By Angshuman Choudhury*
The third edition of Myanmar’s flagship 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC) is scheduled to take place in February 2018. Originally slated for the end of January, the peace conference was postponed a week before the scheduled date. Naypyitaw said the postponement was to allow two new Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) who recently signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA)—the foundation of the ongoing peace process—to consult their people before they negotiated at the head table.
However, today, Naypyitaw faces more serious problems in the peace process than mere delays.
Trouble in the North
Over the past two months, unusually intense flare-ups in fighting have occurred in northern Myanmar. In Kachin state, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) has repeatedly clashed with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a non-signatory to the NCA. The violence triggered large-scale displacement in the state, with approximately 1000 internally displaced persons re-displaced and 3000 civilians trapped in mines without access to basic humanitarian services.
The uptick in violence matches the pattern of the Tatmadaw’s annual winter offensive designs, undertaken to starve the KIA of critical resources. The fighting also comes months after the KIA joined the Federal Political Negotiations and Consultations Committee (FPNCC)—the newest grouping of non-signatory EAOs—led by the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA).
Reportedly, KIA’s new Chairman, General N’Ban La, is closer to Beijing than his predecessor. According to Bertil Lintner, renewed engagement with the UWSA has allowed the KIA to procure Chinese arms more easily than earlier, facilitating a more aggressive response to the Tatmadaw.
The fighting has significantly damaged whatever positive capital Naypyitaw had gained in its sporadic talks with the KIA and similar groups in the north. It has also visibly antagonised the Kachin population and widened the trust deficit between KIA’s ethnic constituency—whose support is crucial to any peace settlement—and Naypyitaw. On 5 February, thousands protested in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, against the military’s disregard for civilian lives and the union government’s silence over the unfolding humanitarian situation.
Moreover, Naypyitaw has not engaged with the northern non-signatories since the November 2017 meeting between government officials and two FPNCC members. There have also been unexpected skirmishes between NCA signatory Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA-Splinter)—a non-NCA signatory breakaway faction of the NCA signatory Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). The DKBA-Splinter accused the KNLA of attacking them by teaming up with the Border Guards Force (BGF), a sub-divisional force of the Tatmadaw composed of former ethnic rebels.
Cancelled Participations, Delayed Dialogues
At a 5 January meeting, the Karen National Union (KNU)—another NCA signatory and the KNLA’s political wing—pulled out of the upcoming 21CPC. They cited the peace process’ slow pace and incompatibility of the government’s peace agenda and its own aims as reasons for the withdrawal.
On 8 January, NCA signatory Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) was forced to indefinitely postpone its national-level dialogue (ND) after Tatmadaw forces stormed into its pre-ND public consultations to halt proceedings. Subsequently, the state government too revoked permission to hold any such meetings, even though the RCSS already had prior approval from the Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting (JICM). This is the second time the RCSS was prevented from exercising its due right under the NCA to host its ND. This will not just push the RCSS away from the NCA but also weaken the foundations of the ceasefire accord and set a negative precedent in the eyes of other negotiating parties. If Naypyitaw repeatedly fails to deliver on its own promises, there is little incentive left for the EAOs to disengage, reciprocate, or comply.
Evidently, both signatories and non-signatories to the NCA are facing similar issues. They are growing increasingly anxious of the military’s hostile behaviour, and more importantly, of the incapacity of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to revise the military-drafted 2008 constitution which limits ethnic autonomy and accords the Tatmadaw disproportionate power within the government.
Following months of negotiations, on 23 January, two non-signatory EAOs—the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU)—agreed to sign the NCA. This is the first expansion of the ceasefire accord since its inception in 2015. Yet, less than two weeks after the announcement, the NMSP (which is still armed) stated that signing the NCA does not mean they will disarm, but that they will participate in the dialogue process as a core negotiating party. It remains to be seen how the government reconciles with this, since the NCA mandatorily entails disarming. Meanwhile, the LDU is a spent force and is often described as a ‘Thailand-based NGO’. The most influential and powerful EAOs still remain out of the NCA’s fold, and leagues away from any permanent settlement.
Difficult Times Ahead
At a time when the Myanmar government is facing its harshest criticism from the international community over the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State, the Suu Kyi government’s path to peace now looks longer and rockier. Bad press and pressure from advocacy groups might drive the peace process’s international funders to reassess their donor agendas, thus hampering the critical financing of the massive peace bureaucracy that her government has erected.
Yet, the Tatmadaw remains the biggest spoiler. There can be no peace with the military violently targeting the EAOs at every step. Unless the civilian government intervenes to restore faith between Naypyitaw and the non-signatory EAOs and their ethnic constituencies, the 21CPC will remain reduced to a biannual carnival.
* Angshuman Choudhury
Researcher and Coordinator, Southeast Asia Research Programme, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]