Myanmar's government has made a priority of the peace process with ethnic armed groups since President Thein Sein came to power in early 2011. Peace, a political settlement and a nationwide reconciliation with all ethnic armed organizations are essential preconditions for Myanmar's future development.
The government has tried its utmost to accommodate the demands of various groups -- painstakingly and patiently engaging in innumerable rounds of talks aimed at reaching a nationwide cease-fire agreement. In the past few months, however, pragmatism has begun to supersede patience.
None of the 15 ethnic armed groups on the official list of cease-fire participants has refused outright to sign the agreement. But many are stalling, holding out for the inclusion of additional groups, among other demands. At the conclusion of a summit in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand at the end of September, only seven groups had pledged to sign; more recently a Shan-based group known as RCSS/SSA agreed to become the eighth signatory.
Participants in the talks had one last chance to negotiate when all the ethnic armed groups on the official cease-fire list met in Yangon on Oct. 4. But a deadline of Oct. 15 has now been set for all sides to sign a final cease-fire agreement.
The government will go ahead and cement a deal with whichever groups come on board. It has dropped its policy of "strategic patience" because time is running out. The peace process is already in its fifth year. In February, Thein Sein pledged to strike a deal before a general election on Nov. 8. His government, the first to be elected in half a century of military rule, hopes to leave the foundations of a comprehensive peace on which the next government can build.
The incumbent government had expected a deal to be inked during negotiations in August, but no agreement materialized. Like many previous signing dates, the deadline was postponed because of unending demands from some ethnic groups.
In an attempt to bring the process to a close, Thein Sein met with ethnic leaders on Sept. 9, offering verbal assurances on military, political and humanitarian issues. But some ethnic participants want those broader guarantees written into the text of the cease-fire agreement. That would require a reopening of negotiations that the government feels have already concluded.
For various reasons, the government is also unwilling to accept the demands of some signatories to include six other groups in the deal that are not on the official list. Critics say the cease-fire agreement will not be truly "national" unless those groups are included.
The government's view is that for all sides, the cease-fire is not an end in itself but a means to an end. The agreement will institute cease-fire monitoring and other mechanisms crucial to ending armed conflict, which in turn will open the door for further political negotiations.
A final cease-fire deal encompassing most groups would create an enabling environment for others to join later. Even if not all potential groups are part of the initial process, a large swathe of the country will be bound by a formal cease-fire. For all sides, maintaining that agreement and making tangible progress in political dialogue would allay the doubts voiced by many.
It is for these reasons that the government has decided to move forward. Better a half-signed deal than no deal at all. Meanwhile, the government has left the door open for inclusion of other groups later. Even those that fail to sign will be invited to all major peace-related events, including the signing ceremony. Non-signatories will also be included in future political negotiations, although they will be able to join only as observers.
There is no doubt that the government will eventually make further concessions for a political settlement with the armed groups. For now, though, it sees no room for additional accommodation.
Unity of purpose is essential. From the government's perspective, the ethnic groups' varying political climates, negotiating tactics, ideologies and leadership inflexibilities have made negotiations difficult. But with such a diverse group of participants, holding out for an all-inclusive deal that satisfies everyone would be futile. In addition, further delays would cause uncertainty and could reignite clashes.
Enough common ground has been established. The benefits of signing outweigh the risks, primarily because the signatories will be seated at the table in future political dialogue, as legally recognized political organizations. The government is committed to negotiating with all groups eventually. But pragmatism requires that for peace to begin, the seemingly endless negotiations have to end. It is time to sign.
Aung Naing Oo is director of the Peace Dialogue Program at the Myanmar Peace Center, which acts as a secretariat for peace negotiations.