Wa National Organization (WNO) in 2017. Now the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) is the latest withdrawal from the UNFC. The SSPP submitted a letter of resignation to the UNFC on August 12.

Only four of the original UNFC members remain: the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP); New Mon State Party (NMSP); Arakan National Council (ANC); and Lahu Democratic Union (LDU).

Rather than achieving its lofty aims of building ethnic unity, establishing a genuine multi-party system, and introducing a peaceful federal Union, the UNFC instead has fragmented. The majority of its members, including the strongest, have pulled out. It has reached a critical juncture, a time of survival.

Why the NCA path?

UNFC members have shown interest in signing the NCA before the third round of the Union Peace Conference. Tellingly, the NMSP told Aung San Suu Kyi during a recent meeting that the bloc could sign the NCA.

Three main reasons can be drawn for the UNFC’s willingness to sign the NCA. The first is to deter possible attacks from the Tatmadaw, though clashes have occurred between it and NCA signatory Shan State Army-South and its armed wing the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS/SSA-S).

According to a member of the UNFC, they are concerned joining the FPNCC might result in Tatmadaw attacks, which would lead to the displacement of hundreds or thousands. Kachin and Ta’ang people currently surviving in internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps exemplify this.

The Tatmadaw also has stronger military capabilities than each member. According to “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Reference Guide 2016,” the active military personnel of the NMSP is about 1,000, the KNPP is more than 600, the LDU is about 150 and ANC is about 100. Some observers say signing the NCA is the only way the UNFC can avert conflict.

The second reason is international pressure, especially from Thailand. Myanmar Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited Thailand in May 2016, meeting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and military top brass, and visited again in August for a Thailand-Myanmar High-Level Committee meeting.

According to the Myawady Daily, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said bilateral relations between the two armed forces and two countries were strong. He may have asked Thailand to encourage the UNFC, which has its headquarters in northern Thai province, Chiang Mai, to sign the NCA.

Thailand has received tens of thousands of refugees because of conflicts between the Tatmadaw and KNU. Undoubtedly it would want its neighbor to avoid imploding into another civil war.

And the third: geography, as the UNFC and FPNCC would find it difficult to ally with their territories buffered by Tatmadaw-controlled land.

Aside from these reasons, the UNFC would not have received assurance that the FPNCC would offer protection if one of its members came under attack.

Five of the seven FPNCC members have been targets of Tatmadaw offensives, with only the UWSA and National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) not engaging in clashes. The FPNCC does not have a policy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder in order to protect each other and is more of a political alliance.

But the NCA quagmire is prolonging Myanmar’s journey to peace. UNFC general secretary and leader of the Delegation for Political Negotiation (DPN), Khu Oo Reh, told the government Peace Commission in August that after 14 months of talks, the level of trust was “at zero.”

Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) member Sai Kyaw Nyunt also complained the process of the NCA had become more complex after two years.

RCSS/SSA Gen Yawd Serk accused the Myanmar Army of not abiding by NCA terms after the Myanmar military attaché in Bangkok banned a July meeting of the Committee for Shan State Unity in Chiang Mai.

The Myanmar Army has also collided with NCA signatories. For instance, a central committee member of signatory All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) was arrested in Kachin State for unlawful association last December and was only recently released.

The Tatmadaw and NCA signatory RCSS clashed in July 2017; apparently ignoring terms such as informing the other prior to crossing the other’s controlled areas.

Still, the UNFC pursues the NCA as a means of achieving peace in Myanmar.

The government and the bloc have so far agreed on half of the bloc’s nine-point proposal, but the Tatmadaw has not agreed on UNFC concerns regarding ceasefire monitoring, a military code of conduct, demarcation, and troop relocation.

The Tatmadaw may do well accepting the points as a token of appreciation of the UNFC’s commitment. The success of the NCA hinges on the parties—particularly the Tatmadaw, a major driver for the peace process—and whether they genuinely commit with an unwavering political will.

UNFC’s willingness to sign the NCA is welcomed and its members may boost the stalled peace process. Hopefully, the government and Tatmadaw will show the courage and magnanimity to accept ethnic demands and respond suitably, for the sake of the future of this country.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.