Myanmar’s peace process, the signature policy of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has run into an extremely strong, if not fatal, headwind. The three-day Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) summit ended on Feb. 24 in Pangkham (Panghsang), the headquarters of the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) which is Myanmar’s largest non-state military group.
Observers have worried about the inherent precariousness of the UWSA’s opposition to the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA). In addition to firing a salvo of criticism at the peace process, the UWSA put itself forward to head a political negotiation team that consists of non-signatory EAOs, aiming to hold formal talks about ceasefire and political issues with the central government and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). This article aims to provide a fresh and practical framework for analyzing the UWSA’s position on the peace process and managing recent tensions.
The UWSA’s Basic Position on the NCA
In his opening speech for the EAOs summit, UWSA Commander-in-Chief Bao Youxiang criticized the NCA by saying: “The ethnic fighting happening today is heavier than ever. Conflicts in Kachin State and northern Shan State along the Myanmar-China border are getting worse day by day. The NCA being discussed between some EAOs and Myanmar’s government has brought no solution to that.” He further pointed out that, “EAOs have been divided into three groups: NCA signatories, NCA non-signatories, as well as those sticking to the Three-Level Peace Agreement. We have to adopt better strategies for political dialogue with the government.”
On the one hand, the UWSA believes the Myanmar government is pursuing its own political purposes by endorsing the NCA as a replacement of the 1947 Panglong Agreement (a federalism formula signed by Gen. Aung San and ethnic leaders), not just working towards ceasefire in the literal sense. However, the NCA terms neither thoroughly embody the “Panglong Spirit” nor make clear the definitions of political terms, such as democracy, equality, freedom, self-determination, and federalism. This oversight has allowed successive governments to take advantage of the EAOs.
On the other hand, the UWSA leadership has little faith that Naypyidaw would strictly comply with any agreement with EAOs and strongly demanded the involvement of the UN and China as arbitrators in the peace process. China, for its own sake, does not wish to see a conflict, or even occasional skirmish, between the UWSA and the government.
How Does the UWSA View the Escalation of Conflicts?
The UWSA has viewed recent escalation of conflicts in historical context. Discussions between EAOs and successive governments since the National Convention in 1993 are seen as confusing and unproductive, leading to the view that disputes between the government and the EAOs could not be solved and that civil war could not be stopped, either by the military regimes or the latest civilian government. As a conclusion, the UWSA put the blame squarely on the Tatmadaw, whose non-stop offensives have made ethnic people suffer severely for 70 years.
The Tatmadaw’s unprecedented military pressure on the other EAOs has aroused the UWSA’s deep concerns regarding its own security scenarios. One of the Panghkam summit participants, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), lost five outposts within two months in early 2017, leading to growing fears that its headquarters in Laiza could eventually be taken by the Tatmadaw, which has a huge advantage in both weaponry and manpower.
Rubber Hits the Road
The UWSA usually steers clear of ethnic politics. Since 1989 the Wa have enjoyed unparalleled autonomy from the central government. Presumably, the UWSA is content with the status quo of a de facto “ethnic state” with successful businesses and institutions, benefiting from the rapid development of China while being part of Myanmar and thus not bound by stringent Chinese laws and regulations.
The improvement in the China-Myanmar relationship after the NLD government took office in April 2016 has pressured the UWSA to take part, reluctantly of course, in the peace process, which inevitably requires political and economic compromises from all sides. In this manner, the UWSA’s low-level delegation understandably walked out of the ongoing 21st Century Panglong union peace conference in September 2016, decrying inequality in discussions, while conference organizers admitted mismanagement.
Any forced arrangement would be fragile and unsustainable. Therefore, this article argues for an optimistic attitude towards the UWSA’s assertive position from its own initiative. After all, it is not an unusual tactic to demand an exorbitant price in the beginning of a negotiation. The UWSA’s position surprised many observers and politicians but actually indicates that its aging leaders, who seem to be Old Guards enveloped by a number of revolutionary ideologies, are prepared to be capable of compromising and changing policies in line with evolving conditions inside and outside Myanmar.
Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He writes on Myanmar regularly for Tea Circle and other outlets.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.