February 13 marked another historic event for Myanmar: the day that two ethnic armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement after several years of dialogue.
However, it was a day of misery for the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), as the New Mon State Party (NMSP)—serving as the bloc’s chair—and member group the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) both signed the NCA.
At its inception, the UNFC was founded by 12 ethnic armed organizations aiming to strike a deal with the government and military in order to end political grievances in Myanmar.
In 2014, however, the Karen National Union (KNU) suddenly withdrew from the bloc and both the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) and Chin National Front (CNF) were suspended after signing the NCA in 2015.
The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) resigned from the bloc in 2016 while the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Wa National Organization (WNO) and the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) followed in 2017.
Among four of the original UNFC members, the NMSP and the LDU signed the NCA suddenly, without thoughtful negotiations with other members – the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Arakan National Council (ANC).
According to a source from the NMSP, the UNFC’s chair Nai Hong Sar was disappointed with the decision of the chairmen of the NMSP and LDU, who met the State Counselor and Commander-in-Chief in January and decided to sign the NCA while he was vying to negotiate with other members.
Nai Hong Sar expressed at the Australia Mon Forum that “we are consulting with the members of our alliance and we [NMSP] shouldn’t sign the NCA alone. We shouldn’t neglect the alliance.” The decision to sign the NCA was made by the delegates of the NMSP and LDU while Nai Hong Sar was in Australia. “Nai Hong Sar’s initial plan to negotiate with all members and signing the NCA together was not successful,” said a young Mon activist.
Why Did 2 Sign the NCA, While the Others Did Not?
The UNFC members had initially shown interest in signing the NCA before the third round of the Union Peace Conference. Yet only two groups signed the NCA while the other two remain reluctant.
One reason that the two groups signed could be to deter possible attacks from the Tatmadaw. Both the NMSP and LDP do not want to face any major clashes with the Tatmadaw.
Speculation is that if they did not sign, the Tatmadaw may attack in the future, leading to the displacement of more people. The escalation of fighting in Kachin State, which has displaced tens of thousands, may have spooked them into signing the NCA as a means to avert conflict. The government declared the NMSP and LDU non-terrorist organizations and removed them from the list of unlawful organizations on Feb. 11.
Another reason could be the extension of the territory of the Karen National Union (KNU). According to a source from the NMSP, the KNU has expanded into Yay Phyu, Kawkareik and Kyain Seikgyi along the Karen and Mon border.
A major conflict could erupt over a territorial dispute. The NMSP may have believed that the Tatmadaw would support the KNU in a dispute between the two sides if the KNU was an NCA signatory but the NMSP was not.
However, the other two UNFC members – the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Arakan National Council (ANC) – did not sign the NCA.
The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) did not sign the NCA due to the loss of three of its soldiers and a civilian killed by the Tatmadaw on Dec. 20, 2017. The killing precipitated mass Karenni protests against the Tatmadaw. The situation was exacerbated when five peaceful demonstrators were arrested and charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law. The Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN) also strongly condemned the killings and arrests. The KNPP and Karenni public demanded justice for the killings. This incident became a major obstacle to signing the NCA.
For the Arakan National Council (ANC), the Tatmadaw’s refusal to recognize the armed forces of the ANC is the main reason it has not signed the NCA. According to “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process: A Reference Guide 2016,” the active military personnel of the ANC is about 100. However, the Tatmadaw does not recognize its armed forces and wants to force Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR).
The Future of the UNFC
Two UNFC members have signed the NCA, yet the Tatmadaw has not agreed to the bloc’s nine-point proposal regarding ceasefire monitoring, a military code of conduct, demarcation, and troop relocation.
The UNFC members will meet in a few days to decide the future of the bloc. Rather than achieving its initial and lofty aims of building ethnic unity, establishing a genuine multi-party system, and introducing a peaceful federal Union, the UNFC instead has fragmented and is about to dissolve.
Since the majority of its members have pulled out and signed the NCA, the UNFC may dissolve and be consigned to a relic of history instead of a genuine vehicle for progressive change.
Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.