Lucky Numbers in the Quest for Peace

By Nyein Nyein 10 September 2015

The latest high-level meeting on an elusive nationwide ceasefire began in Naypyidaw at 9 am on September 9. In attendance were nine government representatives and nine ethnic leaders.

For a country where generals’ edicts were often intimately tied to numerology and astrology, such numerical alignment is seldom dismissed as a mere triviality.

The number nine, or Konawin in Burmese, and eleven, are important figures for those coveting success in their endeavors.

A pertinent example is former dictator Gen Ne Win, who in 1987 abruptly ordered the introduction of 45 and 90 kyat banknotes—both amounts divisible by nine.

“Nine is a lucky number,” said well-known Burmese astrologist San Zarni Bo.

“Anything done relating to the number nine would bring success,” he said, explaining that the digit could signal something that was “everlasting.”

Number 11 was equally significant, the astrologist said, and known as the “master number.”

Is Burma’s long and winding peace process itself influenced by the pull of superstition in numbers?

Initially, only eight ethnic leaders were scheduled to represent ethnic armed groups at the meeting with the President in Burma’s capital on Wednesday. But the ethnics’ spokesperson Pu Zing Cung said an additional member was added from the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, the ethnics’ original negotiating bloc, in case any reviews to the ceasefire text were discussed or implemented.

Any revisions to the text seemed unlikely, however, as the government had stated it would not countenance further changes to the document provisionally agreed on in March.

During the negotiations on Wednesday, President Thein Sein proposed the date of September 29 to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). Seen through a numerologists’ lens, the numbers two and nine add up to the portentous total of 11.

Looking back to the beginning of the peace process, President Thein Sein first called for ethnic armed groups to take part in a national-level dialogue on August 18, 2011. This was followed by the formation of the government’s “Union Peacemaking Central Committee,” comprised of 11 members.

While this may all be unintentional, the peace process has certainly not been without more obvious references to symbolism—a past signing date pushed by the president was Burma’s Union Day on February 12.

Hardheaded reality may now be more the order of the day, however, with the government desperate to officially conclude the agreement before the country’s general election in November.

Will They or Won’t They?

According to negotiators on both sides, Wednesday’s meeting was a “success” and a deal is close.

President Thein Sein pledged political and military guarantees for those groups outside the 15 accepted by Naypyidaw as signatories.

Even one of the so-called hardline groups, the Kachin Independence Organization, has reportedly signaled its approval of the agreement. The group’s vice-chairman, General N’Ban La, who is also chair of the United Nationalities Federal Council, attended the high-level dialogue for the first time.

Since KIO leaders first became actively involved in the talks, the tardy process took on a more significant edge—particularly since the group’s own 17-year ceasefire had broken down in June 2011, leading to serious fighting with government troops which remains ongoing.

However, as prominent Kachin peace advocate Ja Nan points out, the peace process actually dates back to the 1980s, where various deals were struck with ethnic armed groups, some successful, others not.

“Looking back at Burma’s peace process, we should not just look at the period of this government,” said Ja Nan, who is also a consultant to the ethnic groups, in a recent interview.

The current process has deep roots and equally deeply-rooted ethnic grievances at its core.

President’s Office Director Zaw Htay wrote in an article for Burmese language newspaper “Democracy Today” on Thursday that to conclude the ceasefire is to guarantee political dialogue and the silencing of the guns.

But the same government interlocutors who call for the signing of a ceasefire as soon as possible are simultaneously reluctant to accede to the ethnics’ demand for an all-inclusive NCA—the key stumbling block remaining.

Three groups outside the ceasefire process, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army issued a joint-statement on Thursday condemning ongoing army offensives, but maintaining their backing for an all-inclusive agreement.

Even as negotiators met in Naypyidaw Wednesday, reports emerged of separate clashes this week in Shan and Kachin States involving the Shan State Army-South, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army.

Fighting is also recurrent in the Kokang Special Region involving the Burma Army and the Kokang group Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.

But in the peace negotiators’ parlance, the process is always “moving forward” and talks “will continue,” just as San Zarni Bo predicted last year.

If negotiators listen to their superstitious side, perhaps a nationwide ceasefire may be signed on October 9. Provided it is signed at all.