Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement No Panacea For What Ails Myanmar

By Lawi Weng 22 April 2019

Some people, government officials and foreign diplomats in particular, seem to believe that decades of civil war in Myanmar would come to an end if all armed groups were to only sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). They believe that development will make the groups abandon their quest for self-determination.

The international community has spent a great deal of money supporting development and peace talks in Myanmar, though it has been hard to keep track of just how that money has been spent and the peace process has nearly collapsed.

Let’s look at Catalonia in Spain. The region is well developed, yet its people still want independence from Madrid and staged a mass protest last year. What the people want most is to preserve their identity, something development cannot deliver. Development will not help the ethnic minorities of Myanmar preserve their identities either, which is why they need to be able to govern themselves.

The Wa region in northern Shan State shares some similarities with Catalonia and is a good example. Naypyitaw has no influence in the region, which the Wa control themselves and have developed significantly over the past 30 years. Yet they continue to urge Naypyitaw to recognize the region as an autonomous state.

It is time to think about why most ethnic armed groups do not want to sign the NCA, and why the Karen National Union halted formal peace talks with the government.

According to the framework for the peace talks, any important decisions at a Union Peace Conference needs at least 75 percent approval from voting delegates. That makes major decisions hard to approve, one of the reasons the process has stalled.

Some ethnic armed groups complain that their votes do not carry equal weight to those of the government and military on the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee. The committee consists of 48 members — 16 each from ethnic armed groups, political parties and the government, in this case meaning the military and Parliament, so the ethnic armed groups feel outnumbered.

The military and executive often disagree, yet they always find common cause when negotiating with the armed groups.

The government and military want the ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA. Some people criticize the Kachin Independence Army for refusing to sign the NCA, even looking down on its leaders as warlords. They say it is time for the group to join now that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in power.

But some groups are also refusing to sign the NCA because they first want to address security sector reform while the military first wants to settle the matters of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. The groups are negotiating for deals what would let them keep their arms and rule themselves.

Nai Hong Sar, vice chairman of the New Mon State Party, says the Constitution offers only the facade of a federal system and places control firmly with the central government.

In Rakhine State, for example, the Arakan National Party won the majority of votes in the last election yet the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led central government still got to appoint the region’s chief minister. Although the central government has the constitutional prerogative to appoint the chief minister, its decision to install an NLD member upset many ethnic Rakhine.

But under the Constitution, minorities will never get to run their state even if their parties do win. That is why the Arakan Army (AA) enjoys popular support in Rakhine State and why hundreds of young Rakhine have decided to join the rebel group instead of a political party; they believe freedom will only come from the gun.

Some ethnic leaders believe the prospects for democracy in Myanmar are fading and are losing faith in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who promised equal rights for minorities when her party took power. Instead, it has cooperated with the military to try to put down the AA.

But the AA will be difficult to wipe out, and the military has never once defeated an ethnic armed group for good. The military forced the Palaung State Liberation Front to disarm in 2005, but the Ta’ang National Liberation Army soon took its place. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army has had a similar experience.

Understanding ethnic politics in Myanmar means understanding how to solve the country’s armed conflicts. But Myanmar has yet to see a leader who understands ethnic history. And so, as AA chief Tun Myat Naing told The Irrawaddy last week, democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has become not part of the solution but part of the problem.