By C. S. Kuppuswamy
Myanmar has been ravaged by a civil war for the last six decades since independence (Jan 1948) between the Myanmar armed forces and the ethnic armed groups. Officially there are 135 national races though the seven major ethnic groups are the Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and the Shan. About 40% of Myanmar’s population (around 55 million) is composed of ethnic minorities often referred to as ethnic nationalities. The ethnic groups are located on the peripheral mountainous areas of the country occupying around 60 % of the land area while the majority Burmans are in the inland plain areas.
As the main demand of the ethnic groups for regional autonomy through a federal setup has been denied consistently since independence, by the civil and military regimes, the ethnic groups have been involved in a civil war from that time till date. A temporary peace prevailed in most of the ethnic controlled areas when 17 of the ethnic armed groups entered into ceasefire agreements with the military government between 1989 and 1997.
General Khin Nyunt, the former intelligence chief and deposed prime minister (who was under house arrest since 2004 and released under an amnesty in January 2012) was the main architect for the ceasefire arrangements entered into. Most of these agreements were unwritten understanding or arrangements and varied in content also from group to group. The major groups that did not enter into any ceasefire agreement were the Shan State Army-South, Karenni National Progressive Party and the Karen National Union.
The hopes of the ethnic armed groups for autonomy and self-determination were dashed with the 2008 Constitution coming into force. A proposal was mooted by the government in 2009 under this constitution to transform the ethnic armed groups into Border Guard Force under command of the Myanmar Army. As most of the ethnic armed groups were not agreeable to this proposal the civil war resumed with more ethnic clashes since April 2009. In most cases the government had taken the initiative to commence the offensive with some minor groups in order to send the message to the other groups. Thus the ceasefire agreements entered into in the 80s and the 90s were broken for good by both parties.
Consequent to the General Elections (November 2010) and the formation of a civilian government in March 2011 under President Thein Sein ( a former general) Myanmar has undergone a sea change with a spate of reforms for ushering in democracy and to achieve national reconciliation. Even in his inaugural address to the parliament, President Thein Sein underscored the seriousness of the ongoing ethnic armed conflict and its ramifications on the country’s unity and the economy and promised to make fresh efforts with the ethnic groups by negotiations through interlocutors to achieve national unity.
In August 2011, the government announced through official media that the ethnic armed groups desiring to have peace talks should contact their respective state governments before meeting the union government representatives for this purpose. Accordingly Peace Making Committees at the centre (in both houses) and in the states were formed to conduct talks with the ethnic armed groups. With this move, it was obvious that the government wants to have separate peace talks with different ethnic armed groups and not at the national level or with any alliance of ethnic groups.
As part of this process, the government has initiated peace talks with the ethnic groups resulting in the second round of ceasefire with the following ethnic groups.
Representatives of the Chin National Front (CNF) met the government delegation led by Aung Min, the Minister of Railways at the Thai-Myanmar border on 19 November 2011 and the CNF informally agreed to a ceasefire along with Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and the Karen National Union (KNU).
Karen Rebel Groups
The Karen National Union (KNU) had a series of meetings with the government peace representatives in November and December 2011 before signing a ceasefire agreement on January 12, 2012 with the government’s peace committee led by Aung Min, the Railway Minister in the Karen State Capital– Pa-an.
Karen National Union was the only major group which had not signed a peace agreement earlier and has been fighting for autonomy for the last 63 years (since 1949). Karen leaders clarified that the present agreement is at the state level and would like to take up the process at the national level as and when progress is made on the issues decided in the present agreement. The issues in the present agreement related to, cessation in fighting, opening of liaison offices, development programs for the state, state expenditures and freedom of travel for rebels in the state.
The peace agreement with the KNU has a special significance for the Dawei deep sea port project in which Thailand, Italy and a few other multinational companies are involved.
An article published in the New York Times published on 03 February 2012, the KNU General Secretary Zipporah Sein has denied that the deal with government made on January 12, 2012 was a cease fire agreement and that a final decision will be arrived after further discussions on the conditions.
Media reports indicate that the KNU leadership is divided over the agreement signed on 12 January 2012 and some hardliners are not still trusting the overtures of the Myanmar Government.
The 5th Brigade of Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) known as Kaloo Htoo Baw signed an initial peace agreement with the Kayin State Government Peace Making Group in Hpa-an on 3 November, 2011. This was followed by a further six point peace agreement with the Union Government delegation led by Aung Thang on 12 December, 2011.
New Mon State Party (NMSP)
The New Mon State Party and the Myanmar Government entered into a five point peace agreement on February 1, 2012 after two rounds of peace talks (once in the bordering town of Sangkhlaburi in Thailand in December 2011 and the second in the Mon state capital Moulmein).
The five points are:
- to stop fighting
- to hold political talks at the Union government level
- to open liaison offices
- not to allow weapons to be held in certain restricted areas and
- to base troops only at agreed-upon locations
The government delegation was headed by Aung Min, the Railways Minister and the Mon delegation by the NMSP vice-chairman Nai Rot Sa.
The Mon leader said that this agreement was different from the one entered into in 1995 in that the talks were on political and economic issues and not just to stop fighting.
Shan State Armed Rebel Groups
The United Wa State Army signed a peace agreement with the Shan State Government Peace Making Group on 06 September, 2011. This was followed up with further discussions on 01 October, 2011 at Lashio.
The National Democratic Alliance Army– NDAA (Mongla) signed a peace agreement with the Shan State Peace Making Group on 07 September 2011 on similar lines with UWSA.
The Shan State Army- South (SSA- South) had met the government delegation led by Aung Min, the Minister for Railways at Taunggyi (Thai-Myanmar border) on November 19, 2011 along with some other groups. According to the minister the three steps involved in the peace process are the ceasefire, co-operation between ceasefire groups and the government for development and tackling of political conflicts. The SSA- South reportedly signed an agreement on December 2, 2011.
