Treaty signing preparation begins with a rocky start

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The 20 September Sunday meeting, in Rangoon, was supposed to be a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) signing preparation meeting between all the regime’s preferred 15 ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the regime, but with only some 8 EAOs attending the gathering, it was unable to form necessary committees to go ahead with the government plans.

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It seems that the regime has been in such a haste, probably for it is in the middle of election campaign and needs to produce positive result fast,  that it has given only three days notice to the EAOs to appear before the preparation meeting.

Notably absent were the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and Chin National Front (CNF), the two EAOs that have made known and committed to sign the NCA, buttressing it with a four party joint-statement ahead of the 5 top-level EAOs leadership meeting, which took place in Naypyitaw, with the President on the 9 September. The joint-statement, involving Karen National Union (KNU), RCSS, Karen Peace Council (KPC) and Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) , has made it clear that they are for signing the NCA, with or without all-inclusive participation of all EAOs, original demand of the Law Khi Lar and Laiza meetings’ resolution.

Surprisingly the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), also known as Mong La, was present, which is seen as a Chinese proxy and closest ally of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), also a Chinese proxy. The Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) that has been considered a hardliner firmly anchored in United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) camp, some 11 armed ethnic organizations’ military alliance,  was also present, making the guessing game even more difficult.

Whatever the case, it was reported that Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), SSPP, KNU, NDAA, KPC, All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF) were there at the Union Peace-making Work Committee’s (UPWC)invitation.

The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) reasoned that the low turn out of the EAOs was due to the short invitation time span, which was sent out just three days before the meeting. And so, the preparation meeting would be moved to the 3 October, aiming the signing of the ceasefire treaty to be held in the middle of October, according to the regime’s functionaries. But the government headed “Plan B” or open book signing – starting the signing of NCA with those who are in agreement, to be followed by others at a later date, according to the given situation –  looks more and more likely, as the 17 EAOs leadership are still bogged down by the preparation of the upcoming summit meeting, to thrash out the NCA signing issue, during the end of this September month, probably in Chaingmai.

In other words, this gathering is aimed to map out a common position on how to reply to the regime’s pushy agenda of signing it by the middle of October deadline. One EAO leader likened the situation to the “ Phook Mue Choke ” Thai expression, where a man, whose hands are tied to be beaten up.

Well-meaning, well-wishers have been doling out opinions from outright siding with the regime’s advocacy of signing the NCA as it is – meaning: forsaking the all-inclusiveness of all EAOs – to the suggestion of EAOs, squeezing out more political concessions to a maximum, before signing the treaty.

But the hard facts that the rank and file of such well-wishers’ failure is to pinpoint the core problem of “ political settlement ” in a clear and unmistakable formulation, which is “power and resources sharing” through establishment of a genuine federal system. As all know, although this crucial theme has been mentioned in a couple of places within the NCA draft, such as the phrase “building a union based on democracy and federal system, according to the outcome of political dialogue”.  This has let the bulk of the EAOs, if not all, to consider that it is a wishy-washy interpretation without a clear-cut commitment and promises to build a political system, as historically agreed and envisaged by the founding forefathers of the union through the 1947 Panglong Agreement and promises. To put it differently, the ethnic nationalities’ view of the need to first and foremost addressing and correction the Burmese political class breaching of Panglong Agreement in order to reach a durable political settlement is a legitimate concern, in every sense of the words.

Having said that, the successive military regimes, including the present quasi-civilian regime of Thein Sein, continue to uphold the Bamar supremacy political system unabated, with some democratic trappings, coupled with the denial of an equitable political power-sharing and resources-sharing.

The reason why the EAOs are so reluctant to go along with the NCA is because the regime is implementing its time tested “carrots and sticks” tactics to disrupt the achievement of a real nationwide ceasefire agreement. In other words, the regime is only ready to go along with its “negotiated surrender” ploy, but not a fair and equitable political settlement. Thus, the regime goes about with the strategic aim of maintaining its top dog position by implementing the policy of “area conquering and administration” militarily of ethnic homelands and also making use of the Unlawful Association Act as tactical tools to achieve its desirable results.

The policy of  area conquering and administration

The strategic aim of the Burmese words “Nare Myae Soe Moe Yaye” could be roughly translated into “area conquering and administration”, which has been used constantly and continuously to justify the Burma army’s occupation of the ethnic homelands. And to add legal touch to the notion, it has applied another international term, by making use of international norms of protecting the infringement of “ national sovereignty ”; meaning: the infringement of the ethnic resistance forces on its national sovereignty rights. Thus, lending legitimacy to the Burmese military’s occupation and militarization of the ethnic homelands, under the pretext of “national unity”.

But the problem remains, as the ethnic nationalities refuse to accept the sovereignty monopoly of the Bamar-dominated military government, covering the whole country. The ethnic nationalities rightly argued that they have the right to “shared-sovereignty” and have been struggling to regain their birthright sovereignty and rights of self-determination, which are hijacked by the Burmese military, with the aim of achieving their aspirations within the mould of a genuine federalism, where power and resources sharing could be equitably worked out between the dominant ethnic Bamar and the rest of the ethnic nationalities.

And thus, the occupation of the ethnic homelands and reinforcement of the Burma Army continues unabated, while the NCA deliberation, whether with sincere intention or not, is moving parallel on a different track. One doesn’t need to be so clever or even sophisticated, to imagine that such contradicting double-track approach could never work or deliver a genuine, workable ceasefire atmosphere, much less a genuine peace.

