The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) was established in February 2011 to fulfill various peacemaking objectives such as building ethnic unity, establishing a genuine multi-party system, and introducing a peaceful federal union. Six years since its formation, the UNFC has failed to obtain its objectives, or achieve any tangible results, and instead faces fragmentation among its members.
Initially, many people—particularly ethnic minorities—put their hopes in the UNFC, believing that the organization could collectively deal with the government and military to end Myanmar’s perennial civil wars. But the hope of many has faded, particularly after the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—one of the chairs and co-founders of the UNFC—withdrew its membership earlier this year.
The question of whether the UNFC will dissolve in the same manner as the National Democratic Front (NDF) formed in 1976 and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) formed in 2001 is frequently asked, especially by skeptics. The answer depends on whether the UNFC can resolve existing problems in the near future. If not, it may well be consigned to history.
The UNFC was formed from the remnants of the Committee for the Emergence of a Federal Union (CEFU) in November 2010 with 12 member organizations. The expectations of UNFC members were high. In 2014, however, the Karen National Union (KNU) suddenly withdrew its membership. An internal power struggle was largely assumed to be behind the move. One year later, in October 2015, two other members—the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PLNO) and the Chin National Front (CNF)—were suspended from the council after signing the government’s nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), which other members had rejected because it was not all-inclusive of 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 KIO and the Wa National Organization (WNO) in 2017.
For the time being at least, the UNFC remains the linchpin of collective political bargaining. But if more members withdraw, the architecture of commitment and negotiation will be gone.
All members of the UNFC share the same political goal of building lasting peace in the country but have different interests in and opinions on the peace process, respectively. History provides insight into this complex scenario. Since some members signed the NCA, the UNFC has seen ever-more division among its members.
Adherence to a single political process requires a lot of coordination and cooperation by all members. The difficulty lies in the fact that different potential solutions to Myanmar’s peace process vary in their costs and benefits to UNFC members—which include both smaller, weaker groups and larger, more powerful groups. Particularly, smaller groups are less able to resist attacks from Myanmar’s military and thus have to consider security as a greater concern. That is the reason some of its members signed the NCA in 2015 and others recently showed inclinations to signing. These actions in turn frustrated other members, particularly the KIO, which has remained resolute in not signing the accord due to its lack of inclusivity.
The UNFC needs coordination on crucial points such as the NCA to survive.
Another major problem facing the UNFC is its onerous financial burdens. Each member contributes a certain portion of the UNFC’s finances. Some smaller ethnic armed organizations, however, will not be able to contribute their share in the long run. The costs of the UNFC are high—operational costs, administrative costs, living costs for staff, travel costs and meeting costs. There may be a “free rider” problem in the UNFC in which some small armed organizations wish to benefit from the UNFC’s leadership in the peace process and the security umbrella it provides, but do not want to, or cannot afford to, contribute membership fees.
According to a prominent member of the UNFC, Japan’s Nippon Foundation has provided some financial and technical assistance after signing a memorandum of understanding with the UNFC for a relief plan in September 2012. The foundation has been working closely with the UNFC in the peace process. The UNFC has, in the past, requested the Nippon Foundation act as a foreign mediator during negotiations with the government. The question is, however, how long the foundation will continue to provide financial assistance to the UNFC when the council fails to reach tangible results in the country’s peace process.
Weak structural mechanisms also hold the UNFC back as an effective institution. For example, the council lacks any voting mechanism or a policy to discourage members from leaving. It is understandable that members should be free to exit, but without any mechanism to penalize members who leave the bloc, each exit is costly to the organization. When high-profile members like the KNU and KIO unexpectedly leave, the UNFC seems a loose organization, much like if corporations were free to enter and exit the market casually.
With an absence of any effective voting mechanism, the UNFC is unable to aggregate opinions on policy decisions. The chairperson oversees most of the UNFC decision making, rather than a unanimity or majority voting system, inevitably leading to friction over policy decisions. The withdrawal of the KNU in 2014 showed how easily groups could become dissatisfied.
The Federal Union Army (FUA), the military wing of the UNFC, was established to protect areas with ethnic minorities but it does not function well. Initially, an agreed policy was to provide military support whenever a member group came under attack. Today, however, it is practically defunct. For example, the FUA has failed to assist the KIO facing an onslaught of Tatmadaw attacks in the last few months. All members were supposed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to counter government attacks, but, in reality, the UNFC only issues a statement that expresses its deep concern against government offensives on member groups.
After the withdrawal of some members, the UNFC confronts a dilemma. Firstly, the UNFC faces a challenge of a new membership. The UNFC received applications from five armed groups—namely the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the Chin National Front (CNF), Kachin National Organization (KNO), Kuki National Organization (KNO), and Zomi Revolutionary Organization (ZRO)—to join its ranks, but it’s quandary is whether to accept new members as the government has said if new groups join, it will cease negotiations with the bloc.
The second dilemma facing the UNFC is that of the NCA. Myanmar’s government and military have been encouraging groups to sign the ceasefire accord and earlier this year, some smaller groups did show an inclination to sign the NCA. This may have been behind the KIO pulling away from the UNFC and instead allying with a new United Wa State Army (UWSA)-led bloc of groups in the northeast of Myanmar. It is a tough choice for the UNFC to decide whether to continue down the NCA road or instead oppose the ceasefire accord and inject a new trajectory into the country’s peace process.
The Future of the UNFC
Unsurprisingly, the UNFC is looking to new leadership and new structure to achieve its goal of national peace and federal union. The leadership will go to either the New Mon State Party (NMSP) or Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). Under a new leader, the question of to what extent the UNFC can achieve its political goals and deal with the government and military will have to be asked. If the Tatmadaw continues to pressure ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA by force, the sustainability of the UNFC depends on how strongly the group can remain united in its political goal and rejection of the NCA. The bloc must also find a way to cooperate with the UWSA-led northern alliance, which includes former UNFC members.
If the UNFC cannot resolve its existing problems and establish a concrete strategy to achieving peace, it will dissolve. Nobody wants that.
Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.