The Union Level Peace Making Group led by Aung Thaung signed a six-point peace agreement in December, 2011 in Mongla with the Shan State (East) Special Region (4) led by Chairman U Sai Lin.
The Union Level Peace Making Group led by Aung Thaung signed a six point peace agreement at Panghsang on 26 December 2011 with the “Wa” Special Region (2) Shan State (North) Chairman U Pak Yu Chan. This was a follow up on the talks held at Lashio on 01 October 2011 and related to representation of this area’s leaders in various parliamentary assemblies and to refrain from secession and disintegration of the region from the union.
According to the New Light of Myanmar, the government and the Shan State Army North (SSA-N) signed a five point cease fire agreement on 30 January, 2012. The SSA-N has reportedly been permitted to maintain their bases in certain locations and open liaison offices in some specified places.
According to media reports, the Shan State Progressive Party signed two peace agreements on 28 January, 2012.
Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)
According a news item of The Irrawaddy (06, February, 2012), the KNPP leaders met the government peace delegation led by Aung Min, the Minister of railways at Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, on 05 and 06 February 2012.
The points discussed were on bilateral ceasefire, opening of KNPP’s liaison officers and free movement and rehabilitation of displaced persons in Karenni State.
However, the signing of an agreement has been postponed pending further discussions scheduled to be held in the near future.
Kachin Independence Organisation/Army (KIO-KIA)
The Myanmar government has still not been able to strike a deal with Kachin Independence Army despite protracted negotiations. The KIO had earlier signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994, which broke down in June 2011 when the government troops started attacking KIA held areas, which are still continuing.
A delegation from the KIO, the political wing of the KIA met with the government peace delegation led by Aung Thaung in Ruili (in China) on 18-19 January 2012. The two sides failed to reach an agreement.
Despite pressure from other ethnic groups which have entered into a ceasefire agreement, KIO is believed to be insisting on an autonomous Kachin homeland and political talks prior to ceasefire.
The government troops are believed to be attacking the KIA held areas especially in the northern Shan State area despite an order from the government in December, 2011 and again in January 2012 to halt military operations through out the tribal territories (Northern & Eastern Myanmar), except for defensive purposes.
All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF)
Leaders of armed dissident group ABSDF met with a Myanmar government delegation (the first ever such meeting) on 09 February 2012 at Mae Sot (Thailand). Both sides have decided to have a second round of talks aimed at ceasefire and a peace agreement.
The ABSDF established by student activists of the 1988 uprising is allied with KNU and KNPP (The Irrawaddy 09 February 2012).
The western nations have repeatedly indicated that one of the preconditions for easing of sanctions is peace and national reconciliation through a settlement with the armed groups. This has been reiterated during the visit of Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State and other foreign dignitaries who had visited Myanmar recently.
Hence the peace initiative launched by President Thein Sein in August 2011 through an invitation to ethnic armed groups to contact their respective state Governments in this regard, has gained momentum and most of the major ethnic armed groups except for KIO has entered into some form of an informal or official agreement.
President Thein Sein’s efforts to formalize the peace making process through Peace Making committees at the national level and at the regional/state level and legislative Peace Making committees in both houses of parliament have met with reasonable success leading to ceasefire agreements with most major groups.
However, there is skepticism on these Peace Making Groups especially at the national level one led by Aung Thang, a former Industry Minister and office bearer of USDP and the other led by Aung Min, the Railway Minister (a former Major General). There is some confusion on, how the efforts of these two groups are being coordinated, directions given to them and the jurisdiction of these groups.
The change in attitude of Thein Sein’s Government in dealing with the ethnic armed groups is significant in that
- The condition of laying down arms before discussions have not been insisted upon.
- The government has not insisted that the talks should be held within Myanmar territory as some talks were recently in held in Thailand and in China (Ruili)
- The conditions laid down are– not to secede from the union, agree to non-disintegration of the union and national unity and perpetuation of national sovereignty.
- The dropping of the condition that the armed groups must transform into border guards.
- Willingness for political dialogue at the national level subsequent to initial ceasefire agreements.
The major drawback of the ethnic groups over the years has been to form a united front with an acceptable agenda for all the ethnic groups to negotiate with the government. Though efforts have been made repeatedly to from alliances or umbrella organizations, the government has cashed on this weakness and has insisted on dealing with the armed groups individually.
The distrust between the ethnic groups and the government negotiators, which was rather deep rooted in the past seems to have diluted and a more positive response from most of the ethnic groups is seen, which is conducive to this peace process.
The Myanmar army has benefitted by this long drawn civil war with the ethnic armed groups in maintaining their power structures. It was in the army’s interests to keep the civil war dragging as long as possible and there are some vested interests to scuttle even the ongoing peace process.
The international community in general and the neighbors in particular (China and Thailand) have a role to play in achieving a lasting solution to this ethnic crisis. China and Thailand are concerned of border stability in their borders with Myanmar and have economic stakes in the areas under control of the ethnic groups. Thailand has also been burdened with a regular flow of refugees from Myanmar. Thus these countries have to encourage the Myanmar government and support this peace making process without major detriment to the concerns of the ethnic groups.
The role of Aung San Suu Ki on the recent developments on peace talks with the ethnic groups is not known. However it may be recalled that she wrote an open letter on 28 July 2011 to President Thein Sein that she is ready to get involved in efforts to resolve ongoing armed conflicts between the military and ethnic groups.
A second Panglong type of conference involving all the ethnic groups and addressing the core concerns of the ethnic groups on regional autonomy, economic opportunities, equality etc. is perhaps the way forward to achieve lasting peace and national reconciliation.