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Myanmar peace process lurches toward next phase

New signs of cooperation among rebel groups could slow Aung San Suu Kyi's ambitions

Kachin Independence Army soldiers train at their headquarters in Laiza, Kachin State, in January. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

Myanmar's troubled peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups, aimed at ending 70 years of civil conflict in Myanmar, are causing problems for the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Under a framework agreement between the government and some ethnic armed groups, talks under the Union Peace Conference are supposed to be held every six months and include about 700 delegates tasked with trying to find ways to achieve peace and reconciliation.

A Ta'ang National Liberation Army soldier on guard duty in Shan State amid clashes with Myanmar's military in February 2016 (Photo by Steve Tickner)

The first such gathering took place last August, but failed to produce any concrete results despite being broad-based and inclusive. The second UPC session was scheduled for February, but agreement on a timing proved elusive despite extensive informal consultations. On Monday, a top-level meeting between the government, the army and the NCA signatories decided that the next UPC will be held on May 24. The government in Naypyitaw seems determined -- and even optimistic, although in reality there is little hope it will make much progress.

If the UPC cannot produce concrete results on federalism and power-sharing mechanism to move the process forward, it threatens to damage the credibility of the negotiating process and that of the government. This in turn could harm prospects for concluding cease-fires with ethnic armed groups that have not yet signed the official Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement -- and consequently could jeopardize the entire Process.

Groups which refused to sign the NCA when it was brokered in late 2015 under former President Thein Sein pose a dilemma for the NLD government. Should they be allowed to participate meaningfully without adhering to the agreement, or should they be ignored, which could undermine even the slight achievements produced by the inaugural UPC?

It is not only the government that must confront these issues, but the eight ethnic armed groups that signed the NCA in October 2015. They must decide how they can benefit from participation in the peace process. Meanwhile, those groups that remain outside the NCA are likely to face increased military pressure to join the negotiations, although they have indicated continuing opposition to the agreement's demands.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of Myanmar's military (Photo by Steve Tickner)

The most immediate challenge for the government is to persuade five key ethnic armed groups -- the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Arakan National Congress (ANC), the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) and Wa National Organization (WNO), to sign the NCA as soon as possible. But this has already met strong resistance.

Jumping the gun

The NLD government announced at the end of March, as it celebrated its first anniversary in power, that these five groups were ready to sign the NCA. The groups immediately issued denials, creating more uncertainty about the process.

The five groups, led by the NMSP and the KNPP, realize that they must sign the cease-fire agreement sooner or later, but they are seeking a package deal that includes all of them.

All five groups also belong to a larger alliance, the United Nationalities Federation Council. The council also includes two other members, the Kachin Independence Organization and the Shan State Progressive Party, which might also seek inclusion in an expanded cease-fire agreement.

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, as it is known, originally objected to the inclusion of the ANU, LDU and WNO in the cease-fire agreement because they do not control any territory nor do they conduct active military operations. But in a surprise softening of its line, the military recently indicated it is now willing to consider a compromise solution to accommodate all five groups.

The government representatives are planning to meet the groups in northern Thailand before the end of April. If both sides can come to an understanding, if not agreement, it should strengthen the government's hand in organizing the UPC.

Biggest hurdle

Yet the most pressing challenge for the government concerns the situation in northern Myanmar. The Northern Alliance, which includes ethnic armed groups based near Myanmar's border with China, has teamed up with Myanmar's largest rebel group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

A Kachin Independence Army soldier on front-line duty a few kilometers south of Laiza, Myanmar, in January (Photo by Steve Tickner)

The UWSA signed a bilateral ceasefire in 1989 and renewed it with the government of Thein Sein that has resulted in relative peace for about three decades. But none of the Northern Alliance groups have established any official truce with the government and instead have launched devastating attacks against the country's economic lifeline with China. These attacks culminated in an assault on Muse, a key trading border town just inside Myanmar's border with China, last November.

The Northern Alliance has recently formed a "Union Political Negotiation Committee" with the UWSA to talk with the government as a united front. That raises hopes of negotiations and peace, but continued fighting with the Northern Alliance cannot be ruled out.

The ethnic armed groups in the north have a long list of demands, some of which are different from the coalition led by the southeastern groups NMSP and KNPP, and want to change the cease-fire agreement to meet their needs. This presents a big challenge because the NCA terms are considered non-negotiable and the government is unlikely to reopen negotiations just to take into account demands by the UWSA and the Northern Alliance that Naypyitaw considers to be unreasonable. At the top-level meeting on Monday, the deputy commander in chief confirmed that the Tatmadaw would not accept alteration to the NCA.

The result is that government efforts to attract these groups to sign the NCA are likely to be stymied because of preconditions set by some of their leaders. In addition, the government knows very little about these groups and its negotiating team is inexperienced and not cohesive.

Shan State Army South troops on parade in February 2012 (Photo by Steve Tickner)

However, Myanmar in all likelihood will get support from China, which is often accused of supporting the Myanmar rebels near its border. Of late, it has dramatically increased its diplomatic overtures to Naypyitaw as well as to ethnic groups. Given its larger geopolitical and economic interests in Myanmar and devastation caused by the frequent fighting near its border China's stance may have changed to favor peace in its neighboring country.

United they stand

Still when it comes to negotiations, ethnic armed groups like to maintain a semblance of unity because they know presenting a united front strengthens their position. But undertaking negotiations with these alliances can be tough and take longer to achieve results. This increases frustration among government negotiators and could lead to increased distrust. The government will need patience in dealing with them.

But that is not the end of the story. All these negotiations with the various ethnic groups are interrelated and cannot be easily separated. Both rebel alliances will watch how each side fares in negotiations with the government. If one group maintains a tough stance, the other may follow suit. They could also cooperate in exchanging views and sharing strategies. The government will need to adjust to the rhythm of the negotiations as they progress.

This reduces prospects that the government can achieve its goal of making 2017 the "year of peace." Instead, Myanmar is likely to see that the prospects of reconciliation with ethnic armed groups remain a distant dream.

Aung Naing Oo was a member of the peace negotiation team under the government of President Thein Sein and is author of "Lessons Learned from Myanmar Peace Process," published in early 2017.

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