Of Pomp and Peace

By Aung Zaw 16 October 2015

If nothing else, it was certainly a ceremonial moment, as eight rebel armed groups signed a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in Naypyidaw on Thursday. But peace hasn’t come to the country yet and won’t, it can be assumed, arrive any time soon.

So far only eight out of 15 armed groups involved in the numerous rounds of negotiations have committed to signing, leaving serious doubts about the peace process in this ethnically diverse country.

Burma Army offensives and troop deployments continue in some ethnic regions and, in addition, the ceasefire outcome that played out on Thursday could sow further division among ethnic armed groups.

The list of initial signatories is thus: the Karen National Union (KNU); Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA); KNU/KNLA Karen Peace Council; Arakan Liberation Party; Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO); Chin National Front (CNF); Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS-SSA-S); and All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF).

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

But major ethnic armed groups including the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) did not sign, despite having already agreed to the text of the agreement. On the ground in recent weeks, heavy fighting has escalated between government troops and the Kachin rebels.

Moreover, the New Mon State Party, Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) and Karenni National Progressive Party are also among those refusing to sign, though they too have taken part in all previous negotiations and, in principle, agree with the text of the ceasefire agreement as well.

These are major stakeholders in Burma’s civil war, compared with some of the smaller ethnic armed groups that have just signed on to the “nationwide” peace accord.

They have said they opted not sign the pact since it was not inclusive, leaving out some ethnic armies in Burma’s northeast. Deep mistrust remains, though non-signatories will still have observer status, allowing them to continue to take part, to a degree, in a political dialogue that must commence within 90 days.

Meanwhile, a split within the armed groups is evident. Zipporah Sein, a senior KNU leader, turned down an invitation by the government’s chief peace broker, Aung Min, to attend the signing ceremony.

Zipporah Sein, who was among those pushing for a more inclusive accord, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that she did not want to attend a peace deal ceremony as fighting continued in Kachin and Shan states.

“I’m not courageous enough to attend the ceremony and celebrate the signing while fighting is still going on and even escalating,” she said. “If I attended the ceremony, I would feel like I was going to celebrate the ongoing offensives.”

Truth. Peace is still elusive in Burma, despite the lavish event in Naypyidaw this week, which purportedly showed the government’s willingness to engage with ethnic armed groups at the negotiating table, rather than on the field of battle.

But as leaders from the government and ethnic armed groups joined diplomats for the gathering in Naypyidaw, reports on the ground in Shan State suggested that more than 1,000 villagers from six villages had fled their homes after more than a week of clashes between the Burma Army and the SSA-N.

Just before signing the agreement, Karen rebels based in the country’s southeast issued a request for the withdrawal of government frontline troops and an end to escalating deployments. In addition, there is fear that some Karen troops known to oppose the ceasefire agreement will soon face a major offensive by government forces. In Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, where several rounds of ceasefire talks have been held, the ethnic Shan community in exile held a candlelit prayer vigil for those killed in ongoing attacks in their homeland.

Mighty China’s Influence and That of the West

Since the beginning of the ceasefire talks, the United Nations and several foreign countries have been involved in the process.

They include China, Japan, the European Union and the United States. Since Day One, some ethnic groups have wanted international observers and Western powers to have a seat at the table to observe the negotiations.

China, however, is known to have expressed concern with the presence of Western countries and donors, particularly against the backdrop of Burma’s desire to improve relations with Washington.

In September 2011, President Thein Sein’s government suspended the China-funded Myitsone mega-dam project in northern Burma—a shrewd move signaling a desire to improve relations with the West. This decision has hurt China and strained relations with Beijing. In the years since, Burma has not escaped China’s geopolitical orbit entirely, but it clearly has wanted to rebalance its foreign relations.

High-level Burmese government sources involved in ceasefire negotiations have persistently leaked news that Beijing opposes a role for Japan and Western powers in ceasefire negotiations.

Interestingly, prior to the ceasefire agreement being signed, a peace negotiator on the Burmese government side told Reuters that China has been trying to undermine the peace process. This should serve as music to the ears of US and other Western powers seeking to pull Burma away from China’s orbit.

Suspicions in this Sino-Western tug of war cut both ways, but after four years of political and economic reforms, the question remains: Is the Burmese government “pro-West”? If so, for what reason?

The fact is that China remains an influential player in Burma and will continue to play a Big Brother role no matter who is involved in the peace process. More importantly, China has also reportedly supplied Burma’s most powerful ethnic militia, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with large quantities of military hardware.

Since 2013, Chinese authorities have been approaching Kachin rebels in northern Shan State to lease land there, without reaching any agreement to date.

The Chinese are attempting to secure a long-term lease of about 200,000 acres of land from the KIA in northern Shan State. It is believed that China wants this land for its proxy armies, including the ethnic Kokang rebels officially known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

These ethnic armies are currently in active conflict with Burmese forces, and hostilities between the Burma Army and MNDAA earlier this year became a major headache for Beijing when tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting into China.

Whatever political and militaristic machinations are taking place behind the scenes, both China and the West outwardly said all the right things on Thursday following the signing.

“The United States commends all sides for their ongoing efforts to bring an end to the longest-running civil conflict in the world. The signing of the text of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by the government and eight ethnic armed groups is a critical first step in a long process of building a sustainable and just peace in Burma,” the US State Department spokesman said, while noting that several ethnic armed groups had abstained.

The United States “remain[s] committed to the historic process of peace building and national reconciliation in Burma in the months and years to come,” the 350-word statement conclude.

Beijing kept things more brief: “China supports and welcomes the important progress made in Myanmar’s domestic peace process,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said at a regular press briefing.

At Thursday’s ceremony, the Chinese presence was felt but several Western diplomats were on hand as well. It’s safe to say that Burma’s fragile peace process will remain messy business at home and abroad as major powers jump in to exert their influence.