Unlawful Association Act

And as if to add insult to injury, the regime has openly and actively employed Sections 17/1 and 17/2, Unlawful Association Act, as a “carrots and sticks” tool to push for the EAOs into signing the NCA.

UWSA was openly threatened that if it refuse to sign the NCA, it would not be given the right to participate in the political dialogue phase, besides being branded as an illegal organization. Likewise, NSCN-K and the rest of EAOs were also threatened.

A keen observer from one of the EAOs said: “It is like the government is dangling carrots in front of our faces, saying that if we take the offer, we will not be attack, besides being able to roam the government controlled areas without harassment and of course, also allowance to do business unhindered.”

He said the logic behind the whole NCA is just to create a step, to pave way for comprehensive political settlement and not just to have some easy life for the leaders and roam the government controlled towns and cities. If the regime’s aim is to threaten of withholding such privileges and at the same time, give some rights of doing businesses and move around country without harassment and ease, they are too cheap a bargain to exchange with the genuine political settlement. After all, he added, “Armed resistance is a form of politicking and not to be mistaken with some immediate personal or group material gains.”

But the logic and even the legal prospect of employing this Unlawful Association Act as a trump card could backfire, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal advisor has pointed out rightly, when the KNU team met her a few weeks ago, that any agreement signed with an illegal organization would be nullified and void, as no such treaty could be legalized, without first lifting the unlawful association clause of treaty partner.

But it seems now that President Thein Sein has, somehow, awaken to such possible legal implication, for a few weeks ago, U Aung Min has told various media outlets that the President has ordered to lift particular Sections of Unlawful Organization Act, for those who are ready to sign the NCA, before signing of the treaty take place.

And thus, the barrier of bilateral ceasefire first, before being allowed to sign the NCA, imposed on Ta’ang National Liberation Army / Palaung State Liberation Front (TNLA/PSLF) might become meaningless, in the ongoing talks between the government and the said armed organization. Furthermore, the question arises, whether all the state and union level of some 39 ceasefire agreements that have been reached between the regime and the various EAOs, could be commended as legal, in an official sense.

The problema of bilateral ceasefire agreement in relation with the TNLA/PSLF is more evident, as could be seen with the group’s position reported below.

The PSLF said that the government has promised and keen to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement with its group, but not ready and would not promise the same offer to the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as Kokang.

According to 22 September DVB report, Ta Phone Kyaw of PSLF regarding the two left out groups, AA and MNDAA, said: “ I believe, the NCA signing with just 15 plus 1 – government chosen 15 EAOs and PSLF – would not solve the problem. Battles are occurring with MNDAA and AA, which our troops – as allies – are also involved. That’s why we can’t sign the NCA without these two groups participation. It is our basic principle.”

Military engagement with the EAOs

In a recent interview the BBC, on 21 September, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing when asked why the armed clashes reoccurred at the time of NCA deliberation, making some EAOs not to attend the regime’s initiated 20 September meeting, replied that there were two or three places, where the battles were happening. They were Nam Hsang, Zang Pawn of southern Shan State, Palaung area of Hsipaw, Kyaukme and Burma-China border of Kyukok – Panghsai. But Min Aung Hlaing insisted that the Tatmadaw was not launching the attacks on the EAOs designated areas, implying that there were such demarcated areas of agreement, and that firefights occurred only outside of such areas.

RFA report of 22 September said that fighting in northeastern Myanmar pitting Shan and Palaung rebels against government troops from infantry units 510 and 516 in Shan State resulted in the deaths of troops from both sides in Nam Zang and Yatsout (Lawksawk) townships, said Col. Sai La, spokesman for the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army.

The same report said that clashes also ensued between government soldiers and Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) troops in Kyaukme and Mongmit townships, said Col. Ta Phone Kyaw of the PSLF.

“The government army has been attacking us with five columns, and we have been fighting for three days,” he said. “Three people from our side have injuries, and we heard that about 10 government soldiers had been killed. They have been attacking us with heavy weapons and fusillades.”

SHAN report on 18 September that the Burma Army Battalion No. 152, with about 45 troops, clashed with the RCSS/SSA at Wan Kong village, 10 miles from southern Shan State’s Kolam Town in the sub-township of the same name. According to RCSS/SSA sources, three Burma Army soldiers were killed and one was seriously wounded.

“The clash broke out at about six or seven in the morning,” said Col. Sai La, the RCSS representative. “The Burma Army lost a lot of soldiers and then they used helicopters to fight against us.”

It was reported on 17 September by the Tai Freedom Shan language website that the military used the five helicopters to locate RCSS/SSA soldiers on the ground.

Col. Sai La echoed an RCSS report released on 16 September, speculating that the renewed clash comes amid the Burma Army’s efforts to take control of RCSS/SSA controlled-areas. The report describes a wider military strategy in which the Burma Army searches for and then attacks Shan troops in the region.

Meanwhile, fighting between the KIA and government troops, which broke out earlier this month continues unabated, with no sign of deescalation.

In sum, if the regime would like to make headway in a dignified manner, it would be well advised to seriously rethink its misled employment of defending national solidarity pretext to militarily suppress and occupy ethnic homelands; and the usage of Unlawful Association Act as a trump card, for the contradicting and legal implication would only nullified the whole NCA signing process.

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) – Editor

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