May 11, 2017 10:00 am JST

Aung Naing Oo: Myanmar's peace talks are growing even more tangled

Government faces greater obstacles as armed groups start to cooperate

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)

Myanmar's troubled peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups, aimed at ending 70 years of civil conflict, 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, the Union Peace Conference is supposed to meet for talks every six months and include about 700 delegates tasked with trying to find ways to achieve peace and reconciliation.

The first such gathering, which took place last August, was broad-based and inclusive, but failed to produce any concrete results. The second UPC session was scheduled for February, but an agreement on timing proved elusive despite extensive informal consultations. On April 24, a top-level meeting between the government, the army and signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement 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 a power-sharing mechanism to move talks forward, it could damage the credibility of the negotiating process -- and of the government. This, in turn, would harm prospects for concluding cease-fires with ethnic armed groups that have not yet signed the NCA, consequently jeopardizing the entire peace process.

Groups that refused to sign the NCA when it was brokered in late 2015 under former President Thein Sein pose a dilemma for the current government. Should they be allowed to participate 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 also the eight ethnic armed groups that have signed the NCA. 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.

The most immediate challenge for the government is to persuade five key ethnic armed groups -- the New Mon State Party, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Arakan National Congress, the Lahu Democratic Union and the Wa National Organization -- to sign the NCA as soon as possible.

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 belong to a larger alliance, the United Nationalities Federation Council. The council 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 to accommodate all five groups.

If the two sides can at least come to an understanding, if not an agreement, ahead of the next talks, it would 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.

The UWSA signed a bilateral ceasefire in 1989 and renewed it with the government of Thein Sein. The result has been 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 town just inside Myanmar's border with China, last November.

The Northern Alliance and the UWSA recently formed the Union Political Negotiation Committee to present a united front in talks with the government. This development 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 NMSP and KNPP in the southeast. They also want to change the cease-fire agreement to meet their needs. This presents a big challenge because the NCA terms are considered non-negotiable. At the top-level meeting on April 24, the deputy commander in chief confirmed that the Tatmadaw would not accept any alterations to the agreement.

This impasse will likely stymie government efforts to attract the groups to sign the NCA. In addition, the government knows very little about these groups, and its negotiating team lacks experience and cohesion.

UNITED STANCE 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 the devastation caused by frequent fighting near its border, China may have changed its stance and decided to promote peace in its neighbor.

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. 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 all makes it increasingly unlikely that the government can achieve its goal of making 2017 the "year of peace."

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

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