Paving the Road to Peace

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 9 September 2013

In 1963, the year after Myanmar’s military seized power, the ruling Revolutionary Council of Gen Ne Win invited the country’s armed groups, including the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and all the main ethnic militias, to hold talks aimed at ending more than a decade of conflict.

Now, 50 years after that failed attempt to achieve a nationwide peace agreement ushered in a further half-century of fighting in Myanmar’s border areas, the nominally civilian government of President U Thein Sein is hoping he will have more success.

Since coming to office more than two years ago, U Thein Sein has wasted no time in trying to lay the groundwork for what would be a historic moment in Myanmar’s post-independence history. His government has reached ceasefire agreements with 13 armed groups, and now believes that it is almost ready to take the push for peace to the next level: a multilateral agreement to be called the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord.

In the coming months, there will be a great deal of activity related to reaching this elusive goal. One significant hurdle that remains is the fact that the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the largest of the ethnic armed groups, has yet to agree to a ceasefire. It has been fighting since an earlier truce that had lasted 17 years broke down in June 2011—just months after U Thein Sein took office.

But the KIA is not alone in believing that the government can’t be completely trusted. Other groups that have signed ceasefire agreements also suspect that the government is more interested in improving its international image than in actually achieving peace.

Whatever doubts there may be, however, it appears that the government’s peace committee is intent on implementing an unofficial three-step process before elections in 2015. The first step will be to announce the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord; the second, to work on a framework for political dialogue; and the third, to hold a nationwide political dialogue.

According to one of the main peace brokers, who asked to remain anonymous until the blueprint is officially announced, the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord will likely be reached by October or no later than November of this year.

In his speech to the nation on Aug. 14, President U Thein Sein laid out his plans in general terms. “Shortly, we are going to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement,” he said. “But a ceasefire is not enough. To maintain peace, we are going to continue political dialogue with committees which will be formed by the two Houses of Parliament.”

In December, the peace committee will try to speed up its schedule to enter the political dialogue, the peace broker confided. In order to help convince ethnic leaders, the international community and all stakeholders that it is sincere about wanting to reach a permanent peace, the government is expected to invite opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in the process.

The Nobel laureate has in the past sought a role in talks with the ethnic armed groups, but the government has never extended an official invitation to her. Behind the scenes, however, the president has given his peace team a green light to include her in the peace process. In May, a few days before the government’s peace team made a trip to Kachin State to discuss preliminary ceasefire talks with the KIA, U Thein Sein told his chief peace negotiator, President’s Office Minister U Aung Min, to invite her. However, there wasn’t enough time to work out the details, so in the end she couldn’t actually join them. But a clear signal had been sent that she would be welcome to participate in future peace talks.

When the peace committee starts working on a framework for a political dialogue in December, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to be one of the participants. Although she won’t be given a key role, she will at least have an opportunity to become more familiar with the entire process. According to one inside source, she will be one of a few dozen people, including government, military, ethnic and political leaders, taking part in the process at that stage.

The government’s peace committee seems to believe that the second phase will take three to four months to complete. But if the KIA is still not part of the process by that time, it could undermine the legitimacy of the entire effort. On the other hand, the KIA may feel pressured to join, lest it come under criticism for being the lone holdout. But the peace broker said that even if the KIA does decide to sit out this stage, it can still join the political dialogue later.

The nationwide political dialogue is expected to begin early next year. If this actually comes to pass, it will be a big deal, as it has been one of the key demands of the ethnic armed groups all along to have talks that bring all of them to the same negotiating table with the government. The keyword, however, will be “genuine”: Any sign that the whole thing has been an elaborate sham will inevitably bring the entire process crashing to the ground.

Once the dialogue begins, it may take a full year—from around March 2014 to March 2015—to complete, according to the peace broker. As many as a thousand participants from different political parties and organizations, including civil society groups, may be involved, he added.

If this unofficial blueprint seems ambitious, that’s because it is. But U Thein Sein and his peace committee are desperate to achieve real results before the country goes to the polls in 2015, so they are pulling out all the stops.

So far, it seems that the plan has the tacit approval of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Lower House Speaker U Shwe Mann, who have reportedly seen the blueprint. But it is difficult to know what the military top brass think of the whole thing. Observers have noted that U Aung Min, who was himself a high-ranking military official in the previous regime, has had an uphill struggle convincing senior figures within the army to accept some of the deals he has made with the ethnic armed groups. So this may bode ill for the rest of the process, which can’t move forward without military approval.

There are also a multitude of other issues that could throw a spanner into the works. Despite the ceasefire agreements that are already in place, there is still no clear demarcation of territory or systematic monitoring mechanism to reduce the risk of clashes between government troops and those of the ethnic armed groups. This is why there have been numerous incidents on the ground over the past two years, and why even in mid-August, fighting broke out between government-backed border guard forces and Kachin and Kayin rebels.

But it is the more fundamental issue of how Myanmar’s armed forces and ethnic minorities will relate in the envisioned post-conflict era that will ultimately decide whether a lasting peace is possible. The ethnic armed groups say they would like to see the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, become a “Union Tatmadaw,” representative of the country’s ethnic diversity. But for now, at least, the mindset of the country’s powerful generals is that only a Burman-dominated military can guarantee the unity of the nation.

If Myanmar is ever to overcome its history of endemic conflict, it may have to look even further into the past than 1963, to the Panglong Agreement reached between independence hero Bogyoke Aung San and ethnic leaders in 1947. That pact, which brought Myanmar’s ethnic minorities into the newly independent nation that was born the following year, was effectively nullified by Gen Ne Win’s coup in 1962. But the “Panglong spirit” continues to define the aspirations of many of Myanmar’s minorities, who seek a degree of autonomy that is still anathema to the country’s military.

It remains to be seen whether the president and his peace negotiators will ever be able to realize their goals. But one thing that is certain even now is that genuine peace and stability can only be achieved through a system that is radically different from the one that has existed for most of the past 50 years. And if that new system is federalism, then U Thein Sein should be prepared to deliver it.

This viewpoint appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine. Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English-language edition of The Irrawaddy.